Monday, October 31, 2011

Abbott's plan: some thoughts...

Some of my thoughts on George Abbott's announcement:

This plan is not really about individualizing instruction, adapting to student needs or providing more opportunities outside the more "traditional" forms of teaching and learning. If it was, then it would be accompanied by funding (there is exactly zero dollars attached to it...just like teacher bargaining!), and the first items it would address is class size and preparation time. Teachers know that the primary barrier to addressing individual student needs is the desperate lack of teacher time to do so.

Here is what the Globe and Mail reported: "Although the plan includes a promise of more support for teachers, there is no additional money promised to pay for the initiatives. “The preoccupation is not with money at the moment, the preoccupation is with good ideas and best practices,” Mr. Abbott said in an interview."

The plan is also insulting to teachers. Littered throughout are veiled references to our failures. The suggestion is that teachers have NOT been putting children's interests first, are NOT developing and enhancing their skills, are NOT exploring alternative ways of teaching. It is concerning that there is an ever increasing emphasis on "fix the teacher" and a complete lack of acknowledgment that teachers are hampered by large classes, too many students with special needs to be able to cope with the range of abilities, not enough EAs and learning specialists and inadequate resources, dealing with poverty in the classroom, etc.

Unfortunately, the plan also contains: an increase in the provision of private educational services, increase in the workload of teachers, reducing the overall number of teachers (through more dl and private services), and an erosion of teachers' professional autonomy.

The plan makes almost no mention of students with special needs. It does not mention class composition or class size.

The devil is in the details, and the details are not there. A few of the more positive items in the plan are woefully under-defined. What would a "mentor" program look like? Will teachers be involved in designing it? When will it take place and how? While a mentoring program could be a fantastic addition to our system, my fear is that with no money, it will simply be mandatory extra work for teachers at the end of an already exhausting day.

The announcement came with no new funding. This is one of the most crucial points. Many aspects of the plan will take considerable time. Without any additional funding, this means loss of funding for other areas or a lot more work for teachers. For example, who will be writing an Individual Learning Plan for every student, every year? This is a massive amount of work. Will teachers do this on top of their existing duties? Who will pay for the new technology? Will this come at the expense of music programs? Class size?

BCeSIS v. 2.0? "An improved provincial student information and reporting system will help teachers plan a more personalized learning experience with students and teachers." Also in the plan are a province wide standard report card along with performance standards for all grades, and "digital tools and resources that support both face to face and online learning". No money is provided for any of this, so presumably it must come from existing budgets, just as the costs for BCeSIS did. The only money announcement that has been made is the $1.2 billion contract with Telus to rewire the entire province's public services.

Credits for private educational services. "We will expand our current learning credential program to better recognize learning that takes place outside of the classroom – like arts, sports, science and leadership programs – so that students are fairly acknowledged for this work." This could have a significant impact on teachers in the arts, science and leadership. Already, students can receive public school credit for private courses (such as Royal Conservatory of Music, for example). If the number of credit opportunities expand by allowing more private educational services to count as credit courses, there will be a loss of jobs and funding in these areas.

Increased Ministry control over professional development. "We will work with our education partners to make sure that Professional Development days are used to enhance educators’ knowledge base and professional expertise. It is important that teachers are able to refresh and develop new practices throughout their careers by participating in professional learning opportunities. On Professional Development days, parents make alternative arrangements for their children and they need to be assured that these days are used as intended." This entire paragraph is about not trusting teachers to control their professional development. The unspoken words are that teachers do not enhance our knowledge and we do not develop, because we do not use our professional development days "as intended". In other documents, the Ministry has referred to the need to "align" our professional development with Ministry and student needs. It is possible that underlying this is an intent to legislate that all PD days are Ministry directed topics and mandatory. This would effectively end self-directed professional development. It suggests that there is no role for the professional in directing their learning based on their own evaluation of their needs, but rather need to spend all professional development days only in "alignment" with Ministry initiatives. It undermines the professionalism of teaching and would mean there was no time for teachers to focus on professional learning specific to their own teaching position.

Remember the last time the words "flexibility" and "choice" were used? Our Collective Agreement was stripped, and this "flexibility" led to a situation in my school where by 2005 every single PE class had over 40 students. The "plan" envisions flexibility for the school calendar, the school day, school location, and schooling at school or at home. It openly envisions an increase in online and 'blended' learning. Why? Case loads for distributed learning classes are much, much higher than class sizes for 'face to face' learning. This means you need fewer teachers and there is cost savings. There may be merit in some of these ideas, but I don't trust a government whose primary goal is to spend no money. "Flexibility" often means "remove minimum standards".

The timing of the announcement was also important. This will act as a distraction from the issues that teachers have brought forward as issues of critical importance to improving schools - namely adequate funding, smaller classes, more learning specialists/teacher librarians/special education teachers, adequate resources for students with special needs and improved class composition. It is also a diversion from what teachers have put on the bargaining table to improve teaching and learning: class size/composition, competitive salaries and benefits and increased preparation time.

I very much liked the response by three Vancouver Trustees posted on Facebook here:

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