Misguided reforms aren’t what the education system needs

The following guest post was written by Mike Jamieson, a high school science teacher in the Halifax Regional School Board. Reprinted here from Facebook with permission. 

The McNeil Liberals have decided to try their hand at educational reorganization. They hired a well-known consultant to study the problem and report back in a scant few months. Avis Glaze has a long history of similar work around the world (most notably in Ontario) and was very likely vetted for her alignment with the Liberal party goals of centralization and weakening unions. Having read the report I can see that the consultant is a sharp and insightful woman, though her own biases and brief interaction with our system also shine through.

From her report the Liberal government has selected eleven of twenty-two recommendations to implement immediately, and have in place by September. These will be the most expensive, and expansive changes to the education system this Premier will make, and they will provide marginal, and possibly zero net benefit to student achievement.

The marquee impact of this report is the elimination of school boards leading to the direct control of the school system by the provincial government. Cost savings have been touted as a key impact of this change. We have a long history of amalgamation in this province, from municipal governments, to school boards, and most recently the health authority.

Whatever other benefits may have been brought about through amalgamation, none of these examples saved any money. The process itself costs money, and afterwards the budgetary costs frustratingly remain the same, or even grow. The new entity is less responsive, more monstrous in bureaucratic bulk, and unresponsive to those who are not nearest the corridors of power.

Ms. Glaze found the relationship between the various school board offices and the department of education to be dysfunctional. Her motivation in eliminating school boards was to streamline our system. This dysfunction is true; there is resistance between these two bodies, along with competing agendas and initiatives. From the classroom both organizations appear massive and shapeless with no real day-to-day connection to the system they oversee.

From discussions with more senior members of our profession I have found this was not always the case. The old pre- amalgamated school boards did have real connections to the teachers they were designed to administer. There was a trust and familiarity because the small size of boards allowed for that connection. With reorganization the path between the decision makers and teachers will be streamlined, but it will not be direct. That distance will continue to contribute to the dissatisfaction we feel now. The dysfunctional relationship that needed to be fixed is between teachers and the highest echelons of administration. Amalgamating boards will not fix that.

Another impactful recommendation that Minister Churchill has accepted is the removal of vice principals and principals from the union. Ms. Glaze cites the fact that job action was difficult for principals and that they felt themselves to be in a conflict of interest. I believe this feeling from administrators to be accurate: they were in a difficult position serving two masters. I think our best administrators took solace in that they could provide for the safety of their students as well as the physical and emotional well-being of the teachers whom they serve. Removing administration from the NSTU will remove that ‘conflict’, but it will replace it with combat. The combat that already occurs between the NSTU and various HR departments will now land at the foot of non-unionized principals. The example of other districts shows us that removing school administrators from a bargaining unit creates a divide that is permanent.

The most misguided recommendation that has been accepted is the College of Educators. It is at this point that the lack of contact with NSTU, and the lack of time for her study shows in the Glaze report. Ms. Glaze is confused in the assumption that the NSTU is responsible for the discipline of teachers. This is a popular myth, and completely unfounded. The employer school boards are responsible for discipline of teachers, with very clear guidelines on how that is to be carried out. The bias of our consultant is clear in this item, as when she lacked information she just filled it in with her previous experience from Ontario. Ontario teachers are subject to a College of Teachers, to which they pay an annual fee. The benefit to the government is that the apparatus of discipline and certification will still be partially under their control, but paid for entirely by teachers. Further study of the Ontario model will show that it operates to completely obliterate the privacy of members. Teacher certification and discipline records are public, with a handy search feature for any interested parent or future employer. It is even possible to see a calendar of future discipline hearings with details of the accusations. Through their joint stewardship of the college, government will be able to force their priorities for professional development, eroding what choice we have in professional growth opportunities. The College of Educators will not enhance our professionalism, but it will restrict our autonomy and punish our most vulnerable members.

It is also instructive to look at what Minister Churchill has not decided to carry forward from the Glaze report. He claims to have accepted the spirit of all the recommendations, but notably absent from immediate action are many of the real change pieces present in the Glaze report. There is no action on developing targeted strategies for problem areas in education such as rural education, French language instruction, and students living in poverty or in care. No action on putting more supports in schools for health and mental health, justice, and family services. No action on providing coherent support for emerging immigrant communities with supports for students, parents, and teachers. No action on a workforce planning strategy to recruit and train teachers in marginalized and underserved communities. Theses are all well-argued positive steps that would make a difference for students and staff. Notably absent as well are any items that would add accountability to the provincial government such as an independent ombudsperson, or clear guidelines for school maintenance and construction.

The one positive I could find in the actionable steps was the teacher autonomy in selection of textbooks and materials, it may not make a large difference in student performance, but it is something.

The McNeil liberals will be legislating their plan this spring with chaos and acrimony to follow. It is important that we keep informing ourselves on what is happening, and support each other. Question, challenge, and counter the arguments being put forward. It is the teachers of this province that have made our education system one of the best in the world. Our system is not without fault, but we are the body that has the expertise to raise the bar.

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