Tag Archives: British Columbia

Page 2 — The weird saga of how the BC Ministry of Education funded a teenager to study Finnish teacher education

Hello British Columbians, stand by for news!

As Paul Harvey used to say, now it’s time for “Page 2,” in the weird saga of the $16,000 sole-sourced “research” contract handed out by Rick Davis, the BC Ministry of Education’s “superintendent of achievement,” to a recent high school grad so she could travel to Finland to study teacher education, “from a student’s perspective.” But something tells me we’ll have to wait for the “rest of the story.”

If your memory needs some refreshing check out out the original Vancouver Sun story, Janet Steffenhagen’s blog post, and Where The Blog Has No Name posts (here and here) from when the story first broke.

A big shoutout to Jordan Bateman, the BC Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation who today put the story back into play along with 115 pages of documents the CTF received as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request in an attempt to get to the bottom of why BC Liberals would give two research contracts to Anjali Vyas, an 18 year-old with no qualifications as a researcher, to spend 10 months conducting a “study” of teacher education practices at the University of Victoria and the University of Helsinki (with a 3 day stop over in London for a little holiday).

In his post on the CTF blog today, Bateman adds the following elements to the story:

1. The origin stories don’t match. Anjali Vyas told the Sun that she was deejaying her friend’s wedding when she somehow met Davis and started talking education philosophy. “We instantly hit it off and he was so interested in my project,” Vyas said.

But the emails in our possession leave a different impression. On page 11, a document that appears to have been prepared by Davis claims, “Anjali came to the attention of Rick Davis… she was referred by her teacher to him with the expectation that Mr. Davis may be able to narrow in the central questions around teacher education.” This was reinforced in an email from Anjali to Rick (page 88): “[Anjali’s teacher] Gord mentioned he had talked to you, and that I should get in touch with you [in] regards to my research… I was hoping to meet with you sometime soon and further discuss how this research could benefit not only my own knowledge of educational systems, but more importantly, it could illuminate some new and innovative ideas the BC government could implement.”

2. Rick Davis seems very unhappy with bureaucracy. Normally, I’d agree with cutting red tape in government, but rules that prevent sole-sourced contracts to 18 year olds seem pretty wise to me. In one email to Anjali (p. 34), he writes: “Have not forgotten but waiting for a few things to land on the contract front. Will call soon. It is really difficult in government to do things out of the box – but fun!” In another email to Anjali (p. 43), he writes: “You are on new turf. Cool but a little scary but you have lots of us close at hand.” In that same email, he compares Anjali to a historic, young explorer in charge of his own ship: “That is your destiny.”

3. Rick Davis funnels the money to the Saanich school district and has them contract Anjali Vyas (pp. 54, 57 and 115). Further, he has the Teacher Regulation Branch pay for her airfare to Finland (pp. 50 and 89).

4. When confusion arises that somehow the University of Victoria is sanctioning the Vyas project, UVic makes it clear they are not. “This project is not certified by the UVic Research Ethics Board,” wrote Eugenie Lam of UVic (p. 23). “We ask that on the consent form you remove the reference to the UVic Office of Research Services because the UVic Research Ethics Board has no oversight on this project.”

5. Claims that Anjali Vyas had a special connection to the University of Helsinki appear to be rubbish. Anjali told the Sun she was “obsessed” with the work of University of Helsinki professor Pasi Sahlberg, including his book Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland?. Amusingly, Rick Davis gave her that book (p. 96).

Okay, so I understand that for Rick Davis, $16,000.00 for a little trip to Europe is really a drop in the bucket, in 2011 he racked up $77,657.00 in travel, more than any other BC government employee.

But, what about this important “research” project. Based on the emails from Vyas to Davis and other folks in the Ministry, the Finns were as incredulous as the rest of us about this scheme:

Can you believe it? The Finns think someone conducting research on teacher education ought to have some credentials, perhaps even a graduate degree. The Finns were “dubious” of a teenage researcher funded by the BC government to study professional education of teachers, eh? But hey, I guess that’s the way Rick Davis and the BC Ministry of Education rolls when it comes to conducting research. I can almost hear Davis now …

“Credentials? Who needs credentials, we do whatever we the heck we please. Ethics Board clearance for BC government research? That’s just a bunch of red tape and we’re trying to reduce the size of government. By the way, has anyone see my Aeroplan card, I had it right here just here a minute ago when I was checking the latest travel expense standings.”

I haven’t seen Vylas’s final report (the contract stated it was due September 20, 2013), but here is the interview protocol that she planned to use in her study in Finland:

What can we say about these questions? Well, they’re of the sort one might expect from an inquisitive person with an interest in education, and no knowledge of professional or scholarly literature. Completely unnecummbered by the history, theory, research or practice of teaching and teacher education. I’m sure Vylas (and Davis) might learn something from this endeavour, but there’s no other way to describe this scenario than as colossal waste of taxpayer’s money and, as I’ve pointed out before, an insult to the communities of education practitioners, researchers, and serious policymakers.

With no travel budget, but connection to the internet, here’s a short list of things I’ve found that Finland does when it comes to teaching and teacher education:

  • Higher education is completely free.
  • There are high standards for entry into teacher education programs and admissions are highly selective (about 10% of applicants are accepted).
  • Teacher education programs are typically 5 years long and include study of the liberal arts, teaching subject speciality, theory and practice of teaching, including teaching students with disabilities.
  • There are no “alternative” routes to teaching (no shortcuts, that means no Teach for Finland, no online degrees, no one without pedagogical training is allowed to teach).
  • Finnish teachers and principals have autonomy to make educational decisions. The national curriculum is a guideline not a road map. Finnish teachers are not mere conduits for the transfer of information and skills dictated from the government.
  • National student assessment is based upon a sampling model (not every student is tested) and there are no consequences from these assessments for students, teachers, principals, or schools.
  • There is no standardized testing. And, no “value-added” models of teacher evaluation.
  • Finnish schools have small class sizes.
  • Finnish teachers and principals belong to unions.
  • As a result of the above, teaching is highly respected profession in Finland.

As Pasi Sahlberg writes in his book Finnish Lessons, Finnish schools promote the wellbeing of their students in a model that reflects many of the primary elements of John Dewey’s progressive approach to learning and teaching.

My suggestion to Davis, Education Minister Peter Fassbender, and Premier Christy Clark is, if you’re serious about looking to Finland for ideas on education then  stop the ongoing, obsessive attacks on the British Columbia Teachers Federation and start doing what is necessary to bring each of the above elements to reality in BC.

Here’s a short video on Finland’s formula for educational success:

BC Education Plan Linked to Private Corporations

BC Education Plan Linked to Private Corporations
Partnership between education ministry and not-for-profit with billionaire partners raises concerns.

By Katie Hyslop, 5 Oct 2012, TheTyee.ca

The government is proud of using citizen engagement and best practices to decide what and how to teach children in the BC Education Plan. But it’s also engaging at least one not-for-profit organization whose partners include technology corporations and private foundations that favour private market solutions to issues in the public education system.

British Columbia is one of 12 “jurisdictions” of the Global Education Leaders’ Program (GELP), a not-for-profit social enterprise organization based in the United Kingdom that according to its website is “committed to using the power of innovation to solve social challenges.”

“GELP’s ability to bring people together to think collectively and intensively about important issues around transformation is the key,” Rod Allen, B.C.’s superintendent of student achievement, says in a video posted on GELP’s website last month.

“It will be interesting for people to learn from us and we learn from them, but it’s what happens when you’re in the room together actively discussing and thinking about those issues that, to me, is the real magic.”

Run by the Innovation Unit, another not-for-profit social enterprise organization, GELP’s partners include technology corporations Cisco Systems Inc. and Promethean, and private foundations The Ellen Koshland Family Fund and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the latter of which openly supports the growth of charter schools in the U.S.

The relationship between the province’s Ministry of Education and GELP concerns Tara Ehrcke, president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association, a local of the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF).

The government presented the BC Education Plan as a solution to the needs of B.C. students, but the partnership with GELP leads her to believe the plan is actually suited to the needs of technology corporations.

“I think [the Ed Plan’s] goals are related to allowing companies to have a piece of the [Kindergarten to Grade 12] market,” she said.

When GELP met government

The BC Education Plan, launched last October, promises improved access to digital technology for students at school and at home, and includes a partnership with telecommunications corporation Telus to connect all schools to the Internet.

The plan’s online presence is designed around the idea of a continuous discussion with the public about what it would like to see in the future for education in B.C., but the ministry hopes to have a new BC Education Program by 2014.

A key part of the plan is personalized learning, also referred to as 21st century learning. According to the plan’s website, this include identifying what makes an educated citizen and how the K-12 system can achieve that, a focus on the “core competencies, skills, and knowledge that students need to succeed in the 21st century,” and flexibility regarding whether a student learns in the classroom or through online learning.

In comparison, GELP has similar goals. The organization’s main objectives include advocating for 21st century learning and what it calls Education 3.0, a set of ideas outlined through a series of white papers co-written by software corporation Cisco Systems.

Elements of Education 3.0 include a focus on “holistic change” to the school system, “collaborative learning technologies,” and “a transfer of ownership from teachers to learners.”

According to a GELP case study on the BC Education Plan, the Ministry of Education was introduced to GELP when ministry officials met the organization’s co-founder Valerie Hannon at the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement conference held in Vancouver in 2009.

The case study outlines stages of the BC Education Plan that are already underway, including redesigning curriculum, allowing school boards to set school calendars, and emphasizing school choice for parents. It notes the ministry has developed a team of 20 experts in order to deliver the plan, chosen by school superintendents, principals and vice-principals.

Future steps for the plan include a focus on reading — which the ministry announced earlier this year with the hiring of Superintendent of Reading Maureen Dockendorf — re-examining assessment, and a “decategorization of special needs education,” after which student achievement superintendent Allen is quoted as saying “no labels and no medical model. In a 21st century personalised [sic] world, I’ll tell you what a special education looks like if you can tell me what a ‘normal’ education is.”

BC Teachers’ Federation president Susan Lambert has concerns about the changes to special needs education, particularly since class size and composition, and the environment children live in at home, aren’t addressed in the BC Education Plan.

“We know that those are the two key factors around teaching and learning that build success; the BC Education Plan is completely devoid of any kind of conversation or addressing of those factors,” she told The Tyee.

“There’s this sense now that if you can just teach children correctly, if we can find a best practice that will allow every child to learn and grow, then we’ll be fine, we won’t have to put in special services for children with special needs, we won’t have to reduce class sizes so that children get more one on one attention. It’s duplicitous, because in fact it is designed simply to reduce the need for funding a high quality system, and that will be at the expense of every child.”

The Tyee contacted the Ministry of Education with questions about its relationship with GELP. A spokesperson told The Tyee the ministry consulted with several groups about the plan.

“The ministry staff talked to educators and other organizations in Alberta, Ontario, Finland, among other jurisdictions, and that was part of the research into the Ed Plan. The discussions and research into the Ed Plan began before the ministry engaged with GELP,” he said, although he could not confirm when that was.

Both Ontario and Finland are listed as GELP jurisdictions on GELP’s website, which outlines how much help they provide: “Each jurisdiction team is supported through six-monthly collaborative events, extended workshops, on-site and remote consultancy support, cross-country working groups and webinars. At the biannual Global Events, the whole GELP community meets in one of the participating countries to share leading-edge thinking and ideas. Teams work together to solve mutual challenges and offer critical support to one another.”

In a follow-up email, the ministry spokesperson told The Tyee although the BC Education Plan was officially launched last year, government has been looking at education reform for the last 10 years.

“There isn’t one moment in time when the research began, or research started with one specific organization – this has been an ongoing process. The ministry is always reviewing new and exemplary practices in B.C. and other jurisdictions across Canada and around the world that support students,” reads the email.

Value from every dollar

Innovation Unit, GELP’s parent organization, says in their mission statement they “have a strong track record of supporting leaders and organisations [sic] delivering public services to see and do things differently. They come to us with a problem and we empower them to achieve radically different solutions that offer better outcomes for lower costs.”

The Tyee couldn’t find a reference on the GELP website to the necessity of lowering the costs of education.

In an email to The Tyee, co-founder Hannon confirmed that working with finite resources is GELP’s specialty.

“Resources available to education are not infinite. Rightly and reasonably, the need and demand from education increases. Therefore we need to get the most value out of each $ spent,” Hannon writes, adding, “our sponsors have never attempted to exercise any ‘editorial control.'”

Ehrcke, who wrote a blog post on the ministry’s association with GELP, says Hannon’s focus on saving money jibes with the B.C. government’s history of closing down 176 schools in the last 11 years, citing a lack of funding.

She’s concerned that an organization with private corporations for partners doesn’t have the best solutions for a public education system in mind.

“It’s not surprising if your perspective is profitability for Cisco Systems or whoever, that your point of view would be ‘how do we expand into those markets?'” she says.

“I see public education as something that ought to be provided publicly with public funding and publicly managed, upholding principles of equity, and the private sector really shouldn’t have a part in that.”

GELP’s partners aren’t the only corporations the Ministry of Education has been linked to recently. Donald Gutstein, a School of Communications professor at Simon Fraser University, produced a research paper for the BCTF in June examining the BC Education Plan and speculating as to how the corporate aspirations of Pearson Education, a global education supplies and technology corporation, could fit with the ministry’s plans for education reform.

Pearson purchased the Ontario company The Administrative Assistants Ltd., which produced the software for BCeSIS, the troubled Ministry of Education database, in 2010.

One of the links Gutstein points out between the BC Ed plan and Pearson’s mandate is one that GELP shares: a focus on personalized or 21st century education. It’s a framework both Lambert and Ehrcke find misleading.

“It’s packaged under the guise of a love affair of technology and this criticism of the current system of not keeping up with the pace of change, which is so untrue,” Lambert told The Tyee.

Ehrcke says she isn’t against change in education, and acknowledges that all school boards will purchase computers. But she challenges the assumption that digital gadgets are necessary for learning, and believes the $346,326.66 her district spent on Apple products could have been better spent.

“From an educational point of view, you think about learning first, and then you think about what are the tools that we need to create the best learning environment. You don’t start with the tool and build your curriculum around it,” she says.

BCTF not consulted

Superintendent Allen says in the video on GELP’s website the partnership with GELP isn’t about answers to the ministry’s problems, but rather the correct framing of the questions.

“One of the things that we like about GELP is that it’s more about the questions than about the answers, because we’re just trying to refine the questions. Once you get to answers, it feels like then the inquiry stops,” he says.

“So we want increasingly interesting and engaging questions that lead us deeper and deeper into the work.”

Lambert is upset, however, that GELP was consulted on education reform when, after two years of asking to be part of a revisioning of education in B.C., the BCTF was only asked to consult with government earlier this year after the BC Education Plan was announced.

“We were asked by the [then] minister [George Abbott] during job action,” she told The Tyee.

“We declined during job action. We were at such huge odds at the bargaining table: we weren’t able to negotiate class size and composition, we weren’t able to bargain adequate salaries that would attract the brightest and best into teaching, we weren’t able to bargain prep time, so we couldn’t then go in with the minister and chat about education reform.

“It was hypocritical of them, I think, to ask us in after the development of the vision, even though they knew we had been demanding, asking, pleading to get in on the ground floor, they shut us out.”

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee. Follow her on Twitter @kehyslop.

Working toward tuition free post-secondary education in BC

I was interviewed for this story in The Georgia Straight, which raises the question of free post-secondary education in British Columbia and the lack of uptake on the topic in the current BC election discourse.

In my interview with The Straight, I highlighted the staggering debt load post-secondary students currently face. In Canada, student debt (not including provincial and private loans) is over $15 billion according to the Canadian Federation of Students. The high cost of post-secondary education in BC is a significant barrier to attendance by lower and middle income students. At least one in four non-attendees identify financial issues as an obstacle to further education.

The CFS notes that “Canadian research suggests that debt levels have a direct impact on success in post-secondary education. One study found that as student debt rose from less than $1000 to $10,000 per year, program completion rates for those with only loans (and no grants) plummeted from 59% to 8%. Similar conclusions can be drawn from Statistics Canada’s Youth In Transition Survey (YITS), which found that of those who cease their studies early, 36% cited financial reasons.”

Tuition at Canadian universities is rising faster than inflation, climbing 5% in 2012 (compared 2% inflation rate).

Neoliberal social policies have exacerbated the problems with student debt and access to higher education. Christy Clark’s BC Liberal government cut higher education by $46 million this year. In Alberta, higher education took a $100 million cut at the hands of the Alison Redford’s governing Progressive Conservative Party. As budgets are cut, colleges and universities (as well as K-12 schools) are encouraged to look for market-based solutions. BC colleges and universities are now ramping up efforts to recruit international students, who will pay five times the tuition charged to BC residence, in an effort to increase revenue. These recruitment efforts further restrict access to BC residents when there are already too few seats available in colleges and universities.

The ever increasing cost of higher education ultimately threatens existence of education as a public good in Canada (and the USA) and has deleterious effects on career choices and financial futures of millions of students as they face debt bondage. And this is not a circumstance limited to young people as many baby boomers who have gone back university are now struggling to repay their loans.

Lastly, student debt works to dampen critical thought and actions aimed at resisting the status quo. Noam Chomksy argues that “students who acquire large debts putting themselves through school are unlikely to think about changing society. When you trap people in a system of debt, they can’t afford the time to think. Tuition fee increases are a disciplinary technique, and, by the time students graduate, they are not only loaded with debt, but have also internalized the disciplinarian culture. This makes them efficient components of the consumer economy.” Exactly the kind of results neoliberal education policy makers are looking for.

Read The Georgia Straight article here:

Candidates should discuss free postsecondary education, say critics

by Carlito Pablo on Apr 25, 2013 at 3:11 am

Politicians on the campaign trail always say that education is a good thing. Yet many are silent about free university and college education.

Perhaps that’s because making this suggestion inevitably invites the question about money. What would it cost?

It doesn’t seem much, really. For fiscal year 2013-14, the B.C. government expects to collect about $1.4 billion in tuition and other fees. That’s only a small fraction—three percent—of a provincial budget totalling $44 billion.

The fact that many candidates don’t talk about free postsecondary education as a goal worth pursuing—one practical step at a time—indicates two things to Enda Brophy, an assistant professor of communications at SFU.

“On the one hand, I would argue that it demonstrates a lack of vision on their part,” Brophy told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “On the other, it quite obviously underscores their lack of commitment to a genuinely public education system. In other words, they can talk the talk regarding their commitment to public education, but walking the walk would mean taking concrete steps toward a free, public postsecondary system.”

According to the academic, there is an ethical argument to be made that “education should not be a commodity that is bought and sold.”

“In other words, that education and the production of knowledge, like health care, need to be accessible to anyone who wants it,” Brophy said.

As a nation, Canada committed to this ideal when it ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in 1976. The treaty states: “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.”

A study released in January 2012 by the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives demonstrates that university-educated people pay, on average, $106,000 to $159,000 more in income taxes over their working lives than those with only a high-school diploma.

In Paid in Full: Who Pays for University Education in BC?, author and economist Iglika Ivanova notes that in contrast, a four-year degree costs $50,630, of which 40 percent is paid by students in tuition fees.

Ivanova concludes that “undergraduate education stands out as a profitable investment for the public treasury when all students’ payments for their education—both up-front tuition fees and additional income taxes paid over their careers—are compared with the costs of providing university education.”

In many countries in Europe and elsewhere, like Algeria and Cuba, free postsecondary education is more a rule rather than the exception, according to Simon Tremblay-Pepin. He is a researcher with IRIS (Institut de recherche et d’informations socio-économiques), a Quebec-based think tank that argues that the abolition of tuition fees is economically viable and socially just.

“If we’re talking about a progressive way to free education by lowering the fees year after year, it could be a good way,” Tremblay-Pepin told the Straight by phone when he was in Vancouver for a speaking engagement. “It’s not something that you need to do overnight. Still, you must have the objective in your head that you’re going to a free education and not just lowering fees for electoral reasons because you want to have the youth vote. That’s the difference between having a plan for society and trying to collect votes.”

B.C.’s Green party has declared that “universal and free” education at all levels is one of its long-term goals, promising an immediate reduction of 20 percent in tuition fees.

“The Green party is really out in front on this issue, much more so with a greater vision than either the [B.C.] NDP or the Liberals have offered at this point,” UBC education professor E. Wayne Ross told the Straight in an April 19 phone interview.

The ruling B.C. Liberals have pledged to cap tuition-fee increases at two percent. But with tuition fees having doubled since the Liberals returned to power in 2001, Ross noted that education is already “unaffordable”.

New Democrats have talked about a $100-million needs-based grant system. “That’s important because those needs-based grants have disappeared under the Liberals, but that’s a Band-Aid,” Ross said. “It doesn’t really address the overall problem that we face with student debt and the impact of the lack of access to higher education because of the tuition levels.”

Although the Greens are an “outlier” in the mainly Liberal–New Democrat contest, that’s a good thing, according to Ross. If their idea of free postsecondary education gets traction during this election campaign, the Greens may “pull parties like the NDP, in particular, maybe back towards the left side of the spectrum a little bit more”.

But Ross also noted that because neoliberalism, or the belief that the supremacy of the market trumps public good, is dominant in this age, perhaps the Greens might have a different message if their political fortunes were somewhat different: “If the Green party was more competitive, would the Green party ever say that? And I’m not trying to knock the Green party. I’m also trying to say that [as] the NDP moves towards what they see as the electable centre the closer, the better their [electoral] chances get.”

Source URL: http://www.straight.com/news/375006/candidates-should-discuss-free-postsecondary-education-say-critics

Some BC and Alberta schools dump percentage grades for students

Should schools move away from grading students? Yes!

Of course, it’s a time “honoured” tradition to use grades as the key means of sorting students to meet the demands of business. But, if you’re more more interested in motivating students to learn and less interested in treating education like a commodity, there’s really little room to debate the point.

School boards in Ridge Meadows, BC and Battle River, AB have decided to stop giving percentage grades to their students.

The Vancouver Sun recently ran a story on the Ridge Meadows Schools (Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows BC) that have adopted an alternative approach to student assessment in which elementary teachers are no longer required to give letter grades to students.

Rather than assigning As, Bs or Cs to kids from grades 4 to 7, teachers can instead use the conference model to assess how well children are grasping course material, as well as their learning style, readiness to progress and comprehension of overall concepts. The standard reporting system does not assign letter grades for students in kindergarten to Grade 3, but under the new system, students in all elementary grades will be invited to participate more fully in their evaluations by completing self-assessments and setting future learning goals.

The alternative system will engage students while providing more meaning to parents than a simple letter grade, said Ridge Meadows school trustee Susan Carr, who has two children in the school system.

Ridge Meadows school trustees were unanimous in their support for the new approach, which was developed over the past two years by a district committee. The Ridge Meadows News reported that “Committee members noted the feedback from parents who have been involved so far is “through-the-roof positive.”

In Alberta, the Battle River School District’s has adopted an alternative grading system that replaces percentage grades with categories.

Under the assessment model, students are marked with an achievement level that indicates they are within a percentage range. A student scoring between zero and 50 per cent would be at the “beginning” level. A “developing” student is within the 50-66 per cent range, “achieving” is between 67 and 83 per cent and “excelling” ranges from 84-100 per cent. (The Edmonton Journal)

Camrose, AB parents don’t seem to be has uniformly positive about Battle River’s decision as about 150 recently protested the move.

Today on CBC Radio’s The 180 with Jim Brown, Sandra Mathison, a UBC education professor and member of the Institute for Critical Education Studies discussed the issue of grading students and provided some sharp counter-point to Michael Zwaagstra, a high school teacher who is affiliated with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (a Fraser Institute clone that is primarily funded by right-wing outfits like the Donner Foundation).

The Frontier Centre and Zwaagstra’s views on education get a lot of play on the editorial pages of Vancouver’s daily papers, both of which prominently embrace and espouse neoliberal public policy, which places the interests of corporate capital and their shareholders over the interests of people.

It was interesting to hear Zwaagstra shift to center when confronted with Mathison’s counter-point.

Get the podcast of this episode of The 180 with Jim Brown here.


Thoughts on BC Education Ministry’s new curriculum

Public school curriculum in British Columbia is undergoing a transformation, at least that’s the claim of the Education Ministry, which for the past two years has been conducting consultations with the public and an curriculum framework advisory group on a new curriculum.

The ministry’s efforts have largely been conducted without teacher input or participation, which is problematic, but the general aims of the new curriculum as represented in ministry documents are surprisingly promising, has I pointed out in a letter published in yesterday’s Vancouver Sun:

While it remains to be seen what the B.C. education ministry’s curriculum plans will produce, especially since teachers are not at the table, their aims are promising.

Reducing prescriptiveness and the sheer volume of the curricular mandate is laudable. As it stands, the breadth of the curriculum makes in-depth study of topics a pipe dream in most classrooms.

Curricular flexibility should allow teachers to foster more motivated learning, that is motivation of students to acquire new knowledge and skills, rather than expecting a standardized curriculum to meet the needs of all students.

Less of an emphasis on transmitting facts and more of a focus on big ideas will encourage increased student engagement and create graduates who are more likely to possess personally meaningful understandings of subjects they study.

A curriculum that focuses on concepts is not a curriculum that ignores facts. Concepts are abstract ideas generalized from particular instances or evidence (e.g., “facts”).

A fact is just a piece of information, which schools generally ask students to memorize. Concepts are understood.

Lastly, curriculum is more than a document or set of guidelines. It is what students experience, the dynamic interactions of teachers, learners, subject matter, and the context. The true measure of success in any curriculum will be found in its effects on students thinking and actions, not in how many facts students can regurgitate.

Predictably, there has been some negative reaction to the idea of a concepts-based (as opposed to facts-based) curriculum, from folks who think students are blank slates and education is about memorization. See, for example, this column by a former teacher in the Vancouver Sun.

I’m not without skepticism regarding the Ministry’s effort to transform the curriculum.

The ministry’s project is essentially about changing the content of the curriculum container. That is, when it comes to conceptions of what curriculum is, the BC Education Ministry operates on a hierarchical/industrial model of curriculum. For the ministry,“curriculum defines for teachers what students are expected to learn and be able to demonstrate in their grade or course of study.”

Thinking of curriculum this way separates the conception of teachers’ work from its execution. In other words, teachers are merely conduits through which “the curriculum” flows. The result is a de-skilling of teachers (and a degradation of the work of teaching) that is, teachers’ work is narrowly defined as delivering a product that has been produced elsewhere. Ironically, most teachers in BC and the teacher education programs that prepare them, accept this division of labor as natural.

An additional irony: the dominant conceptions of curriculum and teachers work in BC contradict the stated goals of reduced prescriptiveness and increased flexibility and responsiveness of the curriculum. Think about it, what we have here is a government mandating reduced prescriptiveness and more flexibility. Really?

Perhaps the rhetoric around curriculum transformation is just a cover the governing BC (neo)Liberal Party to advance profiteering in the education sector just has they have in others. See this analysis of what “personalizing” the curriculum might mean.

Post-Secondary Faculty Support BC Teachers

Please consider signing and circulating a petition for post-secondary support of BC teachers / BCTF

Thank you,

Sandra Mathison, Stephen Petrina & E. Wayne Ross
University of British Columbia
Faculty of Education

Institute for Critical Education Studies

Update to issue 17 of Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor

The current issue of Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor has been updated with two new field reports.

Issue No. 17 of Workplace “Working In, and Against, the Neo-Liberal State: Global Perspectives on K-12 Teacher Unions” is guest edited by Howard Stevenson of Lincoln University (UK).

The new field reports include:

The NEA Representative Assembly of 2010: A Longer View of Crisis and Consciousness
Rich Gibson

Following the 2009 National Education Association (NEA) Representative Assembly (RA) in San Diego, new NEA president Dennis Van Roekel was hugging Arne Duncan, fawning over new President Obama, and hustling the slogan, “Hope Starts Here!” At the very close of the 2009 RA, delegates were treated to a video of themselves chanting, “Hope starts Here!” and “Hope Starts with Obama and Duncan!” The NEA poured untold millions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours, into the Obama campaign. In 2009, Van Roekel promised to tighten NEA-Obama ties, despite the President’s educational policies and investment in war. What happened in the year’s interim? What was the social context of the 2010 RA?

Resisting the Common-nonsense of Neoliberalism: A Report from British Columbia
E. Wayne Ross

Faced with a $16 million budget shortfall, the Vancouver school trustees, who have a mandate to meet the needs of their students, have lobbied for more provincial funding to avoid draconian service cuts. The government has refused the request, and its special advisor to the Vancouver School Board criticizes trustees for engaging in “advocacy” rather than making “cost containment” first priority. The clash between Vancouver trustees and the ministry of education is not “just politics.” Rather, education policy in BC reflects the key features of neoliberal globalization, not the least of which is the principle that more and more of our collective wealth is devoted to maximizing private profits rather than serving public needs. British Columbia is home to one of the most politically successful neoliberal governments in the world, but fortunately it is also a place to look for models of mass resistance to the neoliberal agenda. One of the most important examples of resistance to the common-nonsense of neoliberalism in the past decade is the British Columbia teachers’ 2005 strike, which united student, parent, and educator interests in resisting the neoliberal onslaught on education in the public interest.

BC Liberals speaking with forked-tongue, again. This time when it comes to “advocacy”

The Vancouver School Board is not giving in to the demands of the BC Ministry of Education to shut up and make $17 million dollars in budget cuts that will result in closed schools, cancelled programs, and teacher layoffs.

The board says it has balanced its budget, as required by law, but to do so it had to make brutal cuts to education programs because its budget of about $480 million is not sufficient to cover rising costs, including salaries, pensions and MSP payments. It estimates its shortfall is about $17 million. But Wenezenki-Yolland concluded the board has sufficient resources to deliver a quality education program but has wasted money through poor governance, a lack of strategic planning and missed opportunities. She suggested several actions to improve the bottom line — including raising rents, cancelling non-core services such as junior kindergarten and closing schools — but Bacchus said the board was already considering such actions.

One of the primary criticisms levelled at the VSB in the Comptroller General’s report is that trustees spend too much time, energy, and resources on “advocacy,” that is lobbying the government for increased funding that will improve teaching and learning conditions in Vancouver schools. The Comptroller General and Minister of Education want the trustees to make “cost containment” their number one priority.

Fiscal responsibility and advocating for adequate funding is not an “either/or” choice. VSB chair Patti Bacchus and the majority of trustees understand this. But as this piece in the Vancouver Courier makes clear, the ministry wants the trustees to act like bureaucrats and just do what they’re told. For some reason government (and at least a couple of the trustees) think there’s no place for advocacy or “politics” in education. That’s either an extremely naive or disingenuous understanding of what democracy is all about, as Paul Shaker and I point out in our comments to the the Courier.

So, BC Liberals castigate the VSB trustees for doing what many promised in their election campaigns—advocating for the district by resisting chronic underfunding of the education system and downloading of costs. While at the same time BC Liberals spend billions of taxpayer dollars on propaganda about how their neoliberal economic policies (that allow a handful of private interests to control as much as possible of social life in order to maximize their personal profit) are good for the rest of us. There’s more than a little irony in the decision by Elections BC that the government’s HST propaganda violates the law.

VSB v. BC Ministry of Education or how neoliberalism operates in your own backyard

“Think globally and act locally” may be trite catchphrase, but thinking globally can give us insight into the current feud between the Vancouver School Board and the Ministry of Education.

Faced with a $16 million budget shortfall, the Vancouver trustees, who have a mandate to meet the needs of their students, have lobbied for more provincial funding to avoid draconian service cuts. The government has refused the request, and its special advisor to the VSB criticizes trustees for engaging in “advocacy” rather than making “cost containment” first priority. [Download the special advisor’s report here.]

What kind of governing principles demand “cost containment” as the prime concern of those charged with meeting the educational needs of our children? It’s called neoliberal globalization. It is the prevailing economic paradigm in today’s world and references something everyone is familiar with—policies and processes whereby a relative handful of private interests are permitted to control as much as possible of social life in order to maximize their personal profit.

The main points of neoliberalism will sound familiar to anyone who has paid attention to provincial government decisions on B.C. Rail or the HST:

  • Rule of the market, that is, liberating free enterprise from any restrictions imposed by government, no matter the social damage that results;
  • Cutting public expenditures for social services;
  • Reduction of government regulation that might diminish profits;
  • Privatization, selling government-owned enterprises to private investors; and
  • Concepts of “the public good” or “community” are eliminated, replaced with “individual responsibility.”

The structure of the provincial funding model for education follows from these basic tenets.

The VSB, indeed all school boards and other social services in the province, are now subject to the rule of the market, thus justifying “cost containment” as the first priority of those mandated to deliver education to the public. In this context, education is treated like any other commodity. Free market competition is viewed as the route to assure a quality product. And “efficiency” or “cost containment” is prized.

In B.C., government retains its authority over public education, but no longer undertakes the responsibility of assuring the educational well-being of the public. Instead, this responsibility is devolved to individual school boards.

It is no accident that when the province appointed the special advisor to examine the Vancouver board’s budget processes, it specifically excluded the key issue raised by the trustees and every other school board in the province, the structure of the provincial funding model for education.

School boards are now expected to become part of the market by relegating the educational needs of their communities and making the financial bottom-line the first priority. The recent trend in B.C. educational policy makes this point clear. School districts have been encouraged to create business companies to sell the Dogwood diploma overseas. Lack of provincial funding has forced school and district PACs into extensive funding-raising, accounting for almost 2 per cent of district operating budgets province-wide. International student tuitions are such a major source of income growth for some school districts that government has assigned a deputy minister to coordinate the sale of B.C. education internationally.

And now the special advisor’s report recommends that the VSB close schools, cancel programs, fire teachers, and raise rental rates on non-profit organizations that provide services, such as after-school care, which are in short supply.

The clash between Vancouver trustees and the ministry of education is not “just politics.” Rather, education policy in B.C. reflects the key features of neoliberal globalization, not the least of which is the principle that more and more of our collective wealth is devoted to maximizing private profits rather than serving public needs.

[For an informative overview of how neoliberal globalization works in schools see: Schuetze, H. G., et al., (2010). Globalization, neoliberalism and schools: The Canadian story. In C. A. Torres, L. Olmos, R. Van Heertum (Eds.), Educating the global citizen: Globalization, education reform, and the politics of equity and inclusion. Oak Park, IL: Bentham eBooks. Ross, E. W., & Gibson, R. (2007). Neoliberalism and education reform. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.]

Kindergarten as workforce training?

Both of Vancouver’s daily papers ran a story earlier this week (on their business pages) under the headline “Unprepared schoolkids cost B.C. $400 billion.” The stories reported on a BC Business Council funded report that argues “B.C. loses $400 billion in lost potential because it sends one in three children to kindergarten unprepared.”

Why would the Business Council care about kindergarteners?

Well, what we’re seeing is an intensification of the “school as workforce training” rationale pushed down from the secondary and post-secondary levels of education to kindergarten and preschool. “If children are not ready for school, they won’t be ready for the working world,” says one the report’s authors, who is a professor in Human Early Learning Partnership at UBC.

The master logic of “schools as workforce preparation” has been captured in the New Commission on the American Workforce report, “Tough Choices for Tough Times”. Tough-Tough was authored by such educational experts as the director of the militarized Lockheed-Martin, and university presidents whose incomes are frequently dependant on grants from the military, earmarked for “research.” Tough-Tough calls for national curriculum standards as a means of recapturing the witless patriotism necessary to get people to work, and eagerly fight and die, for what is abundantly easy to see are the interests of their own rulers.

Here’s a letter I sent to The Province newspaper, which was not published:

From: E Wayne Ross
Subject: BC Business Council report on kindergarten
Date: September 18, 2009 4:39:02 PM PDT
To: provletters@theprovince.com

Kindergarten as workforce training? This absurdity, found in a recent BC Business Council study, illustrates what is wrong with educational reform across North America: education for corporate profits instead of in the public interest.

The first principle of the Business Council, and the provincial government, which serves at its beck and call, is that the market rules, no matter the social damage from cutting public expenditures for social services, deregulation, and privatization. The BC Council report conceives of young students as “human capital” and reduces learning to bits of information and skill to be taught and tested.

If we leave kindergarten to these folks it will be transformed from a space of creative play and social interaction to one where the next generation of low-wage workers learn to do what they’re told.

E. Wayne Ross
Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy
University of British Columbia