Thursday, September 29, 2011

Does BCPSEA represent the interest of School Trustees?

School Trustees are elected by their local communities to run schools. Yet one aspect they no longer control locally is their negotiations with the biggest groups of employees, teachers. Instead, they are represented by a provincial bargaining agent.

The employer's group representing Trustees and Government, BCPSEA (BC Public School Employer's Association), represents an odd contradiction. On the one hand they represent local School Trustees. But on the other, their mandate is to standardize as much as possible.

BCPSEA wants a single standardized provincial collective agreement. They want all teachers in all Districts to be under the same terms and conditions of employment - everything from a standardized work year to standard salaries. They have repeatedly stated that their goal is "efficiency" and elimination of "duplication".

But the logical conclusion of this way of thinking is that we should not have School Boards either. Perhaps they are inefficient and cause duplication? Why have 60 Boards of Education, which employ hundreds of Trustees, if everything would be so much more "efficient" if administered provincially through the Ministry of Education?

This thinking is wrong.

First, School Boards and Trustees are about local democratic control of the school system. This is more important than "efficiency". Parents and the public want to have input into the operation of their local schools. And teachers want to negotiate standards specific to their schools and communities and educational programs.

Second, it is an illusion that bigger is cheaper and better.

When the Toronto District School Board was created through amalgamation, all of the anticipated "efficiencies" failed to come through. For example, when they closed the facilities plant on the west side of the city so that they would have only one, the result was that carpenters now spend much of their time in traffic crossing the city in travel. Salaries were leveled up across the city. Staff moved into a central office, but after the full amalgamation was complete, there were more staff, not fewer. Eventually, the Board reorganized into sections to more effectively serve such a large student population.

It is ironic that BCPSEA represents Trustees and Boards. In my mind they (BCPSEA) are part of a bigger push towards standardization and centralization and elimination of local democratic governance. They follow the same BC Liberal line of thinking that led to the amalgamation of health authorities and the "threats" of elimination of School Boards. Is this what School Trustees really want?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

BCPSEA pushing American style "reform" agenda

Based on the BC Public School Employer's Association (BCPSEA) bargaining proposals, and government presentations on "education policy", it is clear that BCPSEA, School Boards, and the Ministry of Education are promoting American style education "reform".

Proposals include the virtual elimination of seniority, the removal of any due process requirements for teacher evaluations, the ability to force a teacher to move to another job merely with one month's notice, and the ability to fire a teacher after a single evaluation.

Why this should be is mind-boggling: we consistently outrank the US on international randomized assessments. We have a much better education system now, and following their mistaken path is about the worst thing we could do.

The US "blame the teacher" reform agenda is political. It is about commodifying and privatizing education. It is a total rejection of the notion of equity. Instead of quality, equal access, and equal opportunity, it promotes competition, consumer driven models and private service delivery.

The end result? Very good schools that are hyper competitive for the rich. Pretty awful schools for the poor. Struggling schools for everyone in between. Is this where we want to go? The recent outpouring of generosity for a Vancouver teacher trying to meet the needs of poor inner city children suggests not.

Here is a quick quote on life in the elite world of private schools in America:

"As more solid or even stellar students hire expensive tutors, the achievement bar rises, and getting ahead quickly becomes keeping up." (

Here is the life of "struggling" schools in middle class America:

"The number of elementary and middle schools receiving D’s and F’s under New York City’s grading system more than doubled this year from last after Department of Education officials did away with a safety net that prevented some schools from falling too far." (

And here is what America's poor face:

"Schools are no longer legally segregated, but because of residential patterns, housing discrimination, economic disparities and long-held custom, they most emphatically are in reality.

“Ninety-five percent of education reform is about trying to make separate schools for rich and poor work, but there is very little evidence that you can have success when you pack all the low-income students into one particular school,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who specializes in education issues." (

The focus of American reform is "teacher quality" and elimination of teachers' unions. The methods used are standardized testing, reduction/elimination of seniority provisions and bargaining rights, "value added" teacher quality testing and ranking, and merit pay. At the same time, the school system is slowly reconfigured around student/parent "choices". In the US this usually takes the form of Charter schools, who are not regulated through local government. It also involves reducing overall education funding, which results in larger class sizes and fewer teachers.

By focusing on "teacher quality", US reform ignores the more fundamental issues: poverty, race, environment (parents, neighborhood). It is a myth that the "problem" with schools is bad teachers. They are simply being used as a scapegoat for much bigger social issues. If teachers are the problem, then it can't be poverty, so the lie goes. And so all we have to do is fire the bad teachers (or pay them less?), and schools will improve. Except they don't.

One of the great tragedies of the loss of what Americans call "tenure" (and we generally refer to as "seniority") is that it often results in the GOOD teachers losing their jobs. Seniority provisions protect teachers with more service to the school. They also prevent discrimination from Principals and school Administration (such as nepotism and favouratism). Senior teachers are typically the ones with the most experience, are most likely to have higher education (such as a Master's degree) and highest pay. Elimination of tenure in the US has resulted in many of these teachers losing their jobs because they cost more. It has nothing to do with "teacher quality". In value-added, "merit pay" systems, no one gets fired, but the ninety percent of teachers who do not get the merit pay are pretty demoralized. One Los Angeles teacher was so crushed when his "value added" score was published and ranked in the LA Times that he committed suicide. In fact, it would be a credible claim to say that US teachers as a whole are pretty demoralized.

American education theorist Bill Ayers describes the situation this way:

"We're living in the darkest times for teachers that I've ever seen in my life. It's hard to fully understand how the conversation about what makes a robust, vital education for citizens in a democracy has degraded to the point where the frame of the whole discussion is that teachers are the problem. It's true that good schools are places where good teachers gather, but there's another piece to that: Good teachers need to be protected to teach, supported to teach, put into relationships with one another - and with the families of the kids - so that they can teach."

So why, I wonder, is this what the BC government and School Trustees want? Why are they promoting a "blame the teacher" agenda?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Wrong response to poverty and underfunded classrooms: UK toys with bringing back the cane

I was surprised to come home one evening this week and see in the UK papers that there is talk of bringing back the cane, and regular use of corporal punishment in schools.

The UK paper The Express reported:

"Almost all parents and more than two-thirds of pupils believe strong leadership is needed in the classroom after years of teachers’ authority being undermined.

They say teachers must be given the power and freedom to discipline unruly pupils. Forty-nine per cent of parents think corporal punishment such as smacking and caning should be reintroduced for very bad behaviour." (

What a step backwards! No doubt much of this "public opinion" has been stoked by the reaction of British politicians to the recent riots. Rather than examine or discuss any of the root problems, most espoused a simplistic law and order response - punish the wrong doers. Mere suggestions that poverty, unemployment, and a sense of alienation from community were factors were either ignored or ridiculed by those in government. Governments and politicians neither want to take the blame nor examine, in an evidence based fashion, how to address the larger issues that erupt into social disorder.

And perhaps not surprisingly, one of the few groups to come out against the proposal - the teachers' unions - were criticized for taking a position against corporal punishment. But regardless, one union official was quoted by the Express:

"A mythology has grown up around corporal punishment and its effectiveness which was never borne out by reality. A study of inspection reports from the 1950s highlighted behaviour that would not be tolerated today, such as vandalising school property or assaulting teachers. These were common features of life in many schools despite routine use of corporal punishment. In fact, evidence suggests that behaviour has improved significantly since corporal punishment was abolished."

No one (thankfully) is talking much about corporal punishment in Canada. But some of the underlying issues are relevant to us here. Poverty and underfunded classrooms, for example. And the same type of tactics are used to divert the public from the real problems.

For example, it is fashionable right now in the American and Canadian school "reform" dialogue to discuss the importance of having a quality teacher. Yet the research is very clear that while teachers play a dominant role in children's educational success among school factors, there is a much bigger role played by parents and socio-economic status. The average income of a student's household is a much higher predictor of marks and standardized test results than who their teacher is or was.

So why is the dominant message "fix the teacher"? Is it really because there are so many bad teachers around?

While there are always some practitioners in any profession who need to go, the real reason for our politicians to raise the "fix the teacher" mantra is that they don't want to fix the other problems - large class sizes, a shortage of specialty teachers, a lack of support for students with special needs, and perhaps most critical - child poverty. These cost money. And significant amounts of money (although perhaps not when compared the BC place stadium roof!).

The real story is about who to blame: blame the kids - punish them; blame the teacher - fire them. What about blaming the people who are truly accountable? The governments and politicians who choose to point fingers rather than examine and solve problems.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mel Joy and the BC Trustees' new approach?

When Trustee Mel Joy won a surprise victory to become Chair of the BC Public School Employer's Association (BCPSEA), teachers were hopeful. Could this mean a change in the attitudes and actions of the School Districts' bargaining agent, BCPSEA? Mel Joy said publicly that she would take a "softer" approach than her predecessor, Ron Christiansen.

Yesterday's press release put that idea to bed. It seems that BCPSEA has changed Mel Joy, not the other way around. Here are some quotes from the "softer" Mel Joy approach (

"the BCTF has obstructed the process of bargaining"
"they resisted complying with the arbitrator's direction"


"They need to get on with bargaining and make a commitment to work with us to negotiate a collective agreement so students can learn and teachers can teach without any further disruption to the school year."

The implication is that teachers are not committed to negotiating. The implication is also that teachers are not teaching and students are not learning. Exactly where does Mel Joy get her evidence for these criticisms?

Mel Joy does not sit at the bargaining table. No doubt she is briefed. But at any rate, given BCPSEA's insistence on "net zero" and refusal to counter any cost item, it is hard to see how BCPSEA has commitment but teachers do not. Does "commitment" mean accepting nothing? Is that what BCPSEA and BC Trustees believe?

As to the implication that teachers are not teaching and students not learning - this is simply inflammatory.  Teachers have been very careful to ensure that teaching and learning are paramount and in fact, many teachers report having additional time to focus on teaching, planning and assessment. I have no doubt there are more issues in schools that impact students because of oversize and overcrowded classes than from anything related to teachers' job action, yet the BC government has failed to correct class sizes in spite of a Supreme Court ruling saying they must.

The reality is that the job action is impacting Principals, Vice Principals, Superintendents and some Trustees. Trustees are teachers' direct employers and should be much bigger participants in negotiations. In fact, this is one of the reasons teachers want more local bargaining - to engage Trustees in meaningful dialogue about local school issues. We could just as easily say that Trustees are abdicating their role and responsibility to negotiate by refusing to bargain more at the local tables.

But regardless, there seems to have been little change in the Trustees Association's attitude towards teachers and teacher bargaining.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Good riddance to BCeSIS

The government has announced they will be phasing out the much maligned BCeSIS computer system. At a cost of $10 per student per year, this system was an incredible waste of public funding. Similar systems that were in use cost as little as $3.

This program has always been a boondoggle. For years, teachers have expressed frustration that it was unreliable and poorly designed. It constrained a teacher's ability to report to students (only codes allowed), it logged out automatically, requiring teachers to spend class time logging on over and over, and the user interface was a classic in bad design - multiple scroll bars on one page, buttons with obscure symbols and multiple steps to do what should be done in one.

In my best guesstimate, teachers would spend 10 - 30 minutes per day wasting time with BCeSIS. Additional countless hours have been spent transferring Individual Education Plans into the system. Time that would have been better spent with students.

Lo and behold, the BCeSIS system was brought in when no other than Christy Clark was Minister of Education. No surprise.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Cranbrook Trustees re-instate recess during job action

Teachers were surprised and frustrated when a number of school Boards unilaterally decided to cancel recess this fall. In one of those Districts, Cranbrook (district 5), the teachers' association has pressed Trustees and Trustees have decided to re-instate recess time. Every District should follow Cranbrook's lead and management should be fulfilling their obligations under the Essential Services law rather than canceling services to children.

"As teachers return to school this fall, we are disappointed to discover that School District No. 5 administrative staff have decided to cancel our elementary students’ recess. We have asked them to reconsider their decision because children benefit from this traditional exercise and nutrition break." wrote Wendy Turner, President of the Cranbrook District Teachers' Association (CDTA).

The teachers' job action includes supervision during non-instructional time. This means in Districts where teachers regularly provide supervision the District must assign management staff to that work. As the Cranbrook District Teachers' Association explains:

"BC’s public school teachers, who are classified as essential service providers, are very frustrated with stalled provincial bargaining, especially in regard to the restoration of working and learning conditions that the government legislatively and unconstitutionally stripped from our contracts. So, like many other workers, we have sought to influence our employer by withdrawing some services we normally provide. The Labour Relations Board facilitated an employer/employee agreement as to which tasks could be withdrawn. Except during an emergency, supervision of students beyond the classroom is classified as a nonessential task for teachers that can be performed by management.

This means that the employer must now exhaust every possibility to have management personnel do supervision before teachers can be asked to assist. In a previous “teach only” campaign, School District No. 5 management was able, with fewer personnel and more schools, to perform all the necessary supervision without requiring teachers to breach the job action, and without canceling recess. A large majority of school districts around the province, urban and rural, have not canceled recess. Their administrative staff have made room in their schedules to be with students on playgrounds."

Surrey, which is the largest District and has the lowest ratio of management to teachers is able to continue all recess supervision. This means every other District should too.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Shameful cuts to BCCPAC funding show "family first" hypocrisy

Christy Clark and Minister of Education George Abbott have extended the hypocrisy of their "families first" agenda by announcing this week that the provincial parent organization would have its entire funding grant cut.

The BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils (BCCPAC) had been receiving a grant annually from the provincial government. The grant traditionally been $100,000 or more and has paid for the basic operation of BCCPAC. BCCPAC provides an umbrella organization for local Parent Advisory Councils to meet, debate issues, and engage in policy discussions at the provincial level.

While I don't always agree with BCCPAC positions, I am a firm advocate of parents having a voice and being engaged in education discussions. Often, parent advocacy groups have been instrumental in pushing for improvement in our school system, such as seismic upgrades, stopping school closures and fighting for adequate funding. In fact, one has to wonder if the cuts to BCCPAC come as this groups has taken a more vocal position about underfunding issues.

In a typically George Abbott fashion, he told the parents group that they would receive support from the Ministry in a "non-financial" manner. I wonder what this looks like? Moral support?

Parents are understandably outraged. One parent wrote on her blog: "Christy Clark and crew just slapped the face of every parent in this province." (

Parents, just like teachers, have been integral in sustaining a system that is chronically underfunded. Sadly, much of the work done by parent councils is fundraising to make up for the lack of funding available to schools. This is sometimes for the extras (such as field trips), but more and more it is to pay for necessities in schools, such as playground equipment and emergency preparedness kits. Parents are rightly frustrated that they are footing the bill for what should be a fully public and free education system.

Christy Clark and Geoge Abbott have just alienated another partner in public education. Who will be next?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

In defense of compassionate care leave

Within the various commentary about the BCTF negotiations, some have chosen to criticize BCTF proposals in an attempt to discredit teachers and teacher bargaining. One of the proposals that has been particularly singled out is compassionate care leave.

Compassionate care leave is currently provided through the employment standards act and some unions have negotiated related provisions. It provides a leave for an employee to take care of a person who is terminally ill (a reasonable expectation of death within 26 weeks). The current employment standards act provides eight weeks of leave and if eligible, employees can collect employment insurance benefits for six of those eight weeks. The person being cared for must be a "family member", but the definition of family member includes a person or friend who "considers you a family member", such as a friend or neighbour.

As the government program notes: "One of the most difficult times for anyone is when a loved one is dying or at risk of death. The demands of caring for a gravely ill family member can jeopardize both your job and the financial security of your family. The Government of Canada believes that, during such times, you should not have to choose between keeping your job and caring for your family." (

Doctors agree that compassionate care leave has multiple benefits: "For most clinicians, compassionate care matters because it is fundamental to the practice of medicine, ethically sound, and humane," according to lead author Beth Lown, MD, medical director of the Schwartz Center and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "However, there is also strong evidence that compassionate care improves health outcomes and quality of life, increases patient satisfaction, and lowers health care costs. Particularly as our health care system faces such intense pressure to reduce costs, we must make sure that this critically important element of health care is not lost." (

There are calls for an expansion to the existing employment insurance scheme, to extend the leave and benefits to 26 weeks. This makes sense. After all, the program is designed for those who might die in 26 weeks time. It is a bit odd that eight weeks is available but no more. What do you do after those eight weeks? Chances are, the person you are caring for is even more ill after the eight weeks than before.

The proposal put forward by BC teachers is akin to the "top up" programs that many Canadians already receive for maternity leave. These programs provide a top up by the employer to the employee's EI benefits so that their pay is closer to what their salary normally is. They are designed to ensure that women and parents can have adequate time off to care for their very young children without a significant loss of income. Taken together with the Employment Insurance benefits, these programs help to even the playing field for parents with respect to income loss and child bearing/rearing. There is a benefit to the individuals but also to society, which benefits from the future earnings/production/taxes of the children. It is only a tiny portion of the vast cost of raising a child, but allows mothers and parents to ensure adequate care for the critical first year of life, without fear of losing their home or not being able to pay the bills.

The same rationale can be made for compassionate care leave. Those who are close to death and require care will end up somewhere in our social safety net. In the worst of cases, inadequate care might mean accidents and further complications to illness take place. In the event hospitalization is required, the costs far outweigh what a compassionate care program would cost. But even if palliative care or home care services are used, the overall costs are likely in excess of what a compassionate care program would be. Moreover, a close friend or relative is likely able to provide more time and attention in caring and the care can likely be done in a home environment.

Compassionate care leave is also a women's issue, just as maternity leave is. The Canadian Women's Health Network describes why: "Care in the home is women’s work. Women provide more than 80% of unpaid personal care for the elderly and for those of all ages with long-term disability or short-term illness. A survey found that three out of four unpaid caregivers were women between the ages of 50 and 65 -- that is, women in the prime of life who may already be juggling adolescent children, aging parents and a professional career." (

I am proud that I am part of an organization that is advocating for improvements like compassionate care leave. It is a progressive change that I hope is both successful and replicated by other workplaces. Just as the landmark strike by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers eventually led to maternity leave rights and benefits for all Canadian mothers and parents, I am hopeful that the union movement's involvement in pursuing compassionate care leave will result in legislative changes that benefit all Canadians.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Mr. Abbott - the ball is in your court...

As students return to school in BC this week, teachers are beginning a "teach only" job action. The purpose of this action is to put pressure on Administration, and thereby government, to come to the bargaining table with a new mandate. Only when the government moves off of it's "net zero" position can real bargaining begin.

The government has come to the table with an extreme position - not one penny available for bargaining. Only concessions on the table. With inflation factored in, this means government wants teachers to "negotiate" how to cut their salary and benefits. They have stated over and over again that they will not move off of this position.

Teachers have actually taken "0" percent four times in the last 13 years - 1998, 1999, 2004 and 2005. Once was when we "traded" no salary increase for class size limits, which have since been unilaterally removed by this government. The second was imposed when the government legislated teachers back to work and imposed zero for two years.

Meanwhile, as teacher salaries fell from 3rd in Canada to 8th in the period since 2006, the premiere and MLA's (including Mr. Abbott himself) received a 29% pay increase.

Is this good faith bargaining?

Bargaining is a process of give and take. Of compromise. Both parties put positions on the table and expect to have to change their position. The process of negotiations is to work through these compromises. Teachers have openly said that our proposals are our "starting" position.

In this case, however, one party, BCPSEA (the government's bargaining agent), has said there is no compromise. There is no room to move. "Net zero" will not change. In essence, there is no negotiation.

Some newspaper editorials and even BCPSEA have been quoted publicly saying that the bargaining structure is doomed "to fail". Any bargaining structure where the people who make the decisions are not actually at the table is not likely to succeed. In this case, government holds the purse strings but they only have a "representative" at the table - not someone who has the authority to make decisions on their behalf.

Further complicating the bargaining process is the fact that even though individual school boards both pay for and administer the collective agreement, they do not bargain very much locally with teachers' associations. This makes it difficult if not impossible to identify areas of shared interest, since the people who live with the agreement are similarly not at the table.

If Mr. Abbott, the Minister of Education, has an interest in fixing the current dispute, he needs to:

a) put an end to the "mandate" that restricts BCPSEA
b) agree to fund a new agreement
c) allow school Boards to negotiate

Then, bargaining could start in earnest.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Guest post: A teacher explains our bargaining position

This letter comes from Elaine Thompson, a primary teacher and member of the Campbell River Teachers' Association bargaining team

Over the summer there have been many articles in the larger newspapers that constitute what is known as teacher-bashing. Such articles criticize the BCTF proposals at the bargaining table for wage increases and contract improvements. But they fail to mention several crucial distinctions between teachers and other B.C. public sector workers who have recently settled contracts.

First of all, not all public sector workers have settled within the so-called "zero mandate." Both nurses and police officers recently settled for close to nine per cent over three years. Keep in mind that that probably will not even keep up to cost of living increases.

But more importantly, only B.C. teachers have been working under an illegally stripped contract for the past decade. In the decision of the B.C. Supreme Court, it is shown that the government illegally stripped our contract in January 2002 and deprived teachers of both the benefits of the contract and of their charter rights as Canadians. The main clauses that were stripped were the limits on class size and composition. When teachers had bargained these clauses, they were so important to the learning conditions in classrooms that we agreed to a 0-0-2 wage mandate in exchange. So we not only lost these important provisions when the contract was stripped, but we also failed to receive a wage increase that would even keep up to the cost of living. Both teachers and students have suffered the consequences ever since, with thousands of oversized classes and classes in which there is not enough support for the many special needs students. So the government has saved money both by cutting the number of teachers, and by not increasing teacher wages. Furthermore, the percentage of our GDP spent on funding for public education has decreased significantly in the last decade. The result is that the needs of all students are not being met, in particular those with special needs.

Only teachers have been subject to this illegal action for a decade which has not been rectified by the government or by our direct employers.

In addition, B.C. teachers are the lowest paid teachers west of Quebec as shown by the independent mediator who settled the Saskatchewan teachers' strike this year (they received an increase of 8.8 per cent over the next three years.) In fact, the mediator stated that the wages of B.C. teachers were so much lower than the other western provinces that they significantly brought down the average when he tried to arrive at a fair increase for Saskatchewan. And let's not forget that we have the highest cost of living in Canada while being eighth in our wage levels in all provinces of Canada. It is important for the future of our education system to be on par with other provinces not only to attract new teachers to B.C., but also to retain the ones we have. Imagine going to university for five years, graduating with $20-30,000 in debt on average, and then starting your employment at around $47,000 per year on a 10-year grid. Graduates can easily earn twice that initial amount in the private sector, and increase their wages much more quickly. We need to attract excellent graduates to teaching. Very few men go into teaching anymore, and large numbers of young teachers burn out and leave the profession in the first five years when they find a job with better pay and a lot less stress. We feel it is essential that we be treated as equals with other teachers across Canada!!

As far as being able to afford these wage increases, please keep in mind two things. The B.C. government can always find lots of money for projects they want to fund. Take the retractable roof on B.C. Place which doesn't even work in the rain as a good example.

Secondly, in spite of global economics, the Liberal government largely created this funding crises with their regressive tax policies for both income tax and especially corporate taxes, which are now not only the lowest in North America, but also in all of the G8 countries. A fair taxation system is what is needed, as Paul Willcocks discussed in his column a few weeks ago.

Teachers have been desperately trying to truly bargain at both provincial and local tables since March, but there has been a concerted effort to stall any progress from the employer side of the table, and now to deny the meaning of the decision of the Supreme Court.

I guess if you are of the opinion that a government is allowed to commit illegal acts and violate the charter rights of 40,000 British Columbians in order to save money, and that somehow the highly-qualified dedicated teachers of B.C. do not deserve to be treated as equals with other teachers in Canada, then you will support those who engage in teacher bashing.

Unfortunately, teachers are used to it and there will be more to come as school starts up this fall. I hope that all teachers will realize they do not need to apologize for asking to be treated legally and fairly!

And I hope that many parents and other members of the public will spend some time in classrooms to see just how dedicated and hard-working our public school teachers are.