Well, here we go again.
In what seems to be a constant and ongoing barrage, the editors at The Chronicle Herald have published yet another weekend opinion piece that is based on inaccurate information and supposition and which criticizes the education system in Nova Scotia.
This time, the writer was Ian Thompson, former Deputy Minister and current associate publisher of the Herald. In his piece from Saturday, July 5th, entitled “Associate publisher’s letter: A better way to teach“, Thompson decried how, despite the fact that the skill of the teacher is the most important factor in student achievement, “that’s not how our system is organized“. Thompson writes “Our governments and the Nova Scotia Teacher’s Union have collaborated to create this system in which the ‘right’ of the teacher not to be evaluated and not be fired for incompetence…outweighs the right of the child to a good education.” He also writes about how a good place to start to improve the system would be by allowing the creation of charter schools. These schools “established by community leaders determined to achieve better outcomes” would, in exchange for more autonomy, be expected to provide greater accountability and be funded by the number of students they attracted based on this accountability. The number of students who attended would, according to Thompson, be “…a function of how many families, after considering the data and talking with other families, decided that school was going to provide their children a better education than other options (read public school). Finally, he calls for a fight with the NSTU about a “meaningful and comprehensive teacher evaluation process.”
Let’s start with the fact, not opinion, that teachers are evaluated, at least here in the Halifax Regional School Board, every three years, regardless of performance. Excellent teachers, with excellent results, are evaluated, as are those with whom there may be concerns. If, indeed, there are issues, teachers may be placed on what is known as “off cycle evaluation”, which takes different forms depending on the concern. Teachers may, for example, be required to submit such things as lessons, evaluation pieces, and long-term plans to an administrator for review. This is meant to be a way for teachers to get better at teaching and to improve their professional practice, all in the name of student achievement. Finally, if teachers do not show improvement and are found lacking, then yes, they can lose their teaching position, and have in recent memory.
Next, let’s look at the glory of charter schools. The biggest issue with these schools, of course, is that they set up a two tiered education system. If a charter school is set up, say, in Spryfield, then a parent from Lower Sackville must have the economic means to transport their child each morning to the “better” school, which, by its very existence, will have pulled funding from the schools in Sackville. Thus, those who can afford to get their kids to the “better” school will do so, and those who can not will be relegated to a school with fewer resources to meet the needs of their kids. When standardized test time comes around, (a hallmark of the charter school system) the economically advantaged student, with two parents home each night, a new computer and a full belly, will obviously perform better than the poor kid whose parents work nights and can barely afford rent. Thus, the Spryfield school gets glowing reviews, drawing more well-to-do families, and the poor school in Sackville gets continually less funding.
Finally, let’s examine Thompson’s claim that a fight is needed with the NSTU for a better evaluation process for teachers. Well, for starters, the responsibility for teacher evaluation lies with the individual boards, not the teacher’s union. Considering the fact that my paycheques are signed by HRSB, not the NSTU, that makes a great deal of sense. As well, the notion that there is a fight to be had on this issue is ridiculous. The NSTU is a partner in education, not an adversary. In fact, there has actually been a letter of understanding on the books since 2012 between the NSTU and the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development for the establishment of a joint committee to look at the issue of teacher evaluation.
All this information was available to Thompson, had he bothered to look.
This piece is the latest in what has seemed like a litany of criticism of the education system published in Nova Scotia’s largest daily paper. It is not simply the volume of criticism that should have folks concerned, but rather the overall tone of the commentary. Many of the opinions are proudly being propped up by blatantly inaccurate information in a time when accurate information is fairly easy to access, particularly, one would suppose, by the likes of an associate publisher. It is also the timing of these pieces that gives me some pause. The weekend paper is presumably one of the most widely read, so choosing these issues, in particular, in which to publish criticism of the system seems to speak of a desire to get “more bash for the buck”. Finally, the near invisibility of the alternate voices of those of us who support the current system and intelligent dialogue on educational improvement speaks to a deeper, and perhaps more sinister, underlying motivation.
The media has long prided itself on presenting unbiased, factual and differing views of events and of current reality. Lately, however, Nova Scotia’s largest paper seems more concerned about creating “click bait” for “trolls” than it does presenting logical views, particularly on education. For those who may not know these terms, trolls are folks who spend time posting comments online in order to elicit a response, regardless of whether those comments represent an actual view on any given subject. Essentially, “trolls” are simply looking to get a rise out of someone. Creating “click bait” is the act of presenting headlines or issues in an inflammatory manner in an attempt to get people to “click” on your site. This generates web traffic, and allows for publications to show advertisers their potential to reach customers. Thus, if a piece is particularly confrontational, it will attract more comments from “trolls”, generate more “clicks” as people share it in their outrage, and consequentially drive up readership.
I have no way of knowing if the editors of The Chronicle Herald have actually declared war against public education. I have no way of knowing if Thompson actually believes what he has written and has simply chosen not to do any research to support his views. And I do not know if this is simply a case of a traditional media source trying to survive in a radically new and radically different media environment. However, I do know that, whatever the reason, the current trend of “brash and bash” editorials should be of concern to all Nova Scotians.
The stakes in this debate are ridiculously high. There is simply no room for any ulterior motives. I welcome the discussion on how to improve education, but as I have often said, let’s ensure that when we discuss that change, we have, at the very least, informed voices at the table.
Because if educational change is the result of opinions which are not based in fact, then the policies written to enact that change will, indeed, not be worth the paper they are printed in.
Author’s note: For those of you who read my last blog, I apologize that this piece was not, as promised, about the national trend of non-educator voices being heard most loudly on educational issues. I am pretty sure, however, if you read Thompson’s piece, I will be forgiven. To be fair, my last piece, posted on Canada Day, was placed in the online version of The Chronicle Herald on Friday, July 4th. I will leave you to make your own judgements about how it was edited.