Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Cowichan Trustees take courageous stand

School Trustees in Cowichan have taken a courageous stand to confront the BC government over inadequate funding. They have submitted a deficit budget, based on the restoration of all needed educational services. Their budget reinstates $10.8 million in lost government funding.

In response, the Minister of Education, George Abbott, has threatened to fire the Board. He evidently believes that the oath to submit a balanced budget is more important than the oath to provide a quality education to every child. He has his priorities wrong.

At a recent meeting to parents, Minister Abbott quiped: "there is one lone board threatening suicide". Mr. Abbott has complete and utter disregard for a Board that is choosing to stand with its community, rather than act as the government's henchmen. Cowichan Trustees aptly describe their actions: "we are not prepared to stand quietly and let schools, facilities and services to students deteriorate to the point where parents will send their kids to schools outside the district or to private schools". 

The Cowichan Trustees are asking for support from the lower Island community and from British Columbians tired of seeing our public services eroded to feed never ending tax cuts for the rich. Please join the rallies and write to Minister Abbott to ask that the Cowichan budget be respected and the additional funding provided.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Excerpt from Our Times article

Today's post is something a little exerpt from an article I wrote for this month's issue of Our Times magazine.


Only in America or coming to a school near you?

By Tara Ehrcke

“The Shocking State of Our Schools” was the title of the Oprah Winfrey show September 20, 2010. Even if you aren’t a parent or a teacher, the issue of “education reform” in the U.S. likely crossed your path sometime in the last few years. You might have seen the documentary Waiting for Superman, which blames teachers’ unions for wrecking the American public education system and trumpets the concept of the charter school, a private system that runs on public money. Perhaps you read an article promoting merit pay for teachers. Or you might have watched more than 100,000 demonstrators in Madison, Wisconsin, take on the newly minted and aggressive Republican governor Scott Walker, for his attack on teachers’ bargaining rights. It is almost impossible, these days, not to come across someone blaming teachers and teacher unions, on both sides of the border, for education’s woes, and promoting the necessity for education “reform.” Practically every mainstream media message is the same: Our schools are failing, and teachers are to blame: bad teachers, greedy teachers, teacher unions, teacher seniority.

The U.S. education reform movement is, at its heart, a platform to advance an agenda of privatization, market-based reforms, and attacks on unions. It is promoted by some very visible (and very wealthy) Americans who have no expertise in either education or education policy. It has become legitimate to chime in on the debate with no credentials and no expertise. It is a darling of both the Republicans and the Democrats.

The movement dates back to 1992, when the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) first developed standardized tests to rank schools internationally. By the late 1990s, individual OECD member states, Canada and the U.S. included, were copying this formula and instituting their own testing, often on an annual basis. They use the data to rank schools and this ranking provides evidence of failing schools. The false crisis of “school failure” drives privatization under the guise of school reform.

In the U.S., such reforms were enshrined in law through George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. The Act mandates both standardized tests and draconian responses for schools that fail these tests, such as firing the staff or closing the school. It has been reinforced by President Obama’s Race to the Top program, which ties Federal funding to school and teacher assessment based on student test scores.


These reform measures are the result of public education’s very own shock doctrine strategy, with free-market policies pushed in response to a manufactured crisis. As writer Naomi Klein describes in her book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, this is a neo-liberal program designed to dismantle and privatize public services.

The shock strategy works like this:

1) Mandate testing of every student at every school.

2) Underfund public schools.

3) Set unrealistic expectations as benchmarks for “success.”

4) Declare a crisis based on test score results.

5) Blame the schools, the teachers and the teachers’ unions for the failure.

6) Introduce market reforms to “fix” the problem.

It is actually quite difficult to promote this set of ideas – even with an army of think-tanks and private lobby groups and a few billion dollars. Most Canadian, and American, parents understand that school is more than standardized test scores, and many believe that the tests do nothing to improve their own child’s education. They also tend to like and trust their children’s teachers and schools, certainly more than they trust a bureaucrat or politician. So, it takes a lot of organized ideological interference to turn parents against their child’s teacher and against their neighbourhood school.

Read more! in this month's copy of Our Times magazine (you will have to actually go to a news stand and buy one, but it is an excellent investment with many other excellect articles). See the table of contents here:

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Education reform and the folly of school choice

I am a regular reader of Diane Ravitch's excellent blog Bridging Differences ( She writes about the state of US education policy and she is very alive to the dangers of the current US reform movement. In particular, she sees clearly the relationship between "choice" and "public" and how parent choice can be used to undermine the public good - how what might seem to be best for one child is not necessarily best for all children.

In a recent post, she writes about the changes being adopted in Louisiana:

The key elements of Louisiana's reform are: a far-reaching voucher program, for which a majority of students in the state are eligible; a dramatic expansion of charter schools, with the establishment of multiple new chartering authorities; a parent trigger, enabling parents in low-performing public schools to turn their schools into private charters; and a removal of teacher tenure.

The Jindal reforms were immediately hailed by a group of conservative state superintendents calling themselves "Chiefs for Change." The group's chairman, Tony Bennett, the state superintendent in Indiana, congratulated Louisiana and predicted that

"These student-centered reforms will completely transform Louisiana and its students. Students will no longer have to settle for failing schools. Countless families will be able to select the best education option for their unique student's needs. And superintendents and principals will be empowered to hone faculties of talented, dynamic, and effective educators. Armed with these bold reforms, Louisiana will soon lead our country in quality public K-12 education."

Sounds a lot like George Abbott and Christy Clark.

"Students must be at the centre of their learning" is the first tag line on the BC government's bcedplan web page. Without any explanation, these calls to student-centred, student's first and student oriented have little meaning or substance. They only serve to create some artificial justification for reform by the inference that somehow students are not the centre of schooling. Of course such an inference is absurd - teaching students is the raison d'etre of school. 

Louisiana wants to be "student centred" by redirecting public funding to charter (privately run & publicly funded) and private schools.  Both vouchers and charters are mechanisms for parents to receive public funding and then use this funding to choose their private or privately run school. With a voucher, parents get the funding and give the funding directly to the private school via the voucher. With a charter, the parent channels the funding to the charter via their student's enrollment, but the charter is independent from any government or public oversight . In both cases, public funding that used to support public schools that are publicly run is removed from the public system and re-allocated to the private system.

There is no evidence that privately run schools that get public funding through vouchers or charters do better. In fact, the evidence is the opposite - charters often do worse. In addition, school choice and competition between schools results in segregation and stratifications - students with social capital and who can pay additional fees have more "choice" than those who don't and can't.

In BC, student centred school choice comes in a few formats. First there is direct public funding of private schools - up to 55% of what a public school would recieve. Second, the BC government opened up the "catchment" areas of public schools. This allows parents to choose any school rather than requiring that they attend the neighborhood school. This has resulted in overcrowding at some schools and declining enrollment/closure of others. It has led to neighborhood "flight" by wealthier or simply more actively involved parents. Lastly, BC is allowing fee paying programs in public schools. In addition to special sport academies, Bill 36 will allows schools to charge for an International Baccalaureate program (an enriched academic program).

The notion that all students will be better off if they can choose their school is predicated on the idea that competition will weed out poor performing schools or simply improve the quality of schools overall. However, this is not what happens. Competition, fees and choice result in some students going to schools that are enhanced through special programs, better funded through fees or simply better performing due to the socio-economic status of the student body. The other children remain at their neighborhood schools with declining enrollment.

School choice might improve things for one particular child, but the results are disastrous for all children. Private choice leads to stratification along socio-economic lines. In the end, it denies the promise to children and society that a public system will "level the playing field" and provide equal opportunity for every child.

A public system is not just about public funding. It is about fair and equal opportunity. This is why school choice - a market based approach - in whatever form, is anti-public. We should want not just a few good schools to choose, but rather that every school is good.

Diane Ravitch concludes:

All in all, the Jindal legislation is the most far-reaching attempt in the nation to de-fund, dismantle, and obliterate public education. Paul Pastorek, the former Louisiana state superintendent, calls this a "marketplace" approach, which is right. With no new funding, everyone gets to dip into the funds allocated for public schools and carve out a piece for themselves, for vouchers, charters, home-schoolers, and for-profit online providers.

Is there any evidence that any of these changes will improve education? No, none whatsoever. Does the Jindal law follow the lead of any of the high-performing nations? No. But that's what "reform" means today.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

BC's adult education program victim of "choice"

The BC government has announced that it will no longer fund many of the adult education courses that were previously available at no cost, unless they are taken online. Among those courses on the chopping block are Grade 12 courses in physics, calculus, financial accounting, law, social justice, comparative civilizations, marketing, tourism and geography. (See the Vancouver Sun article here:

Under the guise of "choice" and "flexibility", this government is in fact reducing choice for the purposes of cost cutting. They do not want to fund classrooms and teachers to provide adult education, but they are willing to pay the much smaller cost of an online course, despite the evidence that for many learners, this is not effective.

Adult education programs provide excellent opportunities for adult learners to complete or improve their secondary level coursework. Often this enables further post-secondary educational opportunities. It is one of the pathways to improved education, employment and a higher standard of living. Creating a cost for these programs creates a barrier for those needing the upgrade and will result in fewer adults making this decision. This decision is short sighted and irrational.

It is no surprise, however. And it is completely in line with what this government really means by "choice" and "flexibility". The choice for Boards of Education to eliminate programs. The choice to offer programs through an online format only. The flexibility to do it the cheap way, not the best way.

With the changes in Bills 22 and 36, expect more decisions like these. These two pieces of legislation enable the Ministry to change funding models and instruction time guarantees so that Boards can make more "choices" to deliver educational programs in the cheapest way possible.

As usual, choice and flexibility are all about money and never about the students.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Teacher morale and the role of Principals

This week, the Principals and Vice Principals Association put out a memo commenting on the mood in schools.  They are worried that another year of dispute will irreparably harm relationships. They are right. But they also need to take a look at their own role in the dispute and talk about solutions, not just the problems.

I also commented on the mood in schools this week. I wrote to our school Board, who refused to take a position opposed to Bill 22. My closing comment was that Victoria teachers had never felt more demoralized and less respected. In my 12 years in the BC school system, I believe this is true.

The Principals and Vice Principals are upset that schools are not currently places of collaboration and spirit. But they fail to acknowledge their own part in this mess. In fact the Principals have consistently argued for many of the concessions and controls that have been contained in the variety of Bills passed over the last decade. They lobbied for the removal of class size limits. They lobbied for more control over hiring and firing. They lobbied for more control over teacher professional development. In many ways, although they are not the bargaining agent, the concessions sought by government will give Principals greatly expanded powers. Power to fire a teacher they don't deem "suitable" (whatever that happens to mean). Power to move teachers to another school for no reason. Power to dictate what teachers will do to develop professionally, regardless of the teacher's own interests or needs.

So is it any surprise that teachers are refusing to cooperate following the legislated interference in bargaining to attempt to impose these new rules? Does any Principal out there really believe that forcing teachers into submission to give Principals most of the power in schools is the way to build collaborative teaching communities?

Principals have shown a remarkable lack of leadership. I was in a meeting with one the other day who tried to convince me that he really did care about class size and wished he could plan classes of 20. When I asked him why he wouldn't speak out publicly, he simply stated "I can't". When I responded that he could, but he chose not to, there was simply stone cold silence. The same sort of silence now taking place in staff meetings across BC.