A Manifesto (Agenda) for Progressive Public Education: Part 1

Public Education: Social Justice Project or Job Training, Panel Discussion

At the end of September this year, just when teachers were recovering from the exhausting first month of school, Educators for Social Justice held a Friday night panel discussion and Saturday workshop session dedicated to exploring the forces affecting public education in this province and coming up with a positive agenda for ensuring the future of progressive public education. Co-sponsored by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (NS), the NS Parents for Public Education and the SMU Department of Social Justice and Community Studies, the event was held at Saint Mary’s University, and attracted teachers, parents and community members.

The Friday evening panel was kicked off by the reading of a message from Paul Wozney, President of the NSTU, who congratulated the group and succinctly stated the constraints facing public education in NS today – a government in thrall to profit-driven interests that seem to want to monetize learning, while eroding the constitutional bargaining rights of teachers. Eliminating school boards was an example of change being rammed through, while positive changes requested by teachers have been stalled. He finished by expressing the desire for an education system designed so that every student will be able to experience a fulfilling future.

Larry Haiven, the moderator of the panel and one of the organizers of NS Parents for Public Education, talked about the battle that has been going on across Canada for the hearts and minds of parents and how the labour disputes of the past 2 years in NS have crystalized the need for an independent voice for parents. Those disputes had the positive side effect of mobilizing the public and raising awareness of teacher concerns – the surprising growth of the Facebook page to over 20,000 participants is a testament to this. The motivation for the conference was to zero in on what do we actually want for public education – a vehicle for transforming lives or a “utilitarian treadmill delivering employment and consumerism”, thus the title of the panel, “Public Education: Social Justice Project or Job Training”.

Screen Shot 2018-11-24 at 7.01.20 PMPanel: On screen, Pamela Rogers,  L-R: Rachel Brickner, Erika Shaker, Tina Roberts-Jeffers

The first speaker was Erika Shaker, Senior Education Researcher and Editor of Our Schools/Ourselves at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. She began with her realization that the “institutional left” had been too comfortable in their belief that they stand for social justice and warned us that what’s happening in Ontario with the new Ford majority government should be a wakeup call for everyone interested in good public education. She hopes that “massive sustained popular education and mobilizing” will help curb the regressive instincts of the Ford government. Educators will be on the front lines, as they are already affected by being a target for union disruption, losing sick days, and being subject to a “snitch line” designed to prevent them from teaching the updated sex ed curriculum. However, they are ideally placed to affect change because they interact daily with the public. It will be important that all involved invest in the work of outreach and listening, especially to marginalized and underserved communities, and that they work to make alliances and support these agents of change. It will be important to suspend defensiveness, particularly when working with these groups. There is a huge role to be played countering the conservative narrative of the lazy public servant wasting taxpayers’ money, exploding myths and “alternative facts” like “Ontario’s math scores are the lowest in the country” and constantly making the connection between taxes and social programs. She talked about the present situation in NS being an opportunity to build community, to build trust from the ground up and to help bring all communities into the discussion. In particular we need to listen to the deeply unequal ways in which kids experience school (streaming, funding formulas, and poverty are good places to start) and find ways of holding those in power to account.

The second speaker, Pamela Rogers, currently working for the Canadian Teachers Federation, joined us from Ottawa. She had entitled her presentation, “I think about leaving every day”, which was a quote from one of the 300 NS teachers surveyed last year by the Educators for Social Justice – and contrasted this with a quote about education from the head of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), “Our bias is the market”. She began with a brief history of neo-liberal education policy in NS, which reflects capitalism in the second half of the 20thcentury. In this prevailing view, school is a pipeline to the workplace, so emphasis needs to be on math and sciences as this is what advanced societies need. Accountability for teachers results in increased surveillance, testing and standardization and this ensures “efficiency” so that governments can implement “austerity” and save taxpayers’ money. This efficiency is helped along by privatised entities (Powerschool, charter schools) and the reduction of democratic institutions (reducing the number of school boards in the early 90’s). With this logic, the concept of “value” is seen in terms of the market value – for example, more money and energy is put towards STEM subjects at the expense of the arts and social studies, because they are seen as having more value for job training. Teachers’ are valued for how efficient they are at achieving the desired results, BUT this system does not account for all the unpaid labour that teachers put in – in fact she quotes Moore as saying “most (capitalist) systems would collapse without the unpaid work of its labourers”.

pamrogers slide 2018-11-19 at 1.19.48 PM

Pamela talked about how manufactured crises have been used to invoke reform in education – in particular how results from international tests such as PISA have been conflated with economic prosperity. So-called deficiencies in these test results have been used to force changes, such as a concentration on educational basics that are supposed to improve test results that are in turn believed to ensure our economic prosperity. The response to the “achievement gaps” between marginalized groups and the mainstream are a way of showing that social justice is not important – only getting test scores up is valued.

Finally, Pamela shared some responses from the 2018 Teacher Voices survey, wherein over one third of the respondents said they would not be able to continue. She concludes that teachers, as well as administrators and students are the ones paying for this “bias for the market” and that the system is unsustainable. She asks the group to look at the question, what is our collective bias for education, and how do we advocate for change? With teacher shortages coming up, I wonder if the “market” will force the government to value teachers more – or do they have something else in mind?

Tina Roberts-Jeffersdescribes herself as a mum, and a computer science student with a history of activism for African Nova Scotian education. She is also chair of her children’s school’s SAC and was a school counsellor in the Chicago public schools. She framed her discussion around the idea of “voice” – the idea that everyone should be able to participate fully in our democracy, but that some voices are still not being heard. She reminded us that when common schools were established in NS, African Nova Scotian children were not allowed to attend and one way that racism is perpetuated is by burying the voices of marginalized groups. She describes a 3 volume report that was compiled by the Black Learners Advisory Committee, containing history, results of research done by the committee and a framework for action – a report that has rarely been referenced in any of the succeeding educational reports.

She got involved in educational activism in NS around the time of the labour disruption. She spoke at the first press conference as a parent, saying that she trusted the teachers more than the government, and pointing out the hypocrisy of a government that expects parents to trust teachers with their children’s future, but not in their ability to negotiate what is best for them. She also took part in the second press conference where many regular parents had space to express themselves. That and the Facebook group NS Parents for Teachers, which she helped set up, were important for parents who look for responsivity when deciding how to use their precious time.

Tina described taking her children to play at their school during the summer, and finding racist graffiti sprayed all over the doors and other parts of the building – something she had never experienced before even though she grew up in the States. Having to shield her children from this hate pushed her into sharing the story with the media, something she was reluctant to do initially. However, now she is glad she did it and feels that her voice was heard. But this doesn’t negate the daily indignities that racialized children face at school, and there is still lots to be done. She hopes that real educational reform will be accessible, inclusive and that all involved will listen to the lived experiences of the marginalized communities whose voice hasn’t been taken into account.

Rachel Brickner, the last speaker, is a professor of political science at Acadia University, concerned with workers’ activism and the feminist ethic of care. She described examples of teacher activism from Chicago where the teachers union held a 2 week strike, and tied bargaining to “creating schools that Chicago’s children deserve”. At the time, many children in the public high schools had been rejected from “magnet” and charter schools and felt left out and discouraged. The teachers won many of their demands, but soon after the school board closed 50 public schools in low income areas (mostly Black and Latino) and shifted the money to charter schools. In Michigan, sweeping “reforms” cut education budgets by $1 billion, weakened collective bargaining, and started using test scores to evaluate teachers. One side effect was that teachers were reluctant to teach children with exceptionalities, both gifted and learning disabled, because these students don’t typically “improve” their test scores as much as regular kids.

Rachel warned about the increasing disconnect between educators and the government in NS, with the constantly shifting policy goals, diverse groups of students and fewer resources to support them. With the perceived lack of public trust, this can lead to teacher shortages. Part of the problem is the adversarial nature of collective bargaining that often leaves individuals and the public out of the picture, especially when the government has the upper hand with various anti-union legislations. In the States, a recent Supreme Court decision means that public sector unions will no longer be able to mandate dues. At the same time, an increasing disconnect between educators and their unions, has been found, resulting from a lack of member engagement strategies. In Chicago recently, teachers have started organizing outside their unions with petitions etc. And finally, the biggest disconnect is between all above groups and the public – parents don’t know what is going on in the schools because teachers cover up what’s not working, and non-parents are even more distant. What can be done to remedy the situation? Much better dialogue between the parties will help, with teachers on the frontlines, embracing research and communicating it, and finding ways to raise awareness of the importance of education for a healthy society. Even non-parents should know about the impact of schools on house prices in their neighbourhoods! Everyone should be asking the question, “What kind of schools do our children deserve?” And like in Michigan, more teachers should run for public office – a great way to raise awareness of educational issues.

A lively question and answer session followed. Part 2 will cover the Saturday workshops.