A hard lesson in public education is being learned in one of the most unlikely places, the Canadian East Coast province of Nova Scotia, better known by license plates emblazoned with the motto “Canada’s Ocean Playground.” The earth has shaken. That province has just survived its first protracted teacher dispute and the first teachers’ strike in the 122-year history of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.
Here’s the backstory and a few questions raised by the bitter, divisive teacher dispute — where there are no clear winners and the provincial school system with 400 schools, 118,000 students, and 9,300 teachers shows few signs of recovery.
After 16 months of negotiations, three rejected teacher contracts, a 6-week work-to-rule, and a one day province-wide strike, Nova Scotia’s Stephen McNeil Liberal government finally brought the teachers’ dispute to an end. Under Bill 75, the province’s 9,300 unionized teachers were legislated back to work on February 22, almost a week ago.
With Nova Scotia Teachers Union supporters in the streets, the province’s reputed ‘Education Premier’ made a rare and startling admission: “decades” of education policy errors – including his own – had contributed to a full-blown education crisis. Limiting teacher salary increases to 3% over 4 years was a key factor, but somehow did not factor in his thinking.
Reversing the former NDP Government’s education cuts helped catapult the Liberals into office in October 2013, and it was not supposed to work out this way.
Since 2013, McNeil’s government had invested almost $59-million in P-12 education to restore the depleted “learning supports” model. Reducing Grade 4 to 6 class sizes, hiring 59 math mentors, reactivating 114 Reading Recovery teachers, and adding more math and literacy supports simply band-aided the system’s endemic, festering problems.
Now the Premier was conceding that his own rather scattered “classroom investments” had “missed the mark.” Yet, amidst the education chaos, it appeared to be happening again.
Frustrated and angry teachers, emboldened by a few thousand placard-carrying NSTU protesters, came before the N.S. Law Amendments Committee not only seeking to block the back-to-work legislation.
They were also demanding immediate cures for a whole raft of legitimate complaints: a broken inclusion model, ‘no fail’ social promotion, chronic absenteeism, ‘do-over’ student assessment, increasing violence in the classroom, bulging high school class sizes, time-consuming data collection, and managerial excesses eroding teacher autonomy.
Concerned Nova Scotia parents and teachers are both demanding immediate correctives without really addressing the structural sources of what American social planner Horst Rittel once termed a ‘wicked problem.’
A wicked problem is one that defies quick fixes and proves difficult or impossible to solve for a variety of reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the range of people and opinions involved, the prohibitive costs of resolution, or the complications presented by its interconnected nature.
Today’s school system is the product of a steady, repetitive stream of ‘progressive’ curriculum initiatives, overlaid since the mid-1990s with managerial reforms such as student achievement testing and school quality accreditation.
The P-12 public school system, like most in Canada, is now completely riddled with contradictions. Curriculum innovations are almost constantly at odds with new system demands for managerial efficiency, student testing, and public accountability.
Curriculum and pedagogy or favoured teaching practices tend to support student-centred learning and incredibly labour-intensive practices, such as differentiated learning, authentic assessment, and ‘coding’ special needs students with ‘adaptations’ and individual program plans.
School authorities, ensconced in the Education Department and regional boards, now impose many external mandates, almost always delivered “top-down” on principals as well as classroom teachers. Vociferous complaints about “data collection” are code for the groundswell of school-level resistance to the system-wide imposition of technological initiatives (Power School and TIENET) or time-consuming provincial tests.
Inclusion is a ‘wicked problem’ of the highest order. While the vast majority of parents and teachers claim that “the current model is not working,” they persist in believing that investing more in the regular classroom will make things better for special needs students, including those with severe learning challenges and complex needs.
Class composition not necessarily class size was the biggest concern of Canadian teachers in the Canadian Teachers Federation 2012 national survey, but it took a teacher contract upheaval to get Nova Scotia teachers finally talking out of school. Most are clamouring for more “learning supports” rather than holding out for a more permanent fix – a total re-engineering of Nova Scotia special education services.
After sixteen months of negotiations and three recommended agreements, the Bill 75 settlement will likely survive a court challenge. That was NSTU lawyer Ron Pink’s preliminary assessment. Unlike the Nova Scotia context, much of the British Columbia Teachers Federation decision turned on the B.C. government’s aversion to bargaining and arbitrary removal of class size and composition limits.
Establishing provincial commissions or committees to address inclusion and classroom conditions cuts little ice with frontline teachers, accustomed as they are to conflicted mandates and pointless paper exercises. Hashing out “working conditions” with or without an arbitrator is met with understandable skepticism.
Switching premiers every four years has not worked, so far. Education ministers come and go, but the so-called “iron cage” of education, protected by layers of bureaucracy and regulation remains essentially unchanged.
Looking for a better path forward? Be bold enough to: Go to the root of the “wicked problem” and do not settle, once again, for watering the tree and rearranging the branches. Get on with undoing the failing program initiatives and rebuilding the system from the schools-up for the sake of today’s students.
What are the hard lessons to be learned from the Nova Scotia teacher dispute? How well are students served when Work-to-Rule ends, only to be replaced by Work-to-Contact? Will other education authorities study the conflict in order to avert similar consequences? Who will be the first to stand up and tackle the “wicked problem” of internal contradiction and self-defeating policy initiatives?