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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 2, October 2005

A note from your teachers

These "notes" are being mailed on a continuous basis to MLAs informing them of the issues teachers are facing. Teachers may find the information helpful when speaking to parents and the public. bctf.ca/NoteFromTeachers.

No. 1—Teachers are looking for a negotiated agreement

The teacher contract, which was imposed by legislation in January 2002, expired on June 30, 2004. The BCTF has been at the bargaining table over the last year trying to achieve a negotiated agreement. In addition to a narrow number of improvements, the 2005 BCTF Annual General Meeting established three overall goals for us to achieve:

1. A return of free collective bargaining rights (the right to bargain all terms and conditions of employment and the full right to strike).

2. A return of the teaching and learning conditions that existed in 2002 prior to the contract’s being stripped of those provisions by legislation.

3. A fair and reasonable salary increase.

Learning and working conditions lost
In 2002, the provincial government legislated a major strip of our collective agreement, removing significant provisions that set limits for class sizes and established staffing ratios for the provision of specialist teachers. The legislation also completely eliminated a number of agreements of locals in amalgamated districts, imposing the agreement of the other local in the district. As well, it was made illegal for teachers to bargain class size, class composition, or staffing formula in the future. One of the results of that contract stripping was the loss of over 2,500 FTE teaching positions in the province over three years.

We are not able to achieve either a return of conditions or rights at the bargaining table with our employer, the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association. Thus, we have been seeking a venue with government to discuss classroom teaching conditions and bargaining rights. So far, we have not been successful in obtaining that venue. Teachers are very worried about the decline in services for students. They cannot do what’s best for their students without the resources to do the job.

Teacher salaries fall further behind
On the salary issue, the employer has not moved off a zero net position for three years, in spite of the fact the B.C. budget now boasts a healthy surplus. Salaries of B.C. teachers are behind those of teachers elsewhere. Teachers in other provinces have already reached agreements that provide for increases. For example, B.C. salaries are already behind those in Alberta and Ontario. This difference will grow significantly if there is no salary increase for B.C. teachers.

An example, for comparison, is the salary gap between two teachers with Category 5 qualifications and at the experience maximum. One is a teacher in Vancouver; the other, in Ottawa. The Vancouver teacher is already making $9,013 less than the Ottawa colleague. If B.C. teachers get no salary increase, the gap will grow, with the Vancouver teacher making $12,560 less than the Ottawa teacher in 2007. More details at bctf.ca/ResearchReports/2005ts01.

Teachers are asking government to change the mandate so negotiations can take place
Teachers are determined to achieve improvements for their students and a fair and reasonable salary increase for themselves. We have a provincial strike vote scheduled for September 20-22, with the results being available on September 23.

Teachers want a negotiated settlement. Teachers are calling on the government to meet with the BCTF to develop a mutually agreed upon process that will lead to a negotiated settlement.

The government needs to change the mandate given to BCPSEA so that a settlement at the table is possible. Teachers have consistently and overwhelmingly identified learning conditions guarantees and a reasonable salary settlement as their top priorities.

This is the time for government to problem-solve with teachers, rather than impose decisions that will exacerbate the situation and lead to long-term problems in public education.

For more information, see bctf.ca/Bargain/negotiations/TeachersTakeAStand/WhyStrikeVote.html


No. 2—What is inclusion?

Inclusion is the philosophy that nearly every student should participate in all academic and social aspects of the school and, whenever possible, should be integrated into a regular classroom. Inclusion is based on a belief that students with special needs and the other students in the class will gain from all the students’ being integrated into that class.

Inclusion of students with special needs has been a government policy in B.C. for some 16 years.

Teachers have supported inclusion
It is a lot more work to teach a class that includes students with special needs, but most teachers have supported the policy, if adequate resources are provided to do a good job for the students with special needs and the other students.

A designated student with special needs requires an IEP (Individual Education Plan). The IEP is developed by a committee, and then the teacher is expected to provide the special support prescribed. In many cases, that involves an adaptation or a modification of the curriculum. The idea is to have the student with special needs participate in the class as a whole, but with different materials or assignments, or with special teaching approaches that respond to her or his learning needs.

The support the teacher needs in order to make inclusion effective for everyone may be an educational assistant, special resources, and/or help from a specialist teacher.

Class size and composition make a difference
With all the extra work required to serve one student with special needs, it is no wonder teachers consistently say class size and composition make a difference. The total number of students in a class, as well as the number of students with special needs, and the nature of the special need all make a big difference. More students with special needs means more modification, adaptation, and special teaching approaches. Some special needs-severe behavior problems, for example-add more to the load than do others.

Because class composition makes such a difference, it was one of the areas negotiated into collective agreements. A contractual limit on the number of students with special needs was aimed at making the job of the teacher possible, and also at providing a positive learning experience for all the students in a class.

Removing those provisions by legislation created an untenable teaching and learning situation in many classes. Some teachers now report having as many as 10 students with special needs in a classroom that also has more students in total than were allowed in the past.

Special needs support services have declined
The cuts in teaching positions that school boards had to make dramatically reduced the number of professionals available to provide support services for inclusion. Between 2001 and 2004, the number of special education professional support positions declined by 740, making up 28% of the total reductions in teachers.

In addition, the work of the specialists changed. Because of cuts to English as a second language specialists and learning assistance teachers, the roles have been blended into one staffperson in many schools. Each area requires different specialist knowledge. This means there are now fewer specialists, and the specialists left have to provide support in areas different from their area of expertise. The impact of this is described in a research report on the BCTF web site at bctf.ca/education/InclusiveEd/challenge. Teachers with blended specialist roles cannot provide adequate support. Nor can classroom assistants make up for the losses.

Inclusion can work with adequate resources
Inclusion can be made to work, but only with adequate and appropriate supports and limits on class sizes and class composition. To provide less than adequate support for students with special needs also harms the quality of education for the other students in the inclusive classrooms. That’s why class size, class composition, and access to professional support are high on the list of issues of importance to teachers.


No. 3—Teacher-librarians are needed more than ever

The B.C. government has said it wants to "make B.C. the best educated, most literate jurisdiction on the continent." Teacher-librarians have a key role to play in our schools if we are to achieve a more literate population.

International research has shown a consistent correlation between school libraries, subject learning, and information literacy. If we really want to improve literacy, we have to ensure that we have teacher-librarians with budgets that allow for an adequate collection of books. With the many new technologies available, budgets must also provide for quality resources in new media.

Google cannot replace the teacher-librarian
Yes, there is a lot of information available through the computer on the web. Tools like Google can help to find information. However, googling can also lead to misinformation or to so much information that a student is baffled. One role of the teacher-librarian is to help students develop information literacy, which has been defined as "the ability to access, evaluate, and make effective use of information." The teacher-librarian can work with students to learn about the multitude of different resources and to develop skills in evaluating what they find for relevance and accuracy.

The teacher-librarian works with other teachers, as well. They provide resources to classroom teachers, helping them keep the curriculum up to date with new information and new technological tools. Teacher-librarians take extra university courses beyond that needed for their teaching certificate to gain the qualifications and skills to help students and teachers.

Teacher-librarians can do all of this--if they exist. According to a Statistics Canada survey of schools, only about 2% of B.C. schools have a full-time librarian. Many do not even have a part-time librarian, only a library technician to keep the doors open and process books. Without a teacher-librarian, the most important functions of the library-selecting the right resources for the school and working with students and teachers-are not carried out.

Where have all the books gone?

According to a Statistics Canada study of school library resources, the budget for B.C. elementary schools averaged at $11.13 per student and secondary schools at $13.21 per student. These days, that is hardly enough to buy even one paperback book per student, let alone the necessary, but more expensive, reference books or multimedia material. We have students who want to read and library spaces for them to sit, but many libraries lack the diverse resources that meet the full range of student interests and needs.

Where have all the teacher-librarians gone?
Many teacher-librarian positions disappeared when the staffing provisions were cut from the teacher collective agreement in 2002. Between 2002 and 2004, teacher-librarian staffing declined by 25%, according to the Ministry of Education. Even with the increased funding to school districts this school year, much of the reported increase in library service will be provided by library technicians, not by qualified teacher-librarians.

Libraries are most important for the students without resources at home

From pre-school to graduation, students with books in their homes will generally do better in school. Increasingly, computers and access to the Internet are required for everyday learning. Libraries should serve as an equalizer-giving access to resources and technology for students who have fewer resources at home.

In the face of inadequate library budgets, some school communities have turned to fundraising to provide more resources in the school library. Unfortunately, our communities have different abilities to raise funds, based on the incomes of families attending the school. This fundraising often widens the gap between those who already have the most access and those who need it the most.

Support school librariesand teacher-librarians
Achieving improved literacy requires a commitment to school libraries that are well funded and fully staffed by professional teacher-librarians.

For further information, go to the web site of the B.C. Coalition for School Libraries at bccsl.ca.


No. 4—What is this "class composition" all about?

You can hardly talk to teachers these days without hearing them raising "class composition." Many think it is the most important issue they face in their teaching. What’s it all about?

It goes back to the inclusion of students with special needs.

Students with mild to severe disabilities were integrated into regular classrooms, following a government policy change 16 years ago. Almost immediately teachers noted that they had to change their teaching if classes included students with severe intellectual or physical disabilities or disruptive behaviour.

The expectation that came with inclusion was that the teacher would teach according to the individual education plan (IEP) for the student with special needs. That changed the dynamic of the teaching of the class. It became more like teaching several classes at once, but trying to keep things going in one direction at the same time.

That’s a tougher job. It means more preparation, more time spent in meetings with specialists and parents, time required to plan with a special education assistant, if you are lucky enough to get one. Beyond that, is the increased complexity of meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse group of students. The classroom can become more like the old one-room schoolhouse-with a wide range of abilities rather than ages.

That’s why teachers talk so often about class composition as their biggest challenge. They support inclusion if they have the supports to make it work.

Place limits on the number of students with special needs in any one classroom
Class composition was such an important issue to teachers that the BCTF locals made it a priority in collective bargaining. The approaches were two-fold. One was to place an upper limit on the number of identified students with special needs in any one class. The other was to have access to supports, such as special education assistants, who could work with students with severe difficulties, and professional development about students’ areas of need.

In the extensive tearing up of teacher collective agreements in 2002, not only were upper limits on class size removed, the class-composition clauses were also eliminated. That opened the door for much more difficult situations for both teachers and students. Students with special needs had less support. At the same time, attention to the other students in the class was reduced. That’s what teachers faced when they had to deal with more special needs with less additional support. Eliminating the contract provisions had a negative impact on the teaching and learning conditions.

The number of students with identified special needs is dropping, apparently
Good news. Ministry statistics say that the number of identified students fell by 6.0% from 2000–01 to 2004–05, while overall public school enrolment fell only by 3.7%. The drop in special needs would be greater except for the huge growth in students identified as being autistic—a 48% increase, from 1,312 to 2,262 over the same years.

Does the drop in identified students reduce the pressure on teachers? Hardly.

The problem is that the students with special needs haven’t disappeared; many are just not being identified. Under the old finance system, when districts identified students, that brought funding to provide assistance. Under the new system, that is the case only for the students with the most severe disabilities.

If you identify a student as having special needs, she or he must have extra service provided in the form of an individual education plan (IEP) that describes the needs and how they will be met. If no additional money is coming for the student, the incentive for a district to identify those with needs is much less.

But the students with special needs are still there. The teacher still has to do her or his best to respond to the individual needs, often with resources, activities, and approaches different from those that engage the other students in the class.

What do teachers say about class composition?
The BCTF asked its members in the spring of 2005. More than 14,000 teachers responded to that chance to talk about their greatest needs in teaching and learning conditions.

Seventy-seven percent of teachers said they have more students with special needs than in the past, and 87% said that students have a wider range of needs. Seventy-eight percent said that they do not receive adequate direct support from specialists to help them deal effectively with students with special needs. Here are a few of the comments about class composition teachers wrote on the survey.

"There is no learning assistance available for those children who fall behind and need some intense small-group intervention." — elementary teacher , 20+ years experience

"It is virtually impossible to meet the wide-ranging needs with so many students. Behaviour issues begin to surface because needs are not being met." — middle school teacher , 4 years experience

"My class composition and workload is overwhelming. I have two special needs students without enough support, one severe behaviour student, and six students with severe learning disabilities. I cannot meet everyone’s needs." — intermediate teacher, 10+ years experience

"I have had to remove labs because of safety issues, cost issues, or equipment deficiencies. — secondary teacher, 5 years experience

"Please, please, please give me the resources—i.e., teachers’ assistants, learning assistance time—I need to meet the needs of my students. Please, please, please decrease the teacher/student ratio so that all the students in my care can get what they need." —intermediate teacher, 5+ years of experience


No. 5—The research is clear: Class size matters to kids

The research is clear. "The number of students in a class makes a difference in students’ behaviour and academic performance, participation in school activities, and in parental involvement in schools," according to Dr. Charles Achilles, one of the researchers who worked on the STAR Project (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio). STAR involved more than 11,600 Tennessee children in Grades K—3 and followed their progress to the post-secondary level. It puts to rest any question of the importance of class size.

According to Achilles, not one study of class size between 1904 and the present contradicts their findings. Theirs is by far the largest and most comprehensive study. Achilles points out that a lot of confusion in the debate on class size occurs because people cite studies that mix pupil—teacher ratios (PTR) and class size. This is especially true in research reported by an American economist named Eric Hanushek, who consistently mixes pupil-teacher-ratio studies in with class-size studies. Pupil-teacher ratio is the number of students in a school divided by the number of qualified teachers. The number of students in a teacher’s class determines class size.

Achilles agrees that research is inconclusive on whether or not changing the PTR affects the quality of education, but there is no doubt that class size matters. It is interesting to note that a September 17, 2003, National Post article claiming that class-size reductions offer only marginal benefits, reported that according to an OECD study, "Elementary classes of upwards of 30 are considered so ridiculous that North American researchers have not even bothered to investigate their effects." In 2002, the B.C. Liberal government removed the upper class-size limit of 30 and made 30 the average for Grades 4–12!

In the STAR Project, students and teachers were randomly assigned to various class-size conditions in Grades K–3: small classes of about 13 to 17, regular classes of about 22 to 26, and regular classes of about 22 to 26 with full-time teacher assistants. The results are clear; the students in small classes for the first four years of school performed better on nationally normed and criterion-referenced tests by the end of Grade 3. Moreover, students who had been in small classes for K–3 continued to move ahead of their grade level as they continued through to Grade 12. A greater proportion of those students wrote entrance exams for post-secondary institutions.

The study found that students in small classes did the best. Students in regular classes were next, and students in regular classes with a full-time TA were third. The only variable in the study was the size of the class. The evidence is clear that having students begin schooling in classes small enough to have their needs met more than pays off in the long run. Students do better in academics, their behaviour is better because it can be monitored, and they can be taught behaviour appropriate for school. They develop a more positive attitude toward school, and their parents become more involved. Teachers find it more rewarding to teach small classes.

The social security numbers, birth dates, and gender of the students participating in the study were used to track them. That information told researchers how they did in following grades, as well as how many applied for post-secondary institutions, were charged with criminal offenses, or applied for welfare.

Being in a small class for the first four years of school had a positive effect on all areas investigated. A greater proportion of students from small classes applied to post-secondary institutions. Beginning school in a small class cut in half the gap between whites and Afro-Americans for the proportion applying to post-secondary. A smaller proportion of students who began in small classes were charged with a criminal offense, and a smaller proportion applied for welfare benefits.

Small class size not only benefits the students in the class but also pays dividends to society as a whole. It is an investment we cannot afford to ignore. Achilles likened it to the Ministry of Health’s asking doctors to eradicate polio but refusing to provide the vaccine. He said we know the importance of small classes and we can’t afford to ignore the overwhelming evidence.

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