Saturday, April 11, 2015

Solidarity key to protecting public education

Hundreds of parents, teachers and students will be protesting education cuts in BC on Sunday. Families Against Cuts to Education is hosting the protests in five BC communities after yet another round of budget cuts for school boards and increased costs surreptitiously delivered through increases to BC Hydro rates and Medical Services Premiums. This, when BC already provides $1000 less per student than the Canadian average for per pupil funding.

The parent initiated rallies are inspiring to see after so many years in which government has fostered divisions between parents and teachers. There is no question that if we are to push back and actually make improvements in our schools, we will need the solidarity of parents and teachers together. This has been undermined due to the "blame the teacher" narrative propagated by government and some sections of the media. But ironically, the latest education legislation of the BC Liberals targets three different sections of the education community. Bill 11 attacks student privacy rights, the independence of locally elected school boards, and the autonomy of teachers to identify and organize their professional development. Combined with a budget that required $29 million in "administrative" cuts - what Christy Clark called "low hanging fruit" - the stage is set for a united response against both the legislation and the budget cuts.

Interestingly, the three components of Bill 11 each, in their own way, demonstrate a different arm of the neoliberal monster.

The changes to student privacy comes in the wake of a fundamental shift in the treatment of student data in the province. The failure of the notorious BCeSIS - the first attempt at a province wide student data collection system - led only to an even larger and more pervasive system, about to be implemented this fall. MyEducationBC will centrally store student data and will collect significantly more information than previous student information systems. The shift to a centralized system, while not explicitly mandates, has been in practice when the BC government refused to accept an alternative proposed and developed by the Saanich school board. Thus every district in BC will be contributing to the "big data" collection of student information. MyEducationBC has more data fields, will be on more computers in more Districts, and will potentially allow massive student data collection by the government. Like other government data collection systems, it is unclear what this information will be used for. As critics point out, these systems violate the basic tenets of privacy protection - collect only what you need, identify your uses prior to collecting data, allow access only in proportion to a genuine need to have access. Student records are thus potentially becoming part of the mass surveillance structure of the 21st century. Bill 11 sets up the legal framework to enable it.

The second component of the Bill involves new mechanisms for government to directly interfere and control the actions of school boards. It is a direct attack on local democracy and is designed to instill caution in Trustees. While the government has always had the ability to remove an elected board (and indeed did so recently in Cowichan), the new powers permit them to mandate specific actions (selling school lands?) or to require a "special advisor" to interfere with and report on the functioning of the board.

This attack on local democracy is not surprising. Boards have become more and more vocal about the impacts of underfunding on the operations of schools. The Cowichan board had the courage to submit a deficit budget that demonstrated the actual needs of students. A number of boards have tacitly endorsed the BC Teacher Federation campaign to ask parents to opt out of the annual standardized tests (FSA) by sending information to parents and accepting without questions their opt out requests. When local democratic structures are actually used to push back on corporate education reform policies, the neoliberal BC Liberals feel the need to shut it down.

The final section of the Bill impacts the ability of teachers to choose and determine how and what type of professional development they engage in. New rules will require specific activities that have been approved by the Ministry. This feature of the Bill is one more in a string of policies that seek to narrow what teachers teach and how they teach it. Christy Clark has long advocated a streamed, vocational style of school system where the primary focus is basic literacy for those who struggle, vocational training for the mass of students in industry specific areas, and access to a university stream for the privileged few. The Ministry has already mandated that one professional development day per year focus on trades training. No doubt there will be a distinctive slant to the type of professional development deemed "acceptable" under the new legislation. As Sheldon Wolin describes: "Privatisation of education signifies not an abstract transfer of public to private but a takeover of the means to reshape the minds of coming generations". Teacher professional development is one small piece of the process of shaping coming generations.

Neither the recent budget cuts nor the new legislation come in a vacuum. BC's education system is being massively reformed. There have been more than a dozen Bills over the last decade that have fundamentally shifted how schools operate. We will need to see beyond the lack of funds and to the more fundamental questions being raised by these changes. Bill 11 is one more in a long line of legislative changes that seek to privatize not only the sources of revenue for schools, but the ways in which schools run and the type of schooling they do. It is one more in a long line of structural changes that undermine public control of schools, the role of public schools in providing equitable access to education, and indeed the very content of schooling. This is all the more reason we need parents and teachers and students and citizens out in the streets demanding change.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Bill 11 - Is the BC government privatizing and seizing control of teacher professional development?

Yesterday the BC government introduced Bill 11 - new law that will, among other things, change the system of teacher professional development in BC. Without any consultation with teachers or their union, the BCTF, the government is legislating a new system of authorized continuing education that may be required to maintain teacher certification.

Not surprisingly, having been rebuffed by the BC courts twice with unilateral changes to teachers' collective agreements, the government is trying a different tack. Leave the collective agreement provisions in place, but add new restrictions through the regulatory framework. Having failed to bargain teacher professional development changes, the government is turning to its tried and true formula: legislate.

The new provisions will depend to a large degree on the accompanying regulations, which of course are not yet known. But the basic framework of the new system looks fairly familiar. It appears to be modelled on the type of mandated professional development requirements that have been put in place for other regulated professions, such as lawyers and nurses. In these frameworks, a certain number of hours of authorized activities are required, sometimes along with a professional development plan, self-reflection, or peer review. What is not yet clear is to what degree the profession itself (teachers) will have control over the authorization process, if any.

The current system of teacher professional development is highly autonomous and predominantly public. While there are teachers and others who run businesses to sell professional development services and materials, most teacher professional development is conducted teacher to teacher, at school, or in non-profit teacher led organizations. In BC we have a system of Local Specialist Associations for the different teaching areas who put on large conferences annually where teachers share new practices. We also have many regional conferences hosted by teacher associations on a non-profit basis. Finally at the school level, most school based professional development activities are organized and run by a professional development committee at the school. Outside speakers are brought in when expertise beyond the teaching profession is required for specific topics, such as to learn about development disabilities.

The system that the new legislation appears to envision, which is modelled on other regulatory professional development frameworks, is considerably different. Like just about everything the BC Liberals do, it is market based. Each individual teacher will have their own private professional development requirements, and will go out to the professional development marketplace to find courses and webinars and activities to fulfil the requirements. I would certainly hope that the major events that currently take place, such as the provincial conferences, will be authorized as approved activities. But it isn't at all clear that less formal school or department based activities, or even individual teacher activities such as reading education journals, will be authorized, or what type of bureaucratic hoop jumping might be required to get authorization. If the process is cumbersome or the approval system ideologically driven, it will open the door for an increase in for-profit professional development services to replace teacher driven activities. In other words teacher credential-ling requirements could be used to force teachers to become the customers of an expanded teacher professional development industry.

The second major concern is the influence of the approval process. The legislation as introduced gives government the power to enact an approval system of its choice. Who approves and what is approved will be key to the degree of coercive control the new scheme represents. If you do not yet have the same degree of scepticism as many teachers about how bad this can be, check out this short video of a test preparation professional development session from the Chicago Public Schools: In the worst case, the approval process could mean direct interference from the Ministry or government or school Districts or Principals into the topics, format and delivery of teacher professional development in a highly prescriptive manner. Rather than teachers identifying their own professional needs based on the subjects they teach, the students they serve and their own individual areas of growth, someone else will be making that decision for them.