Thursday, June 28, 2012

Will the NDP be better for teachers?

Much of the commentary about the tentative agreement suggests that teachers will do better negotiating with an NDP government. I'm not so sure about that.

While I think it would be hard to do worse than the current government, the NDP is, from what I can tell, pretty much refusing to say what their education policy would be.

Here is my attempt to get some answers. Neither Robin Austin nor Adrian Dix have responded to me:

Questions regarding education policy

Tara Ehrcke <> Tue, Jun 5, 2012 at 2:57 PM
Hello again Robin,

I sent you these question several weeks ago. Were you planning on responding to me?

Thank you,

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Tara Ehrcke <>
Date: Sat, May 12, 2012 at 7:34 AM
Subject: Questions regarding education policy

Hi Robin,

I was forwarded recently your comments in response to teachers worried about Bill 22.

I have a couple of specific questions which your response seems to carefully avoid:

1. Is the NDP committed to restoring the $330 million per year to the education budget to restore class size/composition levels to what they were in 2001 and to negotiate how that funding would apply with the BCTF?

2. Will the NDP repeal any concessions that may occur as a result of an imposed settlement further to the Bill 22 sham mediation process?

3. Will the NDP agree to fair and neutral mediation/arbitration in the event an NDP government finds itself in an impasse in teacher bargaining?

4. Will the NDP refrain from passing back to work legislation which denies workers their constitutional rights?

I hope you can answer these in a straightforward manner so that I can share this information with teachers in Victoria.


More reasons for a "no" vote

Victoria teachers met yesterday to take a look at the tentative agreement. Feelings are mixed. While there is certainly some sense of relief that the concessions are now off the table, there is also a strong concern that the agreement does little to address the concerns of teachers.

After the meeting, he GVTA Executive Committee met and decided to recommend a "no" vote in Victoria.

This agreement does not address the three issues identified as the highest priorities for Victoria teachers:

1 - class size & composition
2 - salary
3 - preparation time

There is little in terms of improvements in this agreement. The compassionate care leave top-up will be accessed by very few teachers. To qualify, you must qualify for EI, which means a doctor must certify that the family member you are caring for is likely to die within six months. The unpaid family leave is already in the Employment Standards Act and is not a new benefit. It is simply being written in to the collective agreement.

There are some improvements in benefits. However, the $2.6 million in additional monies for benefits is very little compared to either the $7.5 for CUPE in their negotiations or the $30 million saved by gov't during our three day strike.

Finally, while this agreement provides zero and zero for salary, the gov't is currently offering 3 1/2 % over two years to the BCGEU. Having a settlement now will mean teachers will not be in negotiations at the same time as our public sector colleagues this fall. This could present a missed opportunity for joint action to contest the four years of "net zero" mandate while private sector and municipal workers are consistently seeing 2 - 3% annual increases.

Some teachers argue that we should simply wait for a change in government. But I don't hear a commitment from the NDP on two important issues: returning class size/composition limits, and ending the "net zero" mandate. I have asked repeatedly for a commitment to these issues, but none has been made. In fact, my most recent question posed to NDP education critic Robin Austin has gone unanswered.

I am concerned a "yes" vote gives a win to Christy Clark and tells any future government that if you want to squeeze public education and teachers, simply legislate their rights away and frighten them.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Attn: BCTF - Why I will be voting no

Many of us were surprised to hear this morning that a tentative agreement has been reached between BCTF and BCPSEA.  Although I certainly appreciate the time and commitment of our table officers, who concluded the negotiations with Jago, I don't believe it is a good deal and I don't think we should accept it. I will be voting no and encouraging others to vote no.

Although I am pleased that the concessions are gone, none of the bargaining objectives that teachers brought to the table have been addressed. In particular, this agreement fails to address class size and class composition issues, and it fails to address a fair salary increase or adequate preparation time for teachers. Teachers began this bargaining round with the lowest wages in Western Canada, and we will fall further behind with two years of zeros. We began with preparation time of 90 minutes per week for elementary teachers, compared to 240 in Ontario, and we will see no improvements in this area.

Next year, teachers will face larger classes with the class size averages and class composition limits removed under Bill 22. There will be ever greater numbers of students with significant learning needs. Teachers will not have adequate time to meet the needs of individual students. Nothing in this agreement addresses these concerns for working and learning conditions and that is a loss for both teachers and students.

A colleague of mine, Becky Blair, President of the Creston Valley Teachers' Association, will also be voting no. Here are her reasons:

We need to NOT ratify this – it is not good enough for our students.  We are exhausted because of our class composition issues, we are underpaid, we do not have enough prep time, and on and on.  Yes, we avoided the post and fill pick and choose scenario.  But dodging that bullet does not mean it will be dead – it will come back....  We are letting our students down, our brothers and sisters are left in the cold while we warm our hands by the meagre fire of the wee improvements fought so hard for.  We need to send a huge slam back to them – our bargaining team was working as hard as they could, and brought back the best they could.  But I love them enough to send them back again with a resounding NO to ratification. Please ask yourself if good enough is what we want.

Wearing my “Kids Matter, Teachers Care” shirt today.  And, yes, we do.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

School choice and special needs

A new study in the US has shown how school choice can result in subtle forms of segregation and discrimination for students with special needs. The Wall Street Journal reports:

A new government report shows that charter schools are not enrolling as high a portion of special-education students as traditional public schools, despite federal laws mandating that publicly financed schools run by private entities take almost every disabled student seeking to enroll.

The report, published Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, is the first comprehensive study focused on charter schools' enrollment of special-needs students, which has been a central issue in debates over those schools' rapid growth in the U.S.

The report showed that special-education students—those with diagnosed disabilities from Down Syndrome to attention-deficit disorder—made up 8.2% of charter school students during the 2009-2010 school year. While that was up from 7.7% the year before, it was below the average at traditional public schools of 11.2% in 2009-2010, and 11.3% the previous year.

Just as with Charter schools in the US, the proliferation of school "choice" in BC works for some students, but undermines the right to full services for every student in every neighborhood school.

This phenomenon is illustrated well with the impact on students with a disability/special needs. More and more students are either self selecting or being encouraged to attend a school or program that is deemed suitable to them, rather than integrating all students with special needs with the rest of the student population.

For instance, students with an intense behavioural designation are often placed in special district programs. They are separate classes in specific schools. Thus, if a child has this designation they will be encouraged to attend a district program rather than be integrated into their neighborhood school.

Similarly, students experiencing learning difficulties who enter French Immersion are often counselled to change to the English track because there are insufficient resources to address their learning issues or class sizes are too large for the individual attention required. It is well known amongst the educational and parent communities that French Immersion classes have far fewer designated students. Dual track schools (with both English and French) can become highly segregated between the two groups, with little interaction and a common perception of the French track as an elite group. Academies, IB programs, and honours programs exhibit the same features - they tend to have very few students with special needs and are perceived as separate by other students.

With specialty schools and programs, lost is the notion of the same services provided to every child. Those in the programs no doubt have excellent experiences. But what of those who aren't? And for students with special needs, the lack of inclusion can become discriminatory.

Full WSJ article available at:

Friday, June 15, 2012

Why did Scott Walker win?

There has been a lot of commentary about the Wisconsin election in which recalled governor Scott Walker won his seat back.

Scott Walker made headlines just over a year ago by bringing in legislation that virtually eliminates public sector bargaining rights. In response, over 100,000 teachers, fire fighters, city workers and others occupied the state legislature. Several Democratic senators fled the state to disrupt the vote. In the end, the legislation passed, but a campaign to recall Walker and some other Republican senators was successful.

The most facile view is that this is a condemnation of labour and a move to the right by the US electorate. This is the view promoted by the right and of course serves their interests.

Some have pointed to the failure of labour, and public sector unions in particular, to adapt to change and become "partners" in reform.

On the left, many point to the interference of big money in American politics, and the fact that Walker's campaign had 7 times the funding of Democratic challenger. While this no doubt had an impact, I don't think it is the whole story.

I am also in the "blame the unions" camp, but for significantly different reasons.

The big mistake that happened in Wisconsin is that there was no strike action. Despite massive support, huge crowds taking action in the legislature, and significant "sick ins", no union went on strike and no union called for a general strike or a public sector strike. When unions don't take action to defend their members' rights, members lose interest in paying dues. Now that union membership has become voluntary it is not surprising that the teachers union and others have lost significant numbers of members. Why pay dues to an organization that doesn't actually take action to improve things?

But even given this decision, after the successful recall campaign unions and the left should have been much more clear in defending union principles. This is true not only of the Wisconsin election campaign, but of the stance of many public sector unions in the US generally.

We do not need to become partners in backwards reform movements, we need to be principled critics to attacks on union rights and public services. Rather than stating, for example, that yes, perhaps union members should pay some of their health insurance benefits but not too much, we should be arguing that these benefits are part of an overall compensation package that was negotiated and to claw back is equivalent to a pay cut. We need to point out that pensions are simply deferred salary that has been earned, and to claw back pension benefits is to steal that deferred income. We need to remind the public that seniority rights are to protect against discrimination, nepotism and favoritism.

We also need a principled public defense of public services in the public interest. "Reform" has become a euphemism for privatization and it is important to call a spade a spade. Every so-called reform of public services being pushed right now really aims to reduce public spending, curtain service delivery and quality, and to increase the private delivery and control of public services. Think charter schools, for example.

The lesson from Wisconsin is that we need to reform our organizations to ensure that we speak out for what is truly in the public interest, not simply try to lesson the damage. The slogans should not be "These cuts are too deep" but rather "Tax the rich".

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Personalized learning, choice, and democracy

What could be wrong with "personalized" learning or school "choice"? From the perspective of the student and family, it would seem that nothing could be better than an educational program that is individually tailored to suit that student. Nothing could be better than a menu of school options with a variety of programs to choose from.

Yet there is more to it than that.

Schools have a social function that goes beyond the achievement goals of individual students. Schooling and public education are more than a publicly paid service. Students are more than simply the "clients" of a school system.

If "personalized" learning simply meant adapting the curriculum to meet the individual needs of every student, I would be a fan. That would require much smaller classes and much more attention and time from teachers.

But "personalized" learning has become a euphamism for "choice". And "choice" in today's world means a competitive model where schools have different programs and parents and students are seen as clients in a competitive environment.

Public schools in Canada are run by locally elected school Boards because the entire public has an interest in our public schools. Public education has a critical social function - it prepares citizens to be members of a democracy. This means more than simply acquiring skills that enable a student to be work ready, or developing interests that are personally fulfilling. Students need to develop the critical thinking skill and historical knowledge to be active democratic citizens.

Consider these words from John Ralston Saul:

As for public education, it is a simile for civilized democracy. You could say that public education is the primary foundation in any civilized democracy. That was one of the great discoveries of western civilization in its modern form in the middle of the 19th century.

Any weakening of universal public education can only be a weakening of democracy. I personally do not believe that citizens—Canadian citizens in particular—have any desire to abandon the true strengths of their society. I believe that there is a profound understanding in our society of the long-standing essential role universal public education plays in making us a civilized democracy.

At the school level, the social component of schooling means we need to consider more than simply "choice" for students and families. Schools do not only serve particular students needs of the students who attend that school and therefore schools need to be organized in a way that it equitable and that balances student needs and interests with societal needs and priorities. It is for this reason that Canadian public schools were developed with a model of neighborhood comprehensive schools - the same services, decided upon by elected Boards and provincially mandated curriculum, would be provided to every citizen regardless of income or geography.

"Personalized" learning and "choice" interfere with these social objectives. They view schools as commodities and families as clients. When individual schools seek to attract students and families based on specialty programs or personalized learning experiences, they may satisfy the need of some individual students but the school system as a whole will lose those features that are so critical to us a democratic society.

A system based on "choice" leaves poor students and disadvantaged students behind. Equity is lost when middle class families flee their neighborhood schools and the students who remain are ghetto-ized.

An overly "personalized" set of programs may serve the individual needs of particular students, but it may also mean there are gaps in students' historical knowledge and skills for democratic citizenship. Society and communities should impose constraints on mandatory curriculum because there is some knowledge that we collectively feel every citizen needs to know to make informed decisions and be democratically engaged.

When I read headlines like "Gulf Islands District leads province in personalized learning" I am worried how the patchwork of programs and specialties will impact the basic foundation that our schools were meant to provide. I am worried that while some students will excel in an environment that meets their specific and personal needs, that the needs of the greater community are being lost.

Many of the proponents of "personalized" learning suggest we need a new model for the 21st Century. But let's not forget the whole public in public education.

Saul concludes:

Today we have a largely urban population. Our cities are filled with a highly mobile population, two job families, high divorce levels, single parent families, the return of long hours of work, the loss of community identification, high immigration levels, a new rise in the division between rich and poor and so on and so on. All of these factors mean that the one—if not the only—public structure we have which is capable of reaching out to all citizens in all parts of the country and making them feel part of the extended family of citizenship is the public education system. In the classic sense of the inclusive democracy, those simple bricks and mortar buildings, which we call the public schools, are in fact the one remaining open club house of citizenship. Not only is the public education system and its fundamental structure not old fashioned, it has found a new form of modernity. I would argue that we are more reliant on it today than we were through most of the 20th century.

(For John Raulson Saul's full speech see:

Monday, June 11, 2012

Solidarity with Quebec students

Photo: Me at the "casserole" rally in Victoria this SaturdayFor months now, students in Quebec have been on strike and protesting daily to stop tuition increases of 75%.  They movement has been named the “Printemps Erable” - the Maple Spring.  In response to their strike, the Quebec government enacted Bill 78—a law designed to stifle protest with outragesous fines for what would usually be lawful assembly.

Quebec students and members of CLASSE describe the law:

Among other draconian elements brought forward by this law, any gathering of 50 or more people must submit their plans to the police eight hours ahead of time and must agree to any changes to the gathering’s trajectory, starttime, etc. Any failure to comply with this stifling of freedom of assembly and association will be met with a fine of up to $5,000 for every participant, $35,000 for someone representing a ‘leadership’ position, or $125,000 if a union – labour or student – is deemed to be in charge. The participation of any university staff (either support staff or professors) in any student demonstration (even one that follows the police’s trajectory and instructions) is equally punishable by these fines. Promoting the violation of any of these prohibitions is considered, legally, equivalent to having violated them and is equally punishable by these crippling fines.

One cannot view this law in isolation. In the past few months, the Québec student movement – inspired by Occupy, the Indignados of Spain, the students of Chile, and over 50 years of student struggle in Québec; and presently at North America’s forefront of fighting the government’s austerity agenda – has been confronted by precedent-shattering judicial and police repression in an attempt to force the end of the strike and our right to organize collectively.

Published May 22 2012 in Canadian Dimension
By Max Silverman, Andrée Bourbeau, Emilie Charette and Emilie Breton-Côté

The use of Bill 78 is similar to Bill 22 - a law used to try and silence teachers in British Columbia. Both rely on exorbitant fines as a deterrent for speaking up and taking action. Under Bill 22, the BC Teachers' Federation can be fined $1.2 million per day and individual teachers up to $475 per day for any strike activity. This even though we have no collective agreement and should be in a legal strike position.

A number of solidarity rallies are taking place across Canada to show support to Quebec students. They are known as “casserole” rallies following in the tradition of Chile to bang together casserole pots.
If you have a chance, join in with your pots and pans and show support for post-secondary students fighting for quality and affordable education.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Why seniority matters

I've written before about the dangers of hiring systems that are not transparent or fair, but recently our very own School District, Greater Victoria, has become the subject of apparent nepotism.

The District hired both the son, and also the daughter's boyfriend of Dave Scott, a manager of the International Program. It is not clear what Scott's involvement was and the District would neither confirm nor deny if any conflict of interest was disclosed at any point during the process. The hiring was reported in the Times Colonist by Lindsay Kines here: link

I wrote to education blogger Janet Steffenhagen with my comments and she wrote about it today: link. My full comments were as follows:

It is interesting to see a case of what appears to be nepotism exposed just as the provincial government, through Bill 22 and its employer's agent BCPSEA, is trying to eliminate many of the hiring practices for teachers that guarantee transparency and fairness.

Currently, all teacher positions are posted and the list of successful applicants is available to the union and other teachers. This provides the transparency needed to ensure proper processes are followed. In addition, once employed by a District, teachers are awarded positions through a combination of qualifications and seniority. This ensures that hiring is not based on favouritism.

BCPSEA (and by extension the provincial government and School Districts) want to eliminate these provisions. They want to eliminate all postings for mid-year positions and they want to give the School Principal the discretion to hire based on her/his assessment of "suitability".

Understandably, teachers are concerned that when a single individual has the power to hire based on a subjective assessment of "suitable", the system will be open to abuse. In particular, it is hiring systems like these that become rife with nepotism and cronyism.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Is "no zeros" just gaming the stats?

An Edmonton teacher was suspended indefinitely for refusing to follow a Principal's "no zero" policy. The policy requires that teachers do not assign zeros to incomplete work. Instead, teachers are meant to prod the students to do the work but in the end assign a grade only on the work actually completed.

While the supposed rationale for this policy is to provide students opportunities to complete work and gain credit without punitive measures, most teachers will tell you it doesn't work. In many jurisdictions where secondary level students can't fail or can't be assigned a failing grade or lose marks for work that is late, teachers have noticed that bad habits get worse. Less work is done. More work is late.

Now this is a complicated question. One of the issues that rarely gets discussed is that school is coercive, and so grading and marks serve a dual purpose - one is to reflect genuine assessment, the other is to provide external motivation to reluctant learners.

I am sympathetic with some of the arguments on both sides, but I don't believe the Edmonton Board is genuine in the reasons given for the policy. Disengagement and low graduation rates are real problems. But the answer is not to "game the stats" by discounting work not done and not including these results in marks. I don't know all the details, but some comment writers on the newspaper blogs have pointed to the funding system in Alberta and suggested that the policy helps schools get additional funding. If this is true, then the policy is perhaps there for ulterior motives.

But regardless, the way to address substantive learning issues is not through tinkering with grading policies. It reminds me of the endless debates about semestered versus linear timetables in secondary schools. It is like shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Students who are disengaged and unmotivated require intervention. This requires money. Chronic under funding has stretched our school systems to a point where there are no extra hours in anyone's day to really connect with students who need it or to intervene effectively when learning issues arise. How does a teacher reach out to failing students when they teach over 200 per year? How do we address emotional needs with one teacher counselor for every 500 students? How can teachers develop more engaging lessons when they work 60 hour weeks? How can we address special needs when Special Education teachers see them 15 minutes per week? How can students thrive when they live in poverty?

Tinkering with grading rules is not the answer, and it can actually be dishonest.