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CONTRIBUTION · 4th March 2012
Al Lehmann
New Mindsets for BC’s Public Schools

At one time among people eager to make their way in the world, nothing seemed more valuable than a good liberal education. Such an education promoted industry, intellectual curiosity, the advancement of skills (especially literacy), and civic responsibility. Public education was established to enable all citizens to have access to these worthy goals.

After over a decade of Liberal government in BC, these goals are beginning to seem further away than ever. A Liberal education is not a liberal education.

It is common that once about every ten years or so, idealistic educational theorists come up with “new, revolutionary” approaches to education. These are usually based upon the “latest research” and feature enthusiastic power point presentations to those political masters in charge of public schooling such as our Ministry of Education.

Politicians eager to be seen as forward thinking public servants with the public welfare at heart attach themselves to the issue, plan public relations campaigns and professional development sessions aimed at “reform”, and also coincidentally cagily position themselves for the next election as the candidates or party most able to provide future well-being for that most precious common resource, our children.

Naturally, in the whole process (with due recognition to Murphy), what can go wrong will. Teaching professionals justifiably attached to methods they are familiar and comfortable with, not to mention skilled at, may eye such revolution with skepticism and reluctance, having “seen it all before.”

The Ministry of Finance usually has an eye to a bottom line that precludes many of the investments that might be necessary to the project’s success, however bright and shiny the model proposed by the Ministry of Education. And often parents are simply bewildered by a forest of new acronyms that may mark the project’s novelty with renewed, if brief, vigour and interest, but that usually fail to offer practical explanation or instruction in how the “new” education will differ from their traditional expectations.

[Associated Curricular Research Organized Now for Youth’s Maturation and Success]

Naturally each of the viewpoints has at least some value and legitimacy. Most people applaud improved effectiveness and efficiency in any pursuit. Teachers are no different. “How can we make this work better?” is practically a mantra for most teachers, whose stressful workloads make efficiency the only way to deliver any kind of realistic success within the system.

Ministries of government have their mandates: managing public education toward socially agreed-upon goals is the raison d’etre of the Ministry of Education; responsibly controlling the public purse requires a vigilant and wise Ministry of Finance.

Parents are usually content with government spending on education that furnishes capable daycare garnished with increasingly sophisticated dollops of learning experience toward literacy, numeracy, and citizenship.

Local school boards have increasingly become the “meat in the sandwich” between the stark realities of inadequate Ministry support, annoyed and restive employee groups, and upset parents. Trustees may mean well, but their role has become increasingly irrelevant except to serve as a shield to protect the government from public and employee anger.

Employee groups represented through fair, collectively bargained contracts expect a system with real commitment to service quality, as well as genuine respect for its employees from its employer and the Ministry.

However, these sources of critical input rarely work smoothly together. This generalization has been especially true during the past decade. Parents of special needs children are practically in despair when their children’s needs are not adequately addressed.

Employee groups have experienced ten years of barely disguised contempt from the Ministry of Education, despite the usual lip service about the fine education we provide, a kind of self-congratulation through which the government is happy to take the credit for the system’s diminishing successes while seeking new ways to portray unionized employee groups as spoiled workers sponging off the public while nourishing and protecting incompetence among their members.

Does anyone remember the Year 2000 plans for education introduced in the 1990’s? Wonderfully idealistic, they were attuned to providing individualized educational opportunity on an equal opportunity footing with a particular emphasis on assisting those less capable among the student population. Much of this system simply collapsed upon itself due to inadequate funding, half-hearted adoption of its tenets by professionals, and public suspicion.

So what’s new? Today we have the Ministry of Education promoting something called Personalized Learning, a system which (ideally):

Recognizes and responds to the uniqueness of each learner;

Is flexible as to where, when and how learning occurs;

Engages parents in their children’s learning;

Uses teachers as “facilitators”;

Is supported by technology;

Is focused on student outcomes rather than system inputs.

These are noble sounding objectives that arguably have much value, particularly if one considers their opposites (ignoring individual uniqueness, inflexibility, disconnecting students from their parents’ involvement in their education, failing to make use of developing technologies, and being unconcerned with student outcomes). It would be unfair to suggest that schools currently are guilty of neglecting the Ministry outcome list, but they do not always succeed as well as they might like.

However, also embedded within this new formulation of the system are plans that seem to have much more in common with punishment (hard to tell what for) and disciplinary control of teachers and their current practices than with the implementation of new educational ideals.

It’s not surprising that teachers look with deep suspicion upon any education policy plans forwarded from a governmen that has systematically impoverished BC’s education system financially, deliberately misled the public, ignored the needs of special needs students and flouted its own (2006) legislation to do with the operation of schools.

Suspicion is especially understandable when the contract bargaining agenda forwarded by the employers’ association involves considerable meddling into policy areas that have hitherto been in the hands of teachers or related professionals. For example, one of the Ministry’s goals in this year’s round of bargaining is to wrest control of teachers’ professional development away from the profession and into Ministry hands. (Although BC demands higher levels of professional training for teachers than neighbouring Alberta, for example, whose government requires only four years of university training, Ministry plans are moving in the direction of turning the professionals in the schools into lower paid “facilitators,” and enforcing a top-down curricular structure dictated by the Ministry. BC teachers have nearly the same level of training as lawyers, but far skinnier pay packets, perhaps designed intentionally to reflect their new status as non-professional professionals.)

The bold-faced terms above should be further clarified.

Impoverished? Education funding under the Liberals has diminished as a portion of GDP from about 26% to about 15% currently. I don’t think anyone asked the general public whether they wished for tax cuts (especially corporate tax cuts) purchased by allowing the systematic decay of schools’ physical infrastructure and operational flexibility and effectiveness. Over the past decade this has amounted to over $3 billion being transferred from classrooms to corporate boardrooms.

Misleading? The mantra of the Liberals with regard to education has been that they have raised education funding every year. However, it has always remained unstated that this funding has NOT kept up with inflation or with new costs such as the carbon tax. Ignored special needs? Specialty assistance for students with special needs is being cut once more this year, despite massive need for the service.

Flouting of legislation? The premier’s “round table on education” was essentially a sequence of meetings that led nowhere, and the province’s inadequate funding forced boards routinely to ignore legislation regarding class size and composition, supposedly meant to ameliorate the egregious mess of professional grievances over untenable working and learning conditions in classrooms around the province.

In other words, the Liberals made a hash of education over the past ten years, and with their current draconian and inflexible bargaining positions, are continuing that grand tradition.

The now expect employee groups that come under the Ministry’s mandate to accept a radical redesign of the education system’s methods. Whether this redesign will be the result of legislation or bargained objectives remains to be seen. It looks more and more as if it will be legislated. (After all, “father knows best.”)

Despite their dismal record, we should at least examine what may be the implications of the new Liberal plan as flashily exhibited on the government web-site.

One can imagine many ways in which flexibility for the learner could be enhanced, especially considering the possibilities available for computer-assisted learning. On-line classes are already a part of the Ministry’s elective and required classes through distance education centers. But televised classes, even those linked with two way capability, are a pale imitation of live interpersonal interaction in a classroom. Certain kinds of curricular delivery, particularly those using the equivalent of youtube video, lend themselves to learning at any time of the day or night, but of course, then instructor feedback may be less available.

Focusing on the variety of ways how individual students learn can encourage everything from reading extended texts to job shadowing, from participating in guided laboratory experiments to watching movies. These practices are already part of the school system in one form or another.

Although Ministry and employer representatives are prone to representing our current system as being composed of 19th century Luddites resistant to any kind of technical change, most of these options have already been adopted to varying degrees, as both matters of necessity, as well as of convenience and interest. Many, perhaps most teachers experiment already on the cutting edge of technological change. If anything is holding them back, it is usually the inadequacy of the electronic hardware provided by strained school district budgets. Another caveat is the lack of clarity surrounding teacher liability and/or accountability for digital content provided from sources far away. It is unclear how the Liberal plan would enhance parent engagement in their children’s education. (BCeSIS, part of the province’s integrated digital information database, does have plans to enable parents to log in to their children’s records, but BCeSIS was itself a massive, expensive failure for the most part and is being phased out. It’s still unclear what will replace it.) Whether or not the technical capability will be sufficient to encourage parents to do so is another matter. While most parents try to express to their children the importance of getting a good education, considerably fewer take the time to attend parent meet-the teacher nights or to participate in Parent Advisory Committee meetings. In a cultural milieu devoted to division of labour and specialty delivery of services, most seem content to leave these issues up to the experts (at school), except when faced with serious problems (failures of one kind or another, disciplinary problems, and so on).

The idea of focusing on student outcomes is not a new one. Indeed, radical plans for community establishment of outcomes based education go back considerably more than a decade. However, such co-operative endeavours as having large parent meetings, or distributed polls, or other methods to determine desired outcomes are simply impractical. Further, it’s truly unclear how a supremely individualistic system that creates a flexible program for each unique child would fit within the framework of that other great boondoggle of contemporary education: standardized testing. If all students, teachers and schools are going to be using the same assessment tests, courses had better be covering basically the same content and skills.

Perhaps (though it’s highly unlikely) the Liberals will see fit to abandon the current fetish of standardized testing that is destroying public education in the USA. Such a decision would be one of the most laudable improvements they could make. Given the shrill and critical voices of some of their favoured constituency (such as the Fraser Institute, for example) this is perhaps the least likely change. (In US public schools, students are forced to focus on an impoverished curriculum loaded with rote learning and “test preparation” simply to qualify for Federal funding. Schools whose results fall into the bottom 5% of success are forced, either to a) fire the principal; b) fire half the teachers; or c) convert to a charter school. Such a plan fits well with the conservative dogma that private sector work is inherently more efficient than public sector work, despite ample evidence from the American medical system that this belief is sheer fantasy. Naturally, amply funded private schools ignore Obama’s “race to the top” plan and provide their generally upper class clientele, already at the top, with an enriched curriculum that basically ignores most of this testing practice. It is this kind of enriched curriculum that public school teachers wish for all BC children.)

The diminished focus on system inputs comment in the Liberal plan is truly revealing. Here the Liberals show their old, fiscally tight selves at work. One can readily imagine impoverished boards trying to run classes of fifty students to one teacher over the web. One can easily picture the Ministry recommending specific hardware and software purchases by parents to help their children succeed. One can starkly predict their proclivity to contracting out services if they can force such measures past teacher collective agreements. Liberals usually favour anything that will save government money, savings to be passed on to the private sector in the form of tax cuts or industrial subsidies. (That hasn’t stopped them from lavishing a $1.2 billion contract on Telus as part of their move to further digitize educational delivery.)

A further point that is too often ignored within all this theorizing is the question of student motivation. Doing something because you’re forced to is rarely pleasant, for children or adults. However, the traditional structure of teacher delivery of curricular content and assessment of student success leading to staged achievement and “graduation” has some built-in motivators, not the least of which is social praise for success and social sanction for failure. It’s unclear how strong student motivation is without the daily and systematic application of social pressure from teachers, parents and peers.

Meanwhile, teacher bargaining has broken down. Armed with a BC Supreme Court decision that defined as “illegal” her actions as Minister of Education in 2002 that removed class size provisions (among other things) from teacher bargaining, teachers want some relief from the messes in class size and composition they have been enduring for years. (In years prior to 2002 teachers agreed to three years of 0-0-2% salary increases in exchange for negotiated class size/composition standards. The Liberals betrayed this concession by removing the standards, anyway.) Teachers are also looking with at least some envy at teacher salaries in other provinces that are upwards of 20% higher than salaries here. For their part, the government is looking at their HST debacle and big holes in the revenue side of their budget due to tax cuts, and they are demanding that employee groups accept a three-year contract providing them with no increase for three years (realistically, given inflation, about a 10% cut over that time period). This is not a formula for labour peace.

If the government is truly interested in establishing anything remotely new and exciting in education, they’re going to need the co-operation and effort of teachers. At the teachers’ BCTF Annual General Meeting in March of 2011, Minister Abbott told the gathering that he wanted to work to make teachers a lot happier in their jobs. Little to nothing he has said or done since then indicates there to have been any truth to that assertion. In fact, most of what he has done demonstrates that that statement was simply a lie.

The inherent contradictions in the Liberal government’s approach to public education suggest that their new plan will be another monumental cock-up, almost undoubtedly reliant on extensive legislative interference in the current system. It will likely include nearly unprecedented union bashing, hundreds of column inches of editorial attention along with hours of electronic media commentary (largely from the government cheerleaders at Pacific Press), overflowing blog arguments, and a confused public wishing the whole mess would just go away and let the system get on with the job of trying to educate their children.

Welcome to 21st Century Learning.
Well said Mr.Lehman
Comment by blocky bear on 5th March 2012
I am an old age pensioner,however I care very much what kind of a chance the B.C. school children of today have in the future. I believe the present government`s record in respect to education,health care,and employment is abysmal. I watched through out 2008-09 when money was being spent in the lead up to the Olympic party. Now is not the time to make the kids pay. d.b.