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Valentine’s Day: how the NS government shows its love for teachers Part 2

Here is the second part of Chapter 8 of “Best School in the World”:


Respect and trust

“If you can hire people whose passion intersects with the job, they won’t require any supervision at all. They will manage themselves better than anyone could ever manage them. Their fire comes from within, not from without. Their motivation is internal, not external.” Steven Covey[i]

My experience has taught me that nearly all people who are treated with respect and are expected to be professional respond to those expectations to the best of their abilities. Teaching as a career tends to attract people who want to make a difference in the world, who have a strong commitment to children and their learning, and who are invested in improving their own teaching practice. Of course, being a good teacher requires more than just having good intentions, but even if there were problems in the classroom, at Halifax Independent School everyone would work hard to overcome them. Some teachers needed support; when it was given in a respectful manner, those teachers grew and many became excellent teachers. I firmly believe that good teachers are not born, they are made – in large part, by mentorship from more experienced teachers who have retained their enthusiasm for teaching. 

In general, Canadian teachers enjoy respect and relatively good working conditions compared with many countries in the world. Canada ranks 6thout of the developed countries in terms of starting salaries for teachers[ii]and most teachers have enjoyed the good benefits and working conditions that come along with the strong teacher associations to which most of them belong. Since 1920, the Canadian Teachers Federation has been an umbrella organization and powerful voice for the various provincial and territorial associations and unions that represent teachers. Canadian teachers also generally benefit from good training (for many provinces a teacher’s degree requires 2 years of post-graduate study and practice teaching) and have many opportunities for professional development. 

But these conditions are just a starting point – as I saw at Halifax Independent School, salaries, after a certain level has been reached, are not the most important factor; respect and trust are.

In Finland, “Teachers are autonomous in their work, as the system is based on trust rather than control.”[iii]The lack of standardized tests until the end of high school means that parents trust teachers’ assessments, and trust them to do their jobs. Salhberg  describes the “shared responsibility” that happens when teachers work closely together for the school improvement that is a constant refrain. “Teachers have accepted curriculum development, experimentation with teaching methods, responsibility to engage in student welfare support, and collaboration with parents as important aspects of their work outsideof classrooms.”[iv]

Canadian teachers also need to feel valued and trusted. However, the influences from the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) have begun to creep up on them and this has had an effect on the public’s perception. Sometimes in the Canadian media, teachers have been portrayed as spoiled (long holidays, pension plans), as lazy and needing threats to make them work, or as chronic complainers (too many special needs kids, too big classes, not enough resources). Reports about the secrecy of disciplinary proceedings against teachers contributes to this perception, even though the proportion of these cases is very small and there are solid reasons that most of them are kept confidential.[v]

GERM started with the perception that Western education systems were lagging behind the more rigorous Asian ones, and that our economies would soon follow suit if nothing was done. They blamed teachers, with their wishy-washy ideas about “child-centred” education. Part of the solution was to find ways to make teachers more “accountable” for their students’ results – but this meant removing curriculum development and then the assessment of it from the teachers, and evaluating them more stringently. This sent the message that teachers were not to be trusted to do any of these things. 

By now, this lack of trust in teachers’ judgment and expertise has percolated right through the system. I remember one anxious parent who was worried about her 8-year-old’s spelling, and who, in spite of reassurances on the part of several teachers that the child was a good, average speller for her age, insisted on taking her to a private tutoring agency for “testing”. When the results came back that she was “above grade level”, the parent was satisfied – but I thought that the whole episode was harmful to everyone – to the parent who needlessly spent extra money, to the teacher who felt demoralized and to the child who bore the brunt of the parent’s anxiety.

At Halifax Independent School, parents put a great deal of trust in the teachers. Even though the governing board has more parents than teachers, teachers are generally deferred to on matters concerning curriculum and children’s development. Parents see their role on the board as advisors or helpers; the teachers strive to be worthy of the trust that is put in them. Thus an atmosphere of “shared responsibility” is created, where the teachers help and monitor each other and the parents contribute where they have expertise. 

When teachers are respected and teaching as a profession is highly valued, it becomes high status and more people want to get into it. Teaching in Finland is a highly sought-after profession, on the order of medicine, law or engineering. There are more than 10 applicants for every opening in teacher education programs, and standards for admission are high. When teachers graduate with a Master’s degree and enter the profession, the high status keeps them in the field; 90% of Finnish teachers remain in education for the whole of their career. At Halifax Independent School, where teachers are respected and trusted, they tend to stay for a long time – many for more than 20 years.

A culture of collaboration

Creating a culture of collaboration between teachers, administrators and parents is another key contributor to successful education. At Halifax Independent School, during its years as a co-operative, collaboration among teachers and parents was constant and expected. From regular meetings where teachers shared curriculum ideas, to committees of parents and teachers formed to develop policies, few decisions were made that were not collaborative. Learning activities such as Mini-Society would not have been possible without such collaboration, as well as the planning time needed. 

As the children were coming in from the playground after recess, Heather, a teacher, noticed some of the girls were teary eyed; a couple of others had grim, defiant expressions on their faces. While the rest of the class was gathering in the circle area, she pulled Lindsey and Jan aside and asked if everything was all right. Jan burst into tears, and Lindsey explained that Lily was being mean to them on the playground, and that it had been going on for a long time. Since Lily was in another class, and Jan and Lindsey didn’t seem willing to talk about it further, Heather realized that she wouldn’t be able to deal with it right away. She comforted the two girls and told them she would look into it. 

The upper elementary teachers were having a lunch meeting that day, so Heather asked the other teachers if they had noticed anything going on with Lily. It turned out that several children in other classes had mentioned that Lily and her two best friends were “being mean,” but no one would be more specific. One teacher said she had overheard something being whispered about a “club,” and wondered if that might have something to do with it. After comparing notes a little further, Heather was delegated to meet with Jan, Lindsey, Lily and her two best friends to get to the root of the problem, which she did before the end of lunch time. It turned out that Lily had organized a secret club to which you could only belong if you played a trick on someone else. Some of the tricks were quite mean, and Lindsey described how she had been asked to hide Jan’s lunchbox, but didn’t want to since she was her friend. Both girls had a chance to tell Lily how they felt about the situation, and after a lot of discussion, Heather felt that Lily understood the impact her exclusive, secret “club” was having on everyone else. She shared her results with the other teachers, who would all keep an eye on the girls to make sure there were no repeat occurrences, and who would all talk to their classes in general about playing tricks and excluding children.

The collaboration between these teachers, who worked closely together on many issues and shared a common commitment to children’s emotional health, was vital to nip this problem in the bud. Because it involved several classes and was “secret,” the situation could very easily have gone unnoticed by the teachers and have escalated into a bullying situation. This is the kind of situation that arises often with children, and for which collaboration is essential. When there is no culture of collaboration, it will often be overlooked.

Teachers in Finland have a great deal of autonomy over curriculum, the life of the school and community involvement, and to exercise this, they collaborate together a great deal. But collaboration between teachers and with parents requires time, which needs to be built into the school day. Finnish primary children have only 650 hours per year of instructional time (590 in middle school) compared with 900 for Canadian children and 1080 hours for Americans. This allows ample time for collaboration and for the preparation that is necessary for schools where there is no set curriculum. 

Teachers in Canada are already spending about as much time working and preparing outside the classroom as in it (an average work week of 49 hours means about 25 hours “instructional time” and 24 hours preparation).[vi]“Teacher burn out” is often a big topic at teacher and principal professional development sessions. Teacher collaboration time needs to be built in to the school week – time for peer assessments, curriculum planning, mentorship, and professional development. 

More hours of instructional time does not necessarily lead to better outcomes on tests or any other measures of education. I cringe when I hear a news story about schools in the US cancelling recess or otherwise lengthening the school day or year to increase teaching time, on the theory that this will boost student achievement. This flies in the face of all the research on the subject. Students need breaks; in Finland, they get breaks every 45 minutes. Teachers also perform better when they have ample time for collaboration and preparation, and when they are not working late into the night and on weekends. Many countries give children an afternoon off per week to provide time for teacher collaboration; others have a shorter school day so that after-school meetings and preparation do not keep teachers at school into the evenings. This would be worthwhile for Canadian schools to consider.

Creating a culture of collaboration requires trust, respect, and teacher autonomy as well as dedicated time in the week. However, there are some structural factors that actively work against collaboration. When the system encourages teachers to compete against each other, which is what happens when external rewards are used to incentivize individuals, it is not surprising that collaboration will suffer. In both the US and Britain, some administrators have claimed that the best way to encourage excellence in teachers is to reward it with “merit pay”. In many schools in the US, the Value Added Model is used to measure a class’s “growth” in scores over the school year and as a way to sort out what gains or losses are caused by the teacher, as opposed to other factors such as absenteeism or socio-economic status. This model has many problems and, the author of one study concluded: “If anything, teacher incentives may decrease student achievement, especially in larger schools.”[vii]

Even if one could measure teacher effectiveness fairly and objectively, the singling out of “good” teachers for rewards leads to dysfunctional competition among teachers, exactly the opposite of the PISA findings on collaboration among teachers. Teachers will often choose to plan alone, so that they will get all the credit for successful activities. 

Assessment of teachers should not be used to reward the good and punish the bad, but to provide support and encouragement for all teachers to help them all improve their practice. At Halifax Independent, where sharing is encouraged, teachers feel rewarded when others want to emulate something they have tried.

Teacher autonomy, respect and collaboration are three basic conditions that have been shown to actually improve student learning, and they are absolutely essential for any kind of progressive teaching. But there are other conditions, which are also important for progressive teaching and for which many teachers have been advocating for years. One of these is keeping class size and composition to levels at which teachers feel they can teach the way they know is best for children.

Class size and composition

More students in a class means more administrative work for teachers: more report cards, more marking, more parent contact and therefore less time for planning and one-on-one attention. One of the most contentious and, for parents, confusing issues is that of class size and the numbers of special needs children in those classes (the polite term for which is “class composition”). Much has been written about it, and recently it has been one of the main issues in negotiations between teachers and governments. 

Teachers care about student learning, and about the wellbeing of their students. They know that with large classes they can’t give children the individual attention they need, both for their emotional wellbeing and for their academic progress.

If you have read this far in this book, you will have an appreciation for the amount of individual attention that is required for progressive teaching to work, and why Halifax Independent School caps its elementary classes at 18 (and middle school at 22). But if you take a look at the extensive literature on the subject, you will see that there is a huge and confusing variety of studies on the subject of class size, with very contradictory results. In Canada, a paper issued by the C.D. Howe Institute in 2005, “School Class Size: Smaller isn’t Better,”[viii]received a great deal of media coverage and has influenced governments, even though many of its conclusions were questioned. It bases its findings upon studies by economists, such as Hanushek,[ix]who are concerned about costs arising from lowering class size, and who use students’ results on standardized tests as their only measure of achievement. 

So what is going on here? Who can we believe? If raising test scores were the only goal of education, then it probably doesn’t matter how many children are taught by one teacher – I can prepare 35 children just as well as 20 children if all I am doing is vertical, whole-class teaching aimed at drilling the answers to standardized test questions. 

However, both recent research and many older, well-established studies also look at variables other than test scores to measure outcomes: things such as number of interactions between teachers and students, attitudes towards learning, long-term educational attainment, and teacher satisfaction. What is not in question is that research has shown that smaller classes (especially under 20 students) are very beneficial for students in the early years. Even the C.D. Howe report acknowledges this effect for Kindergarten and Grade 1, and attributes it to the fact that these years are largely about “socialization.” I guess the underlying assumption here is that social learning stops at the age of 6 and that the rest of schooling is only about passing tests. 

These studies point out that with smaller classes, “there was more individual attention, a more active role for the pupils, and beneficial effects on the quality of teaching.”[x]These positive effects are even stronger for children who have been “educationally disadvantaged,”[xi]and for classes where “innovative” teaching styles such as self-reporting grades, formative evaluation and “micro-teaching” are used.[xii]

These two factors – class size and class composition – have featured prominently in several job actions on the part of teachers. Governments have resisted allowing teachers unions a say on these issues because of the costs of reducing class size in this era of austerity budgets and smaller government. It is true that hiring extra teachers puts stress on education budgets; however, in November 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada finally upheld the BC teachers union 14 year case against their provincial government about their right to have class size and composition included as a working condition.  As a result, negotiations between all teachers unions and their provincial governments should include class size and composition  as a working condition.

This is one area in which governments must respect teachers’ experience and knowledge of students’ needs and their failure to do so whittles away teachers’ autonomy. 

How can we keep teachers engaged?

“I love my job! You learn something new everyday. Today’s lesson: my car can fit 5 Christmas trees. Who knew?!?” Liam Knox, Middles Teacher (Facebook)

Parents want their children to spend their days with teachers who know their children and are excited about learning – in other words, are engaged. Teachers want to be engaged and want the best for the children they teach. Therefore it seems logical that one of the essential cornerstones of a healthy, progressive education system is to make sure teachers get what they need to do their jobs.

Yet in many places we still have unhappy teachers and parents. We have looked at the effects of GERM on teachers, and seen how it undermines the 3 major characteristics of a healthy teaching force (feeling valued, having autonomy and having time for collaboration), and it is foolish to think that Canadian education is immune from these influences. 

A few years ago when Halifax Independent was starting to grow, and we were building the new school, there were times when the stress level among teachers was quite high. We were constantly having evening meetings to make decisions about the direction of the school, meeting with builders and architects, fundraising, developing new policies and recruiting new students – and this when all of us had full teaching schedules! The staff had recently doubled in size, and some of us noticed that not everyone felt as free to express concerns as others did. When things settled down after we moved in to the new building, we decided do an anonymous staff survey, as well as a parent one. Both were very revealing, but what really stood out was the number of hours the teachers worked each week (it ranged from 48 to 60), and the worry they felt over how this was affecting their families. 

Recognizing that this state of affairs was not sustainable, the staff and some parents sat down to figure out what to do about it.  We came up with a much more realistic division of labour, streamlining the number of teacher meetings, and mandating only one teacher on each parent committee instead of several. As a staff, we also became more conscious of the need for work/life balance and reminded each other of it from time to time. These surveys were repeated every 2 years, and always gave us something new to work on – a good example of how shared responsibility can contribute to a constantly improving, vital institution.

Halifax Independent continued to operate as a co-operative long after it gave up its official designation. This structure allowed us to keep a focus on everyone’s needs – children, parents and teachers, but acknowledged that teachers do matter a lot. In order to have truly excellent teachers, we made sure that they felt listened to, respected and had lots of time to work together.

[i]Steve Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 1989, Franklin Covey

[ii]Education at a Glance, OECD, 2014

[iv]Sahlberg p. 90

[v]Marketplace, CBC, Trouble in the Classroom,

[vi]Smaller, H. et al (2005) Canadian Teachers’ Learning Practices and Workload Issues: Results from a National Teacher Survey and Follow-Up Focus Groups. (Retrieved June 20, 2006 from

[vii]Fryer, Roland G. Teacher Incentives and Student Achievement: Evidence fromNew York City Public Schools 2011





Valentine’s Day: How the NS government shows its love for teachers Part 1

Two years ago on Valentine’s Day 2017, Stephen McNeil and his government introduced Bill 75, which imposed a contract on teachers. Huge protests followed, and the legacy of that event has affected teachers to this day. A survey of teachers was just released this week (Teachers’ Voices: An Independent Survey of Nova Scotia’s Teachers and shows them to be demoralized and burnt out with many thinking of leaving the profession.

Two years ago, in April 2017, I published a book called “Best School in the World” (Formac) about the small co-operatively run school I was associated with for over 20 years. While I was editing and polishing the book, the teachers’ “negotiations” with the government were going on, and I observed it closely. I thought at the time that there would be long lasting effects on teacher morale, but I never imagined that we would be facing this impending shortage of teachers so soon. I thought that if only Stephen McNeil had read Chapter 8 of my book, perhaps none of this would have happened 🙂

So although it’s a bit late, I’m reproducing parts of the chapter here. It’s a bit long for one post, so the second half will appear tomorrow. One thing to note…I talk about “progressive” teaching in an elementary/junior high school in this book – but these principles apply to most types of teaching and levels. But I think (based on what I read in the teachers’ survey) that part of many teachers’ frustration is that they’d like to be able to teach more like this, but just can’t because of the restrictions of the job.

CHAPTER 8: (Part 1)


“There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can’t move, and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies.” 

― Robert Frost

If there is one thing that all sides in education debates agree on, it is that teachers matter. Endless studies have been published saying that excellent teachers are the key school factor to great outcomes in education.[i]Yet the discussion gets tricky when educators, administrators or economists try to define “excellence” and even more so when they suggest ways to promote it.

I have seen that when teachers love their jobs and are treated like professionals, it sets the stage for excellent, progressive teaching. Progressive teaching is more complex, more varied, and more interesting than teaching to the test – in a real sense, it is harder work. It does not require extraordinary paragons to carry it out, but it does require a supportive school environment. 

A teacher’s genuine enthusiasm for learning is infectious. Most of us remember boring teachers from our childhoods who droned on, expecting us to reproduce their words on the next test. It was not just the students that found this deadly – this kind of “vertical” teaching can also lead to staleness and boredom for the teachers doing it. But unfortunately many educational administrators believe that as long as a teacher knows the subject content, knows what students will be tested on and is capable of transferring this knowledge to the students in time for it to produce good test results, they are “excellent”. In this view, transmitting a love of learning to students is not a priority. 

As a teacher, I help children to learn how to learn, and in the process, experience the joy of making new connections, find out interesting facts and reach new levels of understanding. I participate fully in this process, experiencing all the highs and lows with the children. This type of teaching requires a lot of preparation in advance – not just finding out all the information (which I could then just tell the children), but instead finding activities, experiences and materials that will engage, challenge and stimulate them in active learning. When it works well, it is deeply rewarding and calls upon all of a teacher’s resources and professionalism.

To create the conditions that will foster excellent progressive teachers does not need to be expensive, require years of training or the overhauling of curricula. What teachers need in order to teach well in a progressive system and to be fully engaged in it is relatively simple.

Teachers need: autonomy in curriculum, assessment and decisions affecting them; to feel valued by society (respect and trust); and a culture of collaboration with enough time for planning.Teachers who work under these conditions will generally feel and exhibit a high degree of professionalism.[ii]

These three conditions have been identified by the PISA studies, among others, as the conditions that lead to the highest teacher job satisfaction and the greatest educational outcomes.[iii]They are certainly vitally important for progressive teaching to occur. This chapter will look at these and other conditions that allow teachers to give their best to their students, the factors that currently work against these conditions, and what the education system can do to overcome them. 

Autonomy in decision-making, curriculum and assessment

Although I have taught in many schools, I spent most of my teaching career at Halifax Independent School (formerly Dalhousie University School) which started out its independent life as a co-operative. In its earliest years, all three or four teachers were on the board of directors, along with an equal number of parents plus one. This gave teachers a great deal of control over decisions on everything ranging from curriculum to finances. Policies were developed as needed, and were carefully crafted to reflect the unique needs of the school. 

Salaries reflected what we could afford, which were often as low as 70% of what teachers in the public system were getting. During these years, some more business-minded observers questioned the wisdom of having teachers as part of the group that would decide on salaries and benefits, feeling that it created an inherent conflict of interest. What actually happened during these years of planning and building the new school was that the parent members of the Board would consistently argue for higher salaries, while the teacher members, who perhaps appreciated more clearly the financial situation, would consistently advocate salary freezes. When the school finally got its new building, and started to expand, attracting new teachers and then keeping them became an issue, and salaries started to rise until they reached approximately 90% of those in the public system. Teachers at Halifax Independent School had almost total autonomy over decisions that affected the school and their role within it, and it was an exciting place to teach. 

When teachers have autonomy over what and how they teach, as they have at Halifax Independent School, instead of being obliged to follow a set curriculum, it is amazing how creative and engaged they become. I have known teachers who would not have previously described themselves as innovative or creative when they started, who after a few years at Halifax Independent School, were developing highly original units of study. The example of others, the mentoring of more experienced teachers and the freedom to share ideas is motivating for teachers, as it is in other jobs. 

Teachers at Halifax Independent are also responsible for creating and administering all student assessment as we saw in Chapter 7. When an education system takes away the discretion of teachers over testing and curriculum, it is a way of “deskilling” them. Like most teachers, I was attracted to teaching partly by the opportunity to be creative in planning lessons and designing curriculum materials…teaching only ready-made content and lessons can be boring, frustrating and demeaning for most teachers. Using the authentic assessment measures we had developed as a group gave us confidence in our judgment and provided opportunities for real connection with our students.

Pasi Sahlberg talks about the autonomy given to Finnish teachers: “They control curriculum, student assessment, school improvement and community involvement. Much as teachers around the world enter the profession with a mission to build community and transmit culture … Finnish teachers, in contrast to their peers in so many countries, have the latitude to follow through.”[iv]

One of the key characteristics of the Finnish system, which Sahlberg points out, is the idea of the teacher as researcher. All teachers have a Masters degree in education, which implies a familiarity with educational research and experience in conducting original research of their own. This allows them to benefit from new research-based ideas and methodologies, which they are then encouraged to try out. 

On the other hand, in Britain, the highly centralized and standardized curriculum and testing leaves little room for teachers’ creativity or initiative, and this, along with experiencing the deafness of the administration to their concerns, means that most teachers have little autonomy. The UK now has one of the worst records in the developed world for teacher recruitment and retention. Almost 50% of teachers leave the profession after 5 years, in spite of having relatively good salaries and benefits. 

The assessment of teachers is another area in which teachers themselves can play a role, both in developing the assessment system, as they do at Halifax Independent, and in carrying it out. The further away the assessor is in status to the one being assessed, the less autonomy the teacher feels. Thus, when teachers are assessed primarily by their peers, the feedback is more likely to contribute to their confidence as teachers instead of undermining it as when they are assessed by “superiors”. When teachers are evaluated by a principal or head teacher who is considered part of a team of teachers instead of management, again, the feedback is more likely to be well received. On top of the stressful assessment that children in Britain go through (which also affects teachers), teachers there have to put up with assessments of their schools every 4 years or so in which inspectors are free to barge into classrooms at any time. It is no wonder the job satisfaction rate among British teachers is so low! 

The more autonomy we can give teachers over decision-making, curriculum and assessment, the more we are likely to encourage true excellence in teaching. The contradiction in Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) countries is that by undermining teacher autonomy, they actually limit themselves to a very narrow definition of teacher excellence that doesn’t improve the student outcomes they are so concerned about.


[iii]Education at a Glance, OECD, 2014

[iv]Sahlberg, Pasi p.7

An Agenda for 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.


Charter Schools: an idea whose time has gone. Part 2

For some children and their parents in NS, the start of the new school year was a nightmare. Lost bus drivers or buses that never came meant late arrivals, stranded kids and unnecessary hours of anxious waiting for parents. Complaints were loud and vociferous, and Stock Transport, the American multinational contracted to deliver Halifax County’s children to school, was called on the carpet.

When the dust had settled, after a weekend where the routers worked non-stop to clarify routes and iron out the problems, things seemed back on track. But what I found really interesting was that it was only on September 13, more than a week after the start of school, that Stock Transport hosted a “job fair”. As well as bus drivers, they were also looking for a bilingual router and operations specialists – could it be that Stock started the school year short staffed? Is it possible that they were trying to save money by minimizing the staff needed?

The last time I noticed Stock in the news was in February…”In a scathing report published last November , Stock was found to have committed eight violations, including operating a charter service without a licence, resisting or willfully obstructing inspectors, demanding drivers work beyond the driving hours permitted and falsifying records.” They narrowly avoided losing their school bus license, and the CEO publicly blamed a “rogue” regional manager who was fired when the problems came to light.

Part 1 of this post ended with the question “Why are AIMS and its relatives still promoting charter schools in Canada?” I used the example of the privatization of our Halifax school buses to show how corporations have been eying the education system looking for ways they can make a profit. But the push for profits sometimes has a dark side: skimping on hiring, risking safety by forcing drivers to work more hours than permitted, and then obstructing inspectors.

In Nova Scotia, we have seen creeping privatisation in education: P3 schools, imported standardized tests, vouchers to private schools instead of meeting students’ needs in the public system, outsourcing data management and bussing, Powerschool and tutoring agencies to name a few. Charter schools would just be another way to accelerate this transfer of money from the public to the private sphere.

To see how this story ends, one only has to look at what has been happening south of the border.  In some states, such as California, charter schools have starved the public system of funds.  Every time a student leaves the public school for a charter, their previous school loses out because public money follows the student.

Many states in the US pay their teachers poorly, but this can be exacerbated in the charter system where teachers’ salaries can be determined by their students’ standardized test scores, and where unions do not exist. But, while paying teachers less, it is not uncommon to see charter schools paying huge salaries to administrators and Boards of Directors (this also happens in British academies).The president of one California charter chain Altus Institute, Mary Bixby, was paid $371,160 in 2014—”exceeding the total pay plus benefits of the Superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District that serves nearly 130,000 students.”time mag cover teachersInvestors in charter schools, like billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, make good money – he is receiving a 10% annual return on his “impact investment” in a charter chain that has recently built 79 schools in poor neighbourhoods. By investing through his charitable foundation, he probably also manages to save on taxes that could support public education.

Nova Scotians have recently lost, through local school board abolition, their ability to question their school board members about education issues.  But there has always been secrecy surrounding charter school administration. In California, wealthy interest groups are lobbying and exerting political pressure “to thwart legislative efforts that would increase charter oversight, such as AB 709 that would make charter board meetings public, allow the public to inspect charter school records, and prohibit charter school officials from having a financial interest in contracts that they enter into in their official capacity. All of the above are expected of public schools.” – and not necessarily provided by charter schools.

Canada is the mouse sleeping next to the elephant. When the US twitches, we can be crushed. What infects them, often spreads to us. The Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) that has gripped US education policy for the last 20 years has been advancing the 2-tiered, semi-privatized education system that has resulted in the rise of charter schools (and a widening achievement gap between rich and poor). And now they have an Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, who was chosen for her long-time support for charter schools.  Her husband, a billionaire former Amway CEO, actually runs a charter school in Michigan, where students can learn to pilot airplanes. This year, the education budget she proposed cut $9 billion (13%) from the federal education budget, while increasing support by $1.4 billion for charter schools and vouchers. Fortunately, Congress rejected it – but she’s not finished yet.

Appearing on CNN in 2017, she endorsed one charter/private school, Acton academy, as “truly a unique model in that it’s totally student directed, there’s no teacher in the classroom…and the school is actually proliferating pretty rapidly through the country.”

Acton Academies are really proliferating – on their website it tells you how you can start your own franchise – there’s even one in Toronto. I have to admit that their methodology  sounds progressive. It had me yearning to plunk down my $10,000 (one time start up fee, other costs “as low as $50,000”) to start up my own academy! But here’s what the school really looks like:  a lot of kids on computers playing educational games, with “guides” (not teachers) monitoring the process. “In an elementary class of 36 to 40 students there currently are two Guides; the middle school has one Guide for 36 students, though the number of Guides is expected to drop as high school students take over these responsibilities. No professional development is done to support technology implementation.” No B.Eds are required – heck, even the high school students can do the job!

Forbes Magazine loves this idea: “Sure, this kind of experimental education might be illegal in many liberal states captive to teachers unions, who will defend their taxpayer-supported, substandard product to their last breath. But in places that encourage home schooling, the legal groundwork has already been laid. All the market is waiting for is someone like Jeff (Sandefer, Acton founder) to come along with a replicable model.”

If these Acton schools sound appealing to you, even though they are only for those wealthy enough to pay its fees, think of their poor cousins, the “storefront charters” or “Independent Learning Resource Centres”. These are also proliferating, especially in California, where they target “at risk kids” and have had abysmal graduation and drop-out rates. But they are lucrative because they are so easy to run – the student only has to report in once a week and is responsible for completing work packets and passing the tests based on them. The teacher/student ratio is astronomical so costs are  low.

So it’s no wonder AIMS and its relatives, the Fraser Institute and the CD Howe Institute, funded by wealthy business interests, with their boards stocked with billionaires, are salivating at the thought of the business opportunities promised by the charter school model. They read Forbes, and are well aware of one of the major impediments to full privatization: teachers unions. Hence the orchestrated attack on them, while at the same time they promote charter schools. Soon, if GERM spreads more, they will be touting “independent learning centres”, where teachers’ role is minimized, if not eliminated entirely.

I’m not even in the union, but I will defend our taxpayer-supported, but not substandard, public education system to my last breath. In fact, convincing us that our public education system and our teachers are substandard  has been one of AIMS’ aims for many years – but we know that Canada has one of the best education systems in the world.  Instead of diverting our public money to charters and other privatized schools, why not focus on making our good public schools even better so that the billionaires who fund think tanks like AIMS and the CEOs of companies like Stock Transport would be happy to send their children to them? It can be done.


Charter Schools – an idea whose time has gone. Part 1

Just around the time Nova Scotian kids and their parents were navigating the start of a new school year (a particularly rocky start for the many who take have to take school buses) innocuous seeming opinion pieces appeared in several eastern Canadian newspapers. These articles claimed kids in Atlantic Canada “aren’t getting access to the educational choices they deserve” and touted “an innovative solution right here in Canada: charter schools”. They were written by Paige MacPherson (new Atlantic director of Canadian Taxpayers Federation – an organization devoted to reducing taxes) and her claim is that charter schools will provide more school choice for parents, superior academic results and, on top of it all, save money for taxpayers. All these claims, and more, can be found in a new research paper put out by AIMS, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, coincidentally authored by Macpherson herself.

Most of the paper is about Alberta, because it is the only province in Canada where charter schools exist. Despite having been established there for more than 20 years, since 1994, only 1.4 % of the student population attend charter schools in Alberta, and most of those are in the largest cities. Despite this, MacPherson claims that their model has something to offer the rest of Canada. She claims that charter schools enable greater school choice, which will ultimately mean competition between schools. This will supposedly lead to a raising of academic standards across the board.

However, time for a quick reality check. In Alberta, there are almost no charter schools in rural areas. Charter schools and the “school choice” model, are generally an urban phenomenon, because a high population density is required to support competing schools within feasible travel range. In the Nova Scotia, where many school districts face declining enrolments, rural areas often face the problem that their only school may not have enough students to stay open at all. In areas which can only support one school, even when students spend hours every day on a school bus to attend, “school choice” is a ridiculous concept – and more than 50% of students in Nova Scotia live in small towns or rural areas.  Although parts of downtown Halifax and perhaps Sydney, may be able to support several competing schools, these are essentially the only places in Nova Scotia where “school choice” is a practical possibility. Given this reality, locally based school boards have historically been the way in which parents could have input into their children’s schooling. However, Nova Scotia has just eliminated school boards (another AIMS idea). In an era when small rural communities are often losing their schools the idea that charter schools will increase parents’ choice or input into their children’s schooling is laughable.

Even for major metropolitan centres, Macpherson ignores the fact that great diversity is provided within the public systems of large cities like Toronto and Vancouver where parents can choose from a wide variety of alternative schools. If school choice is what she values, why doesn’t she call for Halifax and other large Atlantic cities to adopt a Toronto style system of public alternative schools?

Her second claim, that charter schools will produce superior academic results is also suspect.  Using the Fraser Institute “report card” on schools (whose validity is also highly suspect), MacPherson claims that the 13 Alberta charter schools outperform the over 1000 public schools, and uses this graph:

charter school test results

Apart from the fact that any standardized test scores show only one aspect of a school’s worth, there is no explanation of what test results she is actually using from the past 10 years or why she doesn’t use the handy “mark out of 10” that the Fraser Institute uses to grade schools. She dismisses (without providing evidence) the well-founded objection that charter schools attract children from “an engaged demographic” and that this “may skew standardized test scores”.  She maintains that the Charter Schools handbook states “charter schools cannot turn students away, if they have the capacity to take them on” so therefore they cannot be elitist. This is completely disingenuous as anyone knows who is familiar with the lengths education-savvy parents will go to in getting their kids in to the “best” schools.

And as for saving money for taxpayers, MacPherson speculates that if 50% of Alberta students were in charter schools, the government would save over a billion dollars a year.  What this wishful thinking completely ignores is that private and charter schools  can select the students who will have the least problems and they can rely on the public system to develop curriculum that they can use. The public school per pupil amount covers the cost of the department infrastructure, including all the specialists and curriculum developers that are part of any education system. The major way charter schools could save money is by cutting the largest education expense of all – teachers’ salaries. And that would mean undermining teachers’ unions, which is what Grant Frost, in his excellent article maintains is one of the real motivations behind this push for charter schools.

It’s interesting that MacPherson doesn’t use examples from the US or Britain, where charter schools or their equivalent have been operating on a much larger scale than Alberta for the last few decades – and where there is a large literature evaluating rigorously (and mostly negatively) the claims of the charter school movement.

I have spent some time in Britain recently investigating the “academization” that started there about 20 years ago when “failing” schools (mostly in poor neighbourhoods) were taken over, sometimes by private interests, and made into “academies”, which were basically charter schools with a huge injection of cash. I have written about this in previous blog posts:

Although the hype at the start was that academization would give disadvantaged students access to the best education, what has actually happened is that 20 years later there is basically no difference in academic standards between academies and schools that have remained in the public system, but lots of evidence that segregation between privileged and disadvantaged students has deepened.  And has all this produced better results across the board? On international comparisons, such as PISA, test scores have only marginally improved.

What also happened was that Britain went from having 152 Local Education Authorities (school boards) to over 3000 Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) plus the LEAs, all with their administrative structure, their school governors and bureaucratic systems. The cost of education has ballooned, while individual schools have been starved of resources, particularly the Local Authority schools. And where has all that money gone? Much of it has gone to the private interests that support and run these Multi-Academy Trusts.

So, after 20 years of academization in Britain, education costs have soared, the gap between the economically advantaged and disadvantaged has widened and internationally comparable test scores show little change. Academies haven’t worked in England, and they won’t work here. So why are AIMS and its relatives like the Fraser Institute still promoting charter schools in Canada?  Stay tuned for part 2 for what I think are some of the real reasons behind this push.


So good to be back in Nova Scotia!

What the Globe didn’t print

I guess it was too much to expect that the Globe and Mail would print something that was critical of their recent crazy editorials, and they didn’t, so I’m publishing the letter I sent them yesterday here.

To the Editor,

Re the June 4  editorial, “The Ontario NDP is stuck in a groove”, may I respectfully say the groove is mutual – the dismissal of Andrea Horwath’s reason for scrapping the EQAO because it is “a wish-list item of the teachers’ unions” reinforces the stereotype of the greedy union. Unions are made up of their members, and in this case, when teachers want to reduce standardized testing, it is because they know its negative effects on children and learning, and they know that the most successful education systems have minimal testing. It is not because they have anything to gain materially from it. Horwath is refreshing and fairly unique among politicians in that she has consulted with the experts on education, the teachers, through their unions, and is using evidence to promote good policy.

Yours sincerely,  Molly Hurd

Of course, this letter only tackled one tiny aspect of the article, and there is so much more I could have said. The Globe will always defend the business interests of the elite, even to the point, as in today’s editorial, of encouraging people to vote for a party led by a “populist chancer”  who is incompetent, a drug dealer (in high school) and a liar. “It defies recent experience to believe that a person like that will be moderated by high office. Mr. Ford has furthermore failed to explain how he will pay for his many promised tax cuts. He is no fiscal conservative.” In spite of that, and in spite of actually giving the NDP platform faint praise yesterday, they now conclude that “if you are lucky enough to have a local candidate who embodies integrity and principle, we encourage you to support him or her”…which is tacitly telling people to vote conservative in spite of Doug Ford. Sound familiar? Yes, it’s just like they did in the last federal election when they endorsed the conservatives, but not Harper.

Fortunately, I doubt many young people read the Globe and Mail, which is making itself more irrelevant by the day. And hopefully, those young ones, the ones under 35, will get out and vote in droves tomorrow.

20180605_131209Photo from Barcelona, where they have amazing separated bike lanes everywhere. Here there is a special lane for bikes, and then taxis and motorcycles, with the main traffic in the middle. Can’t wait to get out on a bike tomorrow!

Dear Kathleen Wynne,

Dear Kathleen Wynne,

You have already conceded defeat in the upcoming Ontario election, a startling and unprecedented event that has left many of your Liberal supporters bewildered and scrambling. In my last blogpost on this topic, ( I expressed my admiration for you for what you accomplished in education in Ontario. However, your legacy, in my eyes, will be toast if you continue to exhort your followers to vote Liberal regardless, just to prevent a Conservative or NDP majority. Your argument is that the Liberals will need enough seats to hold the balance of power in a minority government situation, no matter who wins.

To hold that an NDP or Conservative majority are equally bad prospects is to equate their platforms – and it is ridiculous to compare the NDP’s 97 page, detailed and fully costed platform with Ford’s uncosted, fuzzy list of vague promises. The only way Ford claims to be able to pay for billions of dollars’ worth of promises is by cutting “waste” in government, starting with the kinds of paper they use. By being vague about what kind of “waste” he’ll get rid of, he leaves the door open to cut things like libraries, teachers and nurses…and his past priorities indicate that this is his agenda. All the major media outlets in Ontario have pilloried Ford’s platform, and for you to promote this false equivalence between the two parties is dangerous and immoral.

Kathleen Wynne, get out there and start encouraging your supporters to vote NDP in ridings where the Liberals don’t have a chance. It’s the only way to stop a Ford government, and make no bones about it, Ford is no “progressive” conservative. He’s a Trump admirer, a bombastic populist who will gaily make life much worse for minorities, women and the poor in Ontario. He’ll decimate your progressive sex education curriculum and undo years of successful progressive educational policies that have made Ontario a global high flyer in education. Just this morning, for example, an article about arts education in Britain noted: “By contrast, in high-performing jurisdictions around the world, including Singapore and Ontario, Canada, pupils are required to study arts subjects to age 17 or 18” ( Why mess with this?

Yet Ford’s promotional video about education is introduced with the words, “Ontario’s kids are getting failing grades.” Take a look at the video, narrated by a fake “newscaster”, and hear him in his own words promising to bring education “back to basics” – totally ignorant that Ontario children are already among the best performing students in the world.

A Horwath minority government would be a totally different proposition to work with than a Ford one – let’s face it, you are much more philosophically aligned with the NDP than with the Conservatives. Horwath has promised to build on your successes in education, not rip them apart. We’ve seen in the recent BC election that a small number of seats can hold the balance of power, and wield tremendous influence – but would you seriously consider propping up Doug Ford?

I’ve always been dubious about strategic voting, but unfortunately under this flawed first past the post system we have, it is sometimes necessary. And this is one of those times – the NDP could win the popular vote and still lose the seat count because there are ridings where a Liberal/NDP vote split could result in an extra Conservative seat.

So, Kathleen, wield whatever power you have left wisely and help stop the disaster that a “buck a beer” Ford government would be. Ontario voters deserve better.