Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Mind of Christy Clark

My colleagues and I were somewhat perplexed at the lunch table this week to grasp the motivation behind the latest decision of the BC Liberals to end funding for adult graduates to upgrade their high school courses.

OK yes, it is obvious they want to fund less and charge more fees. But how does this fit with the grander scheme of grooming BC's youth towards a life of resource extraction? Surely getting those extra credits in Math and Science are part and parcel of the path to trades school and the LNG highway?

It is easy to forget about Christy's earlier life as Minister of Education (yes, those are dark days we educators try to block from memory). But her failed attempt to overhaul the graduation program provides some insight into the broader program she is pushing today.

Back in the early naughts, Christy tried to create a fully streamed graduation program, complete with eight distinct pathways and different degrees. Starting in grade 10 (age 14 or 15), students would choose a pathway and each would lead to a different place - be that university, vocational school, or perhaps right out into that service sector job at Walmart. At the time, she denied that this was a form of streaming, yet the proposal came at the same time as the introduction of provincial exams starting in grade 10 - essentially a high stakes barrier to some of these pathways for children as young as 14 (see BCTF report on page 8).

The original pathways proposal was never implemented, but the curriculum and graduation program was changed to reflect a similar approach. The graduation program now includes grade 10 - meaning decisions are made one year younger than the previous graduation program. Courses in key academic areas such as Math and English and Science that are included in the program include lower level curriculum which is not accepted for university entrance. For example, Math essentially has three pathways - what was first "Essentials", "Applications" and "Principles" and is now "Workplace", "Foundations" and "Pre-Calculus". Regardless of the titles, one is for graduation only, one is for vocational program entry, and one is for university entry.

Christy left government shortly after these changes. During Gordon Campbell's tenure, the focus of government education disruption was somewhat different. Entranced by technology and the Global Education Reform Movement, Campbell's year were more closely aligned with the project for 21st Century Learning (see my critique here). But Christy is back and her original vision has come with her, albeit with a heavily shifted focus not to any old vocation, but towards vocational training primarily in the trades and resource sector. Thus the government has mostly abandoned Campbell's BC Education Plan (whatever it was), the "vision for 21st Century Learning" from the BC Technology Council, and replaced these with the BC Skills for Jobs Blueprint.

If you haven't had a look at the Blueprint yet, you should. It aims to redirect students from a comprehensive senior secondary program into a trades training program that will merge seamlessly from secondary school to college. Many of the pieces are already in place, and a student can already begin their trades training in Grade 10 and be taking dual credit courses at college in Grade 12 and be ready to work shortly thereafter. Passport to Education grants, which gave some grants to graduating students and were applicable for all subjects, have been replaced with much larger grants covering only trades programs.

Like every other Christy policy extolling the virtues of "choice", in the case of trades training, this is nothing but a smokescreen. The illusion of choice always comes with institutional barriers that will in fact direct some students down one pathway and leave choices only for a select and privileged few. It is therefore fitting that general upgrading for post-secondary entrance is out, while the new trades path from grade 10 is in. Upgrading for adults allows for mobility between pathways - a genuine choice and opportunity.

Christy's program is noticeably similar and in line with the push by the Federal Conservatives for a national trades training system. Minister Jason Kenney recently took a delegation to Germany, where there is a long history of streaming students from age ten into either university or vocational schooling.  The Jobs Blueprint promise to "reengineer training and education in BC" fits right in with Kenney's plan to "reinvent" vocational high schools.

Kenney also uses the "choice" cover for what is actually a step towards further inequality. "This is about choices for kids," he said. "Sometimes the German system is criticized as being brutal with its streaming in the secondary school system. The truth is that they're just trying to help reflect where kids' aptitudes and interests are." (Canadian Press)

Ironically Germans themselves are looking at the horrific racial and class divisions entrenched in their education system. As the Guardian reports:

"most children are streamed at the age of 10 into either the Gymnasium, a route to university; the Realschule, where mid-level vocational studies are common; or the Hauptschule, for a basic secondary education.

Inequality is rampant. Children from a privileged background are four times as likely to attend Gymnasium as a child with similar grades from a working-class home and, according to the federal education body KMK, children of immigrant families attend the Hauptschule twice as often as native children – even within the same socio-economic class." (Guardian)

What is left unspoken by either Christy or her Federal counterparts is that this is a program to relieve business of the costs of training and at the same time practically eliminate comprehensive secondary education for many students, and in particular those who are low income or who struggle in school. Unsurprisingly, aboriginal students are specifically targeted, under the guise of special grants and mentor-ship programs.

Far from choice or opportunity, this grander scheme is about putting children in their place.