||Volume 14, Number 6, April 2002
Teachers’ professionalism under attack
by Larry Kuehn
The Vancouver Sun headline said "Trim teacher power, Liberals urge." The article was describing the report of the legislative committee on education and this time the headline was right. Much of the report is aimed at limiting the professional autonomy of individual teachers and at weakening the collective professional voice of teachers.
The committee report sets out an agenda of attacks on teacher autonomy that could well be a source of professional struggle for some time to come.
As an example, the report calls for "institutions and individuals throughout the system to prepare annual plans for improvement and development based on measures of performance results and consideration of research concerning best practice." This ignores the fact that little of education research is conclusive and often "best practice" is determined more by ideology than research.
However, these plans are to be used to "direct funds and release time for staff to engage in professional development." The report calls for legislation to ensure that the design, delivery and funding of professional development is "in accordance with their plans for improvement."
The committee also wants to mute the collective voice of teachers currently expressed through the BCTF. The report calls for a College of Educators to take over all of professional development that is currently a part of the BCTF, its locals and its provincial specialist associations. Belonging to the College of Educators would be compulsory—but membership in no other organization could be required.
Just to ensure that teachers don’t have a major impact on the policies of this College of Educators, the committee wants it to be controlled by "sufficient community members." The college would be paid for by teachers, but without the right to determine its direction. Yet this college would control key aspects of the professional life of teachers—"certification, standards of practice, ethics, enforcement and professional development."
Another level of control on teachers and the schools is through compliance audits. We are all familiar with the kinds of audits that have forced school districts to return money to the province because the auditors say that funded services have not been supplied to students with special needs, ESL students or others. The committee calls for the audit approach to be expanded to provide an external audit of "learning achievement, stakeholder satisfaction, compliance, and development."
The report talks several times about compliance—which means making sure that teachers are following outside direction rather than acting on their professional judgment. It calls for an information system that provides data on "compliance with relevant legislative and policy frameworks."
While the talk of the B.C. Liberal government is about local autonomy for school districts, its walk is tight control—except for the difficult decisions by boards on what to cut to meet the budgets provided by the province. In case anyone misses the message that they are to comply with government directives, a recommendation calls for "procedures for progressively greater external intervention into the governance and management of authorities and institutions who consistently demonstrate less than adequate performance."
What is it that justifies this movement from a professional model of decisions with a high degree of trust to this new system of central direction, compliance, audits and loss of professional autonomy?
The committee’s rationale seems to be in a section of the report called "Not all Learning Opportunities are World-Class." The committee acknowledges that some submissions said that they can’t provide "world class" programs because they have not been given enough resources. Further, while the report mentions that many submissions described programs that are excellent, the committee chose to believe that only a few specific programs met this standard.
The evidence that teachers and schools need more external control is that "There seems to be, however, a general belief that the achievements attained by many learners of British Columbia (especially the non-academic) are often mediocre at best." No research was described to support this "general belief." The positives were acknowledged with lip service—"that the current education system has many positive features and that it compares well to the systems in other provinces and countries." However, the committee chose to focus on what it calls "shortcomings of the current system."
The report also draws on a condemnation of the quality of the B.C. school system by Emery Dosdall, the deputy minister: "quantitative measures such as graduation rates, number of graduate degrees conferred, success of Aboriginals, success of new Canadians, and adult illiteracy rates indicate that British Columbia cannot consider itself to be world-class." Again, the committee—and the deputy, apparently—did no research to find that graduation rates increased by 10% in the last decade; the number of graduate degrees is a matter of how many are financed, not just how many would like to achieve them; the abysmal results for Aboriginal students are improving now that attention is being directed to this; after receiving adequate ESL service, many new Canadians do very well in school; and the higher illiteracy rates are for older British Columbians, not for the young people coming out of our schools.
So is there anything in the report beyond more control on teachers and condemnation of the success of the school system? Yes, indeed—the committee calls for the familiar nostrums of privatization, directing students to vocational education as determined by business and more use of technology.
Privatization would be encouraged through the education funding system so that it "ensures that appropriate funding flows to the service providers selected by each learner." One of the aspects of choice identified in the text of the report is "support of independent, private institutions."
One of the committee recommendations combines the idea of vocationalization and privatization: "Once learners complete the core curriculum, they are entitled to choose from a series of substantive pathways leading to certificates, diplomas or degrees and to attend any institution offering pathways." When one puts this recommendation in the context of a revision of graduation requirements, it opens the possibility of students in their final years of secondary school taking courses at any vocational training program. Already, B.C. has a higher number than anywhere else in Canada of private post-secondary training programs and the B.C. Liberal government has abolished the organization that provided some oversight on their operation on behalf of students.
The report also calls for a "strategic direction for the province to ensure that the education system addresses the anticipated employment needs of the province." Here the report places the interests of the economy over individual interests and dismisses parental desires for their children. The committee says it "appears that many parents view opportunities in technical and trades programs as fine for someone else’s child."
Technology is seen as an answer to many problems of education. The recommendations call for a provincial plan to see that "technology is used to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of learning opportunities and support services." The report also sees the college faculty association collective agreements as an impediment to the colleges making faculty offer their courses online rather than face-to-face. This was taken care of by gutting those provisions in Bill 28, the same legislation that ripped class-size and staffing provisions from teacher collective agreements.
The report has more than a few contradictions when one looks at the larger picture of what is happening in education in B.C.
It calls for one department or agency to develop a provincial infrastructure for online learning. Before the report came out another ministry announced that the Open Learning Agency, which offered online learning, was being eliminated and its president was fired—with a $400,000 payout. The agency is now not available for developing online learning.
The report calls for more choice. Yet the changes in the finance formula are leading to the loss of programs and the closure of schools. People in small, rural communities are being given choice in the purchase of liquor—the government proudly says that people will no longer have drive 20 kms to buy alcohol. However, they will now have to send their children that 20 kms every day to find a school they can attend.
Most shamefully, the report identifies an important problem, then offers no solutions. It talks about the need for children to have "social capital." These are the benefits, resources and social development that "enable children to take advantage of the educational opportunities available to them." In other words, hungry children don’t learn as well as those with a full stomach; students without family and community supports don’t get the full advantage of education.
The committee says that "children who have limited access to social capital have a difficult time succeeding. The literature on poverty and educational disadvantage provides extensive documentation of these difficulties."
A number of social-equity programs were developed over the past decade to address these issues. Now inner-city schools and community-school grants are on the chopping block. Support for foster children is being reduced. A wide range of social supports to families and their children are being eliminated. Rather than calling on government to maintain those programs, the best the committee could say is: "the issue of responsibility for equity programs is still a matter that needs to be resolved."
The overall message from the Legislative Committee on Education is, enforce compliance by teachers but let government avoid its responsibilities.
Larry Kuehn is director of the BCTF’s Research and Technology Division.
For more analysis and information, check the BCTF web site at www.bctf.ca.