A provocative and insightful article in the September 2013 issue of Our Schools/Ourselves paints a now familiar but largely mythical picture of the so-called “neo-liberal assault” on Canadian as well as American public education. Written by Westmount High School teacher Robert Green, founder of MontrealTeachers4Chanage.org, it sought to explain why thousands of U.S. teachers were flocking to a “Badass Teacher” movement and suggested that Canadian teachers, facing similar threats, might consider doing the same.
American public education, much like U.S. foreign policy, continues to be a fiercely contested ideological battleground. American-style school reformers claim to “put students first” and support raising achievement standards, school choice, and student testing, seeking to “turnaround” failing or under-performing schools and campaigning to improve Teacher Quality (TQ) in the classroom. Supporting that agenda with political clout and massive resources are education publishing giants like Pearson International and major private foundations, led by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Defenders of the American public school system are fighting school reforms they label and condemn as hoary intrusions driven by “corporate education reform,” best exemplified by OECD PISA Testing, and its step-child, Barack Obama’s Race to the Top national education agenda. Education historian -turned- advocate Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Rise of the Great American School System (2010), has emerged as their patron saint and leading public warrior. A more recent, militant offshoot of the American teacher unions, the Badass Teachers Association, surfaced in 2013 to lead mass actions, including a phone-in campaign calling for the removal of Arne Duncan as U.S. secretary of education.
A copycat “Badass Teacher” movement has sprouted up in a few Canadian provincial systems, but it has, so far, failed to catch fire or spread from one province to another. A small band of teacher union militants, such as Green of the Montreal Teachers Association, Ben Sichel of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, and Tobey Steeves of the BC Teachers Federation, have been churning out commentaries, tweeting-up a storm, and appealing to their base of followers. Out in Red Deer, Alberta, Special Ed teacher Joe Bower, host of for the love of learning Blog, is famous for his serial retweets of Alfie Kohn pronouncements. It hasn’t worked because the school system they imagine and the corporate reform they fear don’t really exist here in Canada.
In the upside down world of Canadian education, the real “Badasses” are populist reformers of a completely different stripe attempting to penetrate and re-engineer a reasonably well-funded, mostly unaccountable liberal bureaucratic education state. It’s next -to-impossible to whip up Canadian teachers when the system is so well preserved and protected by “Guardian Angels” and “Pussycats” — and “Fortress Education” serves so well in safeguarding teachers’ rights, prerogatives, and entitlements. After all, look what happens to “Bad Ass” policy advocates like economist Don Drummond, PC Leader Tim Hudak, and BC Education Minister Peter Fastbender who dare to propose structural reforms.
Today’s Canadian teachers’ union advocates profess to be true education reformers but they have little in common with ordinary blue collar workers, Arab Spring freedom fighters, or “Idle No More” activists. Drawn from what Karl Marx would have termed the 21st century bourgeoisie, they see the education world with a somewhat false sense of class consciousness. Like fellow members of the public sector, white collar professions, secure and comfortable with teacher tenure, step salary increases, and guaranteed retirement benefits, they certainly have a lot to defend in a changing global and fiercely competitive world. The three major policy preoccupations, identified by Green — defending collective bargaining rights, curtailing and ending student and teacher assessments, and fighting (non-union) charter schools — reflect that siege mentality and a protective impulse rather than a desire to “change the world.”
Transplanting American panaceas and political linguistics into Canadian education simply does not work, whether it’s parental “freedom of choice” or “badass teacherism.” None of Canada’s provinces, including British Columbia and Alberta, have really adopted the full “corporate education reform” agenda. Provincial testing regimes like the Ontario Education Quality and Accountablity (EQAO) program are focused on student improvement at school level and bear little resemblance (in intent or form) to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) or Race to the Top initiatives in the United States. Here all public schools are treated as “equally good” and none are publicly labelled “failing” enterprises. Protesting salary freezes or back-to-work legislation is a far cry from fighting massive layoffs and the imposition of student results- based teacher evaluation systems.
Most of Canada’s educational austerity and school choice initiatives turn out to be paper tigers. Nova Scotia’s Back to Balance public policy from 2009 to 2012 hit a major educational roadblock: the NSTU’s well-financed KidsNotCuts/Cut to the Core counter insurgency. Embracing Don Drummond’s February 2012 Ontario Austerity program and teacher salary freezes cost “Education Premier” Dalton McGuinty his job and proved disastrous as the foundation for former Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak’s June 2014 election campaign. Only two Canadian provinces, Quebec and BC, provide any significant funding for independent, alternative schools and Alberta’s legislative commitment to charter schools imposes strict limits on the numbers of schools and then student enrollments.
The Canadian educational kingdom is inhabited by a completely different variety of tribes. The “Guardian Angels”, epitomized by Michael Fullan, Nina Bascia, Penny Milton, Charles Pascal and Charles Ungerleider, are unabashed public school promoters with an unshakable faith in universal programs and spending more to educate fewer. They provide the visionary ideas, champion the holy grail of educational equity, and enjoy the, at times, fawning support of an influential band of “Pussycats” ( aka “teacher’s pets’) based at OISE and the faculties of education and avidly supported by Annie Kidder and her People for Education political action committee. Recently, the Vancouver Board of Education Chair Patti Bacchus has joined the cheerleading section in support of teachers, waving placards at BCTF protests.
If Canada has a truly “Badass” reform movement, it’s not to be found inside the teachers’ unions but rather spearheaded by a pesky band of populist school reformers, best exemplified by Malkin Dare, Doretta Wilson and the Society for Quality Education. Operating in collaboration with autonomous parent reform groups such as WISE Math and the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative, they are the ones carrying the torch for better schools, structural innovation, higher teaching standards, and significant curriculum reform. School reform is not driven by education school research, but instead by policy studies produced by the C.D. Howe Institute and three independent think tanks in Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Halifax. Most of Canada’s true education reformers are not educators at all, but rather “crossovers” with a fierce commitment to raising standards, restoring fundamental student skills, and securing (without excuses) the best possible education for our children.
Who’s Who in the upside down world of Canadian education reform? Why are the Canadian and American school systems so different when it comes to educational tribes and their commitment to genuine school reform? Would a “Badass Teachers” movement gain any traction, between labour contract disruptions, in Canada’s provincial education systems? In short, with apologies to the old TV Quiz Show, will the real school reformers please stand up and be counted?