Blog Posts

Two letters to the Editor

A few weeks ago, just after in-person learning resumed in Nova Scotia schools, this column appeared in the Halifax Chronicle Herald. It was written by Paul Bennett, and demonstrated such a complete lack of knowledge and empathy for what actually goes on in public schools that two members of Educators for Social Justice – NS independently wrote letters refuting it – Ben Sichel and I. They were both published on the same day (February 9, 2022) and I am reproducing them here for those that do not subscribe to the CH. Immediately below is the link to the original column:

My letter: Teachers, Parents not irrational

Paul Bennett’s op-ed “COVID hype breeds school hypervigilance” Saturday January 29 2022. characterizes a large proportion of teachers and about 57% of parents of young children as being “excessively anxious” and suffering from “cave syndrome” with “psychological fears, real and imagined”. Really? Are the majority of Nova Scotia parents and teachers actually irrational? After 2 years of a pandemic, and 6 weeks of omicron, many classrooms still do not have adequate ventilation, social distancing is a joke, the 3-ply masks promised turn out to be inadequate, contact tracing which parents relied on has been discontinued, classes are still too big – and all this in spite of a mostly unspent $40 million in federal government funds designated to make schools safe for in-person learning. Bennett doesn’t mention the fact that only about half of the children under 12 had received one dose of vaccine by Jan. 17 when in-person learning resumed, and none had received two. No 4 year-olds were vaccinated at all, and many teachers had not received their booster shots. All of these are real safety fears, and to treat them as imagined is belittling and arrogant.

Teachers taught successfully online for the week of Jan. 10-15. The issue is how long that should have continued. Just about everyone, teachers, parents, students and pediatricians, agrees that in-person learning is best for students – not just for mental health, but for actual learning. So when teachers and parents of the not-yet fully vaccinated under 12 children express reservations about going back to in-person learning so soon, especially when the 3 other Atlantic provinces decided to do one or two extra weeks of online learning to get past the peak of omicron, one would have hoped that the government might listen. Teachers warned about high rates of sickness and absences among staff that would impact the quality of the in-person learning, and the strain on those left to carry the burden. Parents worried about their children bringing omicron home to vulnerable family members. These worries were not irrational – all of these things have happened, and we are not finished with omicron yet.

Bennett claims that the parent Facebook group Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education, built its membership by “creating an early-warning system for school-level exposures”. This group has existed since the teachers’ labour dispute with the government 4 years ago when it was created to support the teachers. At its peak it had almost 40,000 members. Its case reporting tool relies on anonymous reporting by parents whose children tested positive, with the name of the school involved. To date it has recorded 780 cases (most likely there are many more) and has served its purpose of filling the gap left by the government, giving parents information that lets them make informed decisions about their children attending school. 

Educators and many parents had rational reasons for suggesting delaying the return to in-person schooling by one or two weeks. Their legitimate safety fears were ignored, and even the modest request by teachers that they be prioritized for booster shots, as other frontline workers were, was denied. No wonder they feel disrespected and demoralized, a situation left over from the previous government’s lockouts and forced contract. And for what? 2 weeks of what has been a chaotic, dangerous return to in-person school. 

Ben Sichel’s letter: Armchair Edu-critic insulated from COVID

Yesterday I spoke to an elementary school teacher who contracted COVID-19 from her class. The infection happened months ago, but the teacher is still off work due to long-term health complications. 

Earlier that morning I had read Paul Bennett’s latest column, in which he calls concerns about COVID in schools a “moral panic.” 

The so-called polarized debate about keeping schools open during Omicron is, like many such debates, over-simplified. On one side, the story goes, are those concerned about the virus spreading in schools; on the other are those who insist we need to “learn to live” with it. 

Reality is of course more nuanced. Nearly everyone wants schools to open. Many of us who spend our days in them, however, have been sorely disappointed by the lack of imagination (and more importantly, investment) in keeping students and staff truly safe — physically, mentally and emotionally. 

Even those who voice concern about schools opening would likely feel better if governments implemented any of the many reasonable precautions suggested throughout the past two years to make schools as safe as possible. During the current wave staff and students have not been provided with N95 masks; school staff were not prioritized for boosters; school reopenings were not delayed to allow children to get second doses of vaccines. Structural changes such as sending older students to school every second day in order to reduce contacts were never considered. There has never been any plan for equity for immunocompromised students and staff, for whom it is simply too dangerous to attend school in person. 

The province has still not legislated adequate paid sick days, which would allow parents to stay home with sick children rather than send them to school. Overcrowded classes, which made for poor learning conditions before the pandemic, make social distancing impossible.

Of course, none of these issues has ever registered for commentators like Mr. Bennett, who hasn’t worked in a classroom in decades and writes from the comfort of his home office. “Learning to live with COVID” means something different when you’re the one being told to put yourself at potential long-term risk. 

Our society has the means for us to take care of each other. We should make sure we do whatever we can to keep kids, school staff and other essential workers safe — and that’s a long way from what we’re doing. 

Why not listen to teachers and delay in-person school a couple of weeks, Mr. Houston. Live up to the “progressive” in your party’s name!

My last blog post was written on the eve of the August provincial election where I was extolling the virtues of minority governments and the progressive change that collaboration can bring about. When the “Progressive” Conservatives squeaked out a tiny majority in NS, mostly on the basis of their platform of “fixing” healthcare, initially things looked a bit promising. The new government seemed to be continuing the previous government’s cautious approach to COVID, and there were even some positive initiatives (Owl’s Head, new training initiatives for nurses and long-term care workers). I even heard people suggesting that these Conservatives were more progressive than the Liberals!

Then we learned that Premier Tim Houston believes that there is no housing crisis – just increasing the housing supply will increase housing affordability (eventually perhaps – it hasn’t worked very well over the past 20 years). Now comes the Omicron variant. When cases exploded before Christmas, the government took the sensible step and closed school a few days before the holidays when they realized it was spreading in schools (all the while declaring that “COVID doesn’t spread in schools”). At the end of December, daily case counts were in the thousands and overloading the province’s testing capacity, so PCR tests were severely restricted (thus rendering daily case counts vastly underreported) and the government decided to delay the return to school for students for a week. By the end of that week, cases were through the roof, hospitalizations were starting to rise, and the government wisely declared the next week an “on-line learning week”. 

Nova Scotia had the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of other provinces who went back to in-person learning on January 10 – just reading the headlines should have been enough warning. Both Saskatchewan and Alberta experienced high rates of teacher absences, and had to scramble to cover classes – what is the educational (and safety) value of in-person learning when it means combining classes or having unqualified people teaching? On Thursday Jan. 13, all the other Atlantic provinces announced delaying their return to in-person classes until at least Jan 24 or 31  to safeguard  the teachers and students. 

Unfortunately, Nova Scotia did not follow suit. In the middle of the biggest outbreak of COVID we’ve seen so far in this 3rd year of the pandemic the government decided to open schools for in-person learning on Jan. 17. Although teachers (and their union) agree that in-person learning is important for mental health (and many other reasons) many teachers and students  have not been able to be fully vaccinated yet.  An extra week or two of online learning would allow more to be fully vaccinated, and perhaps flatten the curve of hospitalizations and deaths.  The messaging from the government has  claimed upgraded ventilation, 3 ply masks for all students, and cohorting  were in place, which often turned out not to be true. However, the coup de grace was the government’s decision to stop contact tracing in schools, while telling educators they are not at liberty to tell parents when there has been a confirmed case in their class. Parents are not to be told if a child has been exposed at school and thus have no way of protecting the rest of their families.

So, school went back on Monday this week. Many parents were very conflicted about sending their children back (about 56% according to an unofficial poll taken by the Facebook group Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education). Teachers were and are scared – some that I talked to had tears in their eyes as they described the probable outcome – colleagues “going down”, children getting very sick, vulnerable family members dying. Unspoken was the fear that a child could die as a result (and this week’s news reported an otherwise healthy child in Calgary dying of COVID).  Some teachers cited safety conditions (lack of ventilation or crowded classrooms) in refusing to work – and were reassigned to other duties or other schools. A few teachers are protesting the lack of contact tracing in front of their MLA’s office after school. 

Meanwhile, the Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education has reactivated their “cases in schools” reporting tool, which by this morning reported 192 cases, mostly in HRM, a number that is vastly underrepresenting the true number of cases as it relies on self-reporting of members of the group. Official reported daily cases are hovering around the 500-700 mark in the province (because of the lack of PCR testing, the real number could be as much as 5 times higher), hospitalizations are rising and there have been 3 deaths a day for the past couple of days. It’s still too early to tell where this will lead, but I am fearful we will see another spike.

But one thing is clear – there has been nothing this new government has done to send a message to teachers that they will be respected or listened to anymore than the last government. Remember the Glaze Report, Bill 75 and the lockout of teachers? See  The “Progressive” Conservatives had the opportunity to prioritize teachers for booster shots back at the beginning of the Omicron surge and they didn’t. They could have shortened the waiting time between doses for kids aged 5-11 (as other provinces did) so they could get their two doses by the start of in-person learning, and they didn’t. They’ve had 6 months to use some of the $40 million in federal funds to make schools safer – installing ventilation in schools that don’t have it, upgrading ventilation in schools that have old systems, giving proper PPE to staff, making smaller classes – and they didn’t. Instead, there were confusing press conferences in which teacher and parent groups were accused of fostering fear and anxiety and spreading misinformation. We were told that there needs to be in-person learning right now because as Houston said, “the brutal reality is that for some kids, school is the place where they are safest…it’s sad but true. It’s the place where they are most warm…and they get food” – implying that child poverty (1 in 4 children in NS) is something that in addition to everything else, it’s teachers’ job to fix (but not his job to do something about in the provincial budget). When they object to unsafe learning conditions, teachers are derelict in their duty to these children.

The bottom line is: educators had legitimate requests and concerns about going back to in-person learning in the middle of the fifth wave, and they were disregarded. This doesn’t bode well for the future. Although I’m hoping that Houston and his colleagues can learn from this, and in future, no matter what the issue is, listen to the people most intimately involved in it (usually the workers) while making their difficult decisions, so far they are not living up to their “Progressive” name. Respect educators (and all other frontline workers), Mr. Houston!

Collaboration is the future: Minority governments

August 16 2021

As I sit here on the eve of one unwanted summertime election, and anticipating the beginnings of another, I am reflecting on some of the rhetoric I keep hearing about the necessity of voting for one or other of the two major parties. The story goes that we have to vote Conservative because they are only ones who have a hope of forming government and stopping the Liberals (and vice versa). And in particular, as I watch the federal Liberals call a totally unnecessary election solely in order to go for a majority so “they can get things done”, I wonder what happened to the “partnership” they had with the NDP and the “deals” they made early in the pandemic  to pass CERB and other pandemic benefits. . This includes paid sick leave, pushed for by the NDP, which otherwise would not have been part of that bill. The Liberals can’t work with the NDP because they don’t want to, it’s as simple as that. And they think they can ride the coat-tails of the pandemic to a majority.

In NS, our Liberal party has made the same calculation – they are hoping that by listening to public health advice about the pandemic and keeping our COVID numbers down, we will forget about everything that has happened in the previous 7 years of their rule. But it may not work – polls tell us that we may be going into minority territory, and that possibility makes me happy. Just this morning, in an excellent column in our local newspaper, Leo J. Deveau writes about this week in 1927 when “In this year, after considerable pressure from J.S. Woodsworth, Leader of the Labour Party (1921-1932) – and later the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (1932 – 1942), PM Mackenzie King was persuaded to introduce an old age pension plan in exchange for Woodsworth party support of King’s minority government. It was Canada’s  first social welfare legislation – the Old Age Pension Act.” . The CCF was the precursor  to the NDP, which later under Tommy Douglas and various minority governments brought us medicare and other social programs. Without minority governments, I might not be anticipating collecting my old age pension in a year or two and we certainly wouldn’t be debating about the best way to fix our public healthcare because we wouldn’t have one. **

Although I’d love to see the NDP form a government, a balance of power (or opposition) situation could also be an excellent thing as the party under Gary Burrill exerts pressure to achieve many of its progressive goals (including tackling climate change, healthcare, affordable housing etc). In previous posts on this blog, I have documented the disasters wreaked on the education system under the ever so slim majority government of the Liberals. Throughout it all, Gary and education critic, Claudia Chender have supported teachers, parents and children. The NDP platform vows to “Work(ing) in partnership with teachers and parents to improve schools, instead of continuously picking fights with stakeholders, as the Liberals have done.” That would be a huge improvement on what we have been living with for the past 8 years. Collaboration is the future.

**Did you know that Nova Scotia’s pension plan was paid for initially by the profits from liquor sales after the ending of prohibition? Neither did I.

November 4 2020

The Day After 

On November 2 2016, I woke up in a London hotel room on a dreary day to the TV blaring “President Trump” at the world. I had gone to bed the previous night, before many polls in the States had closed, secure in the knowledge that the world under Hillary would bump along in its usual fashion – a few victories for social and environmental justice, a few setbacks, but overall moving along towards a better world. And then Trump.

The depression that hit me over the next few days, as I plodded around rainy London, was not helped by listening to academics studying economic inequality. Their research was telling them that one consequence of the runaway inequality many countries were experiencing could be fascism. The “most powerful man in the world” was a fascist – how good was that?  But almost immediately, we started to tell ourselves that it might not be so bad – there is a strong American commitment to democracy with so many checks and balances within the system, and Trump might even rise to fill the role with some dignity and learn to govern. But then, with increasing rapidity, Trump began to overturn all those hopes, and worse. The past 4 years have been a nightmare of watching a narcissistic conman bamboozle his supporters and trash everyone else.

At that time, I blamed the American education system for Trump. Decades of whittling away at the public school system under Republicans and Democrats alike, undermining teachers, focusing on exams and “standards” unconnected to real learning, and encouraging school choice (vouchers, Charter Schools) have created an unequal system where most learning is about how to best raise exam marks. The poorest schools have the furthest to go, so they have the least time and capacity to teach critical thinking, a nuanced view of history or real scientific literacy. And forget about the 21st century skills that have been acknowledged as essential for living in this world – “collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity” (National Education Association). So many Trump voters were incapable of separating truth from fiction, and were taken in. Once they accepted the “fake news” narrative, all else followed. COVID is fake news, experts are fake news etc.

But then, 4 years ago, I was persuaded that many voted for Trump for good reasons – they distrusted Hillary (because she is a woman?), their manufacturing jobs were gone, inequality had left them behind etc. So I waited, thinking that these people would soon have the scales ripped from their eyes – but then last night happened.

And now it’s the day after, 2020. I know it’s not over yet; there’s still hope. But why wasn’t it a landslide for Biden? Why did so many Latinx voters support Trump in Florida? Why did people believe him over Dr. Fauci? How did he manage to equate socialism with the devil? How did outlandish conspiracies, formerly the stuff of the National Enquirer, get to be swallowed by so many?

So I come back to the American education system, which trails most other OECD countries on international education comparisons, including PISA. One of the interesting findings of PISA, which I expand on elsewhere in this blog, is that the best education systems in the world value both excellence and equity – in other words,  it is not enough to have excellent schools (the US has some of the best public and progressive schools in the world), that excellence needs to be shared.  And that is where the US falls down – their public education system has been under attack for decades, and the inequality within it has widened under Trump and Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education. The charter schools, which she promotes, have contributed to this, and have further undermined the public system (while lining the pockets of many). 

Last night, looking at the vote breakdown on the maps of the swing states, it was a perfect illustration of Trump’s strength with rural voters (where schools, I’m guessing, may be a tad less resourced than urban ones). Pennsylvania, where all eyes are fixed today, has vast areas that are all red, and only a few small blue dots – which happen to be the urban areas with the largest population density.

That the divide in the States is not just rural/urban, red/blue etc but reflects the inequality in the education system became clearer to me over the past few days. I watched and listened as the Canadian media, in its quest for balance, interviewed numerous Trump supporters, many of whom are quite articulate. I’m not talking about the career Republicans or the evangelical/corporate types who support him because he is doing their bidding. I’m talking about the regular Josephines…the 18 year old first time voter or the granny who thinks the economy is doing great with Trump. When I hear them repeat some of Trump’s lies and insults – like Biden is a socialist, Obamacare is bad, COVID is overrated, etc and then go on to build their world view based on this, I realize that they are not applying what should be one of the basic 21st C skills – critical thinking, and  in particular, weighing the relative believability of your sources. We can thank under-resourced inner city and rural public schools who have had to focus on raising test scores to the detriment of teaching 21st C skills for this.

And if Trump wins, he has promised to protect “America’s Founding Ideals by promoting patriotic education” – whatever that means. Heaven help them. And us.

Back to school in a pandemic – Safety means smaller classes

September 9 2020

How many times have we been reminded that we should be working towards a “just recovery” from this pandemic?  We can take advantage of the crisis to get rid of the inequities that plague us as a society – fix homelessness, provide a decent living for all, and improve the situation of our elderly. We know that inequities in the way children have survived the closing of schools will become more obvious as the school year progresses, and need to be fixed – why not for good? 

Parents, teachers and children experienced more than the usual first day of school jitters this year. For some teachers, the jitters approached panic as they contemplated the unpacked boxes, the new routines to be learned, the furniture to be disposed of, the faulty ventilation needing to be fixed – all the extra tasks that teaching in a pandemic create. On top of that many have fears about the safety of the students and staff as a result of government plans that seem hastily put together and contradictory to scientific evidence. 

In Nova Scotia, that sense of doom is compounded by a premier whose “angry dad” persona telling them it’s time for teachers to “step up” (as if they haven’t been preparing, planning and shopping for weeks) and who has denigrated their union, ignored a petition signed by 11,000 parents and supporters and dismissed their concerns. The abolition of school boards 2 years ago, and the removal of principals from the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) has deepened the sense that there is nowhere to turn, no one to answer very legitimate questions and no recourse if things go wrong. 

What is behind all this angst? After all, we do have very low rates of COVID at present, and almost zero community transmission, so surely it’s okay to restart school with some basic health protocols? And everyone recognizes the need for children to be back in school – both for their development and health and to allow parents to get back to work.

I see two major reasons behind the fear of many parents and teachers. The first is that we have been told repeatedly that a second wave is coming, and that it may well be worse than the first if precautions are not taken. We’ve had the idea of 2 metre physical distancing drilled into us, and our government has used this as an excuse to shut down the legislature and all its committees for the past 6 months. Why then is it suddenly okay to have schools open up in seeming disregard for this basic precaution, especially in view of the “inevitable” second wave? 

The second reason is the fear that some of changes being implemented will set back education instead of being part of a “just recovery”.  For years, waves of austerity and neoliberal policies have underfunded education, undermined staff unions and pushed a privatization agenda that has threatened what is one of the best public education systems in the world. Smaller classes, enriched arts and science education and progressive teaching methodologies have been proven to promote excellence in education as well as equity – socio-economic background has less effect on academic achievement here than in many countries. Many provinces have disregarded this research. 

Given these factors, teachers and parents all across the country have been calling for smaller classes, backed up by the report from the Sick Kids hospital in Toronto. “Smaller class sizes should be a priority strategy as it will aid in physical distancing and reduce potential spread from any index case” p. 10 . The ideal for Canada would be 15-20 children in a room – this would allow for better physical distancing, but more importantly creating these small cohorts or bubbles would make contact tracing and quarantining those contacts much more manageable in the event of an outbreak. Denmark opened schools last spring with success – with bubbles of no more than 12 children.  It would also allow the youngest children to play and learn freely without masks. There have been many creative suggestions about how this could be achieved with minimal expenditure (many hoped that the new federal money would have been spent on this) – hiring extra staff, utilizing community spaces and extra rooms in schools, and putting older, more independent students on shifts so that their classrooms could be used for younger cohorts. 

With few exceptions across the country none of these suggestions have been implemented; the one province that seems to have listened to this advice is New Brunswick, where P-Gr. 2 classes are capped at 15, Gr. 3-5 classes are “reduced where possible” and high school students go on shifts, but have classes reduced to respect physical distancing. 

Many teachers and parents are asking – how come New Brunswick can do this, and we can’t? It is certainly no richer that we are, but perhaps they are taking the longer view – implementing changes that may result in positive benefits to education after this is all over. Or perhaps it is just based on the best available research at this point in time. 

Whatever the reason, New Brunswick is pretty much alone across the country. No other province is actively reducing class sizes – two provinces however are overtly encouraging parents to keep their children at home with government directed online learning plans…originally it looked as if that was the way they would reduce in-person class sizes. However, it now appears that Ontario is forcing parents to pre-register their children for in-person classes, and then collapsing classes so that many elementary and middle school classes are even bigger. Alberta is also encouraging online learning, and at the same time loosening up the restrictions for charter schools, under the guise of promoting school choice (for a look at the failure and drastic consequences of this movement, check out  Both these provinces have premiers who are definitely from the non-progressive Conservative (or Reform) end of the political spectrum, and the fear is real that the pandemic is playing into their plans to further undermine public education. At this point, between 30 and 40% of children in those provinces are being kept home this year.

Quebec, at the opposite extreme, is making in-person attendance at school mandatory. If the rationale for this seems mystifying, one just has to look at France, which also has instituted mandatory attendance. When France passed no hijab/face covering rules, Quebec followed – one wonders how that is going now. And again, it will be interesting to see how mandatory attendance is enforced, particularly given that both places have relatively high levels of COVID right now. 

Both Quebec and Alberta, who started school earlier than other provinces, already have cases of COVID in schools – in Alberta, cases in 11 schools have resulted in hundreds of students having to quarantine for 2 weeks.

A look at the various provinces’ masking policies is also instructive. All provinces have rules in place that require at least the older children to wear masks on buses and in common areas of the school. Only Ontario and Nova Scotia have instituted a policy which says that all students from grades 4 – 12 must wear masks in the classroom as well. Here, it seemed like as soon as the government realized that masking in class was an option, great, they could abandon all pretence of physical distancing. They are not taking into account how this will affect learning, how it will be enforced, and what happens when students defy the rules. In middle and high schools where large classes of over 30 are common, this is a real concern, particularly given the new research that says that children over the age of 10 are just as likely to get and transmit the virus as adults.

School has started, but it’s not too late for governments to listen to the experts (teachers, medical professionals, parents) and make plans to transition to smaller classes now before a second wave hits us and forces us to shut down schools entirely. In Nova Scotia we are already suffering from the teacher shortage we have been predicting for years now, and this has been given as one barrier to smaller classes. A show of trust in teachers, along with the chance to teach the way they know is best in smaller groups might go a long way to tempting some disaffected teachers back into the profession. The money it would cost is the best investment in our future – keeping us safe while maintaining a strong, progressive public education system that would address the inequities that have been exacerbated by this pandemic. After all, who wants to return to normal? We can do better!

A Manifesto for Progressive Public Education Part 2

Educators for Social Justice – NS and Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education

January 2020

Definition of Progressive Public Education: 

We live in a society where socio-economic disparity is increasing. While our province’s prosperity has increased over the last fifty years, and the rich get richer, wages for most people have fallen. Intergenerational socio-economic mobility is decreasing or stagnant. 

Our society has inherited and still experiences the effects of over 400 years of colonialism, slavery, and racial segregation. These factors have contributed to Nova Scotia having one of the highest rates of child poverty in the country, which has become one of the biggest challenges faced by our education system. 

Progressive public education has traditionally been one of the most powerful social programs directed at resisting these trends. Canada has one of the best public education systems in the world, and we believe that we must strengthen it as a program for social justice for every student.

Public education has been under attack recently in Nova Scotia. The notion of teacher professionalism has been a prime target. Not so long ago, teachers with their specialized training, entrusted with the care and development of children, were respected, and fully involved in the setting of the rules and curricula that governed their work. Another aspect of this was the involvement of parents and other citizens through locally-elected school boards. In P-12 education, the assault against teachers’ collective bargaining, the removal of principals and educational specialists from the bargaining unit and the elimination of school boards is part of a not-so-hidden strategy of taking control of education away from citizens and placing it within the hands of the current government and its bureaucrats, many of whom are not educators.

Progressive public education is education that helps every child attain the skills and knowledge they need to be lifelong learners and socially responsible citizens in an ever-changing world.  These include problem solving, critical thinking, communication, ability to collaborate, and empathy. It is predicated on the assumption that every child is unique, and has unique needs and capabilities  – physical, emotional, developmental, social, spiritual, and intellectual. In addition, each child has a cultural, racial, economic, and gender identity, and progressive public education is designed to prepare them to succeed economically and socially, regardless of their background. 

Progressive education requires collaboration and respect on the part of all stakeholders, especially educators, both administrators and teachers. It promotes active engagement in their communities by students as well as collaboration between educators, families, and government services.  

ESJ-NS and NS Parents for Public Education  are working together to promote progressive public education in this province. We have identified several challenges to it: the weakening of community engagement, the impact of austerity, the weakening of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, and right wing think tanks feeding into a hostile media.

  1. Weakening of Community Engagement

Given the importance of community engagement, it is disappointing that the Nova Scotia Liberal government has, in the past six years, weakened or destroyed opportunities for public engagement in the education system, concentrating power in the hands of government officials and diminishing or eliminating the institutions of citizen involvement. 

It has wiped out elected school boards, left the role of School Advisory Councils (SACs) undefined, and changed education policy in an arbitrary and high-handed fashion. It has centralized curriculum development and decision-making in the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, and this has resulted in a lack of local input from the regions. 

We believe the following action items could strengthen community engagement in education:

  • Government should restore regional, elected councils or boards which would have decision-making power over some aspects of curriculum and other matters.
  • Government should support and augment the role of the School Advisory Councils.
  • The education system should strengthen relationships with parents and community, and take steps to support equitable representation within and between SACs. 
  1. The Impact of Austerity

Austerity is a political program that aims to reduce the size and impact of government and governmental institutions by cutting revenues (mostly taxes) and subsequently cutting expenditures (mostly social programs), asserting that it can no longer afford to provide those services.

Education is part of the Nova Scotia government’s austerity agenda. This has meant cuts to education, resulting in the inadequate implementation of the inclusion policy, insufficient staff hiring and less funding for professional development. This has led to the triage of kids with special needs, and long wait times for assessment, which has  forced those with the means to pursue private sector solutions while those without means forego attention. It has also meant dwindling supports within the classroom, and larger class sizes. 

With the erosion of public education due to austerity, creeping privatization occurs as parents with means choose private schools, and parents who have children with disabilities get vouchers for private schools. The centralization of power, a byproduct of austerity, also results in more standardized curriculum materials and tests, which tends to favour corporations such as Pearson and Nelson over locally produced materials. 

We believe the following action items will combat the erosion of our public education by austerity measures:

  • Government should provide adequate funding for inclusion, more funding for professional development, adequate maintenance funds for school buildings and salaries that keep up with the NS cost of living and the median salary for employees across Canada. 
  • Education funding should keep class sizes to manageable levels which allow more opportunities for individual and small group support, and allow for more preparation/collaboration time for teachers.
  • Government should invest meaningfully in poverty reduction (raise the minimum wage, increase social assistance, affordable housing initiatives, and other, similar social programmes).
  • Citizens should resist privatization where it occurs e.g. private tutoring firms, charter schools, government funding for private schools. 
  • Local curriculum development should be supported. 

3. Weakening of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union

This government has attacked the teachers union and eroded collective bargaining. The government has restricted the right to strike, restricted the scope of what can be negotiated, and taken principals, vice-principals, and some specialists (psychologists and speech/language therapists) out of the union, even effectively ignoring a recent arbitrator’s ruling demanding that the specialists be reinstated. The goal has been to divide and conquer, and has made it more difficult for the necessary collaboration among administrators, specialists, and teachers for progressive education to happen. 

It has also rendered those positions outside the union less desirable, with fewer protections in place, and less bargaining power to those in the union.. This will eventually have an impact on the education system’s ability to attract the best people to these positions.

We believe the following action items will resist the wilful damage to collective bargaining rights for teachers:

  • Government should return to respectful collective bargaining in which employees’ charter rights and past agreements are respected.  
  • Administrators and specialists (above) should be allowed to return to the NSTU.
  • Advocate collaboration  in teacher evaluation – not top down evaluation.
  • Advocate collaboration  in planning, curriculum development etc., creating an environment in which teachers are free to speak out without fear of repercussions. 
  • More focus on teacher-centred evaluation of students i.e. less standardized testing.
  • Include class size as a working condition in collective bargaining.
  • Citizens should make education an election issue ie taking Individual and collective action – letter writing, political lobbying, becoming a special interest group – as well as lobbying all parties and endorsing one. 
  • The NSTU and others with an interest in free and fair collective bargaining should support all unions in their negotiations and campaigns.
  • The NSTU and its allies should take a lead role in educating the public about the role of unions and collective action.

4. Right wing think tanks and an often hostile media

Think tanks such as AIMS, the Fraser Institute, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and the CD Howe Institute, many of them funded by rich business people and business foundations, have been producing “research” that supports a neo-liberal agenda – the concept that market forces lead to competition that leads to success. The Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) emerged from  this neo-liberal agenda. The McNeil government has implemented many of the recommendations of these think tanks and the media tends to promote these points of view (including the idea that the education system is failing and it’s the teachers’ fault). Anti-teacher rhetoric is rife in the media, thanks to these organizations.

We believe the following action Items will reduce the influence of right-wing think tanks:

  • Citizens and the media should promote evidence-based practices and research produced by more moderate outlets such as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Ontario’s People for Education, the Broadbent Institute, and internationally recognized experts.
  • Media should publish more good news education stories, e.g. a regular education columnist 
  • Citizens should counteract negative portrayals of educators and misinformation in the media and from government
  • All stakeholders should forward positive messaging about education, e.g. “Teachers are helping to raise your kids,” “Public education needs to be great for everyone, not just the rich”. 

As we see the effects the austerity agenda of the current Liberal government is having on public education in this province, we are also very cognizant of the attacks by newly formed Conservative governments in other provinces. In many cases labour strife has already started, pitting teachers and parents, who are trying to defend the quality public education they enjoy against the so-called austerity measures of their governments. Privatization is already occurring and many of the other trends we’ve identified in this document are already happening. This makes it all the more urgent that those of us who care about progressive public education in Nova Scotia identify the threats to it, and work to combat them.

Reaching for consensus: Part 2

If the goal of all these Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education (NSPPE) Town Halls is to reach consensus about what schools need, and as Trish Keeping said, take the information, go to the government with it and “make sure that reforms that are done in the future have some foresight”, there is a challenge awaiting us. As we have seen in other provinces, and in our recent history in Nova Scotia, there are organizations, often funded by business interests, that are advocating for a return to a more standardized form of education that most educators thought was in our past. Sometimes these interests are taken up by small groups of vocal citizens who manage to change the agenda – I’m thinking of Ontario where a few years ago a small group of people started advocating for an end to “discovery” math (something that actually has never existed there). The previous Ontario government conceded that perhaps elementary teachers needed more training, and could put more emphasis on learning basic facts (ie multiplication tables) and some changes were made. Then, the new government jumped wholeheartedly on the bandwagon, and now all teachers in Ontario have to pass a math test – even if they are not math teachers. This measure will have no impact on student learning and will just add to the stress teachers already experience. And all of this is based on the mistaken belief that teachers were allowing children to “discover” math concepts on their own with no guidance, were not teaching basic facts, and did not have any knowledge about teaching math. 

It turns out that some of the comments I heard at that first Town Hall about dyslexic children not getting the help they need have turned up since then, over and over again, in letters to the editor, in Facebook groups (Everyone Reads Nova Scotia), and now in a letter writing campaign to the provincial government. I sympathize with the difficulties these parents have experienced, and I believe we all share similar goals – we would like children’s reading difficulties dealt with within the public school system in a timely manner (so that parents do not have to resort to the private system), and we would like to see more equity between communities, so that academic achievement is not dependent on the community/class you belong to. 

But, on investigating some of the concerns suggested in the letter-writing campaign, I have some questions. First, a final report on the Commission of Inclusive Education has come out, and has not yet been adopted by the NS government. It calls for a three-tier model of support where the first tier is universal, whole class instruction, the second tier is targeted small group instruction and the third tier is intensive, individual instruction. I’ve heard calls for it to be adopted (both at the Town Hall, and from various teacher organizations), yet there is no call for adoption of the report in the list of concerns by this campaign other than “Fully funded individual (Tier 3) interventions for students with the greatest and most persistent reading difficulties” . Does this mean that the group does not advocate for the first and second tier interventions?

It seems that this group does believe in the first tier, universal classroom teaching since their first demand is that “explicit, systematic, code-based reading instruction” be part of the Nova Scotia curriculum, and that it form part of the outcomes. I find that the NS curriculum does include outcomes that deal with “word study”, and as a guideline, I find them quite helpful (as grade specific outcomes, I have reservations, but that’s another discussion). My questions: Does the group advocate for this explicit instruction in every grade for all children in the elementary school? What about the children that have already learned to read – do they need it too? What is wrong with the Tier 2 interventions – targeted, small group instruction – for those who because of their different rates of development did not benefit from it the first time?

Another demand is for “appropriate screenings and assessments for students at risk in Grades Primary and Grade 1”.  My questions: How do you know which students in those very early years are at risk? Educational psychologists and reading experts (and my own experience) tell me that the variability among what is considered normal at those ages is huge, so those assessments have limited validity.  Is there a new assessment (MRIs perhaps?) that can predict those students who will have difficulty with reading in the future better than the teachers that teach them?

Another demand is that “Practices not in line with the science of reading, such as three-cueing system and the widespread use of leveled readers in reading instruction should be phased out”. My questions: What is wrong with asking children to predict new words based on semantic (does that make sense?), syntactic (does that sound right?) or graphophonetic (does that look right?) clues? What is wrong with leveled books so that children can pick out books to read that they can read comfortably and feel confident while doing it?

Again, I have no questions about the second part of the demand for “Resources (in the form of a coherent program) and professional development for teachers in Grades Primary – 3 classrooms”. Teachers are generally eager for more professional development to help them do their job better. But I do have some questions about the “resources in the form of a coherent program” – What is this program? How is it better than what teachers already do? How much will it cost? Will it come with a standardized testing component?

I have written elsewhere on this blog about how a one-size-fits-all education system can kill the joy in learning. I have seen at firsthand (in England) what a school system that teaches systematic phonics at ever earlier ages in a rigid outcomes-based, standardized test-heavy curriculum does to children, and incidentally to equity in education. My big question: The NSPPE can be a powerful voice to lobby the government on its tone-deaf approach to education, so how can we reach a consensus on what to advocate for that will benefit all children, but at the same time is based on both evidence and the experience of those that work in the system?

NSPPE Town Halls – reaching for consensus: Part 1

On a stormy Saturday afternoon in April, around 40 or 50 citizens braved nasty weather to attend the first “Town Hall on Public Education” at Mount Saint Vincent University. It was hosted by the Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education (NSPPE)and chaired by Trish Keeping with a panel consisting of Adam Davies, a former Chignecto School Board member, Paul Wozney, President of the NS Teachers Union, and Angela Gillis, union representative and Gr. 5 teacher. Trish kicked things off by reminding the audience of the events in the education world of the last year since the adoption of the Glaze report and the imposition of a contract on the teachers – the abolition of English school boards, the empty promise of School Advisory Committees and the appointed, non-accountable Provincial Advisory Council on Education. Trish laid out the purpose of the town halls, which the group plans to take to communities around the province: to hear from parents about how their children are faring in the public school system and from educators about their teaching conditions. The hope is that the NSPPE will help create a consensus of views about what schools need and use it to inform the government.

Angela said she sees more and more students falling through the cracks, and more frustrated parents. Paul reminded us that “the best education systems have vibrant relationships between stakeholders” and that the failure of the government to negotiate fairly with teachers has threatened one of the most fundamental relationships in the system. Adam talked of the loss of the community voice with the abolition of school boards, with communication now going in only one direction – from the top down. 

Once the floor was opened to the audience, the level of emotion in the room was palpable. Parents choked up while relating stories about children with learning differences waiting inordinate lengths of time for testing and missing out on crucial learning opportunities in the meantime. A gym teacher’s voice cracked as he told how a 20-year old program that helped children with special needs was cancelled without consultation, supposedly because of the cost, (which was largely due to the inordinate expense of renting buses from Stock). A grandparent talked about the dense bureaucracy at HRCE which resulted in a 2-week search to find the right person to talk to about an open window in a school basement. Other parents talked about the centralization of power, where principals have been turned into site managers, responsible for doing the departments’ bidding rather than their former role as leader teachers. We heard about world class literacy and teen mental health programs, developed here in Nova Scotia, that have been overlooked by the DEEC in favour of imported ones. 

But there was one concern which really caught my attention, largely because it was repeated several times, and because it was very compelling – that of parents of “dyslexic” children. Over and over, we heard about children who had had difficulties learning to read which persisted in spite of various levels of “remedial” help throughout their elementary education until the parents were forced to enrol them in some form of private tutoring or in some cases private schools. We heard how parents’ pleas for testing went unheard, how children struggled and wasted precious years of learning before getting minimal help if any, and how there was exciting new science about reading acquisition that recommends that systematic phonics instruction be taught to all children. The parents speaking had obviously had an incredibly difficult time, and my sympathies were aroused.

There are serious issues with education in this province, as this Town Hall, shows – and the frustration on the part of many parents was obvious. But it’s not just parents who are fed up; teachers too, are frustrated with the lack of trust and respect they have been getting from the government, with their workload and with the lack of student support. A follow up to the Educators for Social Justice Teachers’ Voices survey asked 3 quick questions in early April, and the results were immediate and clear. In one week, the survey, which was distributed to teachers on social media, got 578 responses. Over 98% of the respondents did not agree (88% strongly), as the Education Minister stated earlier this year, that teaching conditions had improved since the imposition of a contract in January 2018. 96% of respondents disagreed (78% strongly) that they are seeing “demonstrable impacts” from “the hiring of nearly 200 support staff”.

I am looking forward to another Town Hall on education in the Halifax area, and other ones in rural communities. I’m also looking forward to a government that takes its promises seriously, treats its employees respectfully and is willing to invest in excellence and equity in education.

Next post: Reaching for consensus: Part 2

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