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.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

#c21summit13 - More 21st century learning inc.

If you were following the tweets last week at #c21summit13 you might have been disturbed to see both who and what was touted as necessary change for Canada's public education system.

The keynote was none other than Paul Martin - a billionaire (or maybe almost billionaire, with his private ownership of Canada Steamship Lines). Martin had the audacity to wade in on the education debate with no apology for his disastrous record in office in the 1990's. It was Martin's cuts to social transfers that began the steady decline of funding to provinces and then to school boards that has continued unabated since. So how disingenuous for him to state (as tweeted out): "Do not accept the premise that education should be cut to meet a deficit - it is counter productive." That is exactly what he did (

Among others who apparently should weigh in on how to transform teaching and learning in Canada were the Vice Presidents of ScotiaBank and TD Financial Group, and members of Action Canada - a Harper inspired training ground for future "leaders" backed with federal dollars - a sort of modern day, neo-liberal equivalent of Katimavik. I was approached by one of their members, Ben Paylor, a graduate student in experimental medicine. Smart I'm sure, but hardly a recognized academic expert in anything to do with teaching, learning or even a field like child psychology.

The C21 agenda is the same as that of many of the international groups touting "21st Century Learning" - a thinly veneered cover for corporate influence.

I've written more extensively on this subject in an article entitled: 21st Century Learning Inc. which has just been published in the winter edition of Our Schools, Our Selves. Please have a read here:

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The most important "choice" - the neighborhood school

This week two school boards are wrestling with decisions about school closures - Kootenay Columbia, and Port Alberni. In Kootenay Columbia, the decision was made that the Board would no longer support a full K-12 program in the town of Rossland. In Alberni, the Board is considering a school closure and relocation of students to other schools.

Both communities saw an outpouring of public interest and concern. In Rossland, a community group called Vision for Small Schools has been advocating to maintain K-12 services within Rossland.  A survey of parents found that 85 percent wanted to maintain K-12 in Rossland even if that meant having a single K-12 school. The vast majority of parents who responded to the survey were Rossland residents - 487 of 500.

The last decade has seen hundreds of school closures across British Columbia. Always, parents and community members are distraught to lose their neighborhood school. Not only are children displaced out of their community, but the school often serves other functions for local residents. They have playgrounds used in the evenings, rooms booked for community functions, theatres and sports facilities rented to community groups.

Although there has been declining enrollment, as the Rossland group points out, many of these communities will see a rebound in the coming decade. In Rossland, the District has projected enrollment back at 2003 levels by 2026. To close schools now, at the bottom of the enrollment dip, is rather shortsighted. If funding were provided by the province, community schools, with all their benefits to local residents, could be maintained to ensure adequate space for this enrollment rebound.

The irony of school closures is that parents and community members have consistently shown through their actions that this is one of the most important school "choices". It is very important to parents to be able to send their child to a school within the local community, and it is important to communities to have school spaces and facilities to act as neighborhood hubs.

The "choice" movement advocated by the BC Liberals for the past decade has eroded access to community schools and led directly to these hundreds of school closures. Opening of catchments and allowing children (or their parents) to "choose" a school has skewed the enrollments in many Districts. In Vancouver, students have fled east end schools only to fill west end schools with portables. Turf wars have broken out, particularly at the secondary level, to recruit students to "our" school. Schools, districts and teachers are spending scarce resources advertising their schools, hosting open house nights, putting up signs and creating ever more specialized academies and programs in an attempt to have the highest enrollment. Sadly, this only takes children from one school to another, and will end up as a race to nowhere. As the inter-school competition increases, schools are looking even further afield for more children to attract. A recent Board meeting in Victoria claimed the Lacrosse Academy would attract students from "the lower island". A new school proposal for Saanich specializing in earth and ocean science will aim to attract students from all over British Colombia.

But for every school that gets a new student, some other school loses one. And when enough are gone, the effects can be ghetto-izing or closure. The trend is for students (or parents) with enough social capital to be the ones actively picking their schools. When this happens, schools in lower income neighborhoods experience a "flight" of middle class kids. The net effect is a ghetto-ization of schools into "haves" and "have nots". This "choice" is great for the haves...they get a school of their choice, a program of their choice. But it is a disaster for the "have nots" and it is unfair and inequitable. For a particular child, choice may seem attractive, but for society as a whole, choice leads to stratification and inequity.

Families and communities have shown again and again that the neighborhood school is of paramount importance. Chronic underfunding and inter-school competition have led to overcrowded schools combined with under-utilized schools. The end result is school closures of neighborhood schools and a loss of the most important choice for parents - the choice of the neighborhood school.