Saturday, June 20, 2015

Just more teacher bashing: Deconstructing the Ontario report card debacle

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The mainstream media wasted no time this week to engage in a round of teacher bashing at the news that some school boards would not be issuing report cards in response to teacher job action. Teachers, who are in a work to rule campaign, have produced reports but are not inputting the data into computer systems. Apparently, and unsurprisingly, school principals and administrators just didn’t want to do this extra work, so they cancelled the reports. While these boards have now relented and agreed to produce the reports, the incident provides an opportunity to look at they dynamics of the teacher job action and reflect on why and how both parents and workers should be standing up for teachers.

Across Canada, the US, and even in large parts of the rest of the world, public school teachers have been on the front lines of the fight against austerity. Teachers tend to be highly unionized, are typically a female dominated workforce, work in one of the last standing mostly public institutions (along with healthcare), and play a key role in the transmission of social values to the next generation. All these features make teachers a ready target for neoliberal austerity measures. Where better to smash unions, privatize, instil individualistic and pro-market ideas and put women in their place?

Ontario’s teachers, just like in BC last year, are fighting the austerity agenda. They want smaller classes so they can provide better services, they want to maintain their incomes and purchasing power, they want to stop government legislative interference and they want the autonomy to do their job in the interests of their students.

As Barrie teacher and activist Gord Bambrick describes:

“The main objective as I understand it right now is to stop a total contract strip. Bill 122 was created last year to allow bargaining on two levels, locally with school boards and provincially with the provincial government.

On the provincial front, we are fighting now to protect our working conditions and students’ learning conditions, especially around the issues of class sizes and teacher workload. The Ontario Liberal government, headed by Kathleen Wynne and Education Minister Liz Sandals, is pressing for the removal of class size caps and a significant increase to teachers’ duty time. They also want to continue wage freezes imposed by legislation in 2012.

The school boards want to remove protections around teacher prep time and school hours, giving principals more authority to delegate tasks. The boards would also like to change the teacher performance appraisal process and conduct external assessments of students. This, of course, significantly undermines teacher professionalism.”

Deconstructing the report card issue, we can see all of the standard teacher bashing tactics at play. Teachers tried to take full strike action, but were ordered back by the labour board. So they have chosen a job action designed to minimally impact student learning and maximally impact the functioning of school boards. They have provided assessment of their students, but not in the format usually required.

In response, managers (principals) and senior managers and even some school trustees made the decision to simply not do the extra work and blame teachers for not producing the reports. This exposes the presumption that it is reasonable to ask teachers to do more and more work (every extra student in a class is hours of marking time), but not those at the top ends of the hierarchy. It also shows that some layers of management are all too happy to publicly blame teachers when they themselves are not willing to do the job. A remarkably similar thing happened last year during the BC teacher strike when teachers refused to mark provincial exams. The ministry took the written response questions out of the exam to save administrators having to do the marking, despite the fact that teachers were on full strike and administrators were sitting in empty schools.

In addition to showing how government and media use the blame the teacher narrative to distract us from the real issues at play, the report card spat also highlights a more subtle, but equally important feature of the global education reform movement being imposed by neoliberals everywhere.

Both in Ontario and previously in BC, when teachers refused to complete report cards they were careful to continue to provide genuine assessment of the progress of learning. As the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario stated, “teachers have fully assessed your child’s progress”.

In BC, when report cards were not issued, teachers invited parents to speak in person about their child’s progress and many sent home anecdotal remarks directly to the parents, but not in report card form. In Ontario, teachers have submitted progress reports to principals to review and provide to parents. The reality is that teachers are doing what most parents want and expect – a genuine and thoughtful reflection on how their child is doing in school. In my district in BC when we did not provide formal reports there was only a single parent complaint out of 19,000 students.

Yet the corporate education reformers balk at the idea of no formal report going home and into the database. It is not teaching and learning that is central, but the ranking and sorting function that data driven reporting provides. The function that report cards should provide is communication to parents about their child’s learning successes and struggles. But all too often they become first a training ground for children and parents to rate each other and later for employers and post secondary schools to accept or reject them. Like standardized tests, they become a tool to privilege the privileged and stream the rest back into the socio-economic category from where they came.

When it comes down to it, formal report cards don’t matter. What really matters are the teaching conditions in schools and the communication with parents to enable students to meet their potential. My favourite quote this week came from parent Erika Shaker, who put it like this, “when it comes to the delay or absence of this year’s report cards, I would like to make something clear. I. Couldn’t. Care. Less.”

I asked teacher and activist Gord Bambrick how parents and workers can show support to teachers and oppose the divisive message from the government. He said it clearly:

“It’s hard for parents and other concerned citizens to cut through the disinformation coming from the government and mainstream media. Teachers are usually characterized as selfish ‘hostage takers’ despite the fact that they are fighting to protect children’s learning conditions. I would encourage citizens to speak up against the austerity agenda whenever they get the chance – in the blogs, on social media, and with a letter to their trustees and MPs. They could also get out and show support at the many protest activities that will surely be coming this autumn.”

Friday, May 1, 2015

The courts will not deliver smaller class sizes

Yesterday's BC Court of Appeal ruling against the BC Teachers' Federation was a disappointment to teachers and parents across the province. Many hoped that the court would uphold the trial judge's ruling that the actions of the BC government were bargaining in bad faith, and therefore unconstitutional, and therefore must be undone.

While the decision is a difficult pill to swallow, it should also be taken as a guide to strategy and tactics in how to protect and enhance our public services. While court rulings have sometimes prompted progressive change in how these services are administered, what they must provide, and how they are funded, they can just as easily defend and justify the actions of government. Ultimately, they are not the solution to a political problem. And the lessons of the thirteen year legal battle over class sizes in British Columbia should teach us that relying on the courts is not a winning strategy. After a decade of court battles, classes are as large as ever, funding on the decrease, and the teachers' strike fund depleted from legal costs.

Even if the Supreme Court of Canada agrees to hear an appeal (and this is not at all certain, given last year's statistic of only ten percent of cases granted leave to appeal), and even if the Supreme Court of Canada were to overturn the BC Court of Appeal decision, teachers would still be left to try and win back the stripped contract language through a new bargaining round. Given the disappointing results of the recent nine week strike, it is hard to picture teachers engaging in and winning a new strike with a still depleted strike fund and without much stronger, broader and more organized public support from parents, school trustees and the public.

The simple reality is that courts may give governments a slap on the wrist for failing to bargain in good faith, but they are not going to unilaterally remake government policy. And unions and the 99%, if we are to save and improve public services, have to stop looking to the court system as a saviour. Not only will the courts not deliver, but by putting our faith in the court system, we seriously undermine our own movement for change.

A take-away from this court decision is that if we want to win back class sizes, teachers will have to do it ourselves and with our natural allies - the parents and students and public who all benefit from a comprehensive, properly funded education system. Doing it ourselves means not expecting someone else to do it for us - not the courts, not the NDP. Governments and state institutions will play some role in the evolution of public services, but they do not initiate progressive change - they respond to the social movements and trade union movements that push them to do it.

The best thing about the recent teachers' strike was that it planted the seeds for building such a coordinated movement that involves teachers, parents and the community. The recent FACE rallies across BC over education funding were to some extent the organizational off spring of those seeds of solidarity. This is the trajectory we need to take to build a movement to win smaller classes, proper services for students with special needs, and a public school experience based on equity where every child gets educational opportunities as good as the best private school could offer.

Yet why weren't teachers out in the thousands for those education rallies? In part, because we have a mistaken belief that someone else is going to fix the problem for us. Our union has told us the courts will do it. The social democratic left tells workers to just get the right government elected, even though the NDP has never, in thirteen years, even promised to restore class sizes. Many in the classroom think the union can do it if we just elect the right leaders, hire the right bargaining team. But we need to look to ourselves.

Understandably teachers and many education activists feel disheartened and disappointed with the outcome of the last election, the outcome of the last strike, and now the outcome of this court decision. But the takeaway has to be that we must do more of grassroots, community based, teacher/parent/public social movement building. We must focus more on the tactics in the trade union movement that actually have the power to force change - the strike. And we must be sure that teachers and our union are so integrated with parents and community members that when we go on strike the combined pressure of teachers' withdrawal of services and massive public outrage at the degradation of public services pressures the government of whatever ideological stripe to reinvest in classrooms because it would be political suicide not to.

Let's not spend the next decade waiting for the courts to make smaller classes. They never will. Let's put our union dues in our strike fund, not the court system. Let's keep up the connections we've built with parents and the public and turn these into active, engaged, community based organizations. Let's build a new movement for smaller classes based on teachers, parents, student, school trustees and the public.

Pushing back neoliberal education reform is not going to be easy. But there are no shortcuts. It may seem daunting, tiring, and difficult, but the day to day work of grassroots, school and community based activism is what is necessary.