Saturday, June 20, 2015

Just more teacher bashing: Deconstructing the Ontario report card debacle

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The mainstream media wasted no time this week to engage in a round of teacher bashing at the news that some school boards would not be issuing report cards in response to teacher job action. Teachers, who are in a work to rule campaign, have produced reports but are not inputting the data into computer systems. Apparently, and unsurprisingly, school principals and administrators just didn’t want to do this extra work, so they cancelled the reports. While these boards have now relented and agreed to produce the reports, the incident provides an opportunity to look at they dynamics of the teacher job action and reflect on why and how both parents and workers should be standing up for teachers.

Across Canada, the US, and even in large parts of the rest of the world, public school teachers have been on the front lines of the fight against austerity. Teachers tend to be highly unionized, are typically a female dominated workforce, work in one of the last standing mostly public institutions (along with healthcare), and play a key role in the transmission of social values to the next generation. All these features make teachers a ready target for neoliberal austerity measures. Where better to smash unions, privatize, instil individualistic and pro-market ideas and put women in their place?

Ontario’s teachers, just like in BC last year, are fighting the austerity agenda. They want smaller classes so they can provide better services, they want to maintain their incomes and purchasing power, they want to stop government legislative interference and they want the autonomy to do their job in the interests of their students.

As Barrie teacher and activist Gord Bambrick describes:

“The main objective as I understand it right now is to stop a total contract strip. Bill 122 was created last year to allow bargaining on two levels, locally with school boards and provincially with the provincial government.

On the provincial front, we are fighting now to protect our working conditions and students’ learning conditions, especially around the issues of class sizes and teacher workload. The Ontario Liberal government, headed by Kathleen Wynne and Education Minister Liz Sandals, is pressing for the removal of class size caps and a significant increase to teachers’ duty time. They also want to continue wage freezes imposed by legislation in 2012.

The school boards want to remove protections around teacher prep time and school hours, giving principals more authority to delegate tasks. The boards would also like to change the teacher performance appraisal process and conduct external assessments of students. This, of course, significantly undermines teacher professionalism.”

Deconstructing the report card issue, we can see all of the standard teacher bashing tactics at play. Teachers tried to take full strike action, but were ordered back by the labour board. So they have chosen a job action designed to minimally impact student learning and maximally impact the functioning of school boards. They have provided assessment of their students, but not in the format usually required.

In response, managers (principals) and senior managers and even some school trustees made the decision to simply not do the extra work and blame teachers for not producing the reports. This exposes the presumption that it is reasonable to ask teachers to do more and more work (every extra student in a class is hours of marking time), but not those at the top ends of the hierarchy. It also shows that some layers of management are all too happy to publicly blame teachers when they themselves are not willing to do the job. A remarkably similar thing happened last year during the BC teacher strike when teachers refused to mark provincial exams. The ministry took the written response questions out of the exam to save administrators having to do the marking, despite the fact that teachers were on full strike and administrators were sitting in empty schools.

In addition to showing how government and media use the blame the teacher narrative to distract us from the real issues at play, the report card spat also highlights a more subtle, but equally important feature of the global education reform movement being imposed by neoliberals everywhere.

Both in Ontario and previously in BC, when teachers refused to complete report cards they were careful to continue to provide genuine assessment of the progress of learning. As the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario stated, “teachers have fully assessed your child’s progress”.

In BC, when report cards were not issued, teachers invited parents to speak in person about their child’s progress and many sent home anecdotal remarks directly to the parents, but not in report card form. In Ontario, teachers have submitted progress reports to principals to review and provide to parents. The reality is that teachers are doing what most parents want and expect – a genuine and thoughtful reflection on how their child is doing in school. In my district in BC when we did not provide formal reports there was only a single parent complaint out of 19,000 students.

Yet the corporate education reformers balk at the idea of no formal report going home and into the database. It is not teaching and learning that is central, but the ranking and sorting function that data driven reporting provides. The function that report cards should provide is communication to parents about their child’s learning successes and struggles. But all too often they become first a training ground for children and parents to rate each other and later for employers and post secondary schools to accept or reject them. Like standardized tests, they become a tool to privilege the privileged and stream the rest back into the socio-economic category from where they came.

When it comes down to it, formal report cards don’t matter. What really matters are the teaching conditions in schools and the communication with parents to enable students to meet their potential. My favourite quote this week came from parent Erika Shaker, who put it like this, “when it comes to the delay or absence of this year’s report cards, I would like to make something clear. I. Couldn’t. Care. Less.”

I asked teacher and activist Gord Bambrick how parents and workers can show support to teachers and oppose the divisive message from the government. He said it clearly:

“It’s hard for parents and other concerned citizens to cut through the disinformation coming from the government and mainstream media. Teachers are usually characterized as selfish ‘hostage takers’ despite the fact that they are fighting to protect children’s learning conditions. I would encourage citizens to speak up against the austerity agenda whenever they get the chance – in the blogs, on social media, and with a letter to their trustees and MPs. They could also get out and show support at the many protest activities that will surely be coming this autumn.”

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