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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 6, April 2005

Rush to mediocrity: The BC Liberals' campaign against quality teaching

by Pat Clarke

Since their election in 2001, the BC Liberals have engaged in a willfully thoughtless mission to make teaching a "normalized occupation" rather than a "caring profession." The BC Liberals see teaching as meeting quotas, performance standards, and measurable outcomes. In their world, teaching is more comparable to an industrial trade. The consequence is that the art of teaching and the creative energy inherent in quality teaching are submerged in a morass of frantic activity focussed on outcomes and goals rather than on the vital questions of how, why, and what children should be learning.

Teachers spend less time on what makes our teaching really matter, or the art of teaching, and more time on the technicalities of meeting norms and standards. We are driven from quality teaching to an imposed mediocrity that disregards individual student needs in the interests of standardized results.

The BC Liberals and their agents have led the march to mediocrity through bureaucratic pronouncements and slogan-driven system management.

These are the signposts on British Columbia’s low road to mediocrity in teaching:

"If it can’t be measured, it doesn’t matter."
We have encountered this pearl of pedagogical fascism or other manifestations numerous times in sessions with ministry officials and their minions in school districts. The obsession with data gathering, testing, and re-testing is borne out in the emphasis on testing in the Graduation Program and the predominance of FSA results in school "goal setting."

The downside of a data-obsessed school system is simply ignored or mowed over by the tub thumping crusaders for the "best education system in the world." Best at what, and for what purpose? Don’t ask.

The message to teachers: Teach to the tests.

"It’s all about achievement."
We hear this mantra more often than "If it can’t be measured..." probably because it has such an irrefutable air. Who can criticize "achievement"? The problem, however, is that the BC Liberal/ministry view of achievement is distressingly narrow. Achievement is tied to success on tests or what the "data" tell us. The tests really don’t test very much. They are narrow in scope and tell us relatively little about what students are doing in school. In that narrowness and simplicity, they do serve a useful political purpose: They give politicians and bureaucrats a pedestal from which to trumpet success.

The message to teachers: Keep it narrow, keep it simple, dumb it down.

"Any learning, any place, any pace"
In this is the BC Liberal/ ministry hallucination that the school system is a sort of 24-hour convenience outlet. Distance education, online courses, learning by web conference—whatever the format—learning is a commodity, and teachers are purveyors of a product. Never mind the traditions of neighbourhood schools, the importance of community-based, community-oriented schools, and the irreplaceable value of one-to-one, face-to-face teacher— student interaction. This is about education for the global marketplace. Communities, lasting relationships, and meeting individual needs of students are of little material value, so they are expendable.

The message to teachers: You’re an interchangeable part.

Teacher supervision, or "supervision of learning"
The supervision-of-learning scheme is the business end of the accountability hammer. It is supposed to be the "check" on how teachers are doing at meeting school and district goals. Teachers who are not cutting the mustard are to be "corrected." Monitoring systems like this one usually have the opposite effect of that intended. While they may ensure some adherence to the plan, they throw a blanket over creative teaching and generally discourage risk-taking by teachers. They don’t improve the system; they stultify it.

The message to teachers: Watch your back. Don’t take any creative risks.

One would think flexibility and the enhanced local decision making that goes along with it would be a blessing. In fact, it has become a curse. All the BC Liberals mean, at least as far as public schools are concerned, is the flexibility to decide what cuts to make. Closed schools, staff cuts, and altered school calendars are the legacy of Liberal "flexibility." Teachers know that bogus "innovations," like adding a few minutes to a school day to allow for whole-day closures later on, are only about saving money and not about what is good for student learning.

The message to teachers: Cost cutting first; quality education second.

Professional autonomy for teachers? What’s that?
The accountability project (testing, school goal setting, teacher supervision), combined with resource shortages brought on by a cost-cutting-obsessed management, allows very little space for teachers to exercise professional judgment. The work of teachers is increasingly a job and less a profession as we are preoccupied by the demands of system management. What we can do to meet the individual needs of students, a concern that should be the focus of our work as professionals, is a consideration secondary to the necessity of coping with the effects of scant resources and short-sighted, misguided management.

The message to teachers: You are an employee, not a professional. Just follow the directives.

Pat Clarke is the director of the BCTF’s Professional and Social Issues Division.

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