Tag Archives: Education Reform

Fixing poverty would do much more than implementing Glaze reforms. Here’s how

I wrote the article below a couple of months ago for Aviso (pdf link), the Nova Scotia Teachers Union’s magazine. It feels particularly relevant in light of the Glaze Report, the Liberal government’s latest package of education “reforms.” Dr. Avis Glaze’s recommendations (including shutting down elected school boards, creating a new certifying body for teachers and forcing administrators out of the teachers’ union) all of which been accepted in “spirit” by education minister Zach Churchill, are straight from the textbook of the corporate-driven education reform movement imported from the U.S. This is the movement that bases all its policy decisions on standardized test scores and blames teacher unions for any and all problems in the education system. 

If the Liberal government wants to improve student test scores (and Glaze’s contention that our students are “left behind” is highly questionable at best) then a better solution would be to address child poverty. (Of course, we shouldn’t fix child poverty to improve test scores; we should fix child poverty because there’s no morally defensible reason that kids – or anyone – should live in poverty.)

avis-glaze
Dr. Avis Glaze delivers her report in January. Photo: cbc.ca

Recent numbers from Statistics Canada show that Nova Scotia has the highest child poverty rate in the country (tied with New Brunswick) at 22.2 per cent. That’s more than one out of every five of the kids who sits in our classrooms every day.

We’ve heard numbers like this before. We become numb to them as they make headlines once or twice a year, then disappear from the news.

The kids they represent, though, don’t disappear from our schools quite so easily. We slip them occasional lunch money, let them raid our pencil collections and push them to their fullest potential. But is there anything else we can do?

I believe there is. As individual teachers we of course strive to make a difference in each one of our students’ lives. But as we know from being in a union, we can accomplish much more through collective action.

During the past year’s labour dispute, teachers benefited from the support and solidarity of parents, students, and workers in other unions. Similarly, our union often takes a stand in support of other workers in the province, and teachers across the country or even around the world.

A logical extension of this solidarity would be for the union to be involved in fights for concrete policy changes that would improve the lives of the poorest Nova Scotians. Here are some easy examples:

A significant increase in the minimum wage. Ontario and Alberta are in the process of increasing their minimum wages to $15. Nova Scotia’s minimum wage, at $11.00 an hour (lowest in the country), is well below what is needed for a single person working full-time to live, let alone someone with children or other dependents. A “Fight for 15” campaign is getting underway to increase minimum wage in this province; our union should support it wholeheartedly.

Raising income assistance rates. Those people who, for whatever reason, cannot work, rely on income assistance to survive. Many of these people live with physical and/or mental disabilities, chronic illness, or mental health issues. Yet income assistance rates have barely budged in the past several years. The monthly shelter allowance for a family of 3 ($620) is well below market housing costs, and basic personal allowances are barely enough to buy food. A person’s illness or disability shouldn’t condemn them and their family to life in poverty; rates need to rise to bring families above the low-income cut-off (a.k.a. the “poverty line”).

Affordable, universal early childhood education. The cost of childcare for children below school age is prohibitive for a great many parents. For parents in low-wage jobs, working a job instead of staying home with kids can barely be worth it once daycare costs are factored in. For single parents (90 per cent of whom are women), the decision whether or not to work outside the home can be next to impossible. Election campaigns have have seen some parties promise universal child care programs, but these fizzle or are forgotten post-campaign (or the party that promised them fails to get elected).

Universal low-cost child care pays for itself with increased tax revenue coming from parents of young children being who can more readily enter the workforce. Programs like this exist in Quebec and several European countries and are more effective than tax refunds and benefits at ensuring access to quality care.

Rent control and investment in social and affordable housing. About a quarter of Canadians, and more than 40% or renters, spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs, a common measure of housing affordability. Rent control (whereby rent could not be raised more than a given percentage per year) and other policy measures can improve housing affordability for those who need it most. A stable living situation is perhaps the most fundamental piece of the puzzle of poverty: without a home, it’s hard to do much else.

These aren’t impossible ideas. They’re practical, feasible solutions to what is often viewed as an intractable problem. Furthermore, although many of these policies have a price tag, they ultimately benefit the economy by increasing the spending power of the poorest citizens – who, unlike wealthier folks, can’t help but spend the extra money in their pockets on necessities.

Many of these policies are already supported by campaigns led by other unions in the labour movement. It wouldn’t take much for a union like ours to plug in. Social media campaigns, letter-writing campaigns, rallies or other events can also engage more members to participate in their union.

For years teachers unions have argued, correctly, that child poverty is one of the main systemic obstacles to student learning in our classrooms. We’ve implored governments to fix the problem, but without always being clear about how they should do so. It’s time to be clear that not only is child poverty a solvable problem, but one which has clear, achievable solutions. These are things our union can help fight for.

Advertisements

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.

There is no substitute for solidarity

Teachers in Ontario found reason to celebrate recently.

In 2012, the Ontario Liberal government passed the “Putting Students First Act,” a bill which imposed contracts on teachers and effectively took away their right to strike.

This April, the Ontario Superior Court ruled that this act (also known as Bill 115), had violated teachers’ constitutional rights. Teachers, like other workers, are guaranteed the right to negotiate the terms of their work collectively and to have these negotiations be meaningful. Bill 115 had made this impossible.

gavel

Teachers and many other public-sector workers across the country welcomed the ruling, seeing it as a precedent which protects against current or future governments trying the same kind of legislative trick.

But is it? Continue reading There is no substitute for solidarity

What is, and isn’t, in the minister’s report on Nova Scotian education

The panel reviewing Nova Scotia’s education system has released its report. Disrupting the Status Quo: Nova Scotians Demand a Better Future for Every Student makes 30 recommendations for overhauling P-12 education, based on an extensive survey completed by 19,000 people.

Photo via flickr.
Photo via flickr.

When I first heard about the plan for an education review, I got my guard up. In the U.S., education “reform” led by wealthy interests has wreaked havoc on public education for decades now, overemphasizing standardized testing, narrowing the curriculum, funnelling public money to semi-private charter schools, and generally creating problems when it purported to fix them. The six-person panel hand-picked to conduct the review didn’t set my mind at ease.

The report released in Nova Scotia last week didn’t fully follow the U.S. formula, which is a good thing. It contains some very positive conclusions, such as the acknowledgement of how teacher workload issues affect student learning, and the need to focus on students’ physical and mental health.

Some of the report’s other conclusions, however, are more problematic, as are some elements that are left out. Continue reading What is, and isn’t, in the minister’s report on Nova Scotian education

Education debates are political, not just pedagogical

Back to basicsMy local paper recently published a series of articles lamenting Nova Scotian P-12 students’ performance on standardized math and literacy tests. At issue, reported author Frances Willick, is the use of modern teaching techniques such as “whole-language” learning for teaching reading and “discovery-based” learning for teaching math.

Willick’s sources, such as Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU) education professor Jamie Metsala, say these modern methods have failed kids. Teachers should focus more on traditional techniques like phonics for teaching reading, and repetitive drills for teaching basic math.

All of us should welcome robust public debates on pedagogical techniques, and most of us in the education world do. After all, we want to do the best job we can at educating our kids.

Unfortunately, “crisis” articles like these are not very helpful. First, they sensationalize what is actually happening in our classrooms; and second, they ignore the political context of what is happening in our education system.

Continue reading Education debates are political, not just pedagogical

Don’t narrow our curriculum

Also published at Behind the numbers,  rabble.ca and the Chronicle-Herald.

What is our public education system for? To judge by much of the talk coming from politicians and business leaders, education is purely a matter of preparing students to be workers in a vaguely defined “new economy.”

Educational authorities need to be cautious about narrowing the curriculum and excluding what are perceived as non-job-related subjects such as art, music and social studies.
Educational authorities need to be cautious about narrowing the curriculum and excluding what are perceived as non-job-related subjects such as art, music and social studies.

Certainly, students need to be able to survive economically in the world. But public education is about much more than narrow job-skills training: it’s about teaching our kids how to create and sustain a healthy, engaged society.

This isn’t always reflected in the way we prioritize certain subjects in school.  Continue reading Don’t narrow our curriculum

What Educators Really Need

Saulnier
Christine Saulnier, director of the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives – Nova Scotia, and economist Michael Bradfield unveiled the Nova Scotia Alternative Provincial Budget last Wednesday in Halifax (photo courtesy of Robert Devet, Halifax Media Co-op)

The authors of a couple of reports by right-wing think-tanks have been doing their best to discredit teachers in Nova Scotia this past month.

I’d rather not mention the names of the think-tanks or their authors, so they don’t get any more attention than they already have. If you’re familiar with the political landscape in this province though, you probably know who they are.  (If not, one of them is the first hit when you Google “Nova Scotia think tank.”)

Continue reading What Educators Really Need