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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.

nsteachersstrike2017After 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? 

 

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Public education trends in K-12 schools across Canada can be difficult to track. Without an eagle eye and a swivel-head, the next epic “education crisis” can come and go without much public notice. Nor do Canadians have any real federal presence in education to either establish national standards or provide independent assessments of provincial or territorial school programs.

Gauging the upticks and downticks is still possible, in between the beats and before the self-repairing school system quickly returns to its normal rhythms. What follows is a look back at 2015 in Canadian education with an eye to the coming year.

Notable Upticks

Educational Reconciliation

TRCReconcilePosterThe release of Justice Murray Sinclair’s massive December 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, together with the appointment of Dr. Carolyn Bennett as Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister, bode well for educational reconciliation and a satisfactory resumption of First Nations education reform. Establishing a stronger basis of trust, more stable federal funding, and more holistic, Indigenous-informed curricula, will go a long way to repairing the damage.

International Teaching Summit

The fifth annual International Summit on the Teaching Profession (ISTP 2015), at the Banff Springs Hotel, March 29-30, 2015, was sponsored by the OECD Education Office, but it shied away from discussing PISA testing and instead focused on supporting teachers and building their confidence to prepare students for a rather nebulous “rapidly changing world.” Chaired by short-lived Alberta Education Minister Gordon Dirks, ISTP 2015 was clearly the work of OECD education director Andreas Schleicher, OISE eminence gris Michael Fullan, and Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond. Out of the 400 delegates, most were actually Canadian officials or educators sponsored by provincial authorities and teaching unions.

Nova Scotia’s Three Rs Reform Plan

Public school students in Nova Scotia will focus more on mastering the fundamentals in mathematics and literacy, less on writing standardized tests under a N.S. January 2015 reform plan with the catchy title, The Three Rs: Renew, Refocus, Rebuild.  Delivered by Education Minister Karen Casey, the initiative responded to a blunt October 2014 provincial review that found half of Nova Scotians “not satisfied” with the quality of education.  It also called for a stronger teacher certification and evaluation system and a provincial audit of the efficiency of school boards.

Math Matters Protests

Hundreds of Alberta parents rallied in July 2015 to protest a new Math curriculum, dubbed “Discovery Math” by a growing number of parents, math professors, and local business advocates. Spearheaded by Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies and bearing a Math Petition with 18,074 signatures, the protestors continued to pressure a succession of Education ministers for changes to restore basics-first math instruction. The popular protests came on the heels of a May 2015 C.D. Howe Institute report claiming that Canada’s math teachers need to shift their focus away from discovery-based learning and move back towards traditional methods.

Indigenous Leadership Renewal

A new harvest of Indigenous leaders began to emerge in 2015 aroused by the Stephen Harper Conservative government’s intransigence and emboldened by the public support engendered by the nation-wide TRC hearings.  Two of the better known of the newly empowered generation were National Assembly of First Nations chief Perry Bellegarde, who succeeded the deposed Shawn Atleo, and the multi-talented Wab Kinew, author, host of CBC’s Canada Reads competition, and Associate Vice-President at the University of Winnipeg.

Memorable Downticks

TDSB Leadership Upheaval

Canada’s largest public school district, Toronto District School Board, endured one of its worst years on record.  When Board Director Donna Quan resigned in mid-November 2015, it brought a tumultuous end to her short tenure, 18 months before the expiration of her contract. Torn by a deep rift between Quan, her staff and the elected Board, the beleaguered Director stepped aside. In doing so, she also bowed to the findings of an earlier TDSB investigation, ordered by Education Minister Liz Sandals, that described in detail the board’s “culture of fear” and dysfunctional leadership.

School Closure Express Train

Armed with the dreaded New Brunswick Policy 409, and aided by that province’s District Education Councils (DECs), Education Minister Serge Rousselle  and his Department imposed a top-down, speeded-up “school sustainability process” upon supporters of a dozen threatened rural schools. Described by critics as a runaway “Express Train 409” bearing down on their communities, it sparked the formation in April 2015 of the first Rural Schools Coalition in the province.

Protracted Ontario Teachers’ Strikes

TeachersProtestON15A year of teacher strike disputes continued in Ontario, with a few interruptions, until November 2015.  Public elementary school teachers (EFTO) reached a tentative salary deal in early November, ending a lengthy period of work-to-rule. Support staff represented by a separate union (CUPE) also struck a deal then, ending negotiations that lasted over a year. One major difference between the November deals reached with ETFO and CUPE and the agreements with other unions is that these did not come with payments from the government to cover the unions’ negotiating expenses. A return to normalcy was promised with the issuing of full December 2015 student report cards.

Missing B.C. Student Records

British Columbia’s Minister of Technology Amrik Virk shocked British Columbians in late September 2015 when he publicly disclosed the loss of an unencrypted backup hard drive containing about 3.4 million student records.  The missing hard drive contained student data from 1986 to 2009, including information on children in care with serious health and behaviour issues. While the minister called the breach “low risk,” the B.C. information and privacy commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, claimed it raised “very serious privacy issues,” and launched an investigation.

Threat to Local Education Democracy

Elected school boards continued to flounder across Canada in 2015 because they are being eclipsed by expanding centralized administration far removed from students and parents. Since the stiff warning issued in a 2013 Canadian School Boards Association study, conducted by Gerald Galway and a Memorial University research team, elected trustees have been unable to recover their “voice of the people” role and face probable extinction.  In the fall of 2015, Quebec and P.E.I. joined New Brunswick in ending elected boards.  Disbanding school trustees without a viable replacement is not what’s best for students, parents, or local schools.

So much for the most visible trends and newsworthy events:  Where is Canadian K-12 education drifting? Will the next round of OECD Education international tests show any real change in student performance levels?   Is the era of centralized administration and standardization showing signs of fracturing in our provincial school systems? Has the education sector borne the full brunt of government austerity or is more to come? Will elected school boards survive as presently constituted across Canada? 

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Teacher contract negotiations normally rarely hit the news unless the talks go off the rails.  With the school year approaching in August, deals emerge in an atmosphere of urgency where both the provincial government and the unions seek to avert  back-to-school disruptions.  Except for the protracted, bitter 2013-14 British Columbia teachers’ strike and lock-out, government-union negotiating teams much prefer to settle critical contract matters behind closed doors. Until the current round, the Nova Scotia government and the provincial teacher union, the NSTU, kept everything under wraps and the public completely in the dark.

OntarioTeacherProtestsA recent flurry of teacher union settlements in Canada’s largest province may have changed all that. Premier Kathleen Wynne set out to secure “net-zero” salary contracts, then reached an 11th hour deal with the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers Federation (OSSTF) in late August 2015 for 2.5% over the next two years, including an additional paid holiday and improved sick leave. That OSSTF deal set the benchmark and appeared to provide the framework for deals with Ontario’s other teachers’ unions.

Pulling deals out of the fire on the eve of the school year raised suspicions about the avowedly teacher-friendly Wynne Government.  A couple of weeks ago, the province was rocked by a series of explosive Toronto Globe and Mail revelations. The OSSTF settlement included a confidential $1 million pay-out to compensate that teachers’ union for its negotiating costs, and the payouts to all unions totalled $2.5 million. In addition to the $1 million paid out to the OSSTF, the Government paid $1 million to the catholic teachers’ union, plus $500,000  to the francophone teachers’ union in the current bargaining round. Going back to 2008, over three bargaining rounds, the total confidential payouts reached $3.47 million.

Digging deeper, Adrian Morrow of The Globe and Mail then unearthed new information: Ontario’s high school teachers’ union was sitting on more than $65-million in financial reserves while negotiating the secret $1-million payment from the Liberal government to cover is bargaining costs. Furthermore, that same union spent $1.8-million from that reserve fund on political activities and allocated hundreds of thousands more for bargaining expenses in the year before it negotiated the government payout.

While Ontario bargaining deals are dominating the education news cycle, teacher talks are proceeding very quietly in Nova Scotia.  Taking a page from the Ontario Wynne Government playbook, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil and Finance Minister Randy Delorey broke with the normal protocol.  Starting in August 2015, they prepared the ground for a five year period of public sector salary restraint.  In late September, the Premier went public with an initial offer to the province’s 9,400 teachers: a five-year contract (0-0-0-1-1)  totaling 2 per cent (2015-2019).

The Nova Scotia Government staked out its ground with the public, putting the province’s “ability to pay” on the table.  After noting that 40 per cent of all newer teachers (years 1 to 10) would still get their step increases, the Premier also signaled that, in return, nothing else would be taken away.  That suggested that the province’s costly extra qualification teacher salary upgrade system (exploited by teachers taking Drake University online education courses), ending winter storm season PD days, and removing principals from the union would remain ‘untouchables.’

Teachers unions wield tremendous power in most, if not all, Canadian provincial education systems. In British Columbia, the Liberal Government of Christy Clark has survived intense labour battles, work-to-rule protests and lengthy disruptions, most fought over upholding a 2003 settlement removing class size and class composition from the provincial contracts. Successive BC governments have succeeded in containing education costs and maintaining student performance standards, in spite of recurrent education sector conflict.

Three provinces, Ontario, BC and Nova Scotia, each confront formidable teachers’ unions and seem to be taking differing approaches. Canada’s Pacific province is renowned for its periodic “class struggles.”  Ontario is more typical: taking tough at the outset, then caving-in at the bargaining table. Some independent education observers, most notably Margaret Wente of The Globe and Mail, see the Ontario bargaining payouts and contract climb-downs as confirmation that “teachers’ unions rule” the roost.  Whether Nova Scotia holds the line or abandons the field is now anyone’s guess.

Why do Canadian teachers’ unions hold such a sway over the provincial school systems?  Is the British Columbia approach to controlling costs and restoring management rights to the assignment of teaching staff the way to go? How common is the practice of paying the unions to negotiate their own provincial agreements? Who really gains from hard ball teacher negotiations?

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Every September a fresh crop of hundreds of mostly novice teachers head North to teach in remote, mostly First Nations populated communities. Hired by northern public school districts or aboriginal education authorities, the recruits arrive flush with excitement and prepared to ‘sink or swim’ on a mostly unfamiliar educational terrain. This year is different for one reason: Teach for Canada (TFC) is a new ‘wild card’ on the educational scene and it’s an independent NGO committed to addressing the teacher shortage, filling vacant teaching posts, and ‘closing the education gap’ affecting Ontario’s northern First Nations communities.

RoxanneMartinTFC“By working with First Nations elders and educators and better preparing teachers, the program is filling a void,” says Cynthia Wesley-Esquimault, Lakehead University’s Director of Aboriginal Initiatives. “That’s why we hosted the four-week long Teach for Canada summer enrichment training session here at Lakehead.”

All eyes are on that one specially trained group of thirty-one teachers who have just taken up their posts in seven different communities in the Ontario North. They are, after all, the first cohort of emissaries recruited, selected and supported by Teach for Canada, co-founded by three energetic former Action Canada fellows, Kyle Hill, Mark Podlasly, and Adam Goldenberg

Although welcomed by most First Nations chiefs and lead educators, TFC has received an icy reception from the Canadian Teachers Federation (CTF) and vocal teacher union activists. When teacher unionists see the Teach for Canada logo with its quintessentially Canadian flying geese, they see its big bad American counterpart, Teach for America, and the thin edge of the wedge of creeping “privatization.” They are also leery of TFC recruits signing on with First Nations schools for salaries off the public school grid.

Since its inception, TFC has not only sparked a series of openly hostile teacher union blog posts, but prompted the CTF to issue a “Briefing Document” and greet the new TFC graduates in August 2015 with a condemnatory media release.

Close observers of First Nations communities are downright puzzled by the reaction of teacher unionists to the Teach for Canada pilot project in northern Ontario. “We currently do nothing to train and acclimatize new recruits entering First Nations communities,” notes Wesley-Esquimault, “and so it’s definitely an improvement.”

“Teach for Canada is filling a hole,” says Wawatay News reporter Rick Garrick, “so how can you complain?” In addition, he adds, “they are building a network of teaching colleagues to help with the feelings of isolation and provide ongoing support in the transition.” The highly acclaimed principal of Thunder Bay’s First Nations high school, Jonathan Kakegamic, winner of a 2013 Learning Partnership Outstanding Principal’s Award, is also supportive of the initiative. “I just found out about it this August,” he says, “but it looks like a step in the right direction. It’s hard to find qualified teachers, especially in high school, so it fills an immediate need.”

Northern Ontario public school boards have been slow to react to the TFC initiative. This is perhaps understandable because, right from the beginning, they too have been reluctant to embrace Teach for Canada. True to form, they have been disinclined to acknowledge, let alone respond to, this initiative from outside the system.

The initial Teach for Canada project only got off the ground in the Ontario North when the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, jumped at the opportunity to secure motivated, committed and eager new teachers for their remote, far-flung elementary schools.

One of TRC’s most impressive recruits, Roxanne Martin, an Anishinaabe raised in Toronto, is effusive in her praise for the project. Growing up in Ontario’s teeming metropolis, she longed to know more about her cultural identity and is delighted to be a pioneer for Teach for Canada teaching this fall at the Lac Seul First Nation school. “Knowing that we have a great support system and being able to incorporating First Nations culture into our teaching is great,” she told CBC News. “I don’t think you could find it anywhere else.”

Fresh from a four-week training session, including a five-day stay at Lac Seul First Nation, Martin and the first cohort of Teach for Canada recruits are better prepared than any previous group of teachers destined for teaching in First Nations communities.

Sweeping condemnations of educational innovations originating outside the system are all too common. From the ground level, it looks like a positive development, if only as a transitional program.  The ultimate goal is, of course, to provide First Nations education by fully qualified indigenous teachers. It will not happen if we keep shooting down promising teacher recruitment and training projects.

Why have First Nations communities in the Ontario North embraced Teach for Canada?  What’s really driving the resistance mounted by the Canadian Teachers Federation and outspoken teacher union activists? Who can complain when previous teacher preparation for teaching on First Nations reserves was so limited?  Is it possible that Teach for Canada is what is needed to spark the transition to First Nations education delivered by indigenous teachers?

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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.

BadAssDeweyAmerican 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.

BadAssRavitchDefenders 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.”

BadAssGatesTransplanting 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?

 

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The latest Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) survey reveals that public education is in a sorry state and it’s impacting upon teacher effectiveness in the regular classroom.  Over 90 per cent of the 8, 096 teachers surveyed online in February and March 2014, identified “class composition” as a source of “work-related stress.” “In general, teachers feel they do not have adequate supports and services to address the broad range of special needs in their classrooms,” CTF President Dianne Woloschuk stated upon release of the ” Work-Life Balance” study.

TeacherStressCTF14Teachers certainly feel “stressed -out” even though public school enrollment, except in a few high growth school districts,  is mostly in decline and more educational tax dollars are being spent to educate fewer school children. Their biggest concern is the changing composition of the regular classroom and, in particular, the constant demands to provide “individualized support” in that classroom for every type of special needs.  Given those broad trends, making the case to spend more money to sustain the “all-inclusive” classroom model, especially after Grade 6, is difficult to fathom.

The CTF findings do point to a “stressed-out” teacher force and this is worrisome for those of us committed to improved education, sounder policies, and better schools. They also raise serious questions about the state of education and effectiveness of current policies. Here are the most glaring examples:

meeting the individual needs of all special needs kids in an inclusive classroom is next to impossible;
– three out of four educators cited interruptions to teaching by students;
– student absenteeism concerns 71 per cent of teachers;
-over six out of ten reported challenges in dealing with students’ personal or health-related issues.

Special Education services have turned regular classroom teaching into a virtual paperwork ordeal. Lack of time to plan assessments with colleagues was reported as a stressor by 86 per cent of teachers surveyed, while 85 per cent indicated marking and grading as a source of stress. Other stressors include increased administrative-related work and outdated technology.

The five policy changes proposed by the CTF all involve pouring more money into the ailing school system.  They appear, once again, in predictable fashion: lower class sizes, improve SE supports, expand prep time, reduce non-teaching tasks, and increase teaching resources.  None of them, except possibly creating smaller classes, really address the fundamental problem – “class composition” under the current inclusive education regime and the undercurrent of resistance to providing alternative special needs programs and expanding the range of specialized intensive support schools.

Given the daily classroom challenges and complex needs of today’s kids, it’s fair to ask “Is more money really the answer?”

The CTF is a national political action organization, representing teachers’ unions, and claiming to speak for nearly 200,000 elementary and secondary educators from 17 organizations (15 Members, one Affiliate Member and one Associate Member), from coast to coast to coast. Most of the constituent union groups produce “Teacher Stress” studies on a regular basis, usually in advance of province-wide bargaining sessions.

Among regular teachers, especially in junior and senior high schools, inclusive education is widely seen as desirable but next to impossible to implement.  It was invented and implemented over the past two decades, but never intended to accommodate the number of children now “coded” or “designated” for special education supports.  Even though class sizes have been declining in most provinces, managing let alone teaching those classes has rarely been more of a challenge.

A recent report produced by the Ontario funding lobby group, People for Education, is not helpful at all.  It’s founder Annie Kidder and core membership support the status quo in the all inclusive classroom, constantly pushing for more money and “more student supports” for every conceivable classroom problem. Appointing a Special Education Ombudsman, as conceived by P4E, would only solidify the existing student supports regime.

The odd teacher union leader breaks the faith and speaks out-of-school. That happened again this week when Shelley Morse, President of the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union, attempted to explain why more funding and supports were needed, once again. “Years ago, when the inclusion policy was introduced, it was a wonderful concept but it has never been fully funded and that’s where a lot of the issues arise from,” she said.”We don’t have the proper materials and the funding is not there for the human resources that we need.”

Teacher stress, real and perhaps embellished for effect, is a legitimate educational workplace issue. Yet the proposed policy changes advanced by Canadian teacher union advocates don’t really address the “elephant in the schoolhouse.”  If “class composition” is the heart of the problem why beat around the bush? What’s so sacrosanct about the current Special Education model based upon “inclusion for all” in a one-size-fits all classroom system?   It’s time to ask whether inclusive education, implemented as a whole system approach, is either affordable or effective in meeting student needs along the full continuum of service.

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The state of  the teaching profession is a critical public policy issue — and one that rarely gets addressed unless, and until, periodic revelations surface of “professional misconduct” involving a small minority of so-called “bad apples” who besmirch the reputation of committed, caring and upstanding teachers everywhere.

TeachingProfessionDozens of Canadian teachers in Nova Scotia were recently revealed to have been boosting their salaries by thousands of dollars, acquiring additional credentials by taking “bird courses” offered through a distance learning program at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Drake course debacle became a full-blown controversy when Shelley Morse, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, spoke up defending the teachers who took the easy route to secure hefty salary increases. Over the previous three years, some 41 teachers were discovered to have taken Drake courses, mostly in sports coaching and not acceptable for admission as graduate credits, to secure teacher salary upgrades of from $6,000 to $8,000 a year, and 505 teachers, in total, had initiated similar plans, representing two out of every three registered to take out-of-province courses.

Even after Education Minister Karen Casey called for a full investigation of the Drake courses, Morse remained undeterred. To the union president and her provincial executive, it was not a question of professionalism, but rather an unprovoked assault on teachers and another episode in the education “blame game.”

My latest AIMS research report, co-authored with Karen Mitchell, a Nova Scotian who served as a member of the Ontario College of Teachers Governing Board from 1997 to 2005, pointed out that this seemingly isolated episode revealed deeper problems besetting the teaching profession.

Establishing and maintaining professional standards in Canada has, in practice, been delegated to provincial teachers’ unions and federations. Nova Scotia demonstrates how that approach turns professional matters over to the employers (school boards) and results in professional bodies like the NSTU propping up particularly loose regulations, virtually guaranteeing “spotless records” for teachers.

The province has about 9,400 P-12 public school teachers, all of whom are members of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. Today the Nova Scotia government has abrogated its responsibility to uphold teaching standards by leaving matters to the province’s school boards. Under the Teaching Profession Act , the province essentially delegates to the union its responsibility for both professional development and upholding teaching standards. The province also has five university faculties of education, each offering B.Ed. and graduate programs leading to a teaching certificate and advanced degrees.

While Nova Scotia conducts periodic reviews of teacher education, the universities operate in an autonomous fashion. No independent body exists either to oversee or to accredit the province’s university teacher education programs or out-of-province added qualification programs.

Utilizing Nova Scotia as a test case, our AIMS policy paper makes the case for adopting a more robust provincial policy regimen to ensure the highest teaching standards as well as to “weed out” under-performing teachers and so-called “bad apples” who pose risks to students.

The four-year-long battle (2009-13) to remove New Germany school teacher Peter Speight in the wake of his sexual offence case drove the point home. It cost taxpayers well over $250,000 in settlement fees and revealed, albeit in exaggerated form, the damage inflicted by failing to set and uphold professional ethics and standards in Nova Scotia schools.

Promoting, maintaining and enforcing professional standards now falls between various horses — the Education Department’s certification branch, the school boards, and the professional committee of the NSTU, the teachers’ union also entrusted with protecting its members from moral and “criminal allegations.”

The NSTU staff manual does contain a “code of ethics,” but it is not a public declaration, nor does it appear to be applied when cases are before the courts or arbitration tribunals. The professional committee operates in a closed and private fashion, shielded by a regimen of publicly displayed “privacy principles.” That committee, overseeing all matters of “professional misconduct” and behaviour “unbecoming a teacher,” publishes no minutes and is not required to disclose any data with respect to any and all teacher resignations, retirements or dismissals.

We are left completely unaware of cases such as that of Peter Speight until parents mount local school board protests or the criminal case goes to court and appears in public proceedings.

One reform option is to establish a fully independent College of Teachers with a clear provincial mandate to ensure Teacher Quality (TQ) and identify, establish, and enforce professional standards of practice. In the report, we reconstruct the rise and fall of the B.C. College of Teachers from 1988 until its demise in 2011 amid controversy over  internal conflicts and public revelations of keeping “bad teaching records spotless.”

After assessing the recognized strengths and critical shortcomings of two earlier College of Teachers ventures in Ontario and British Columbia, we proposed a better model for Nova Scotia and its neighbouring Atlantic provinces – the establishment of a teacher regulation branch with an independent board capable of upholding and enforcing professional performance and conduct standards.

The AIMS report really set the cat among the pigeons in Nova Scotia’s rather inward looking provincial school system.  When the NSTU refused to comment and went into hiding, the Minister of Education finally responded with the explanation that disciplining teachers was the role of school boards, implying that the union was not a professional body at all. The Halifax Regional School Board was then compelled to make public its disciplinary practices and record, reporting that only 1 teacher out of 4,000 was disciplined for performance issues each year.

The teaching profession is facing a crisis of confidence and the situation now calls for a major reform of teacher certification and regulation. Starting in Nova Scotia and following the lead of B.C., we called for the establishment of a new, more independent teacher regulation branch with a clear mandate to raise professional teaching standards, rebuild public trust, properly vet teacher education programs, and safeguard students in the schools.

Whatever happened to Teaching Standards upheld by members of the profession themselves?  Are teachers’ unions like the NSTU (focusing primarily on “protective services”) capable of  honouring their commitments under the Teaching Profession Act to deal with “conduct unbecoming a teacher”? In view of the collapse of the B.C. College of Teachers, has the potential for a truly self-governing profession been lost here in Canada?

 

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