Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Is education the key to a middle class life?

It is repeated so often in the media, you would think it is true: education is the key to social a good job with decent pay and benefits, and all that goes with it.

If only it were so.

Education has never been a guarantee of social mobility. Yes, there have been periods of time when large numbers of workers were needed in new industries, some requiring new education and training. But it is the jobs that come first, and the education systems plays catch up. Mass industrialization and the move from the farm into industry, services and office jobs necessitated high levels of literacy to provide a viable workforce. Hence the "compulsory" nature of common schools in the latter 19th and early 20th century. When the US and other western nations sought to win the space race and scientific advancement in the post-war period,  the education system was expanded to include mandatory, free secondary level schooling along with highly subsidized university programs.

To suggest that more education, in and of itself, leads to better employment is just a logical falsity. Today's deeply indebted graduates are tragically the living proof. The cliche of the PHD grad serving coffee rings true for a reason - it is. Statistics Canada has confirmed this - more than a quarter of all newly created jobs in 2011 and 2012 were in accommodations and food.

That education systems actually reinforce class stratification has been extensively studied. Bowles & Gintis (link) produced a landmark analysis in the 1970's of the US education system confirming this.

So why is this myth perpetuated, and what should we do about it?

Belief in social mobility is one of the key tenets of capitalist liberal democracy. If an individual has the opportunity to work hard, become educated, and thereby improve their lot in life, then the system treats people fairly, so the argument goes. If a particular person doesn't, it is their own fault, not the fault of the system. This reasoning creates an "escape valve" for the anger and frustration of those living in poverty. Just pull up your boots, work harder and get more educated, and life will get better. It also acts to create a scapegoat for others to rationalize why inequality is ok - those people at the bottom don't work hard enough or don't have the skills/knowledge to be valuable contributors.

On a more day to day level, for-profit education service providers benefit from more clients. This includes for-profit post-secondary institutions, but also the legion of private sector services like tutoring companies. Banks benefit from the interest paid from massive student loans. Governments can justify the redirection of education resources to those areas of the education system deemed "necessary" for certain jobs (think: skills training), and away from others. Think about all the humanities departments disappearing from universities.

Those of us working in an underfunded, increasingly privatized education system can often fall into repeating this myth. It is all too easy and I know I'm guilty myself. But as the necessity of questioning the mass inequality in society increases, we need to be careful that we promote education for the right reasons, rather than perpetuate myths that serve other interests.

Education is of tremendous value and everyone who wants to study and learn should be able to. But not because it gets you a good job, but because it enriches us as individuals and as a society.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Women's rights under attack from School District policy

In 2011, the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association filed a grievance because five women who had contracts with the School Board were denied their maternity benefits. We went to an arbitration hearing, and we were successful.

In response, the School Board decided to change their policy. Since they had to pay benefits, they would find a way to not give work to these teachers. They informed teachers, via their union, that they planned to refuse temporary contract work to any teacher who could not be “available” for at least half the length of the contract.

Let’s unpack this a bit. Who applies for these temporary contracts? All temporary work is awarded to qualified teachers already employed by the District on the basis of their aggregate length of service – the number of years they have worked for the District already. So although these contracts are temporary – lasting one year or less – the teachers applying for them are anything but temporary. In fact, they must have sufficient service records to be awarded the jobs. Typically these are District employees with three to five years of service with the District already.

Let’s compare what would happen with several different teachers, applying for a job.

Teacher one is not pregnant, and not a parent. They apply and get the job.

Teacher two is a male teacher whose wife is pregnant. He has five years service with the District. He plans on taking ten weeks of parental leave. If he applies for a contract of twenty weeks or more, he would get the job.Otherwise, he would not.

Teacher three is a female teacher who is pregnant. She has worked four consecutive temporary contracts in a row and has five years of service with the District. She is due October 15th and is denied the position due to her “unavailability”. She loses income, top-up benefits, seniority accrual, pay step accrual and extended dental and health benefits, and pension benefits.

Is this fair? Clearly not. Each of these teachers has the same level of service with the District. They are equally committed to their profession and their employer and the children they teach. But they are treated differently on the basis of family status and on the basis of sex. This is the definition of discrimination in the Charter of Rights and the BC Human Rights Code, which reads:

Discrimination in employment

13  (1) A person must not

(a) refuse to employ or refuse to continue to employ a person, or

(b) discriminate against a person regarding employment or any term or condition of employment

because of the race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, political belief, religion, marital status, family status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation or age of that person or because that person has been convicted of a criminal or summary conviction offence that is unrelated to the employment or to the intended employment of that person.

If this policy is implemented, the ONLY teachers who will be ineligle for work (who the District will "refuse to employ") are parents (family status) and pregnant women (sex).

The District claims the policy is meant to address “classroom disruption”. Is this really their rationale? First, most classroom disruption comes from sources other than pregnancy & parental leaves. Overcrowded classrooms, teachers on stress leave, educational assistants who are not replaced when ill, staffing classrooms in September – these are all causes of considerable disruption to the learning environment.

However, for the rare occasion where a classroom has already had several teachers due to illnesses and/or pregnancy leaves (the only leaves allowed mid-year) and a pregnant teacher applies, there is an easy solution. Give the teacher the job, but place her in a different setting until the time of her leave. This prevents disruption AND respects women's and parents rights to take pregnancy and parental leaves.

This is called a “workplace accommodation” and is the required method for employers to deal with situations where there is genuine (not simply perceived or anticipated) impact on service provision.

Unfortunately, the District did not choose this approach. Their choice reveals another motive. They don’t want to pay the benefits.

While every School District is under stress from underfunding, it is simply wrong to suggest that one group should bear the brunt and that the group should be identified by family status or sex. In fact, when maternity leave was first instituted, many employers cried foul upset at the costs to hire and train replacements. Yes, there is a cost to being fair and non-discriminatory. This is the choice we have made as a society to ensure equal rights for everyone. Why should female teachers and parents who work for School District 61 not be afforded this same protection? Do they not deserve the same equal treatment as other women workers?

The underlying sexism of this policy and some of the reasoning behind it has come through in some of the comments made by administrators and even by the Editor of the Times Colonist.

Lori Burley, Principal, stated “that most parents understand if someone gets sick, but when their son or daughter is repeatedly getting a new teacher throughout the year, they begin to lose patience, particularly if the child is struggling.” So it is understandable to be ill, but not understandable to be pregnant? Is she saying that a struggling child who experiences teacher turnover due to a stress leave is OK, but due to a pregnancy is not OK? Is this the position of the Principals and Vice Principals Association?

Dave Obee, the editor of the Times Colonist stated: “But it’s not a question of the district denying a woman a position because she is pregnant; it’s asking a teacher to think beyond her own interests by not applying for a job she knows she can’t complete.”

Hmm. A woman in any other profession is entitled to leaves, but women who are teachers should refrain from either having children or working? You can have children OR work, but not both? Or does he mean ALL women should not apply for jobs if they plan on having children? Women who have children don’t belong in the workplace?

A wealth of literature indicates how women remain disadvantaged in the workplace: fewer women in high paid positions, lower wages (still only about 80 cents on the dollar), the wage gap due to pregnancy/parental leaves, fewer promotions.  School District 61 should not be contributing to these statistics by deliberately instituting policies that will have a direct impact on female employees who have children.

If a female teacher in School District 61 had three children and lost full year temporary positions for each one of them she would not only lose the benefits for those three years, but she would take three years longer to reach the top of the salary grid and she would lose three years of pensionable time – that is 8% of her pension.

Who are these women and fathers who will be impacted? Known in some circles as “generation squeeze” they are the twenty and thirty somethings who are facing every other financial hardship of this generation – high debt load, shrinking job opportunities, caring for elderly parents, low interest rates, shrinking pensions and zero wage increases. The last thing they should have to face is attacks on their maternity benefits. They are about 20% of the teaching force in Victoria. They are committed and hardworking teachers. They care about children, including their own.

When the only teachers "unavailable" are the pregnant moms and the parents taking leave, you have a policy that discriminates based on sex and family status.

This policy is simply old fashioned no-nonsense sexism – a woman’s place is in the home. Parents, don't expect to work as well as care for your children.

Is this really the state of affairs for schools in the 21st century?

Sign the petition:

Media coverage of this story:

Monday, June 3, 2013

School choice and segregation

A fascinating report was issued last week by People for Education - an Ontario based non-profit organization that promotes public education. The report looked at demographic data in the Ontario school system and drew some frightening conclusions about the growing inequity in access to educational opportunities.

For example:

* students in high income school are more likely to be identified as gifted
* high income schools fundraise five times more per year, on average, than low income schools
* the top 10% of fundraising schools raise as much as the bottom 81% altogether
* between 2001 and 2013, the average ratio of special education students to special education teachers has risen from 22:1, to 36:1 in elementary schools
* average family income in schools with a high proportion of applied math students is almost half that of the schools with the low proportion of applied math students

The full report is available here:

Unfortunately, I am not aware of any similar analysis for schools in British Columbia, but a quick look at a few facts suggest similar trends and other worrisome indicators related to the impact of school and program "choice" on how students become segregated and streamed.

The Ministry of Education provides five year data sets of a variety of statistical measures. Here are a few quick facts from schools in the Greater Victoria district:

* Craigflower elementary has gone from 76% aboriginal students in 2008 to 95% aboriginal students in 2012
 14% of all non-aboriginal students with a special needs designation are gifted, whereas 2% of all aboriginal students with a special needs designation are gifted
* Central Middle School, a dual track French Immersion/English school, was just about equal in the proportion of female and male students five years ago, but today, the school is 57% female and 43% male
* In contrast, Rockheights Middle School, which does not have a French Immersion program, is 57% male and 43% female...the same trend is occurring in another non-French Immersion Middle School that is in a higher socio-economic area of the city, Monterey, which is now 55% male and 45% female

A raft of research from the United States has documented the impact of segregation and the benefits of inclusion to enhance equality of educational opportunities. For example, a study entitled "Trading in Futures: Why Markets in Education Don't Work", explains the problem:

"Throughout the English-speaking world, and now Western Europe and parts of East Asia, parental choice and educational markets are being seen by politicians and policy advisors as the panacea to problems of low educational standards and social exclusion. This book tests the key assumptions underlying the faith in markets by linking an analysis of parental choice to flows of students between schools and their impact on school effectiveness. The results of this study suggest that the ability to realize choices is dependent on social-class, gender, and ethnicity, and that this can have a negative impact on some schools' performance. Rather than raising standards, the impact of markets is to polarize them, leading to an impoverished education for many students. Contrary to current orthodoxy, markets are likely to lead to a decline in overall educational standards because they have a negative effect on the performance of working-class schools, while leaving middle-class schools untouched. Education markets trade off the opportunities of less-privileged children to those already privileged. Students from professional and managerial middle-class backgrounds are able to exercise greater choice and are more likely to travel greater distances to enter schools with high socioeconomic status mixes. In these terms, markets do not work because they are neither efficient nor equitable." (

Rather than the destructive influence of the Fraser Institute school rankings, which exacerbate these inequities, it is time that a BC research institute, or better yet even, our government, took a look at how school choice has impacted racial, gender, and socio-economic stratification here in BC.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Don't mourn, organize: lessons from the BC election

Based on the past twelve years, another four under the BC Liberals does not bode well for public education. But that all depends.

There is no question that the BC Liberal record has been dismal. Underfunding, privatization, larger classes, fewer services, contract stripping, school business companies, standardized tests, the list goes on.

But there are more factors at play than simply who governs. There is also the response and political pressure by the governed. An equally big problem of the last two decades has been the failure of citizens to speak up and act up to protect social services.

My greatest disappointment about this election was not the outcome, but the fact that not a single party stood up and spoke out for a radical re-evaluation of the massive inequity in our society. No political party really spoke to the need to tax the wealthy and to reinvest that money in services that benefit everyone, collectively. Like every election in my adult memory (back to the Vander Zalm days of the eighties), the debate was between a neo-liberal party of the right, and an NDP trying to be a Blairite party of the centre who speaks left to a left audience, right to a right audience, and promises nothing to anyone for fear someone might not like it.

What was the NDP platform on education? Just like everything else - we will undo just a small portion of the damage the Liberals did. That equated to putting $100 million back into a system that has had $500 million taken out and refusing to reinstate class sizes, and preserving all funding for private schools. It reminded me of the picket sign I most hated in the early days of Liberal attacks on social services that read: "These cuts are too deep". No. There should be no cuts. A fair and equitable society depends on redistribution of wealth and the provision of universal health care and public education.

Significant cuts to public education began in the 1990's under the NDP, and partly in reaction to the substantive roll backs from the federal Liberal government of transfer payments to the provinces. In my district, Greater Victoria, the School District lost 370 full time equivalent positions between 1991 and 2009. 245 of these - two thirds - were lost between 1991 and 2001.

Interestingly, in that twenty year period, staffing increased in only four years: 1993, immediately after Victoria teachers went on strike for class size provisions, 1995, another bargaining year, and 2005 and 2006, the years just after the BCTF went on strike illegally for two weeks over class size and composition.

The lesson? We get what we fight for, no matter what government is in power.

I am not disappointed this week. I am hopeful that those wanting genuine change will give some serious thought to reevaluating strategies that put all hope into electing a supposedly, but not actually, labour and social movement friendly government. Instead, we need to be building networks of activists on the ground and in our communities.

In particular:

* "Revitalizing" the NDP is not the answer. If 2005, 2009 and 2013 haven't convinced you of this, try reading Judy Rebick's insightful analysis of the impossible task:

* Labour needs to return to its roots. That means money into strike funds, not election funds. That means taking strike action, not canvassing. That means fighting for gains that help everyone, not just ourselves. That means rejecting two-tier, divide and conquor contracts that sell out our youngest and newest members.

* Labour and social movements need to work together on the ground, not in election campaigns. We need more events like the "Battle in Seattle" - when NGO's and organized labour worked together to fight the World Trade Organization and the inequality promoted by trade deals and the World Bank. Working on the ground, together, in our communities is what is needed to influence an electorate not yet convinced of the myriad reasons why life will be better for the 99% only if we take back the wealth from the 1%, save our planet, and meet every human being's basic needs. Nothing educates better than mass movements.

We don't have time for another 12 years and another 3 failed electoral attempts by a not-so-social democratic party. As always, the words of tradition serve us well: Don't mourn, organize.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Education and the provincial election

If you live in BC, you know the writ has been dropped, and the parties are finally releasing their platforms, including my favourite topic - education.

I was happy to see a recent report on CBC's Vote Compass in which education is cited as the second most important topic to BC voters who have taken the Vote Compass survey. It came second only to healthcare, and also in the top section was 'social programs'. I believe the discussion about inequality in our society is inextricably linked to the social programs we provide through collective taxation. These ensure minimum levels of services to all citizens and in the case of healthcare, ensure that quality care is not determined by one's income. Sadly, in education, this is not the case - money can still buy you a better, private school experience.

Only one party has included the issue of private schooling in their platform - the Greens. Their platform reads:

Phasing private independent and alternative schools and programs into the public school system, without affecting the autonomy and objectives of these schools, should increase the diversity of the school system.

I'm not clear what is meant by "without affecting the autonomy and objectives". One aspect of public schooling is public oversight into the content of public schools. A publicly funded free for all might well equate to a voucher system or the charter system prevalent in the US. This would be publicly funded, privately managed schooling and is a terrible idea. On the other hand, if this statement means doing what Finland did (, by eliminating private schools through incorporation into the public system, then it is the right direction.

Sadly, the NDP has stated they will not even touch the issue of public funding of private schools, meaning they will continue to support 50% funding for private institutions teaching the BC curriculum. This drains valuable dollars from the public system and provides an unnecessary and unfair public subsidy to those wealthy enough to afford private school tuition.

On the issue of funding, only the NDP appears to have made any concrete commitments to increased funding in K-12. They have stated they will add $100 million to the education budget. Unfortunately, this number is far, far short of what is required.

Just to reverse the illegal removal of class size and class composition limits enacted by the Liberals through Bill 28 would require $300 million. But on top of that we need the province to make up all the funding shortfalls passed on to school boards over the last decade: MSP premium costs, pension costs, carbon offset payments to the Pacific Carbon Trust ( And after two years of zero wage increases for every employee in the public schools system, it is time to recognize and value the work and provide at a minimum wage increases that reflect the increase to the cost of living. Adding these factors, a reasonable estimate just to return us to the school system we had in 2001 would mean more like $500 million.

Interestingly, the $100 million figure put out by the NDP is well below what they were committing to some years back. In 2005, they were stating that they would increase public school funding by $178 million ( Since then, we've seen Board after Board of Trustees write about the funding shortfalls and the impact this has had on delivery of programs and services to students. Why only half that amount now, eight years later?

The Liberals have made only a single commitment that I am aware of - a tax credit for teachers who coach. Teachers have long argued that there should be tax deductions for the large amounts money that teachers put into their classrooms to purchase materials. But to single out just one extra curricular activity for a tax break would be unfair.

Sadly, no party appears to be taking the chronic under-funding issues seriously. We can see what this leads to by looking at some new data from the Toronto schools, where increases in home tutoring are skyrocketing, particularly among the affluent ( When the public system cannot afford to provide a quality education to every student, those who can afford it, subsidize the system. This leads to increasing private education services and to increased inequity between the children attending schools. If any party was genuinely interested in addressing inequality in society - perhaps the single most important political issue today - they would rethink their commitment to public education.

Friday, April 12, 2013

#C21Can and the "skills" debate

This is a very good response from Tobey Steeves to a post on the C21 website by John Kershaw, the President of C21 Canada - a corporate financed education reform lobby group.

The original blog post that Tobey is critiquing is here:

Dear @C21Can, saw your post on 21CL + "skills gap" in Canada. Having researched teachers' work and 21CL policy in BC for my MA thesis (, I am somewhat disheartened to see similar themes popping up in this post. Specifically, in my study of 21CL policy I found an agenda that hollowed out the role of the teacher, and re-constructed teachers' work as an instrumental relay for "workplace skills". I took great care to demonstrate how these re-constructions of teachers' work contribute to a democratic deficit in education policy, and are likely to exacerbate teacher stress and burnout, increase in-school conflicts, and encourage coercive relationships among policy actors (i.e., students, parents, teachers, admin). On this basis, I must encourage a critical eye be applied to any and all pronouncements from C21 Canada, and this post strikes me as a meaningful example of why it's vital for anyone with an interest in public education in Canada to stand in opposition to this Canadianized version of the '21st-century learning' policy agenda.

First and foremost, it's important to foreground the fact that C21 Canada represents /elite/ interests, not the interests of educators across Canada. By that I mean to emphasize that C21 Canada - like it's sister groups elsewhere - is backed by tech corporations and edupreneurs. For instance, C21 Canada's board members include executives from IBM, SMART Technologies, Microsoft and Dell. This enthusiasm for 21CL among tech corporations is significant. "All freebies from the computer industry should be regarded as you would a free sample from your friendly neighborhood crack dealer." As well, C21 Canada's partners - who likely pay a hefty sum for the 'privilege' of being such - includes Pearson, the largest edu-corp in the world. Let there be no ambiguity: C21 Canada has a corporate agenda.

But, in case there was any lingering doubt, this post by Mr. Kershaw should lay the matter to rest. By drawing on a few of the claims and assertions in Mr. Kershaw's post, I will now endeavour to highlight the distance between C21 Canada's agenda and a democratic vision of public schooling in Canada.

/"C21 Canada applauds the federal budget’s focus on skills development. Our organization has consistently stated that highly skilled people are the economic and social drivers of the knowledge and digital age and more and more Canadians are recognizing this to be the new reality."/

First, the attention to "skills" is an immediate red flag. As I have noted in a previous comment on this site (, the emphasis on "skills" masks a reduction and impoverishment of education. To re-iterate, Pring (2004) understands this economic skills agenda as relying on “the bewitchment of the intelligence by a misuse of language.” Pring critiques the vocationalistic skills strategy by suggesting that a skilled philosopher is not necessarily a good philosopher. A skilled philosopher, for instance, may be quite adept at the mechanics of philosophical argumentation without actually having “anything philosophically interesting to say.” This critique holds for lawyers, authors, musicians, and other professions. Therefore, Pring suggests that “to focus on skills traps us into a limited language which transforms and impoverishes the educational enterprise.” In other words, there may be noble hopes animating the push for skills and embedded in policies, but they may actually “impoverish the educational enterprise.”

So I am immediately sensitive to the fact that C21 Canada's emphasis on "skills" may be relying on a "bewitchment of the intelligence" and contributing to an "impoverishment of the educational enterprise." Notwithstanding, an emphasis on "skills" - "impoverished" though it may be - is just one problematic feature of the very first paragraph in Mr. Kershaw's post.

/"C21 Canada will not debate the wisdom of the solutions to the current skills gap proposed in the budget; we just welcome the priority on education and human capital."/

Among the many analytically potent details in this assertion is the construction of people as "human capital". This is a very particular discursive production of what it means to be an agent with agency. Specifically, it's an invocation of 'homo economicus' - a neoliberalized vision of the social. This discursive marker illustrates that C21 Canada has adopted an economistic view of agents, and connects C21 Canada's agenda with a broader frame of research into the catastrophic impacts of neoliberal policies throughout the world. In short, this single discursive marker demonstrates that C21 Canada has an agenda that is guided by commodification and profit, and is 100% contrary with a social justice agenda.

/"However, we offer a word of caution. While the federal government’s focus on skills is welcomed, any trend going forward to limiting the national debate on closing the skills gap to the post secondary sector is a mistake."/

Again, there is a discursive allegiance with 'management talk' and neoliberalism - this time via the invocation of a "higher education sector". Mr. Kershaw constructs an imaginary monolithic composite of post secondary institutions as though they were a some homogeneous pie ready and waiting to be understood, sliced up, and exploited.

But, more importantly, what I'd like to highlight is the absurdity of this narrative of a "skills gap". It's so vacuous as to be offensive, and I think Mr. Kershaw's legitimation of the narrative powerfully illustrates the pro-corporate and anti-democratic agenda of C21 Canada.

First, it is helpful to consider what % of Canadians are unemployed? According to Stats Canada - which, interestingly enough, is getting ravaged by neoliberal policies - Canada's employment rate sits at around 62% ( Would corporate Canada like to see 100% participation? Why or why not? What would a higher employment rate do to wages? Corporate profits? What relationship can be drawn between corporate profits and hiring practices? As profits rise - which they currently are - do corporations have a tendency to raise wages? What I mean to illustrate here is that there are political and structural incentives for Corporate Canada to have an interest in maintaining profits - not jobs or the interests of workers.

There are people with PhDs unemployed and/or driving taxis. There are folks with two MAs working as janitors. There are folks with professional credentials who work at fast food restaurants. There are more unemployed recent college graduates than at any time since the Great Depression. There is no skills gap. There is a capitalistic agenda to keep profits high. And that doesn't necessarily include the interests of workers or the public. More importantly, this corporate agenda is inconsistent with a democratic vision of schooling and teachers' work - which would emphasize the needs of the commons and the public, not the desires of the wealthy elite.

/"At long last Canada’s economic leaders are recognizing Canada’s K-12 systems as an essential element of Canada’s economic competitiveness."/

Another prime example of neoliberalism as normal and ideal: Idolizing “economic leaders” and normalizing states as competitors. This naturalization of economic values and competition is one of the key indices of both neoliberal and managerialist ideologies. It induces dis-trust among agents by encouraging them to negotiate the social as a game of accumulation, and creates the myth that there's some grande 'competition' to be won - or lost.

Beyond this point, I think it worth adding that folks with a clue do not emphasize competition as a guiding feature of social action. This is particularly true with regard to public education, where an inevitable outcome of competition is that kids lose. In so doing, the democratic purpose of teachers' work becomes subjugated beneath competition and an imposed set of de-humanizing corporatist values.

/"What needs to be done? As first steps, Provinces and Territories must infuse 21st century competencies into their targeted learning outcomes and invest in technology enabled learning systems."/

Oddly enough, Mr. Kershaw, I find strong warrant for offering an alternative injunction: What needs to be done? As first steps, defenders of public education and the commons must organize to resist the corporate drive for reforming schooling Canada.

Beyond this very substantive divergence, the above assertion is remarkable for its invocations of "invest[ment] in technology" and "learning systems".

In the first place, the emphasis on technology is suggestive of 'techno-positivism':

"The technopositivist ideology is defined as a ‘compulsive enthusiasm’ about e-learning ... that is being created, propagated and channelled repeatedly by the people who are set to gain without giving the educators the time and opportunity to explore the dangers and rewards of e-learning on teaching and learning." -

We should also remember that "[A]fter 2 years of total and unlimited access to technology by carefully selected students whose parents had chosen the program and whose teachers enjoyed unlimited amounts of technical and instructional support, small class sizes, and half of each day to devote to preparation, the best that Apple could say about the achievement scores of ... students was that they had not declined." - Robertson (

Second, the emphasis on "learning systems" is another example of what I analyze in my MA thesis as "learnification" - a reconceptualization of everything there is to know and say about education and teachers' work within discourses of 'learners' and 'learning'. As noted by Gert Biesta, discourses of learnification help instrumentalize and de-humanize relationships in schools, and contribute to a "democratic deficit in education policy". On this basis alone, I see warrant for educationists across Canada to mount opposition to C21 Canada's agenda.

It is worth contrasting this emphasis on "invest[ment] in technology" and "learning systems" with investment in educational /resources/ (e.g., teachers, books, tech) and /specialists/ (e.g., librarians, counsellors, special ed). How many teachers have been laid off in Canada over the last 10 years? How many more or less learning specialists are there in Canada's schools, 2012 vs. 2000? What is the current level of job satisfaction among teachers in Canada? What % of new teachers in Canada are still teaching after 5 years? What % of teachers thought about a career change last year? How does that % contrast with teachers' attitudes in 2000? 1990? 1970?

I suspect that if we asked tech corporations what they would like, they might say things like "invest[ment] in technology" and "learning systems". Nevertheless, I would contend that if we asked teachers what they would help them teach better and get better educational outcomes, they might say things like "We need more educational resourcing!" and "We need more access to specialists!" One path offers a vehicle for normalizing the values of corporations, the other holds the potential of democratization and social justice. They aren not commensurable values or agendas.

Although there were many other analytically salient features within Mr. Kershaw's post, I think I have adequately foregrounded the corporate values lurking within C21 Canada's agenda and justified resistance to - not enthusiasm for - C21 Canada's "urgent call" to "modernize Canada's education systems."

Monday, April 8, 2013

Wifi in schools

Should schools be installing wifi to enable the use of wireless devices? My answer is no, but this is a hot topic with a lot to think about.

Recently the BC Teachers Federation contemplated some motions at their annual general meeting on this subject. This follows motions passed by the BC parent group, BCCPAC, which calls for at least one wifi free school in every district. Another group of parents, in York Region District in Ontario, set up a picket to protest the installation of wifi.

The discussion about wifi is about more than just health, although health is at the centre of the debate. Those opposed to the installation of wifi are concerned there are health risks and that our current knowledge of the health implications are incomplete but worrisome enough to act in a precautionary way.

First, on the science and health.

1. There are peer reviewed research papers that support the claim of health risks of wifi radiation (even low levels), and there are peer reviewed research papers that dispute the claim. For a listing of papers concerning health and learning implications, see #wifistudy on twitter, for example.

2. The science, and the evaluation of the science, is not conducted in a neutral environment. There are many large corporate interests  promoting the safety of wifi. Some of the research is directly funded by these interests. I probably don't need to convince anyone that CISCO and Apple and SMART Technologies spend money to promote educational technology. But beyond the direct, there is a vast web of indirect influence.

Thousands of individuals have a direct personal interest in the use and expansion of technology in schools, and this includes wireless technology. For example, the TIE lab, at the University of Victoria, has as its primary research focus the use of technology in learning environments. The people and students who work at that lab have a pre-determined starting point: that there is value in spending resources to investigate and expand the use of technology in learning. Here is their statement of purpose:

The purpose of the TIE lab is to strengthen research excellence regarding the appropriate use of networked and computer‐mediated technologies for enhanced communication, learning, and motivation across educational, professional, and health sectors. The TIE lab provides state‐of‐the‐art Infrastructure for systematically researching optimal e‐learning conditions, tools, processes and products. TIE Lab infrastructure will be used for research purposes only. Research conducted through the TIE Lab will help to maintain Canada’s ranking as a leader in the field of innovation and technology.

Evident is that prior to any research taking place, the goal is to "lead" in "innovation and technology". Absent is any questioning about the value of technology in the first place, or what the technology will displace.

The BC government has also been instrumental in promoting a vision of education reform based on technology integration and expansion. This vision was first articulated in the Premier's Technology Council paper. It is used to justify the promotion of "edtech" throughout the public education system in BC. This happens in direct and indirect ways.

For example, there are several publicly funded institutions who promote edtech. One is BCCAMPUS, which develops technology "solutions" for post-secondary institutions in BC. Here is there statement of purpose:

BCcampus is a publicly funded organization that uses information technology to connect the expertise, programs, and resources of all B.C. post-secondary institutions under a collaborative service delivery framework. We provide valued services to institutions, ensuring B.C. learners, educators, and administrators get the best, most effective technologies and services for their learning and teaching needs.  We provide an ICT infrastructure for student data exchange, shared services, online learning and distance education, communities of practice and online resources for educators.

Needless to say, they also don't seem to do much to question the value of technology enhancement and integration. It is a given that it is good.

In the K-12 world, we have ERAC. Schools and Districts can choose to join ERAC and access their group software purchasing agreements. But they do more than this:

ERAC also provides leadership in the areas of new technology and new media and their potential roles in education. We provide educators with research-based trends and also encourage sharing of knowledge and experience within the membership.

So public dollars go to ERAC via school Districts to support these edtech initiatives.

I am just scratching the surface, but what is clear is that there is a substantial and growing public/private infrastructure that promotes educational technology. And promotes it on the basis that the starting point for consideration is that expansion of technology in schools is valuable.

People in these positions cannot evaluate the science in a neutral manner. They have an interest. If they are employed in one of these institutions, or have made a career in the world of edtech, they have a personal interest.

3. There is an "attack" atmosphere towards those who conduct research into the risks of wifi and those who are active to make those risks known to the public. Consider, for example, the experiences of one scientist who described the climate for research in this talk at Harvard:

In his lecture, “Protection Against Radiation is in Conflict with Science,” Adlkofer discussed the difficulties he and other scientists face when presenting research on the carcinogenic effects of electromagnetic fields emanating from cell phones. He also discussed the institutional corruption which he says obstructs their research.

Even at the low level of twitter feeds, there is a tendency to paint those concerned with the health effects of wifi as unscientific and irrational.

4. There is fairly wide variation in the response of public health officials. In particular, European health agencies have taken a much stricter approach to setting standards and exposure levels. The Toronto Board of Health produced the following comparison chart:

table 1 Toronto Board of Health 2007

5. Given the factors already listed, we can look back on history and consider how these similar responses impeded a timely reaction against other technologies that had harm to human health, such as asbestos, cigarettes, and lead. There is a pattern of public debate that obfuscates the promotion of public health as the first and most legitimate priority when there are profits to be made.

This is just the health discussion. The next consideration, in my view, is to consider what is to be gained from the use of wifi in schools. Interestingly, this debate takes on many of the same hues. The corporate interests in pushing technology cloud the discussion. There is rarely any meaningful talk about what is lost when technology is introduced. And there is sometimes an almost frenzied attachment to a pro-technology viewpoint.

No doubt those parents in York Region looked at the issue somewhat differently - probably just based on their lived experience. This year, my own daughter came home one day having completed a note taking assignment on an iPad. She had to share with others (although our District spent $340,000 on Apple products last year, there was not a full class set). She and the other students struggled with the awkward typing interface. No doubt the iPad sat in her lap, and no-one warned her of the potential for radiation exposure that even Apple indicated in the product manual for an iPad, that they should be held away from the body. If there is a health risk, is an experience like this worth it?

I laughed earlier this year when someone responded to my tweet about the advantages of outdoor Kindergartens by suggesting that wireless devices were great because they enabled schooling to take place outdoors more easily - just grab your laptop and go. What a statement this is about how we view nature and outdoors - just another place to compute in?

Don't get me wrong - there are many wonderful, advantageous aspects to using computers in education. But far too many people are in far too much of a hurry to adopt new technologies without any thoughtful reasons because the atmosphere of the discussion predisposed an outcome - that technological enhancement is inherently of value.

The wifi debate is no different. It is obscured by bias, conflict of interest and corporate influence. Given this, I choose precaution.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Why educators should resist educational technology

I sat down earlier this week to write a blog post and I had a catchy title in mind: "iPads in the Classroom: Deja vu all over again". I had just read an article tweeted to me by my friend Tobey Steeves that appeared in the Atlantic in the mid-1990's. The article is called "The Computer Delusion" and I would recommend it (

It begins with a short history lesson on past technological advances meant to revolutionize teaching, learning and schools, like television. And how these did nothing of the sort. And I thought, yes, just like the current crop of fad technologies: Smartboards, iPads, MOOCs. My partner had just laughingly told me about how the first out of date and now useless Smartboard showed up in his school's staffroom - the general repository of ed tech junk.

But the more I think about it, the less I think it is the same all over again.

It is very true that since schooling and technology there has been technology in schools. Some technology is very helpful. Some does genuinely change the way we teach and learn, a little bit. And lots gets left in the dust bins of staff rooms for a whole variety of reasons well articulated in The Computer Delusion.

However, just like everything else in society lately, what is different now is not the perpetual change and the perpetual adoption of change before there is evidence to support the change. What is different is the pace of change. Things are happening so fast no-one has time to even reflect on what went wrong.

In Education Week an article on educational technology happily examined "adaptive content". "What if, for example, we designed MOOCs (massive online courses) that, when illustrating a principle during a lecture, could use examples which were designed for the student's context? After all, most online communities already require members to fill in their age, location, etc. Or, if we had webcams that would interpret student's emotions and speed up / slow down a lecture/provide more illustrations/segue to an activity as needed. This technology, in fact, is already used by marketing companies to score consumer's reactions to their products online by reading their facial expressions via webcam, instead of written/multiple-choice feedback."

I don't know about you, but that creeps me out on a lot of different levels. Learning as social activity? No.  Learning to broaden your horizens? No. Learning without privacy intrusions? No. But from one point of view, why not, if that is the fastest and cheapest way to make human beings learn and fast and cheap are the criteria?

About five years ago I was teaching Information Technology and one of the classes I taught was game design. A researcher from the local university came to study my class, interested in how "gamification" related to learning. I didn't think all that much of it at the time, but am starting to see that educational technology is no longer just about tools to enhance learning, but rather the insertion of some of the most disturbing aspects of marketing into the previously (somewhat) protected world of schools and childhood.

Joel Bakan has written an excellent book called "Childhood under siege". In it he examines some of the ways that marketers have used their techniques to sell toys, create addictive games, and market pharmaceuticals to children. It is disturbing. Those same trends are evident in the pitch to change teaching and learning with technology.

One of the words that really bothers me right now is "engagement". It is so trendy. You can't have a conversation or read an article about education without encountering it. But what does it really mean?

Learning is hard. And learning hard things is harder. Learning also is often uncomfortable. And sometimes it is boring. Anyone who has learned to play the violin knows that it takes at least 10,000 hours of often repetitive practice that sounds bad. There is no shortcut. You can play with others, play pieces you like, and perform. These all make it more fun. And you hopefully learn along the way that the practice is worth it. And this is what motivates you to practice more.

What the educational technology companies are pushing is "engaged" learning as a short cut. But it won't work. It won't engage. It won't teach better.

First off, much of what passes for educational technology these days is really modified consumer electronics. iPads, iPhones...these are consumer devices, not educational tools.

Apps and games are designed to addict, not engage. I find apps the most disturbing...the most simplistic human reaction - just touching it - gives you a reward and a little hit of dopamine. You keep playing. Or checking your email. Or your twitter feed. It is this very feature of apps that make them appealing to two year olds. Playing on an iPad is more fun than learning to walk. Why? It is easier. You learn less (if anything at all). That is why they have temper tantrums when you take the iPad away.

Sherry Turkle, in her book "Alone Together", considers the touted advantage of "multitasking" with technology. "When psychologists study multitasking, they do not find a story of new efficiencies. Rather, multitaskers don't perform as well on any of the tasks they are attempting. But multitasking feels good because the body rewards it with neurochemicals that induce a multitasking "high". The high deceives multitaskers into thinking they are being especially productive. In search of the high, they want to do even more. In the years ahead, there will be a lot to sort out. We fell in love with what technology made easy. Our bodies colluded."

App development and consumer electronics are not designed for optimal learning. They are designed for optimal addiction. Very, very clever marketing people put their minds to this. They use everything we know about human psychology. Online pets die for a reason, as Joel Bakan explains in his book. The reason is to cause fear and worry in the child who must return to the program to feed it.

My daughter is 13 years old, and I look around and am thankful I didn't have to keep iPads away from her. How did this happen so fast? She's not even grown up, and already childhood is different, and not for the better. This year in our school District, Wifi will be available to every child in every high school. Why? I don't know. So they can watch youtube at lunch hour instead of hang out with their friends? Respond to their text messages? Check their Facebook? Is it *necessary* or even *beneficial* for learning? I've yet to hear a good reason.

We didn't use to have think about the precautionary principle in education. The popular myth had it that the pendulum would always swing back the other way, protecting us from fads and political interference. But this myth is just that - a myth. For twenty years, from a computer in every classroom to massive online learning, technology companies have become more and more sophisticated at pushing their product. We need to resist before it is too late.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Will School Board budget woes lead to more inequity and privatization?

The news from the province for School Boards in BC was another disappointment. A "no increase" budget combined with inflation, rising pension costs, PST conversions costs and ten years of chronic under-funding means another round of cuts, layoffs, school closures and reduced services.

Not surprisingly, amid these budget woes, some turn to the private or "choice" options. Parents turn to private schools who can offer class sizes of 10 - 20 while public schools are double this number. Or if they can't afford it, but they can drive across town and pay student fees, they look for the "programs of choice" that segregate the more affluent public school families into particular schools and particular programs. This week's Fraser Institute rankings showed pretty clearly the growing socio-economic divisions in BC schools. Unsurprisingly, private schools topped the lists, where classes are small and resources are high. Next came the schools of choice and schools in wealthier Districts and neighborhoods. Last on the list are the "inner city schools" - where poverty is often at crisis levels. Rather than being the great equalizer, schools in a world of parent "choice" serve to further stratify and segregate students. Growing inequality just keeps growing.

Just as disturbing is the trend towards privatization by some in the education community. More and more school districts are looking towards fees, fundraising, fee-based international student programs and even public/private partnerships as a way to make up for woefully inadequate public funds.

One example is found in a public survey put together by the Maple Ridge school District ( In it they ask if there is community support for the following:

  • Increase or introduce fees for optional programs (e.g. academies, band, bussing)
  • Promote public private partnerships 
  • Should the school district pursue public - private partnership opportunities in any of the following areas? Advertising, playgrounds, sponsorships, naming of facilities 
Or, they ask, should they increase class sizes, reduce special education teachers/assistants, or close schools.

What a false dichotomy! It is unfortunate that Maple Ridge has even posed these questions. The clear answer is to re-invest in public education through adequate public funding. The way there is through advocacy and communities and elected officials working together to pressure the provincial government to do so. If Maple Ridge and every other District facing funding shortfalls had joined with Cowichan to submit a deficit budget based on the genuine needs of the school district, perhaps the education budget today would look different.

Chronic under-funding is not just about money. The current Liberal government has pursued this manufactured "crisis" to lend legitimacy to private options. But this path has only one end - quality schooling for the few, and ghetto-ized schools for the many. Rather than follow this dead end, I hope Trustees and others in the education world will take the opportunity of the coming provincial election and the coming District budget cycle to stand up and speak up for public education.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Saying it like it is - Exposing the Premier's Technology Council on #bced

What do teachers do? What should teachers do? Who should decide?

These are some of the questions both posed and answered in the new BC Education Plan and now, thoughtfully examined, by Cory (Tobey) Steeves, a Vancouver teacher. Steeves' work is available online here:

In  (De/Re)-Constructing tachers and their work: A Discourse analysis of British Columbia's 21st-century policy, Steeves looks beyond the obvious to uncover some of the "problems" with 21st-century learning. His focus is on British Columbia, and he uses the Premier's Technology Council (PTC) report, A Vision for 21st Century Education as a basis for identifying underlying themes. In the process, he exposes aspects of the agenda to reformulate what teachers do and who controls what they do.

Steeves situates his work in the company of other education theorists who have described the impacts of corporate education reform on what teachers do and who tells them what to do. He uses a discourse analysis to "problematize" these components of the 21st-century agenda. To do this, he looks at certain textual features of the report and identifies elements that match the "learnification" and "accountingization" of education.

"Learnification" is a fancy word for reducing the process of education to just learning. This has the effect of simplifying all educational processes to a singular narrow focus - the outcome of what has been learned. Anyone living in our test obsessed culture can identify with this. For example, this can be teaching to the test so the student will do well on the test. But more generally, it is the process of narrowing not just the curriculum, but all aspects of eduacating, into only what is to be learned. Of course missing then is relationships and socializing, the role of teachers' professional judgement, and a role for society to articulate what education is and is for.

"Accountingization" is also a fancy word more easily described: turning teaching into an activity whose every component part can be itemized, counted and judged. Similar to learnification, the net effect is to influence what teachers do (teach what can be counted) and how they do it (judge them on student test results).

Using this conceptual framework, Steeves goes on to the look at the language used (or not used) in the PTC report. Steeves locates the document within a genre of "management talk" - a perfectly apt description.  By considering some of the language use, Steeves then goes on to identify "managerialist features" in the text, such as this one - a word cloud showing the use of modal verbs:

As he articulates: "the overwhelming emphasis given to "will", "must", and "should" suggest a willingness to determine the roles and vlues of others."

It is a bit of a tough read (I will candidly admit that anything with the word "discourse" in the title usually ends up back on the shelf in my household), but his conclusions and motivation made it worth the wade through some unfamiliar territory. I certainly agree that one aspect of the #bcedplan is that "transnational technology corporations become mingled with the values of teachers, and 'good teaching' is re-imagined as a vehicle for constructing a knowledge-based economy."

I found the emphasis on teaching and teachers was a unique lens to approach this topic. While I typically start from the profit-making intent of technology companies and the incompatibility of this with genuine education (which I equate with human well being, first and foremost), Steeves looks at the same topic through the view of what teachers do and who tells them, and this is refreshing and important. To this end, despite our theoretical differences, I found myself hopeful that I was one of the "friends" in mind in his dedication: "I dedicate this work to the friends of the commons and the defenders of a more democratic otherwise: May it bring you tools for play-and battle."

And since I haven't said it before, to all you readers, friends, fellow activists out there, that is my dedication too.