Thursday, October 28, 2010

Premier's speech - nothing in it for the kids...

I sent the following media release today after watching the Premier's address last night:

Premier Gordon Campbell provided nothing more than empty promises during last night’s televised speech to British Columbians. His claim that every grade 4 student would be meeting or exceeding grade 4 reading, writing and math skills rang hollow. He gave no indication on how this would be achieved.

“An underfunded twenty-first century school system is no better than an underfunded twentieth century school system”, comments Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association president Tara Ehrcke. “Nowhere in Campbell’s address does he talk about how school boards, facing multi-million dollar shortfalls year after year, are supposed to provide supports and services to meet these goals.”

The Greater Victoria Board of Education faced a significant shortfall last year despite the extra funds from previous school closures. For two years, the Victoria Board has submitted a “needs budget” along with the actual budget to indicate that the needs of the District are far greater than what the provincial funding is able to support.

Just last month, the Board again approved a class configuration with almost 300 classes exceeding the limits in the School Act. One concerned teacher, Colleen Pommelet, spoke to the Board about how difficult it is to meet the wide range of ability levels in a single class. She pointed out that she was in fact teaching 17 different curricula to try to meet the diverse needs of her students.

Another teacher, Judi Chessa, spoke about the challenge of meeting needs in classes with large numbers of students who have individual education plans. She told the Board “I am sending out an SOS” because she felt she would be unable to sustain the workload.

Since the Liberals were elected, one in ten schools in British Columbia has closed, including seven in Greater Victoria. Boards are using revenues from closed schools to make up for the lack of funding from the province. Nothing in the Premier’s speech provided any hope that this disturbing trend will not continue.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What does the Premier have in mind?

Rumours are circulating about tonights televised speech. Will the Premier announce an end to democratically elected school boards? I certainly hope not. No one is better able to hold decision makers accountable than the local electorate. It would be a sad day for democracy if that is what is in store.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Wifi in schools - a safety risk?

Considerable debate has begun about the safety of wifi in Victoria schools. A teacher presented to the Board last spring, and three more presentations are scheduled for the November 8th Operations subcommittee meeting.

While the evidence may not yet be conclusive, there is good reason to apply the precautionary principle - ensure it is safe before continued expansion of devices and transmitters in schools and classrooms. This is the approach the Vancouver School Board has taken, citing medical evidence of correlations between EMF frequency and certain cancers and other health effects. There is the added issue that we need to understand the health effects on children, who may respond differently and tolerate lower levels of EMF than adults.

With the Ministry looking at the use of mobile devices in their 21 Century Learning Initiative, it is more important than ever to have this debate and look carefully at the research before we embark on classrooms where every child carries a cell phone and an ipad, where wireless labs are ubiquitous, and were wireless transmitters are upgraded to facilitate this explosion in devices.

Here are some articles on the issue:

Saturday, October 16, 2010

School District 61: Perpetuating the "Motherhood Gap"

Several recent grievances demonstrate how school district 61 is complicit in the discriminatory treatment of women and mothers in a way that is a key component of the ‘Motherhood Gap’ – lower lifetime wages for mothers.

The Greater Victoria Teachers Association first grieved the failure to provide parenthood “top up” to birth mothers, while they are providing this benefit to adoptive parents and birth fathers. This has gone to an arbitration hearing and we are still waiting for the result.

Next a teacher brought to the union’s attention the discriminatory treatment of birth mothers and parents by not providing salary increments for time spent on maternity/parenthood leave. This is contrary to the Employment Standards Act, as well as Human Rights legislation. The district has offered only a half-way solution that would exclude all the mothers and parents not yet at step 10 on the salary scale that have had children in the past ten years. The union is pursuing this grievance to arbitration to seek fair wage increases for all those mothers and parents who have lost income.

Finally, the union has just grieved a case of a new mother denied “top up” benefits on a temporary contract. The union believes this too is a violation of the Employment Standards Act which states that mothers and parents must be treated “as if the leave were never taken”, with no wage or benefit loss.

Recent news reports and research studies (see for example ) have identified wage loss and wage increase loss as one of the key components of the “gender gap”…calling this phenomenon the “motherhood gap”. Teachers in at least one school district are clearly experiencing this.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Do unions make us happy?

At a recent visit to a Victoria school, a teacher spoke up at a meeting: "I'm not pro union or anti union, but when it comes right down to it, the union is the only group of people looking after my interests."

Despite the rhetoric in the press, it is generally true that unions look after the interests of their members, but also the collective interests of citizens, in many cases. The labour movement brought us the weekend, maternity leave, and an uncountable number of other advances in workplace rights. But the labour movement also represents a voice to advocate for democracy, public services, social justice.

A new research study confirms these ideas: unions make us happier (both individually as union members and collectively as a society) because they look out for the collective good.

Here is the abstract from the article at:

"While a growing literature demonstrates the impact of socio-political factors on citizens’ quality of life, scholars have paid comparatively little attention to the role political organizations such as labor unions play in this regard. We examine labor organization as a determinant of cross-national variation in life satisfaction across a sample of advanced industrial polities. Our findings strongly suggest that unions increase the life satisfaction of citizens, and that that this effect holds for non-union members as well. Moreover, we also find that labor organization has the strongest impact on the subjective well-being of citizens with lower incomes. We confirm these hypotheses using both individual and aggregate-level data from fourteen nations. We show these relationships to have an independent and separable impact from other economic, political, and cultural determinants. The implications for the study of life satisfaction and of labor unions as political actors in general are discussed."

Monday, October 4, 2010

I'll give Superman a pass

Our friends to the south have been bombarded with a frenzy of teacher and union bashing in the last couple of weeks since the release of "Waiting for Superman" and the added onslaught of NBC and Oprah and the Gates foundation, the Waltons (of Walmart fame), and no doubt a few other billionaires all weighing in on the broken US education system in the press, TV, and through giant televised forums. The mantra is that the solution to the ailing system is charter schools and getting rid of bad teachers and intrasigent teacher unions.

Charter schools are the US version of a "public private partnership" - public funding for privately run schools. They don't run under an elected school Board, but rather a private board that operates just that one school. Although touted as the solution, in fact about 37% of charter schools do worse than their public counterparts on test scores, while 20% do better.

And as to whether unions are the problem, as Diane Ravitch, an educational historian has pointed out, the states with the highest test scores historically are those in the unionized north, whereas scores in the non-unionized "right to work" states have fared worse. If test scores are what we are worried about, seems the unionized states do better. But are test scores the sign of a quality system?

The tragic suicide of a beloved Los Angeles teacher upset about his "average" rankings in the LA Times teacher ranking demonstrates just one facet of the problems with the testing approach to teacher evaluation. Interestingly, "value added" statistics like those used in the LA Times ranking also placed 13% of teachers in the lowest category one year (worst improvement in test scores) and the highest category the next (most improvement in test scores). It's hard to imagine that more than one in ten teachers magically tranformed into a "great" teacher in the course of a single year. Perhaps there is more to teaching than test scores, and more to evaluating good teaching than simple scores in a woefully unfair and invalid statistical scheme.

So what is really going on? Nothing more insidious than a complete attack on one of the most important public institutions we have - a public school system. The interference of billionaires, media empires, and the charter movement is about a massive transfer from the public to the semi-private system that charters represent. The use of the New Orleans school system as an example (as was done on the NBC program) shows the underlying agenda - shut down public neighborhood schools, eliminate school boards and other elected administrators and replace them with privately run, unaccountable "boards" that fire the teachers and replace them with younger, less trained teachers at lower wages and without a union. This is what happened in post-Katrina New Orleans. This is also what Arne Duncan did in Chicago, prior to being appointed by Obama as the chief education czar. As a result, hundreds of neighborhood public schools are gone.

There is lots of excellent commentary about these issues. Here are a few good articles: