Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Fix the teacher? What about society

One of the five items in the BC education plan is to improve "teacher quality". Evidently Minister Abbott, after his many visits to schools and conversations with teachers, has come to the conclusion that there is a "teacher quality" problem. This despite overwhelming evidence of the negative impact on educational outcomes from external factors, such as socio-economic status (see, for example, this fact sheet from the American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org/pi/ses/resources/publications/factsheet-education.aspx).

Noticeably, the government appears to be ignoring these "out of school" factors on student learning. There was no response to the recent announcement that BC's child poverty levels increased last year to over 16%. The annual report card on Child Poverty produced by First Call Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition also found:
  • In 2009, nearly half of the poor children in B.C. lived in families with at least one adult working full-time throughout the year.
  • The poverty rate for children of lone-parent mothers fell to a record low 24.2 per cent. The poverty rate for children in two-parent families rose to 15 per cent.
  • Low-income two-parent families had incomes on average of $14,200 below the poverty line.
  • The poorest 50 per cent of families with children in B.C. had less than one-quarter of all the personal income of families with children.
  • An estimated investment of about $900 million is required to bring the incomes of low-income families with children in B.C. up to the poverty line.
  • The poverty gap — or the difference between the incomes of all poor people in BC and the poverty line — was $3.872 billion in 2009.
(see: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/story/2011/11/23/bc-child-poverty.html)

There is nothing in the "bcedplan" that addresses child poverty. The assumption appears to be that no matter what the student population and the issues that impact student learning, just fixing the teacher will be a magic bullet to overcome every other aspect of a child's life that impedes their ability to learn. No teacher can overcome the myriad of issues that poverty brings to the child learner, which include:
  • inadequate nutrition
  • stress and anxiety
  • poor health
  • lack of role models
  • no home support for school work, study habits
  • safety issues
  • lack of cognitive stimulation/experiences
In the US, where child poverty is above 20%, the "fix the teacher" mentality has been widely implemented, with the associated policies of merit pay, elimination of job protection rights, and teacher evaluation based on student test scores. Yet US students are doing no better. These policies seek to divert policymakers and politicians from addressing societal issues and provide an easy scapegoat for poor educational outcomes.

An American Superintendent from Texas, John Kuhn, recently addressed this failure of US policy in an article in the Washington Post, and called on the same level of "accountability" for addressing social issues as teachers face for educational outcomes:

"Today some 22 percent of American children live in poverty. Are we going to pretend forever that it is acceptable to ignore the needs of children outside the schoolhouse and blame teachers and principals for everything that happens inside?

As soon as the data shows that the average black student has the same opportunity to live and learn and hope and dream in America as the average white student, and as soon as the data shows that the average poor kid drinks water just as clean and breathes air just as pure as the average rich kid, then educators like me will no longer cry foul when this society sends us children and says: Get them all over the same hurdle.

And so I as an educator now say to a nation exactly what it has said to me for years: No excuses! Just get results. " (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/a-superintendent-calls-school-reformers-bluff/2011/12/11/gIQABKBXoO_blog.html?tid=sm_btn_tw)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

bcedplan: a return to 19th century schooling?

It is ironic that the moniker of "21st century learning" has been used to describe the recent school reform movement in the US and Canada. Because in fact, this movement has, as one of its core principles, the notion of "school choice" - a decidedly 19th century educational policy.

Although state funded schooling existed sporadically in the 19th century, universal public education is really a product of the early twentieth century, with the introduction of mandatory school attendance. Compulsory schooling laws were introduced following confederation and were in place in every province in Canada by 1933.

But prior to compulsory schooling, throughout most of the 19th century, western nations including Canada had a great degree of "choice" and "flexibility". Schooling was a combination of market based services (private/religious/grammar schools), charitable schools for the poor, and home schooling (non attendance). Choice for the few who could afford it.

The rationale for compulsory schooling and the provision of state funded schools was not always for the best reasons. In fact, at its heart was industry's need for a literate workforce. Mass schooling also incorporated racist notions of the need for the state to impose the dominant cultural norms on immigrants (in public schools) and First Nations (via residential schools).

Yet as the twentieth century progressed, the introduction of other universal social programs (unemployment insurance, public health insurance) and the post-war "social contract" brought notions of equity, fairness, and the opportunity for social mobility to the public school system.

This culminated in the progressive changes in the post World War Two period, when a massive expansion of the public system coincided with a new social contract based on principles of equality and fairness. For schooling this meant the rights of every child to an equal educational opportunity - regardless of race, class, gender or location. Thus was born the neighbourhood comprehensive school - ensuring each child in every locality had access to the full breadth of school programs funded by the state. The inclusion of children with special needs through a Charter of Rights case ensured that mental and physical disability, as well, was not a reason to segregate or offer substandard opportunities. This took place in British Columbia beginning in 1945 with the Cameron Commission, which set up provincial funding to deal with vast regional disparities when schools relied on local taxation.

The current reform movement, with its focus on competition, market driven systems, false accountability, choice and flexibility, is the antithesis of an equitable and fair opportunity for every child. Rather than focusing on all children, it focuses on individual parents' ability to "choose" the "best" for "their" child. It is a system with winners and losers. Right neighborhood. Ability to bus to a school of choice. Access to special fee-based programs. Even a simplified system of "shopping" for schools via state mandated testing to produce school rankings (via the Fraser Institute and the Foundation Skills Assessment).

All of it is a slow and steady return to the Dickensian days of 19th century schooling.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

BC Education Minister announces 3% funding cut

BC Education Minister George Abbott announced yesterday this year's education funding and a change to the funding formula. The announcement indicates that the change to this year's funding over last year is .06%. With inflation at 3.2%, this represents a three percent funding cut.

This is no surprise. It is business as usual. For pretty much twenty years the budgets for school districts have received slow and steady cuts. In constant dollars, funding in 1991 was almost $9 billion. Today it is under $5 billion. These cuts have led to significant service cuts over these two decades.

The Minister also announced changes to the funding formula. In a "net zero" framework, he acknowledged that the funding changes would bring "some winners" and "some losers". There are increases to communityLink funding (often used for lunch programs in low income neighborhood schools) and increases to rural districts. There will also be budget protection for districts experiencing declining enrollment.

What does this mean? Urban, expanding districts are likely to see budget reductions. Districts like Surrey will continue to house thousands of students in portables. Districts like my own, Victoria, will experience small job losses and program cuts. It will be another year of the slow erosion of public education.

The Minister claims he has consulted with Districts about the need for changes to the funding formula. I wonder what he means by this? What I know is that for years Districts have been upset about unfunded expenses, rising inflation without corresponding rising core funding, lack of stability (one year budgets), and expanded mandates (such as the carbon trust). The funding announcement does nothing to address any of these issues.

Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic is not the change we need.

The announcement can be found here:

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

What's in the billions? The money stolen from BC kids

Last week, government representatives walked away from the table to discuss how to remedy the government's illegal legislation - Bill 28. The legislation eliminated class size and composition levels, and ratios for specialist teachers.

It is shameful that Minister Abbott and his government have walked away from talks to restore services to children and schools in the wake of their illegal legislation, bill 28.

This government has stolen $3 billion from the public education system in the decade since the illegal legislation was introduced. BC Supreme Court Justice Griffin found in her ruling that the government "saved"  $275 million per year (in 2002 dollars) as a result of the illegal legislation. Surrey school board numbers confirm that the amount is now likely $330 million per year to restore services (about right, given inflation). Teachers simply want this funding and the guaranteed services restored.

Greedy? I'd call it reasonable and fair.

The illegal legislation eliminated guaranteed class sizes for every child in BC. It also eliminated guaranteed minimal levels of support for students with special needs through class composition requirements and minimal staffing ratios for specialist teachers. Every school child benefited when collective agreements guaranteed access to teacher librarians, counselors and special education teachers.

As a result of the loss of these guaranteed services, there are now 3500 fewer teachers province wide and over 12,000 classes that exceed School Act limits.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

High performing school system? Trust your teachers

I don't usually post bargaining reports from the BCTF here directly, but this week we had Dr. Charlie Naylor, a BCTF researcher, give an excellent presentation on the connection between teacher autonomy and high performing school systems. The presentation was in reaction to BC Public School Employer's Association (BCPSEA) bargaining proposals that would drastically reduce teacher autonomy and professionalism.

Dr. Naylor has written two responses to "discussion documents" published by BCPSEA. I highly recommend them. They are available here:

Here is an excerpt from the report from the bargaining table:

The main point that Dr. Naylor presented was that in high performing school systems, teachers are afforded more autonomy and there is less focus on standardized testing, accountability measures with consequences, and a narrow preoccupation with literacy and numeracy. He discussed how the academic literature on quality teaching and learning shows that the best performing systems are where teachers are treated as professionals, like with other professions. In the low performing systems, teachers are treated as employees, with a heavy focus on managerialism. He also stated that if the education system is part of producing a society that generates critical thinkers and problem solvers, then the teaching profession must be afforded the opportunity to model these skills in teaching—the adults in society must themselves use critical thought to address issues such as how best to teach a particular group of children. This is in opposition to the proposals that BCPSEA has made, which focus on principal control of many aspects of teaching, such as our professional development and our autonomy in practice. He finished by saying that the approaches BCPSEA and the government are proposing are not supported by the literature, and they do not even refer to research in their background papers—only to legal rulings. These are not evidence-based arguments for changing the education system, rather they are “positional.”

Dr. Naylor used several examples to make his points. For instance, he contrasted Britain, which narrowed autonomy and increased accountability measures which has now plummeted in performance, to Finland, which provides a high degree of professional autonomy and has radically improved performance.

He suggested that a real “conversation” would be an informed debate based on the literature, rather than one model imposed from one side. He referenced Ontario, where the government “did not impose a forced model imposed by principals.” He also commented that in both Ontario and Alberta, change came with significant amounts of funding to ensure resources are there to enable the changes. He finished by saying “you don’t have a conversation when you put this kind of language on the table…What I see in your proposal is an imposition of a professional growth program, implemented by principals in schools.”

Friday, December 2, 2011

Teachers read message to George Abbott

Minister of Education George Abbott has been touring the province visiting schools. This is a good thing. I remember in 2005 a Victoria teacher running into then Education Minister Shirley Bond and asking when she had last visited a classroom, to which she answered it was when she was in school herself!

I hope that Mr. Abbott is listening to teachers' messages. I know during his visit at Central Middle School, teachers questioned him about the net zero mandate, services for students with special needs, and class size - issues that are important to teachers and that we feel are critical to maintaining our excellent public education system.

This week, at a visit to Caulfeild Elementary in West Vancouver, teachers read the following message to Mr. Abbott:

"The teachers of Caulfeild would like you to know that we are disappointed and disheartened by the government’s recent attacks on B.C. public school teachers.  By the very nature of what we do, we are caring, diligent, progressive and conscientious people who, in the face of the negative tone of the Ministry’s Education Plan, continue to work for the betterment of B.C. children and public education.

Why does this government continue to strip the “profession” from teaching? The “Professional Teaching Act” is now the “Teaching Act”. The backwards movement at the Provincial bargaining table attempts to strip our contract to the point that government officials and Administrators dictate our professional development and negate any autonomy in the classroom. The message this sends is simply that we cannot be trusted to conduct ourselves as professionals and do not deserve to be treated as such.

We believe that BCPSEA’s application to take back 15% of our salary and benefits for work “not done” is insulting.  We at Caulfeild have never put in more hours of our own time, after school, in the evenings and on weekends.  We are dedicated professionals who have worked above and beyond to implement our iDEC program. We don’t like to say no. We want to be successful. We are highly trained and passionate teachers who continue to teach, assess and inform parents of student progress in the usual manner.  

How are B.C. teachers supposed to make ends meet with yet another zero salary increase? Perhaps rather than coaching or sponsoring teams and clubs on our personal time, we should re-claim those hours for ourselves and our families and perhaps tutor and subsidize our incomes by an extra $400 a week. Many teachers  have a second job to make ends meet.

Where is the incentive for us to continue professional development when we aren’t considered professionals? Why does the government ignore the Supreme Court’s ruling on Bills 27 and 28? How does cutting funding for teacher-librarians support a need for increased literacy? Why are West Van parent volunteers expected to pick up the slack?  What are the less fortunate districts supposed to do?  This district, despite the successes you will see today, is underfunded by the government.  Fee-paying international students help make up much of your government’s shortfall.  Without them, much of what you see today would not be possible.  Our PAC’s also raise money to make up for your government’s lack of funding.  Radical change is not what we need now.  We need stability and proper funding. "