Friday, April 27, 2012

Parents take note - Bill 36 is an attack on you

Having successfully removed teachers as an "obstacle" to the BC Education Plan, yesterday George Abbott introduced enabling legislation to change the school year, day, and total instructional time provided to students.

Bill 36 removes the requirement for School Boards to follow the standard school calendar, and most importantly allows the Minister to change, through regulation, the minimum number of instructional hours in the year. It also enables more online and blended learning for all grade levels and the introduction of fees for International Baccalaureate programs.

Although the media has focused on the school year, the scariest part of this legislation is the change to the minimum number of instructional hours through regulation. Here is the actual section of the Bill, which allows the Minister to:

prescribing the minimum number of hours of instruction that a board must offer to students enrolled in the schools in its school district, including prescribing that there is no minimum number of hours of instruction for prescribed classes of students, schools or educational programs;

If parents are wondering what this might look like, then look no further than the changes that have taken place in the delivery of Planning 10. In some schools in BC, every grade 10 student goes to the gymnasium once a week for a lecture (this can be in excess of 100 students). There is no or little further instructional time for these students. The remainder of the course is taught through a "blended" model with online components or simply assignments that are done on the student's own time and handed in. The instructional time goes from 400 minutes per week in a class with 30 students, to 80 minutes per week in a class with 100 or more students. Typically this can reduce the teacher hours needed by half.

This already happens at a school in my District, Greater Victoria. Here is the "rationale" for the over-sized class buried on our Class Size report (

Students meet weekly as a whole group with the two Vice Principals before dividing into smaller groups. Students work independently, frequently in small groups on specific projects. The Vice Principals requested this configuration.

Under Bill 22, teachers will simply be told to accept this configuration and class size. No limits will exist. Under Bill 36, students will simply be told to accept this configuration. No minimum instructional time will exist.

Currently, for any class this large, there had to be smaller classes to compensate, because the School Act had class size averages required. So perhaps there was some rationale for doing this for some classes to enable smaller classes in more challenging subject areas. Now, under Bill 22 and Bill 36, a District can configure as many of these classes as they want.

A brief look at the success rates of self-directed online learning with inadequate instructional time and teacher support shows that these programs are dismal failures. Even with supports distributed learning completion rates are much lower than in a "brick and mortar" school (see for instance, this North Vancouver school report: In the US, where some states are requiring students to take at least one course in an online or blended model, the failure rates are similarly poor.

Independent, self-directed, blended learning works for a small segment of the population. It is not particularly successful for the majority of teenagers. At this age, students need motivation, structure, face to face instruction, and social interaction. Reducing instructional time will worsen student outcomes for the majority of students.

This is all about saving money and gutting the public education system.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

On Bill 22, the LRB, report cards, and raw power

On Friday last week, the Labour Relations Board issued an order insisting that BC teachers complete an extra report card by this Friday. There is a lot to say about this, but let's start with the outcomes:

1. Parents will get an abridged report card next week, and then a very similar one in six weeks time. Very little will be accomplished with respect to student learning. In fact, in all likelihood, the biggest impact to student learning will be from the stressed out, overtired teachers this week.

2. Teachers are more upset and demoralized than ever. One district will be wearing red on Friday. The overwhelming feeling is that of disrespect for the teaching profession and teachers as individuals. Teachers perceive this as an exercise of power, not a sensible pedagogical choice. And they are right. Even the employer's association, BCPSEA, said as much in their application to the labour board.

3. It is more clear than ever that the only remaining lawful form of protest under Bill 22 is the withdrawal of voluntary and extra curricular activities. The report card issue has probably motivated more teachers to adhere to the vote results last week to stop these activities.

The employer, the government and school boards like to say they are acting in students' interests. But in this case, they were simply exercising raw power. The case put forward by the employer did not reference students, the necessity of report cards or the need to report for vulnerable students. The argument from the employer was simply that they have the right to issue an order and have it complied with. They relied on the Education Improvement Act (Bill 22) to support their case. Teachers no longer have the right to collective action so they must do what we say.

The labour board did issue the order, and it was reliant on Bill 22 in doing so. The experience has shone a light on what life for teachers will be like under Bill 22 - a world where BCPSEA, the Ministry of Education, School Boards, Superintendents and Principals make decisions and everyone must simply do as they are told.

This experience was replicated at the District and school level. In my District, Greater Victoria, the Superintendent issued requirements for reporting on Friday. Then, on Tuesday, they changed. No longer could teachers use the report card format in use at their school for years, they had to use software not always available (Report Writer) or an old District template from the 1990's that is no longer accurate. Some teachers who spent the entire weekend completing their reports were told to re-do them on Tuesday. Some teachers were told to submit reports on over 300 students in less than a week, on top of their regular teaching duties.

In Vancouver, where an agreement had been reached for end of year reports, the Board simply reneged on the agreement and changed the rules.

Gone will be the days of collaboration in schools. The new model is indeed that of master and slave - directions and being directed. The exercise of raw power.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Bill 22 and US education 'reform'

A teacher wrote on our Facebook page the other day asking what the connection was between Bill 22 and US education reforms. I had posted an article about a teacher who was fired for engaging in political activities with students regarding the young black student in Florida who was shot dead, and suggested that Bill 22 was taking us down this road. That article is here:

I realized that I haven't written enough about US education 'reform' and I should, as it seems to me these are the template for our government. There is a lot to say, but here is my answer to that teacher's question:

The No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top programs have influenced all public schools in the US. Teacher tenure (what we call seniority) is being eliminated, evaluation is more and more based on student test scores rather than teacher observation, and public schools under the local control of democratically elected boards are being replaced with Charter schools (often run by companies or private boards with no democratic community input). Many states are eliminating the rights of teacher unions to bargain working conditions (e.g. Wisconsin and Ohio) just as Bill 22 takes away the rights of BC teachers to bargain our working conditions in relation to class size and class composition.

It is true that Bill 22 does not say definitively what the impact on seniority will be, but having sat at the bargaining table I know that what BCPSEA wants and will push for in mediation is hiring based on "suitability in the opinion of the Principal". This is the definition of qualifications that they proposed and you can find in their proposals on the bcpsea web site. Bill 22 requires that a new collective agreement must conform with this:" (iii) scheduling and selection of teachers suited to student needs;". This wording suggests that student needs and teacher needs are at odds. It is there to force the mediator to be in alignment with hiring systems that do not infringe on management's right to hire according to what they believe are "student needs". They will say that seniority infringes on this right.

Here is what US Education Secretary Arne Duncan says about teacher tenure, hiring and schools: "And I'm telling you as well that, when inflexible seniority and rigid tenure rules that we designed put adults ahead of children, then we are not only putting kids at risk, we're also putting the entire education system at risk. We're inviting the attack of parents and the public, and that is not good for any of us. I believe that teacher unions are at a crossroads. These policies were created over the past century to protect the rights of teachers, but they have produced an industrial factory model of education that treats all teachers like interchangeable widgets."

The common threads are to suggest there is a false dichotomy - namely that teacher interests and student interests are at odds. This dichotomy is set up to provide a pretext to blame teachers for school failure and student failure, when in fact teachers are teaching without adequate support, to high levels of children living in poverty, to classes that are too large, and without services needed to address specific student needs. Teachers are being used as a scapegoat for failing to properly fund education. The myth is set up that educations failures are due to "bad teachers" because seniority (or tenure) keeps them in the system. The reality is that bad teachers should be removed from the system with fair evaluation practices. In our contract, we have evaluation systems based on actual observations of teaching, the District uses them, and they are a fair way to assess whether or not a teacher is competent and provide a mechanism to remove truly incompetent teachers from schools. Really, neither tenure nor seniority have anything to do with competence or qualifications. In our system as it is a teacher must be qualified (based on education and experience) to be considered for a position and if they are not competent it will be addressed through evaluation, which can lead to dismissal. Seniority simply defines a fair way to determine which of several qualified and competent teachers goes into which positions. For example, the more senior teacher would be able to choose the grade 2 class at Sir James Douglas, above the grade 3 class at Margaret Jenkins. The two teachers who end up in each class must both be qualified for elementary teaching and are regularly evaluated.

This issue is really all about control. Management wants the right to determine who to hire. They will claim it is in the interest of students. However this is a subjective criteria. Who decides? Which students? How does the Principal know the students' needs? And who overseas those decisions to make sure they really are what they say? Just as in so called "merit" hiring systems, this leaves all the subjective choice to the manager (the school Principal in this case). What we know is that many managers abuse this power and in fact discriminate or choose based on personal preference, friendship, convenience, and many other reasons. Already, one Victoria Principal said to a young teacher: "don't worry, there are teachers in this school who have put in 25 good years. I will have a job for you." This Principal wants to replace what he perceives to be older tired teachers with younger teachers with no actual evidence about what is "best for children". This is age discrimination. In another real world case that happened in Victoria, a Principal eliminated a teacher's job who was on maternity leave because she thought it would be hard to find a replacement. That teacher lost her job because she was pregnant - not because of anything to do with her teaching ability. This was another case of discrimination, this time based on sex and family status.

For more on what is happening in US education, I highly recommend reading Diane Ravitch. She actually used to work in the George Bush government but learned the hard way the failures of the so-called "reform" policies around "choice", elimination of teacher tenure, attacks on teacher unions, merit pay, test based ranking systems, and so forth. If you look at BCPSEA's bargaining proposals, and the limitations in Bill 22 on the mediation framework, you will see the same ideological features. Diane Ravitch writes a blog here:

Bill 22 is designed to introduce the same type of reforms...allow Boards to save money with larger classes, reduce the amount of spending by government on public education, make it easier to fire teachers, blame teachers for the shortcomings by highlighting "teacher quality", use the cover of "children first" to hide policy initiatives that are about something very different - cutting costs, reducing accountability, reducing public oversight, lowering the quality of services, and introducing private companies into the education sphere (particularly in the technology realm).

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Bill 22 and the erosion of teacher professionalism

The mainstream media love to print stories chiding teachers for being in a union (and a militant one at that). One of the their arguments is that trade unionism is counter to professionalsim.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Now in particular, professions will need their unions and associations to protect the high quality services that professionals provide, and to ensure that public services remain of the same quality that private services are able to provide.

All professions are facing erosion from governments wanting to downgrade wages and benefits for all working people in society. Professionals are a target, and publicly paid professionals especially.

Not only teachers are threatened by the BC Liberals and the "austerity" seeking Ontario government. So are lawyers and doctors, such as the BC anesthetists and lawyers providing legal aid. Under the guise of "restructuring" to improve "cost efficiency", the government wants to downgrade services levels. For example, the BC Liberal government's claim that the courts require restructuring is really about downgrading the wages and benefits of workers within the court system and could impact the ability of citizens to get a fair hearing at a fair trial with properly trained judges hearing the case and properly trained lawyers representing those who require that representation.

The argument put forward goes like this: Professionals are too costly, we don't have the money, therefore let's restructure our services so that more tasks are done by paraprofessionals, whom we can pay less.

There are two problems with this argument. First, it rests on the assumption that professionals do many tasks that could be done by individuals with less training and experience. In other words, it rests on the notion that most professionals are over-qualified for much of the work they do. Certainly in teaching, I don't believe this to be the case. In fact it is ironic that the same government that wants paraprofessionals doing more teaching tasks also wants to improve "teacher quality" through changes to pre-service training.

Generally speaking, the better qualified the professional, the higher quality the service. In fact, I believe that the best way to ensure high quality services is to have high standards for entry into a particular profession (or trade). Professional qualifications have evolved over decades and centuries to ensure high quality service and professional organizations exist to ensure that those professionals who do not maintain these high quality services are removed from the profession. If this government were serious about "teacher quality", they would increase the standards for entry (for example, require a Master's degree, as Finland does) and raise wages to reflect the corresponding training needed.

This isn't to say that para-professionals are not important or valuable. They absolutely are. But it is wrong to reorganize job requirements because of cost savings due to wages. If there is a genuine need to reorganize how we deliver services it should be based on service quality, not on wage rates. The irony of the BC Liberal slogan "students first" is that in fact they are putting "money first", and students are going to get larger classes, harried teachers, and more instruction from Education Assistants as opposed to teachers.

In today's climate, the push to lower qualifications, to restructure public services and to enable more delivery by para-professionals or through the private sector is part of a drive to generally lower the cost of those services, regardless of the impact on service quality.

And significantly, it is public services that are being eroded. The stratification of society into the 99% and the 1% is occuring not just in the realm of salaries and wealth, but also in the public realm, where public services are crumbling while private alternatives thrive. For those who can afford it, the best can be bought and the quality of public services really doesn't matter.

This trend is already happening in public education. For example, since the passage of Bill 28 in 2002 and the elimination of staffing ratios in schools, BC has lost 700 special education teachers and at the same time gained thousands of much lower paid Education Assistants. Now as it happens, we need those Education Assistants. But they do not replace the work previously done by the special education teachers. An Education Assistant typically has a six month college course in preparation for the position. A special education teacher has a five year education degree plus an additional year of special education course work at the post-graduate level. The services they provide are different, and in neither case does one replace another.

It is for all these reasons that a teacher friend of mine made the following comments on the upcoming vote to take action against Bill 22 - new legislation that among other things will enable contracting out of teaching work to education para-professionals:

"For quite a while I have had a foreboding sense that teachers in this province will experience the same dismal outcome as HEU employees after Bill 29 (the Health and Social Services Delivery Improvement Act) that  enabled the widespread privatization of health sector jobs. Learning from Colin Hansen's experience and Bill 29's legal aftermath, George Abbott has crafted his own teacher-proof Education Improvement Act.

Thus, Bill 22 is much more than it seems - in addition to establishing ministerial and managerial ascendancy over our profession, Bill 22 is a precursor to a wholesale restructuring of the manner in which this province will deliver educational services - a restructuring that will require significantly fewer certified teachers.

The hiring and firing flexibility that this Act grants to our employers so that they can achieve future efficiencies should scare all teachers, whether they see themselves as darlings of administration or not.  Voluntary and un-remunerated activities may well add value to a teacher's employment profile, but they won't address the cost savings needed by school districts in the near future - such savings will only be achieved by contracting out much of our work to lower paid teaching assistants and/or to the lowest-bidding private community and online agencies.

Teachers in this province better wake up now to the need to act in unison against Bill 22. The perils of our Action Plan pale in comparison to the nightmare George Abbot has in store for us.  And don't depend upon a future NDP government rescinding this legislation without a similar battle -  they won't, the potential cost-savings to BC's tax-payers are too huge to contemplate such a gratuitous and generous act.   We must act now to convince the public that the enhancement of managerial rights and the pursuit of greater cost efficiencies will not make public education in this province better -  it will make it worse, much worse, both for teachers and for children.  It is our profession to defend, they are our jobs to preserve -  vote and act knowing what truly is at stake."

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Surrey teachers speak to Mr. Abbott

From the Chimney Hill Elementary Teaching Staff To the Honourable George Abbott,
Minister of Education

On the Occasion of His Visit to Our School.

We have chosen as a teaching staff to address our concerns to you in the form of a letter. We do not want a question and answer session to be portrayed in the media as Minister Abbott listening to the concerns of “real teachers”. Real teachers – our elected representatives, that is, the BCTF Bargaining team – have been in negotiations with our employer (which is, in essence, your government) for over a year now.

They have shown great flexibility in negotiations by tabling various amendments to our initial positions. Our employer has offered nothing – no improvements for class size and composition, and not even a cost of living salary increase, which our own Surrey School Trustees recently awarded themselves. Our employer has asked us to give up our seniority rights, give up our ability to choose professional development to suit our individual needs as reflective teachers, and allow them to fire us after one less‐than‐satisfactory evaluation. If you think that “real teachers” think this is reasonable, you are very out of touch with the teachers of this province.

There are 41,000 teachers in this province. While 100% of teachers will not agree with 100% of our union’s actions 100% of the time you can be assured that our union’s positions represent the broad consensus of BC’s teachers. Your failure to engage in meaningful negotiations, your failure to compromise, and your imposition of punitive legislation through Bill 22 is a profound insult to all BC teachers. You put our public education system at great risk through the disrespect that you show towards the province’s teachers.

We believe Bill 22 is the ultimate example of the disrespect that your government has shown towards our profession. While it is called the Education Improvement Act, it actually weakens your government’s own class size and composition legislation. While it claims to address Justice Griffin’s ruling on Bills 27 and 28, it simply repeals and then reinstates these bills. And while it claims to offer a mediation process, it is not a real mediation process, because its parameters include stripping employment rights from our contract. Also, the so‐called “mediator” you have appointed has no mediation or K – 12 experience, and his impartiality is questionable.

Since your government has been in office, BC’s public school teachers have witnessed a steady decline in the level of service that we have been able to offer our students. Bills 27 and 28 removed class size and composition guarantees and minimum levels of specialist teachers from our contract. At the time, we were told that this was necessary to improve the education system. Unfortunately, we have seen no improvement, only cuts: fewer learning support teachers, counselors and school psychologists. Here at Chimney Hill, we have a 60% counselor for a school of over 700 students. In many of our classes we have 5 to 8 students who require the services of a learning support teacher, but are not able to receive it because of too few teachers. Our library budget has been cut in half, and our teacher‐librarians must spend most of their time providing preparation relief time to our enrolling teachers, instead of doing collaborative planning and teaching to promote information literacy, leaving them unable to fulfill the requirements of their job description.

Education Ministry spin about “the highest funding ever” rings very hollow for teachers who have to deal with the professional anxiety they experience over not being able to do their jobs adequately because of a lack of resources. Inflation and downloaded costs eat into district budgets and the results are an impaired education for our children. BC’s K – 12 education budget continues to decline as a percentage of the provincial budget and as a percentage of our provincial GDP. These percentages are declining far faster than the small decreases in student enrollment. BC’s children, our future, are paying the price for this lack of funding. Recently, you expressed concern about students being used for political purposes, when you received some anti‐bullying letters from a grade one class.

Today, you have used students for political purposes, as a background for your photo opportunity, and in the process have disrupted their educational program. And over the past week, an unprecedented number of district maintenance staff have descended upon our school, power‐washing the school and sidewalk, cleaning windows and carpets, buffing floors, planting, laying sod, and picking up litter ‐ all in honour of your photo op. We only wish that more construction workers had been directed to our school to finish the Kindergarten addition on time, because for long periods during the fall we saw very few, if any, workers on site. The low‐bid contractor finished the job over four months late. As a result, several teachers taught their first term in an inadequate teaching space, including our music teacher, who taught up to 28 intermediate students in a 12’ by 24’ area in the computer lab.

We do have four new classrooms, but portables remain. Our one gym is insufficient to meet the curricular needs of over 700 students. Each class receives only one hour of gym time per week, half of which is shared with another class. And there are no plans to build a new school in this neighbourhood. In the past, the building of schools was coordinated with the development of neighbourhoods. Today the developers receive quick approval while our students wait, wait and wait. Teachers frequently have to add downloaded social work and health care issues to their already busy professional lives. BC’s high child poverty rate makes teaching here that much more challenging. Chimney Heights may look like a wealthy community, but almost all of these large homes house two, three or more families. There’s a lot of poverty here, much of it hidden, but its effects are evident in the students we teach – behavior issues, anger, hunger and lack of educational support at home. The majority of the students in this school do not speak English as their first language. Add into the mix students with medical, intellectual and learning challenges, and far fewer learning support teachers, and you have a class in which the teacher is hard‐pressed or even unable to meet individual needs. Not only do our special needs students have their learning impaired by these cuts, but their classmates lose out because the classroom teacher has to spend so much of her time with these frequently unsupported special needs students.

In conclusion, Mr. Abbott, teachers here at Chimney Hill, like so many teachers across BC, are frustrated, angry and insulted by the attacks your government has perpetrated on our public education system. We urge you to reconsider what your government is doing to public education. Our children, their families and our community deserve far better from you.

The Chimney Hill Elementary Teaching Staff
Surrey, BC, Canada