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).

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