Tag Archives: Nova Scotia education

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.)

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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.

Vote for education, then keep organizing

With 2 weeks left in the current provincial election campaign, Nova Scotia teachers are still smarting from a contract imposed on us by legislation earlier this year. Following the rejection of 3 tentative agreements that had been recommended by the teachers’ union executive, Stephen McNeil’s Liberal government pushed through Bill 75, which took away the right to strike, imposed wage freezes, and fell far short of the investments needed to fix the crisis in our public schools.

Given all this, it’s no surprise that teachers – many of whom voted Liberal in the last election – are looking to vote otherwise. Both the NDP and the PC party promise to repeal Bill 75, implement class size caps in all grades (presumably with adequate funding) and otherwise invest in education.

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Image from the website of Teachers Unite, a group of educators fighting for social end economic justice in New York.

Continue reading Vote for education, then keep organizing

Teachers unions can win. Let’s get to work

As teachers in Nova Scotia mull over their bargaining team’s third attempt at a tentative agreement in just over a year, here are a few observations about the dispute, and about teachers’ and workers’ power in general.

1) Teachers have a new idea of what is possible. Many of the issues teachers have raised over the last year – overcrowded classrooms, insufficient supports for students with special needs, excessive amounts of time spent on clerical tasks – have worsened fairly slowly over the past 10-15 years. Change happened gradually enough that opposition to it was weak, and a general sense of resignation slowly set in.

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Parents and supporters rally for teachers in downtown Halifax, February 5th, 2017 (Photo: Meg Ferguson via Facebook)

As the contract dispute has progressed, teachers have started to think big. Class sizes of 35-40 are no longer thought of as inevitable. (New Brunswick has class caps of 29 even in upper grades.) Teachers are speaking out against endless “improvement plans” and “accountability” measures that never seem to result in actual improvements or accountability. The impossibility of meeting the growing diversity of classroom needs under constant cost-cutting budgets has become a serious topic of discussion.

Governments for decades have sold us on the idea that “we can’t afford to do this.” Teachers are now sold on the idea that “we can’t afford not to do this.” Continue reading Teachers unions can win. Let’s get to work

More co-op programs in schools? Context is important

Some quick thoughts today from a guest: Doug Nesbitt. Doug is a PhD student in labour history at Queen’s University in Kingston and an editor of RankandFile.ca, a site dedicated to “Canadian labour news and analysis from a critical perspective.”

Doug posted the following as a Facebook comment on this story from the Hamilton Spectator. The story reports on a “panel of business and education experts” in Ontario which recommends that all P-12 students participate in co-op work programs in high school. Continue reading More co-op programs in schools? Context is important

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.

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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

Who should be the next president of the NSTU?

The Nova Scotia Teachers Union will elect a new president later this spring. Six candidates are attempting to replace Shelley Morse, who is completing her second two-year term in office. (NSTU rules state that no president can serve for more than four years.)

What should members be looking for in a leader?

NSTU Labour Day

In no particular order, here are my thoughts on what I think is important for members to consider when making their ballot choice on May 25th.  Continue reading Who should be the next president of the NSTU?

Be wary of quick fixes for Nova Scotia’s education system

With recent standardized assessment scores from Nova Scotian schools causing alarm, and education minister Karen Casey about to release her action plan to reform the P-12 education system, there are a few things that are important to remember.

Youth in Whitney Pier, Cape Breton's Boys and Girls' Club. Photo: Grade 8 students from the Whitney Pier Youth Club
Youth in Whitney Pier, Cape Breton’s Boys and Girls’ Club. Photo: Grade 8 students from the Whitney Pier Youth Club

First, there has not been any serious analysis that attempts to explain why test scores are down. Some commentators have said or implied that modern teaching methods are to blame. The idea here is that we need to get “back to basics,” that schools these days are full of warm fuzzies but not reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. Drill the kids on their times tables, just like in old times, and all will be well.  Continue reading Be wary of quick fixes for Nova Scotia’s education system