Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Teacher activism: Keeping BC's education system strong

Thanks to Patti Bacchus, whose tweet has inspired this blog post.

Patti wrote:

@garymasonglobe Could "acrimony" & push back from TF re gov't agenda be what's kept BC system strong while others have deteriorated ? #bced

She was responding to a recent article in Globe & Mail by Gary Mason reviewing a new book by Tom Fleming on the history of BC schools. Tom's thesis is that there has been forty years of acrimony, starting with the politicization and unionization of teachers in the 1970's and 1980's.

I haven't read the book, but I do know that BC teachers have been engaged in collective action for the betterment of our profession and BC's education system for a much longer time. In fact, I am looking forward to the hundred year anniversary of the Victoria teachers' strike in 1919, which was the first teachers strike in the Commonwealth.

BC teachers were active throughout the first half of the twentieth century over a variety of issues. For example, equal pay for female teachers was a hot topic mid-century to address glaring pay differentials that existed.

Mr. Fleming takes aim at everyone in the system - teachers, School Trustees and the Ministry of Education. But it's not particularly helpful to simply describe these players as being "at war" with one another, serving their own interests only, or stuck in a bureaucratic morass. There is a lot more to the dynamics than a difference in attitude or stagnation.

The 70's and 80's were a high point for education systems worldwide for a reason. It was the culmination of western policies to enhance public education systems in response to the "Sputnik" threat of the Soviet Union. The US famously announced the need to keep ahead in scientific knowledge in order to win the cold war, and the rest of the western world followed suit. Governments poured funding into a massive expansion of both K-12 and post-secondary institutions. By the 1970's and 80's these systems were at their peak, having been the recipients of real investment from government.

But beginning in the mid-80's the western world changed. Reagan and Thatcher took a wildly different economic perspective and began an era of massive government cutbacks. This reached Canada in the mid-90's with the federal Liberal program of restraint that took the form of sizable reductions to the "transfer" payments to the provinces to cover health care and education costs. Since this time, the BC education system has seen funding go from $9 billion per year to $5 billion per year (in constant dollars).

Coincidentally, the 80's also saw an ideological attack on education away from scientific discovery and creative and innovative thinking, towards achievement measured by standardized testing. Over the last thirty years, BC introduced Grade 12 exams, then Foundation Skills Assessment exams and then Grade 10 and 11 exams. Every District now has an "Achievement Contract" based primarily on test results and the rankings of these tests are published by the Fraser Institute.

It is a mistake to suggest that the entirety of the twentieth century should be characterized by the "factory" model of education. Yes, Fordism and the factory model were significant in the early part of the century. But I went to school in the 1980's and called my teachers by their first names, sat at round tables, didn't get grades, went on many experiential learning trips and wrote not a single standardized test. This was no factory model.

On the teacher front, the 70's and 80's saw a blooming of professional expression and creativity by teachers. How did this manifest? In many ways through the teacher activists in the BCTF. As a union focused not just on the economic welfare of its members, but also on the pillars of social justice and professional development, the BCTF and the many local teacher associations were instrumental in advocating for progressive changes in the education system. Many were won during that period and have played a significant role in the excellent system we have today. Many have been severely under attack for the last twenty years in the midst of a complete lack of commitment to full funding - notably class size.

Victoria teachers went on strike for smaller classes in the early 90's. We were successful and Victoria students reaped the benefit of those struggles for a decade until they were legislated away with the stroke of a pen by the BC Liberals.

Is the system "at war". Probably yes. But a closer look at why and what for reveals more truths than lamenting that we all can't get along. There has been a systematic attack on public education for two decades. Teachers have been resisting. Our resistance has kept the system strong.

1 comment:

  1. Thomas Fleming had a piece in The Tyee today and I must say that his suggestions that the BCTF's complaints of inadequate funding are simply "political posturing" and that it is "anti-visionary and unimaginative in outlook" are offensive. It is depressing to read a professor in education history placing so much importance on FSA's while refusing to acknowledge the huge constraints placed upon the system by inadequate levels of funding. Thanks for your post.