Moving beyond resistance to privatization

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Moving beyond resistance to privatization

June 28, 2022

by Andrée Gacoin

What is the commercial mindset in public education? How do you see the commercial mindset in your school or district? What does privatization look like in your classroom? What does it mean to work together to resist the privatization of public education?

These are questions that 15 teachers, as well as invited guests from the Institute for Public Education, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, BC Ed Access, and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, engaged with as part of a day long think tank organised by the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) . The “Think Tank” is a methodology used by the BCTF as a form of activist research. Following Jones (2018), activist research is a “framework for conducting collaborative research that makes explicit challenges to power through transformative action” (p. 27).  As such, the event aimed to create an interactive research space enabling dialogue and connection between teachers, academic or community stakeholders, and the union.

Resist…reclaim and rebuild

The Think Tank was structured to first identify key facets of privatization in British Columbia and then facilitate the development of strategies for action and resistance. The day’s conversations were interpreted in a visual mural, created by Sam Bradd of Drawing Change (see https://drawingchange.com/), a network of graphic recorders who listen, synthesize, and visually represent dialogue in real time.

The theoretical framing of the day was provided by Dr. Sam E. Abrams (2018), Director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teacher’s College, Columbia University.

Dr. Abrams offers a way to analyse how the “commercial mindset” underpins the privatization of education and allows private interests to drive the direction of public education. For Abrams, this mindset has four key dimensions. Firstly, the libertarian critique is premised on the need for small government and doing the “minimum” within public services. Secondly, the drive towards commercial profit allows business models to be introduced into the provision of public education services. Thirdly, a sense of crisis creates the need for solutions to “fix” public education. Finally, public services are mired in a bureaucratic pathology which opens the way for external “solutions” by private “experts.”

Through discussion, the participants in the Think Tank took the mindset offered by Dr. Abrams into the lived realities of lived realities of privatization within public education. Their insights are organized around the key facets of the commercial mindset, while recognizing that they are continually overlapping and building on one another.

As highlighted in this IPE Occasional Paper, participants in the Think Tank theorized and developed, from the perspectives of BC teachers, strategies not only to resist privatization, but also reclaim and rebuild public education.

 

Changing the narrative

As schools look toward post-pandemic recovery, teacher unions and researchers are at a crucial junction in the defense of public education. Schools are key public spaces of collective learning and community care for children and youth. Privatization, in contrast, privileges individual and financial interests and undermines education as a public good.

Privatisation discourses position teachers as passive providers educational services. The BCTF Think Tank on Privatization provided a space for teachers to speak back to that assumption, weaving together a theoretical understanding of privatisation with their lived realities in classrooms and schools. This allowed space for concrete, teacher-led recommendations and actions for political organising and advocacy.

More broadly, the interactive research space created through the Think Tank offers a unique model for how academic and union researchers can work collaboratively. Unions, and the teachers they represent, are often framed as “sources” of data. For instance, the BCTF is frequently approached to circulate surveys created by external researchers, or to help recruit teachers as participants for interviews or focus groups. The Think Tank as a form of activist research foregrounds the voices and experiences of teachers and facilitates a shift from research on teachers to research with teachers, working together to fight for education as an equitably delivered public good.

Dr. Andrée Gacoin is the Director of the Information, Research and International Solidarity Division at the BC Teachers’ Federation and an IPE/BC Fellow. Her research focuses on developing a unique, in-depth and contextualized exploration of education in BC from the perspective of teachers. Andrée is particularly interested in using research as advocacy to uphold and strengthen an inclusive public education system.

Renaming Your School as an Act of Reconciliation

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Renaming Your School as an Act of Reconciliation

May 21, 2022

by Moira Mackenzie

Imagine your children researching their school’s namesake and discovering that the person being celebrated actively promoted racism and campaigned on white supremacy. Richard McBride, for whom the school was named, was BC’s Premier from 1903 to 1915. He  introduced policies to disenfranchise immigrants and persons of colour and worked to remove lands from Indigenous people. Additionally, he was a leading anti-suffrage politician who steadfastly opposed women’s voting rights throughout his career. Jen Arbo and Cheryl Sluis, parents of past and current Richard McBride Elementary School students, can speak to this experience and what they set about to do about it.

Jen, Chris, and Sam Killawep, a secondary school student, were members the panel featured in the online seminar, “Renaming your school as an act of reconciliation,” recently sponsored by the BC Teachers’ Federation. The panel, moderated by BCTF President Teri Mooring, also included Peggy Janicki, who holds a seat designated for an Aboriginal teacher on the BCTF Executive Committee, and Brian Coleman, the chairperson of the BCTF Aboriginal Education Advisory Committee. Teri opened the session by describing official name changes as small but important steps in reconciliation and decolonization. She reflected on the impact of names on our understanding of people, place, and history, asking, “Whose lives and history do we honour and whose do we erase?”

With the former Richard McBride Elementary School in New Westminster, the timing for a name was particularly fortuitous as the old school was deemed seismically unsafe and was being rebuilt. Initially the parents were told that there was no opportunity to rename the school, however they didn’t stop there. When the research on Richard McBride was shared, the Parent Advisory Council passed a motion to request a change in name. The New Westminster Board of Education had introduced a comprehensive new procedure on renaming of schools and, just two days after receiving the PAC request, set up a renaming committee for the school.

The  Board’s Re-naming School and District Facilities procedure provides an excellent framework to assess the need for a  change and engage in an inclusive process to determine a new name.  It affirms the district’s commitment to reconciliation and decolonization, and states that a name change will be considered “where the existing name is deemed to no longer be serving the needs of the school population of the community and no longer aligns with the district’s core values and strategic priorities.” When a proposal to change a school’s name is approved, a committee is established and charged with conducting the process and recommending a new name to the Board. The committee will consist of a trustee, a District Aboriginal Coordinator, a Director of Instruction or Associate Superintendent, a representative from each of the PAC, New West Principal and Vice Principal’s Association, CUPE,  and the New Westminster Teachers’ Union,  up to two Indigenous members, up to two members  of the local community, and up to three student advisory members.

Once in place, the committee for the Richard McBride Elementary name change established a very thorough and thoughtful process, developing criteria, consulting extensively with the First Nations community leaders and local language keepers, and inviting proposals. A rubric was  developed to assess the many suggestions, asking such important questions as, “Does it honor the local history and the land? Does it align with district values? Do students to engage with it?”

After nearly a year of work, the committee came to a unanimous decision to propose that the school be named Skwo:wech, which is the Halq’eméylem word for “sturgeon.”  The name is particularly significant given the connection with the Fraser River and the importance of sturgeon to Indigenous communities who traveled up and down the river.

When asked what learning was most important to the entire process, Jen Arbo shared that the process can generate discomfort, it can be messy, and involves learning through a real world example of reconciliation. “It’s good. Accept it, verbalize it and work through it,” she advised.

Cheryl echoed the importance of sitting with the discomfort. “It’s healthy, “she concluded, “As a white person, I was hesitant but, once I saw what kids were seeing, it was not possible not to do something.”  Now she sees the impact of the new name as well. “There is so much learning taking place, learning about the geography, history, language and the land.”

Noting that the plaque at the former Richard McBride Elementary was silent on the racist history, Sam noted that students learn so much from what’s around them. He remarked on his own learning in the process of serving on the committee and spoke to the importance of incorporating Indigenous languages. He reminded participants that students are living through the education system; they are capable and want to be fully involved.

In speaking to the paradigm shift necessary in decolonization, Peggy Janicki underscored the fact that Indigenous languages were deliberately, not accidentally, endangered. It was not only the only the words, but also the sounds of the languages that were erased. She spoke about the power of reflecting their lives and language back to Indigenous children in their schools and the world around them.

Brian Coleman described the name change, Richard McBride to Skwo:wech, as learning from the past, consulting in the present and looking to the future. He spoke about the essential importance of relationships and the need to give time to the process. “You don’t just choose a name; the name will choose you. You’ll know. Like the process, it will be long-lasting and meaningful, “ he said.

What made the process so successful in New Westminster? The panelists agreed that there was not one factor alone. The rebuilding of the school presented a good opportunity for a new name. The PAC was strong, the community was involved, the Board put clear procedures in place and the committee had the capacity to do the work. Their advice was clear: advocate with school trustees and ensure that the Board adopts a commitment to reconciliation and puts a formal name change procedure is put in place.

Skwo:wech Elementary, home to more than four hundred students, opened in its brand-new, beautiful building this spring. As the school board stated, It’s a name that we’re proud to move forward with, that came from a process that involved a great deal of collaboration and learning already, with more opportunities to build on for years to come.”

While renaming a school is just one step in the necessary process of reconciliation and decolonization, it’s one that can have a significant impact for generations to come. Taking the time to research the names that currently mark the public schools and other sites around us is an important first step.

 

More information on Richard McBride Elementary becoming Skwo:wech Elementary is available through the following links:

A new name with meaningNew Westminster Schools – District 40 (newwestschools.ca)

New West district gets set to rename Richard McBride School

Have your say on renaming Richard McBride Elementary School

Goodbye Richard McBride. Hello Skwo:wech Elementary

Moira Mackenzie is a member of the Board of IPE/BC and long time advocate for quality, accessible, inclusive public education.  She taught in BC public schools for many years at the primary and intermediate levels, and as a Resource & Learning Assistance teacher. Moira, who is now retired, also served in a number of elected and appointed roles within the teachers’ federation, including BCTF Executive Director.

The Urgent Need to Tackle Racism

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

The Urgent Need to Tackle Racism

by Noel Herron

Last August, the BC Office of the Human Rights Commissioner launched the first ever public inquiry into hate crimes in BC. In announcing this important step, a year-long thorough investigation, Commissioner Kasari Govender noted that, since early 2020, there has been a significant increase in reported hate-related incidents. “It is critical for all of us to be better prepared to prevent and respond to hate during global health, economic and social crises to protect our human rights during turbulent times,” stated Govender.

The 19 months of the pandemic in B.C. have witnessed almost weekly incidents and events that point to the surge of racism both at a local and a provincial level, some minor, others with wider implications for sectors such as health, policing, education, sports, and politics. This very serious issue affects not just BC but the entire country. Yet, it was deeply disturbing that it was largely ignored during the recent federal election campaign. This, while we bore witness to the traumatic discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves of First Nations children at residential school sites.

Provincially, BC has appointed Rachna Singh as Parliamentary Secretary for Anti-Racism Initiatives with the promise to introduce anti-racism legislation in the next session of the legislature. A public consultation is currently underway. Thinking of public education, that legislation will have to have considerable strength and impact to ensure that racism is tackled in a comprehensive and meaningful way across the province.

What steps have been taking place in education over the past year? On the opening day of the 2021/22 school year, the Vancouver School Board had an online anti-racism training session for all teachers and principals. It followed racist incidents that were brought to light by students and parents who had the courage to speak out and use the BC human rights process. That’s one positive step; however, it took the five separate parties that are currently represented on the board a full year to agree to implement this long overdue initiative. There is so much more to be done.

Last February, the BC School Trustees’ Association followed up on motions carried by the BCSTA Provincial Council the previous year and appealed to the provincial government to provide the additional support needed to implement systemic change in school districts across the province. Acknowledging that some steps had been taken, the BCSTA pressed for comprehensive plans to address the issue.

In August, we learned about a report, mandated by the BC Minister of Education, that found “clearly discriminatory and systemically racist” behaviours and practices in a B.C. school district and called for a province-wide review. This report on School District 57 provided a profile involving one school district. However, retired judge, currently academic director of the Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of B.C, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond agreed that a deeper probe is needed, stating, “This report was very helpful, but it certainly struck me as a kind of tip-of-the-iceberg report.”

BC’s reckoning with racism is long overdue and we all have a role to play. The creation of a truly inclusive, just, respectful, and caring society needs urgent attention from all levels of government-local provincial and federal. Additionally, it is incumbent on each of us to speak out against racism and, in the context of our all-important public education system, insist that all schools and school districts are modeling the society we seek.

Noel Herron is a retired principal, former Vancouver school trustee and past member of the Vancouver School District Race Relations Committee. He has a long and highly respected career in public education and is well known for his deep commitment to the well-being of students in general and to the needs of marginalized and racialized children and youth, in particular. While principal, Noel served on the Vancouver School District Committee on Racial Justice; he expresses his gratitude to the many race relations consultants and anti-racism advocates he worked with and learned from throughout his career.

FOI Fees Reduce Public Access to Information

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

FOI Fees Reduce Public Access to Information

By Larry Kuehn

Freedom of Information is important to the public in public education. Unfortunately, British Columbia is headed in the wrong direction in proposed changes to Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIPOP) in the fall 2021 legislature.

Education policies have significant affects on individuals and the society as a whole and should be open to debate and reconsideration. Informed debate on policies can only take place if the relevant information is publicly available. This requires transparency on the part of government and local school authorities.

Too often policies are announced without adequate information about why a choice was made and what alternatives may have been considered. As a researcher and policy advocate, I have in the past asked for information of ministries to understand the basis for a decision–and been told I can only have the information by making a Freedom of Information request.

Frequently this information should simply be provided on request—or even published on the web without a request because it is relevant to public policy. Officials are reluctant to provide the information because it may lead to questioning of policies. If the information is provided because of an FOI request, the official can say they had no choice but to provide it and are less likely to be blamed for a public questioning of a policy decision using ministry information.

The FOI process as it exists is often problematic. One needs to understand precisely what to ask for. The information is supposed to be provided within 30 days, but extensions are more and more frequently requested. You can be told that extensive research is required, and you will have to pay for it. Or you get a document with much of the crucial information redacted.

To provide a specific example, the BC Teachers’ Federation recently requested of the Ministry of Education through FOI the research on which claims are made in a public brochure about the Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA). The response from the Ministry was that it would cost at least $8,000 to document the research. [1]

If policies are made on the basis of research, any legitimate research protocol would require that it be documented with at least a bibliography. That type of information should be available on request without even going to FOI. If the policies are not based on research but some other basis, that should be the response, not retroactively doing the research at the cost of the group requesting the information.

All of this is to say that the FOI process should be revised to make it easier to use and to make information more transparent without having to file a formal request. Unfortunately, instead of improving the system, the legislation adds another impediment to its use—charging a fee for each request.

Charging a fee has only one possible purpose—to reduce the number of requests. The cost of collecting the fee is likely to be at least as much as the fee provides, so it won’t help cover government expenses. This will have the impact of making government less transparent. This applies to the provincial government, but also to School Boards and other public bodies that are covered by the legislation.

Individuals will be less likely to file a request if they have to pay a fee, especially, like most of us, they are not experts at formulating a request in a way that will get the information they are looking for and might have to file multiple requests to get the information necessary.

The Privacy Commissioner has raised the alarm that BC is moving backward in Freedom of Information, rather than moving to improve legislation that was dated and needed updating to improve, not reduce, the public right to know. Everyone concerned about this backward move should let the government know the legislation is going in the wrong direction.

 

[1] Communication received by the British Columbia Teachers Federation on April 8, 2021, in regard to Request for Documents EDU-2021-10662.

Larry Kuehn is a member of the IPE/BC Board of Directors and chair of the Research and Programs Committee.  He is a research associate for the CCPA and retired BCTF Director of Research and Technology. He has written extensively on education matters including funding,  globalization, technology and privacy.

 

 

Claims about education costs mislead by ignoring social and educational changes

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Claims about education costs mislead by ignoring social and educational changes

by Larry Kuehn

A claim about the history of funding of public education by UBC professor Jason Ellis is seriously misleading by omitting the context of changes that have taken place in education over the past fifty years. He has published an article in which he claims there has been an increase in spending on BC public education between 1970 and 2020 that he calculates as 250%. This increase is described as “astounding” according to Ellis, as quoted in a UBC press release, although he doesn’t use that phrase in his academic article.

Unfortunately, the article is an overly simplistic comparison of gross expenditures inflation adjusted with the number of students without looking at the changing expectations of education over five decades, the way the public schools have adjusted to meet those, and the very real costs of those changes. Ellis ignores the complexity when he says, “After all, if we are talking about how much we spend on K-12 schools, it surely matters how far those dollars stretch. That is mainly a question of how many students public schools need to educate at any given point in time.” (Ellis, p. 104) In fact, costs are a factor of not just how many students you have, but also the changing and diverse nature of student needs and what you offer them in the way of service and conditions.

The study chooses an arbitrary date as the baseline, without identifying the context of the system at that time and the rationale for improvements in conditions and thus expenditures since then. The language of the article reflects a bias toward “cost control” and “fiscal discipline” and an opposition to the collective bargaining rights of teachers. The rationale for the article in the end seems to be a challenge to those who see the limitations on education expenditure as based on neoliberal ideology when the facts actually support claims of those who see neoliberal policies as having a negative impact on educational expenditures.

The educational conditions in the baseline of 1970

The choice of a baseline can have a significant effect—if one chooses a low point, then the increases seem greater–and 1970 was a low point for several reasons.

The number of students grew rapidly in the 1960s, but the system did not keep up with that growth. The W.A.C. Bennett Social Credit government had a priority on building dams for hydro and other infrastructure development rather than schools and in the late 1960s had introduced policies, including a school referendum system, to limit school district expenditures.

Double shifts were common, where two schools were run within one building, an early shift until mid-day and another in the afternoon until evening. Many schools had to be built at this time, but Ellis acknowledges that the amount in his 1970 baseline does not include capital costs of building schools, but those cost are included for the period after 1974.

Class sizes were large as well.  B.C. had the largest classes in Canada in 1970, except for Newfoundland. The BC Teachers’ Federation ran a campaign at the time to limit class sizes to 40, an indication of the conditions, a situation that not only teachers but also parents would not find acceptable now. There were significant reductions in pupil-teacher ratios and class sizes in the 1970s, catching up with the limitations that existed in 1970. None of these improvements in the 1970s were the result of teachers’ collective bargaining since the legal framework at the time only allowed for negotiation of salaries and benefits.

The school system in 1970 was also much more elitist and exclusionary. While now we are not satisfied if fewer than 90% of students   complete graduation, it was half that fifty years ago. Students with special needs were not included, few programs existed for students whose first language was not English, many Indigenous students were in Residential “Schools,” and many of the Indigenous students in the public system were marginalized and actively discouraged from staying after age 16. Being inclusive in addressing all these needs takes people and resources. Very few would be satisfied with the education system we offered in 1970. In fact, many would require more of our current system, not expecting that this could be achieved on 1970 funding levels.

Many teachers who retired before 1970 lived on pensions that left them in poverty. Governments in the previous fifty years had been unwilling to provide the financing for an adequate pension system, a situation that was finally addressed in the 1970s and beyond—at a necessary cost.

The teaching force in 1970 had much lower overall levels of qualifications that have been continually increasing over the decades. In 1970 many teachers at the elementary level had entered teaching with one year of university and a year of teacher education. Most of them increased their qualifications over time, often with many years of summer university courses. In contrast, now very few enter the profession with less than a degree as well as teacher education. At least a third of current teachers have a master’s degree or a diploma beyond their bachelor’s degree and teacher education. These qualifications reflect an ability to deal with a much more complex set of educational needs—and legitimately get reflected in increased costs.

Yes, costs have increased, as they have in most things. The percentage they have increased depends not just on what the costs are, but also the baseline on which you are making the comparisons. If you choose the baseline that is a low point, it will appear that the increase is greater—and after 1970 was a point when a lot of pent-up demands were increasing on the public education system in B.C.

The conservative framing of the article

Some of Ellis’s language draws from a source frequently referenced in the article, Thomas Fleming, a conservative B.C. education historian. Fleming’s ideal of education is based in what he calls the “imperial” age of education in B.C. when education policy was determined by the education officials in the ministry (then Department) of education. This handful of men (and they were always men) could determine policy for the system and carry it out through a network of inspectors. It could keep costs under control and keep the system narrowly focused on academic purposes, not the broader social demands.

Fleming acknowledged that pressure was growing in the system in the 1960s to expand the mandate and the services of the schools, even as the enrolment was growing dramatically, and women were becoming restive over their subservient role in the system. Fleming defines 1972 as the break point in the system with the election of the New Democrat government and the active role of the BCTF in the election. The ministry officials lost control and the system was open to influence by politicians, teachers through the BCTF and what he calls special interests—parents making demands for their children and social activists calling for marginalized groups to have their needs met. All these new demands on the system would require more resources.

Calling for a return to a narrower, less inclusive education system doesn’t have any credence. The public does not want the system to do less, but to do more of whatever particular concern they have. This is confirmed every time budget limitations lead to services being cut. Fleming tried to influence a call for a narrower system focus on the academic as an editor of the 1988 Royal Commission on Education Report, but was frustrated by the lack of response of the system to that recommendation. If a direct call to cut what the system does would not work, another approach is to call for reduced costs so it is not able to do as much.

Here is where Ellis picks up Fleming’s approach using the language of “rein in educational spending” (p. 102); “cost control” (p. 102, 110, 111, 117, 118); “controlling spending” (p. 102, 113, 114); “impose spending limits” (p. 118); “fiscal discipline” (p. 113). Fleming is particularly critical of the BCTF influence in public education, beginning at the point that it became active in the 1972 election, and particularly after achieving collective bargaining rights in 1988 and Ellis adopts Flemings negative perspective on teacher bargaining. Fleming’s ideal was the “old boys network” of the education department that many BCTF leaders were a part of before the change in the organization about 1970.

Although Ellis contends that “saying that spending is up considerably is not saying it should not have increased. It is not saying that spending should not rise further in the future.” (p. 118) In only focusing on how much the expenditures have grown and not addressing the purposes of the increases or the services provided, and calling the increases “astounding”, Ellis plays into those who would use cost control to narrow educational offerings and who will use the headlines from his study to support their aims.

Reference

Ellis, Jason. (2021) “A Short History of K-12 Public School Spending in British Columbia, 1970-2020.”  Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, 196, 102-123.

Larry Kuehn is a member of the IPE/BC Board of Directors and chair of the Research and Programs Committee.  He is a research associate for the CCPA and retired BCTF Director of Research and Technology. He has written extensively on education matters including funding,  globalization, technology and privacy.

 

 

 

Accountability for BC Schools: A Charter Compact for British Columbians

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Accountability for BC Schools: A Charter Compact for British Columbians

by Dr. Dan Laitsch

Accountable to whom and for what? 

In some form this question has been asked of our institutions since at least the early 1700s. In the context of today’s public schools, the question is of particular importance.

Public schools are faced with a wide array of accountability demands. For example, many educators feel a responsibility to the fields in which they teach—that is, they are accountable to the subject-matter they teach for upholding particular curricular standards. Teachers may also feel accountable to students for their learning; to parents for the well-being of their children; to their colleagues for the performance of the school.

Teachers may be asked by colleges and universities to be accountable for preparing students for post-secondary learning; by employers for preparing a skilled work force; and by judicial authorities for preparing law-abiding citizens. In the current context (of pandemic), educators have been asked to take on accountability for the physical and mental health of students as well. In short, schools have many constituencies they serve and for many diverse reasons, but most of these groups have very little agency to inform educator practices. Instead, government has largely taken on that authority.

Historically schools were funded and governed by locally elected school boards. In many ways this made accountability much simpler as educator accountability was quite local and close to stakeholders. As Canada grew, so too did the number of school boards and the complexity of the system. When the Constitution Act was enacted in 1867, education came to rest at the provincial, rather than local (or Federal), level. Since that time, local schools boards in BC have been increasingly regulated and consolidated by the Province (going from around 650 school districts in 1945 to 57 today) and now have only limited autonomy under the provincial government (focusing primarily on budget management and local application of provincial policies).

Over this period, we’ve also seen teacher training moving to universities and the beginning of professionalization, which brought with it its own accountability concerns. In some cases, tensions arose between school boards and teachers, ultimately leading to the formal unionization of teachers (and even greater centralization of provincial control). Today’s conversations frequently emphasize accountability to these centralized sources—government and teacher certification systems, and teachers’ professional unions. 

The end result of the centralization and professionalization of education has been a distancing of public education from the community it serves. Indeed, when you look at the public opinion data on schools, you find that the public is generally quite supportive of their local schools and the schools their children attend, but that support diminishes the further away from the community you get (i.e., less favourable ratings of other school districts, schools at the state/provincial level, or schools nationally).

This separation of schools and communities is a problem. The provincial government has worked to address the problem in part through the establishment of Parent Advisory Committees and regular parent satisfaction surveys. Here too, however, power sharing between the Province and parents remains largely symbolic, and has in many ways been used to further constrain educator authority. Across all aspects of governance, in BC the Provincial government has centralized almost all authority regarding the public education system.

This centralization has left very little ability for stakeholder groups (teachers, parents, students, or the broader public) to hold the government to account for the way it manages the system. Teachers have some ability to hold government to account through the collective bargaining process—but as we saw in the early 2000s that process can be corrupted (when the Liberals illegally stripped teachers of their collective rights), and costly to enforce (as teachers were forced into a decade long series of court battles). The ability of British Columbians (as the “public” in public education) to inform the government about the outcomes they want from their education system is even more limited.

Returning to our original question, then, accountable to who and for what, in education Government is weakly accountable to teachers, and even less accountable to the public. Accountable “for what” is largely left undefined. Many governments, BC included, have fallen back on very narrow curricular goals (literacy and numeracy) supplemented by occasional hot button issues (such as graduation rates), generally measured by simplistic large-scale tests and surveys. 

In an effort to better define the “for what”, and strengthen the role of the public in the accountability conversation, in 2003 the BCTF decided to ask British Columbians directly about what they wanted from their public school system. A panel of five British Columbians launched a lengthy public consultation process that resulted in the Charter for Public Education. While the Charter process was initiated by teachers through their provincial union the BCTF, it was independently organized and governed.

For five months the panel traveled the province to gather statements from BC residents (students, parents, educators, business people, politicians, and anyone expressing an interest in education in BC). In 42 communities across BC, in large and small cities, rural and urban settings, and throughout the province by e-mail, the panel solicited testimony from British Columbians. The process was focused on aspirational outcomes for BC students and so focused around four over-arching questions:

“What is an educated person?” 

“Which of the characteristics [of an educated person] are developed through the public schools?”

“What is an educated community?” 

“What are the principles of public education?” 

A total of 608 British Columbians responded and the data analyzed included not just presentations and submissions, but the conversations around them. The material was synthesized and analyzed by the panelists for core themes and issues, and this initial analysis and conclusions were further reviewed and commented on by a parent, trustee, teacher and university faculty member selected from hearing participants. Their feedback then informed the final document: The Charter for Public Education

The Charter was organized into four sections, an overarching preamble, Rights, Promises and Expectations. While the content of these sections are not the focus of this article, the Charter lays out what the public in BC expects of its education system and the responsibilities of stakeholders in ensuring the promise of education is realized. It helps identify the outcomes Government should be held accountable for, and it gives educators an aspirational vision to work toward. 

The Charter for Public Education currently rests with the Institute for Public Education/BC. We see the Charter as a charge to Government, Educators, and the public, and a lens through which we can better understand how our schools are doing, and how our government is fulfilling its Constitutional mandate to educate BC’s citizens.

In this light, we also see the Charter as a living document that can be examined and revised as our society grows and evolves. In looking at the Charter today, we have questions about the place of diverse learners and Indigenous students in the document; the place of equity, diversity, and inclusion in BC; and are asking what it means to highlight values espoused by Egerton Ryerson on education (“Education is as necessary as the light. It should be as common as water, and as free as air”)—a strong advocate of public education who also helped create the residential school system and opposed the education of women beyond elementary school.

For accountability to be realized, it must be based in constant reflection, a common understanding of who is engaged in the work, what they are trying to do, and the capacity they have to do that work well. It must be based in the current social context, but looking toward an aspirational future state. We believe the Charter offers us a strong foundation for this work, but only to the extent that it can engage the broader public in holding government to account for the system it controls. We invite you to join us in envisioning what a system based in the Charter should look like now, where we should be moving our schools in the future, and how we can get there together.

If you’re interested in contributing to our work, please contact us!

Dan Laitsch is the Chairperson of the Institute for Public Education’s Board of Directors.  He is a founding director for the Centre for Study of Educational Leadership, Associate Professor at SFU and Director of the SFU Surrey Campus Liaison, Faculty of Education.

The Charter for Public Education project: Reflections from a parent on the panel

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

The Charter for Public Education project: Reflections from a parent on the panel

By Kathy Whittam

My experience as a panel member for the Charter for Public Education was a crash course in how public education works in BC and the many ways in which each community in this province is unique.

It now seems like our Charter journey was a lifetime ago. My stepson was in elementary school at the time. Later, as he was graduating from high school, my daughter began kindergarten. So, my partner and I got to engage with public education all over again. With my daughter now only a few years from finishing high school herself, I can say that public education has been a vastly different experience for each of them. But the big picture perspective I acquired while serving on the Charter panel certainly helped me as I navigated the school years with both.

The Charter experience was profound. I still reflect on all that I learned from the students, teachers, parents, trustees, principals, and community members who participated in the hearings. From a school library in Gibsons, to an auditorium in McBride, to a community hall in Haida Gwaii, to high school classrooms in Fort St John, and many places and spaces in between- each session was highly engaging and deeply meaningful.

Inevitably, the dialogues began with frustration about budget cuts, and the ways in which those in public education system were struggling as a result. But the discussion quickly turned to the goals of public education, the characteristics of an educated person and community, and what our public education system should be providing to learners of all ages. For me, it was always affirming to hear participants describe the role of education as being much broader than simply preparing students to be workers.

I have heard the Charter, created from these rich discussions, critiqued as “motherhood and apple pie” statements, but I struggle to see the problem with that. What could possibly be wrong with developing a positive vision of the public education system with the learners at the center, supported by a broad commitment by all to work together to help all learners reach their full potential?

How can the Charter be used for discussion and advocacy today? I believe it is still a powerful and effective tool, especially when we think about the pressing issues now facing us.  The Charter includes the promise that, as a community, we will “prepare learners for a socially responsible life in a free and democratic society, to participate in a world which each generation will shape and build.”

For a truly sustainable future, we urgently need transformative action. It’s very important that all generations be involved in shaping and building a better “normal “than we have ever had before. This is a critical time, in fact, to explore the role of public education in preparing our kids for their part in creating that future.

The promises in the Charter are coupled with the expectation that government “be responsible for fully funding all aspects of a quality education”. What is meant by “fully fund” and “quality education”? Ideally, each community should have a community public school that:

  • is lead by a principal who is welcoming, supports the staff team, and partners with the community to build connections and opportunities for students.
  • has teachers and support staff who are passionate about helping their students learn and grow.
  • has a library in which students can relax, read, and enhance their literacy skills.
  • offers music, art, play & physical education to fully develop students intellectual, social, physical, and esthetic capacities.
  • supports families who are struggling so every child is nourished and able to learn and have fun.
  • is supported by trustees who advocate for the needs of their schools; and,
  • is provided with funding to meet those needs, so that staff and parents do not have to keep spending valuable time on fundraising and worrying about what is needed next.

It was clear from the engagement in the hearings that talking about what quality education means to us is time very well spent. This was true then and is still the case today. Equally so, the funding to give every student the support they need is money very well invested. Further, I believe that no single top-down approach can meet the needs of every district or community. Instead, it’s time for us to define the quality and support we’re looking for from the bottom up. Just imagine the potential in community members working together on behalf of the public schools in their district, collaborating to build a needs-based budget, identifying priorities, and defining the ways in which public education is key to the well being of their children and youth and their community overall.

As you can see, the Charter project had a significant impact on me. I feel certain that this was also the case for the many people throughout BC who took the time to engage and share their perspectives. I believe that the powerful process and outcome, the Charter for Public Education, have a great deal of wisdom to offer us today.

Kathy Whittam was a member of panel that conducted hearings in many communities around BC and drafted the Charter for Public Education document and report.  She is a parent in Vancouver and has a deep commitment to inclusive, quality public education and progressive community engagement.

 

Revisiting the Charter for Public Education: A powerful process and a deep commitment.

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Revisiting the Charter for Public Education: A powerful process and a deep commitment.

by David Chudnovsky

An extraordinary document was published in British Columbia in 2003. The Charter for Public Education was a visionary statement of principle, belief, and commitment about what public education could and should be in our province. But where did it come from?  How was it written?  What did it say and who decided what it said?  It is an instructive story.

In 2002 British Columbia income taxes were cut by 25% resulting in deep cuts to education and other public services. Two notorious new laws (found unconstitutional 14 years later by the Supreme Court of Canada) threw out collective agreement clauses protecting class sizes and guaranteeing services to students with special needs and made it illegal to negotiate such provisions in contracts between teachers and their employers.

Almost immediately, class sizes got bigger, specialist teachers disappeared, students with special needs suffered, schools were closed.  Teachers, parents, students, and the wider community reacted swiftly and robustly. The government, though, had a 77-2 majority in the legislature and would not budge.

While the reasonable and necessary political fight-back continued – for more than a decade – some felt an additional strategy would be helpful. The idea of an independent commission which would travel the province, hear from, and speak with British Columbians about what they wanted their public education system to be and then report back in the form of a Charter was proposed.

The BCTF, after a discussion and debate that was not without controversy, decided to fund the initiative. Many teachers were not convinced that their resources should be used in this way. Why, they asked, should teachers pay for a commission would be independent of the Federation? Still, the project was eventually enthusiastically approved.

BCTF set several criteria for selection of the Charter panel of five. One was to be a teacher. The others could not have any connection to the BCTF, had to represent the diversity of the community, be credible as individuals, and be supporters of the public education system.  But the attitude of panel members to any particular issue or controversy was not asked, nor was it known.

While the BCTF funded the project, the Charter panel operated completely independently and the BCTF was to see the Charter – the result of the panel’s work – at the same time as it was released to the public.

The panel consisted of:

  • The Reverend Margaret Marquardt (Chair) – an Anglican Minister
  • Dr. John C. Moss – a retired School Superintendent
  • George Watts – an Indigenous Leader, Nuu-Chah-Nulth
  • Kathy Whittam – parent of a student with diverse needs
  • David Chudnovsky – a teacher and former President of the BCTF

The Charter panel held hearings in 42 communities across the province. Large cities like Vancouver, Victoria. Kelowna and Prince George; smaller urban centres like Campbell River, Cranbrook, Fort St. John, and Chilliwack; very small communities like Port McNeil, McBride, Masset, Princeton and Sparwood.

In all, the panel received more than 620 submissions from students, teachers, teacher organizations, principals and vice-principals, school district staff and superintendents, school trustees and their provincial organization, parents and parent organizations, seniors, business people, First Nations organizations, municipal organizations, college and university students and faculty, community health nurses, early childhood educators, and others.

Because of the very painful political context, the panel heard many criticisms of then current government policies. But that was not the mandate of the Charter process. Rather, the panel determined to draw out the principles behind the pain. They decided to pose a number of questions to the participants in every hearing:

  • What is an educated person?
  • Which of the characteristics of an educated person are developed through the public schools?
  • What is an educated community?

This proved to be a very useful strategy.

Still, often a participant expressed their anger, frustration, or bitterness about conditions in a school or school district. The panel reminded the presenter of the mandate of the Charter and asked them to restate their concerns by expressing a positive principle rather than stating a criticism. Significantly, time and again participants said that the hearings were energizing to the people who attended. They reported how helpful and inspiring it was to be in a room with others who cared about public education, talking about what really mattered, about principles, about values and ethics.

The result was the Charter for Public Education which today hangs on the wall in hundreds of schools across BC.  It can be found here:

https://instituteforpubliceducation.org/projects/charterforpubliceducation/

Every concept and principle outlined in the Charter came from the 620 submissions. The panel were careful, as they wrote at the time, to ensure that the Charter and the analysis in the report were, “…. true and accurate reflections of what was heard in the presentations across the province.”

The Charter now resides with the Institute for Public Education BC.  We at IPE believe that it is a good time to look again at the Charter for Public Education. Already we have several ways we think the Charter could be improved.

  • The Charter should deal more explicitly with equity.
  • There needs to be more content regarding Indigenous students and their education – possibly with references to UNDRIP.
  • Support for students with special needs isn’t emphasized nearly enough in the Charter.
  • Though the panel called for an implementation plan for the principles of the Charter that work was never done.

Of course, we cannot simply “fix” the Charter to suit our preferences.  The current version is based on what hundreds of British Columbians said they wanted.  We can’t alter or reject that important reality.  So, we’re left with a challenge: How can we use the Charter for Public Education today?  Is it still a useful document?  If it needs to be updated, how could and should that be done?

We invite you to help us confront those challenges.  Let us know what you think.

David Chudnovsky is a member of the IPE/BC Board of Directors and one of the co-authors of the Charter for Public Education Report. A retired teacher, former MLA and Past-President of the BCTF, David continues to be very actively engaged in support of quality, inclusive public education.

 

 

 

 

Beyond Education as Usual: Public Education in a Post-COVID World 

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Beyond Education as Usual: Public Education in a Post-COVID World 

A report on the IPE/BC Fellows Forum by Moira Mackenzie

COVID-19 is a mirror, and the flaws in many of our institutions are being reflected back to us. The pandemic has created the most significant disruption in education we may have ever seen, revealing much as this virus has taken over our lives.  What has happened that is worth keeping, what is worth exploring and what has failed?

This is the challenge put to the panel addressing the annual Fellows Forum on February 27th.  Rising to the occasion were panelists: Julia MacRae, an experienced teacher with a Masters in Curriculum Studies and 1st Vice-President of the Surrey Teachers’ Association; Jamie Smallboy/Nohtikwew pisim, a Langara student in Aboriginal studies, dedicated advocate, Cree mother of five and survivor of residential schools and the 60s Scoop; and Bryn Williams, veteran teacher and administrator, currently a principal in Coquitlam and Executive Director of BC Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Julia, Jamie, and Bryn were all clear that a return to “normal,” as it was pre-pandemic, was neither possible nor advisable. COVID-19 has compelled us to refocus.

Looking back to last March, Bryn recalled worrying about whether the resilience of students, teachers and parents could sustain itself for the long road ahead. However, even with very difficult challenges, shared leadership and strength have grown, with everyone working together in support of students, families, and the community. “This embodies what public education is all about- that it’s for the common good,” said Bryn. His hope is that distributed leadership with connections to community continues to flourish, post COVID-19.

Jamie lauded the care that teachers at her children’s school take to connect with students, knowing that family circumstances vary greatly. “What’s amazing is that my children are nurtured body, mind and spirit; it doesn’t matter what’s going on in their external environment, their school is welcoming,” she said. Contrasting this with her own deeply traumatic residential day school and public school experiences, Jamie strongly advised all schools to uphold this commitment. Bryn agreed, speaking to the value of focusing on the whole child and of trauma-informed classrooms where students can count on understanding, empathy, and wrap-around support.

Correspondingly, Jamie called for the public funds spent on private schools to be redirected to supports that are necessary for children’s well-being but not currently available in public schools.  “I’ve seen so many children shut down before they even begin because they’re overwhelmed with everything they don’t have and everything they’re expected to accomplish in competition with children who have always had opportunity, privilege and a stable home.”

For Julia, it is paramount to consider the injustices laid bare by this pandemic. Many students are dealing racism and inequity in their communities and grief, fear, tragedy, worry, and job loss in their families. In turn, teachers have been creating deeply meaningful lessons and making space for discussion of these real-life issues, reinforcing the important role of public schools in social justice.

Will there be a lasting impact on teaching, learning and the curriculum? Again, the panelists advised against simply going back to the way things were.

Jamie urged recognition of the Indigenous world view in schools, noting that Indigenous people are keepers of knowledge fundamental to the creation of a compassionate, harmonious society and to the planet’s very survival. She highlighted the need to recruit more Indigenous teachers and welcome Indigenous elders into classrooms, and expressed her concern that an over-emphasis on academics means that children are missing many of the basic life skills needed to survive and live in harmony with others.  “We’re teaching kids to be scholars; we’re not teaching them to be community members,” she said.

Julia noted that teachers have definitely been advancing the new curriculum in these times. The professional decision-making, choice and innovation required by the current circumstances are aligned with the tenets of this curriculum. Teachers have been creating, curating, and sharing excellent teaching resources, exercising their judgement both of necessity and in deep commitment to their students.

What about the heavy reliance on technology?

Bryn drew attention to the huge divide within communities when it comes to equipment and access. There are many ways to use the technology to enhance in-person learning and meetings, attend to engagement, and provide flexibility, but equity must be addressed.

“Every teacher sees the difficulty in it now and every parent sees the limitations,” said Julia. She noted that attendance at virtual meetings and workshops is high, but there is a passivity that comes with engaging online. “There is something about the physicality that leads to memorable professional development experiences and enhances the way we learn and make decisions together,” Julia observed.

Sharing a warning,  Jamie said, “During the pandemic, I’ve seen how much time teachers spend with our children. They are a huge part of their lives. I’ve also seen how desensitized our children are becoming because of technology. These children will grow up with Google as their moral compass.  If society continues to accept technology over humanity, we’re in serious trouble.”   She concluded, ” There seems to be less humanity within the walls of the rooms where decisions are being made for children, and that is discouraging fact”.

Many more perspectives were shared; the time flew by and the value of the dialogue was clear.  Now, the challenge for all of us is to continue the discussion.

The central role of education, and especially public education, in the economic, social and political life of British Columbia is more obvious than ever and understood more fully by the general public. The pandemic has shone a bright harsh light on so many vulnerabilities and exacerbated already unacceptable inequalities. While no one would have wished for this societal trauma, we want to consider how to capitalize on the centrality and essential role public education plays by thinking big to envision change in these unprecedented times.

Moira Mackenzie is a member of the IPE Board of Directors, former BCTF Executive Director, and retired elementary school teacher.

Privacy concerns for students using cloud computing

 

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Warning: Privacy concerns for students using cloud computing

By Larry Kuehn

The pandemic has surfaced concerns to which we should long have attended but mostly ignored. One of those is the dangers to the privacy rights of our students posed by cloud computing in our schools. Moving education online for several months has exacerbated these, and the use of technology will continue to expand, even as students return to physical classrooms.

Now an explosive report shouts for us to pay attention while there is still a chance to address the dangers to privacy. It is called “Troubling Clouds—Gaps Affecting Privacy Protection in British Columbia’s K-12 Education System.” The analysis was done by Matthew Levine for the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA). It is particularly timely, with its emphasis on Google’s role in education in the context of the U.S. anti-trust investigation of Google.

The report is available at https://fipa.bc.ca/category/libraries/publications/publication-topics/privacy/

Cloud computing is an all-encompassing aspect of much that we do these days. It is the processing and storing of many of our online activities carried out over the internet, all on server farms that hold the data in a few centers globally, with very few of those in Canada. An increasing number of educational activities are carried out digitally, largely on the cloud.

While online activities raise privacy concerns in the digital lives of all of us, privacy should be a particular worry in relationship to children. Privacy is not only a key element of freedom, but key to the development of autonomy as a person. Young people need the space to explore and develop, without the pressure of surveillance that will affect them the rest of their lives.

The FIPA report looks not just at concerns raised by cloud computing, but also details the use and impact of a particular platform—Google Education, used in many B.C. school districts. Google Education includes the familiar gmail, docs, and the like, but also “Google Classroom.” This is a “learning management system” providing for creating an online classroom, exchange of assignments, and maintaining a record on each student as well as facilitating communication with parents.

All these are necessary aspects of teaching, and Google Education apps and Classroom are “free” to cash-strapped school boards. What could possibly be the problem?

In the era of “surveillance capitalism,” the users of a “free” service (our children) are actually the product, producing data that is the basis of the creation of value and economic return. Google is the biggest player in this market. Google promises that it will not use student data to target ads to them, but it does not identify the other uses for the data. The data from hundreds of millions of students around the globe using Google Classroom—it is available in multiple languages—gives Google the largest collection of data on education which can be used to develop future products—data not available to researchers or educators.

That is the big picture concern. The FIPA report also outlines more specific concerns for individual students. BC legislation aims at protecting privacy and includes provisions that personal data not be held on servers outside of Canada. This is protection against invasive access provided by legislation elsewhere, particularly the U.S., where most data are held—although this protection was waived by Ministerial Order during the pandemic.

This is a concern not just about Google, but also about the many of educational apps and services that are available—both “free” and for a charge—that could be available in our classrooms. All these services, including Google, have user agreements and privacy statements that claim to inform. However, anyone who had tried to read one will know how difficult it is to make sense of what will actually happen with one’s data.

School districts recognize that many of the practices with education apps and the cloud do not meet the conditions required in privacy legislation. Their approach is to ask parents to sign an authorization that in effect waives the privacy rights of their child.

This is not good enough. When a parent signs an authorization, they are expressing trust in the school system to look after the interests of their child as they use these technologies in the cloud. The system is failing to live up to that trust in many of the practices in using technologies in education.

The FIPA report calls for action. The province needs to take responsibility for providing services—it already has infrastructure and expertise that should be available to the education system. The Privacy Commissioner should provide more guidance for the system on complying with the legislation and draw on international expertise available.

School districts should do privacy assessments on all services used, as well as provide training and support to teachers. Above all, they must seek valid, informed and meaningful consent from individuals, i.e. students and guardians, for use of any tools that may compromise privacy.

The protection of privacy is crucial in our increasingly cloud-based education environment.

Larry Kuehn is retired as Director of Research and Technology at the BC Teachers’ Federation. He is a member of the Board of the Institute for Public Education and a member of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association of BC.