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.