Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A year in review: waking the sleeping giant

Photograph by Richard Hurd via Flickr
How apropo. At noon today, halfway through the first working day of the year, Canada's top CEO's had already earned an average worker's salary. This little statistical nugget seems so emblematic of the year passed, and the year ahead.
In 2011, my first blog post was titled: A new year, a new attack on teachers? Kevin Falcon had just floated the idea of "merit pay" for teachers during the Liberal leadership campaign. How a year changes things.

But only a few short days later, a dictator was toppled with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak by popular protests. And although this event took place on the other side of the world, the inspiration of "people power" taking on a decades long dictator was euphoric. It also spread like wildfire.

Shortly after hundreds of thousands filled Tahrir square in Egypt, tens of thousands occupied the state capitol building in Wisconsin to protest attacks on collective bargaining rights. Foremost in these protests were teachers.

The message from Wisconsin teachers was a foreshadowing of the fall and the Occupy movement. The main focus of the Wisconsin protests was not the actual cuts to pensions and health premiums, but more generally an attack on the middle class and union bargaining rights. I remember my surprise, hearing a speech from a Wisconsin teacher at the British Columbia Teachers Federation Annual General Meeting in March. She talked about class politics. The middle class. The working class. She talked about the assault on what workers in the US and Canada and so many parts of the world have spent the previous century fighting for - decent wages, good pensions, working conditions, health care. Just those things that every citizen ought to have. And she talked about how unions were integral to obtaining these rights and benefits.

Closer to home the summertime brought the culmination of our own populist movement, the HST recall campaign. Again, the themes of economic fairness and democratic rights were evident. Peoples' anger at how the government hid their intentions prior to the election was just as great as the frustration that the impact of the tax is disproportionately high for low income earners.  The HST was the last straw for BC residents who have seen tax fairness decline over the decade with significant increases to user fees. The BC government now collects more revenues from medical services (MSP) premiums than it does from corporate income tax. See the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternative for a discussion on the erosion of tax fairness: http://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/BC%20Office/2011/10/bccfall2011.pdf

Fast forward to October, and the incredible (or should I use my daughter's word of the year - "epic")  demonstrations and occupations protesting the vast and ever increasing disparity in wealth, power and opportunity between the 99% and the ultra-rich 1%. Not in my lifetime has there been a worldwide coordinated demonstration on such a scale and in so many countries. Finally, the issues of income inequality and the influence of money on politics have come to the forefront and even mainstream media acknowledge the impact this movement has had on public debate. See, for example, the CBC commentary - "The year capitalism became a dirty word in the US": http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2011/12/29/f-rfa-macdonald-capitalism.html

In education news, 2011 saw the awakening in the US to the disastrous failures of the education "reforms" instituted by George Bush and continued by Barack Obama. Progressive parents and educators have finally reached the mainstream in countering the "No Child Left Behind" agenda. The US public received a shock with the suicide of a Los Angeles teacher after the local newspaper published teacher rankings based on student test scores. Americans are finally looking at the role of poverty and outside school factors in student educational outcomes. With Charter schools unable to provide a panacea for failing students, US educators and parents are beginning to "occupy" their school boards and state governments and to contest failed "accountability" policies. Some Americans are even looking to Finland as an example of a very different type of reform agenda, based on respect and autonomy for teachers. See Diane Ravitch for an excellent review: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/sep/29/school-reform-failing-grade/

Unfortunately, this was also the year that some Canadian politicians tried to adopt many of these failed US education reform ideas. It began with Kevin Falcon's "merit pay" proposal, and the year ended with BC teachers facing unprecedented demands from the BC government for teacher contract concessions on job security rights and professional autonomy provisions. The BC government also refused to restore class size provisions that a provincial Supreme Court justice ruled were unconstitutionally removed in 2002. See my earlier blog post about this topic: http://staffroomconfidential.blogspot.com/2011/11/19th-century-labour-relations-for-21st.html

In both the US and Canada the myth of technology and education continued unabated. In BC, the government has propsed "BYOD" - bring your own device - so that BC students will keep up with so-called 21st century skills. This is a recipe for a failed education initiative and exposes a government that "talks the talk" but doesn't want to spend a dime (or even a penny, for that matter). In the US, the drive of budget cuts has sped up the trend towards "blended" and "online" learning - whether they make pedagogical sense or not. Following Florida's lead, several States have now mandated that every public school student take at least one of their courses online through a ditributed learning program. This is the logical extension of the erosion of education budgets. An online American teacher (working for a privatized distributed learning company such as K12 Inc) can typically be assigned over 100 students compared to the classroom numbers of 20 - 40.  See this excellent article published in The Nation, for example: http://www.truth-out.org/how-online-learning-companies-bought-americas-schools/1321627144

But despite these setbacks, the year overwhelmingly was characterized by an upswing in debate and action on a host of issues including quality public schooling. It has been an inspiration to see so many take so much action to work for a more just society. The decade of apathy is over. The sleeping giant has awoken.

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