Saturday, June 21, 2014

Ranking & Sorting - An Essential Service

What is schooling for? In the midst of a teacher strike that is now entering its second week, the BC Labour Relations Board provided an answer - to rank and sort students. Upon application from the BC government, they declared that providing Grade 12 student marks was an essential service, and on Friday afternoon, that reviewing Grade 10 and 11 marks provided by school administrators was an essential service. Also essential is the provision of provincial exams, which students wrote last week behind teacher picket lines.

I guess we already knew that time in the classroom learning was not paramount. Many Districts across BC have shortened the school year by a week or longer to address chronic budget shortfalls. Some have even adopted a four day week. So it was already evident that time involved in learning activities with teachers can be jettisoned - if it saves money. No surprise then that the government appears to have very little interest in ending the strike and re-opening schools before the end of June.

We also knew that somehow the BC government thinks that limiting the constitutional right to strike should expand far beyond genuinely life threatening situations. It was all the way back in 2001 that the Essential Services legislation made the provision of education "essential". But what is increasingly clear is that was is  "essential" for government has nothing to do with educating. What is "essential" is that lists of marks are available to rank and sort students - no matter what they had the opportunity to learn and no matter how inaccurate those rankings might be. And what is also essential to government is that essential services legislation continue to erode the right to strike.

The government lockout prevented teachers from planning and marking. For the last several weeks of school, assignments were abridged, trips were cancelled, and learning activities cut short. Teachers simply could not continue to teach in the manner they do under the terms of the lockout and the severe restrictions on the working day. In my district, six out of the seven secondary schools also cancelled final course tests. In my daughter's school, the decision was made by the school administration and announced on the PA system before teachers even knew. In other words, the final month of school, which is about 20% of second semester courses, was shortened. And grading and assessment was altered - in many cases without the teacher even having any control over it.

Many teachers forced to submit Grade 12 marks on Friday did the only thing they think is ethical and honest in the circumstances - they assigned an "In Progress" mark. They acknowledged that the assessment of student work is not in relation to all the learning required in the course. They did what is a fair and accurate representation of student outcomes given the lockout's impact. One teacher I know even went further, providing a range of potential outcomes each student might achieve if they had the opportunity to actually complete the course, including final assessments.

Next week teachers will be asked to "review" a mark provided by an administrator. I don't know where these marks are going to come from. Perhaps they will be term marks from term one and will not reflect any student work completed since April. Perhaps they will come from some other magical place. What I do know is that administrators have not taught these students and have no mechanism to provide a genuine professional opinion about the level of student achievement in relation to the learning outcomes of the course. So why are they putting marks into the system? I guess because they have been ordered to do so.

At the end of the day, administrators will place a grade on every grade 10, 11 and 12 student's transcript. That grade will in many cases not reflect the student's abilities relative to the full course curriculum. But it will provide some data for someone else to make a judgement about that student. And this is ultimately what these grades are for - to rank and sort students. And apparently this is essential.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Can we afford smaller classes? Absolutely.

Education Minister Fassbender seems to have backed off his stance that class sizes don't matter. Not surprisingly, it was one of the first concerns raised at the annual general meeting of the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Council's Q & A discussion:

Education Minister Peter Fassbender spoke to conference delegates Friday morning and was later peppered with questions, starting with this one: “How does class size not matter?”

Parents also wanted to know what his government is doing to help with complex classes, how it will protect schools threatened with permanent closure, whether the labour dispute will upset graduation activities and final exams and whether negotiations will continue throughout the summer.

There were no surprises in his answers: Class size is important up to a point, but not as important as class composition and teacher quality, given limited tax dollars, he said. Government has provided additional dollars to help with class composition challenges but it’s an issue that needs more attention, after a contract is signed, he added.*

So his back up answer? We can't afford it. And another old standby...class composition matters more. (I don't deal with teacher quality - another red herring, but read my thoughts on it here.)

Class size and class composition are inextricably linked. When the portion of the student population with identified special needs is high, the only way to create educationally sound classes is by having smaller classes. So if, for example, what is reasonable for a typical classroom is three students with special needs (the guidelines that used to be in legislation with Bill 33), but there are 8 students with special needs in Grade 5 out of 50 students, the only way to configure classes is to have three smaller classes rather than two larger ones. I'm not sure what other solution Fassbender could be referring to for class composition, unless he means segregation.

So can we afford smaller classes? British Columbians both can afford it and are willing to pay for it. The best evidence comes from an excellent report prepared last year by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. They costed this specific question, and they asked British Columbians what they thought about it.

The first thing they point out is how much tax revenue we would have for public services if only the tax cuts implemented by the BC Liberals never took place:

If BC collected today the same amount in tax revenues as a share of the economy 
(GDP) as we did in 2000, we would have $3.5 billion more in public funds this year 
alone. Meaning, no deficit, and the ability to invest in enhanced or even new public 

But they go on to look at class size and composition in particular, and what it would take to fund this with new, progressive income tax brackets for high income earners:

Two new brackets at the top: 18% 
on income $150,000–$200,000; and 
21% on income over $200,000

(would generate) $700 million

(which could pay for) 2,000 units of new social housing per year plus restore 
K–12 class sizes, composition, and specialist teacher 
staffing to levels that prevailed five years ago

Or alternatively:

Increase the current top (5th) bracket rate 
to 17%, and add two new upper income 
brackets: 20% on income $150,000–$200,000, 
and 22% on income over $200,000 

(would generate) $930 million

(which could pay for) Welfare benefit increases, a major funding increase to 
the Ministry of Children and Family Development, plus 
restore K–12 class sizes, composition, and specialist 
teacher staffing to levels that prevailed five years ago

The CCPA backed up these policy proposals with polling to see what British Columbians think about increasing taxes on the wealthy and corporations, or even themselves, in order to spend on public services. Here is what they found:

The overwhelming majority of British Columbians (90%) think there should be income tax increases for those at the top. As to where those higher taxes should kick in, a clear majority (57%) says at $100,000 per year of income. A majority (67%) also think major corporations are asked to pay less tax than they should.


Of course it’s easy to say someone else should pay more taxes. That’s why it comes as a further surprise to discover the openness British Columbians show when it comes to potential tax increases for themselves. When initially asked a general question about their own level of taxation, most people feel they pay too much – no surprise given the cost of living challenges many wrestle with. But, when taxes are linked to concrete policies that can reduce inequality and improve our quality of life, the story changes.

Respondents were asked if they would consider paying a slightly higher share of their own income to provincial income tax (for most people representing a few hundred dollars per year) in order to help bring about 11 different policy changes. The changes included things like providing more access to home and community based health care for seniors, increasing welfare benefit rates, creating a $10 per day child care program, protecting BC’s forests and endangered species, or reducing class sizes in K-12 education.

The results are striking: 68% say they are willing to pay a higher share of their income in order to help bring about 4 or more of the 11 policies. And once again, this held true for majorities regardless of which political party people intended to vote for in the next provincial election.