The last few weeks of December are a time of retrospect and reflection for many people. And as busy as the holiday season can become, this is one teacher for whom the annual winter break could not come soon enough. I don’t know if it was the phase of the moon or something in the water, but during the last few school days of December, the kids, at least in my school, were literally bouncing off the walls.
Now, I recognize that this state of student manicness is not something that those outside the building may understand. As well, I am sure that a few “armchair quarterbacks” may have comments about how this behaviour must mean teachers have no control in their classes. I am also sure that some of our resident “education experts” would say that this is another sign that public schools are failing our kids. But teachers know what I am talking about, and it occurs to me, as I indulge in my own retrospect and reflection on the year that was, that it is this dichotomy that most clearly represents 2014 for me. 2014 was a year when the conversations around education were largely driven by opinion, many of which were put forth by those with limited understanding of the system.
We started the year with an organization called “Teach for Canada”, a pseudo-educational recruitment/training organization, announcing its intention to save the Canadian Aboriginal education system. Their premise was that they could do a better job preparing students to teach in Aboriginal communities than our country’s B.Ed programs. Their plan was to take college graduates and, with a few weeks training, send them off to Aboriginal communities to teach for a few years. They seemed to miss the point that much of what is ailing First Nations education is the transient nature of the teaching staff. Replicating that model sans at least a B.Ed will do way more harm than good, as most teachers who have actually been to the North can attest.
In February, we had another litany of non-educators getting local, regional and national press for their ill-informed views on how to “fix” education. These included the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (an organization whose 150 members control $4.5 trillion in assets) weighing in on how teachers should be paid, and our very own Minister of Health, Leo Glavine, declaring the Nova Scotia education system “…second rate”. He offered advice to teachers to “help” them fix this situation, with such pearls of wisdom as “..stop using assessment rubrics as goal-setting tools” and “Teachers can start improving education today, for free!”
Did I mention Minister of Health?
Well, at least Glavine used to be a teacher. However, one wonders what he did in his own classroom to follow his own advice.
March was also a banner month for the under-informed educationalist. That was the month that the Minister of Education announced not a single, practicing teacher would be on her much-anticipated panel set up to review the education system in Nova Scotia. (She did, however, include Kyle Hill, one of the founding members of Teach for Canada.) March was also the same month that under-informed commentator Paul Bennett, released a report on teacher standards in the Province. Sponsored by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), the report was so full of errors and inaccuracies that the Minister herself had to weigh in with corrections. One of my favourites was Bennett’s call for an introduction of regular teacher assessments, which are already an integral part of our profession in Nova Scotia . Of course, Bennett, not being a public school teacher, wouldn’t know this.
Not knowing, however, was apparently not an excuse for not publishing in 2014.
Speaking of AIMS, by April, they had again come out in public supporting the creation of charter schools in Nova Scotia, using an author from Manitoba, Rodney Clifton, to shore up their arguments. (One puzzles why a demand for change in the Nova Scotia education system comes to us via Manitoba, but I digress.) In May, the public was up in arms about teacher license upgrades, which saw some teachers taking an online course from Drake University, criticized in the press for being “a bird course.” The public was stirred up by the likes of Bill Black (a non-educator), who seemed to think this issue was going to sink the province into financial ruin. Teachers bore the brunt of that ire, despite the fact that it was the DEECD that approved the program in the first place.
Is it just me, or am I seeing a pattern?
One would think that the summer months would have seen a reduction in mis-informed educational opinion publishing, but June and July both saw a great deal of pattern forming pontification. In June, the Minister’s panel on education released the survey it was going to use to “…pave the way for a brighter future for public education”. The survey asked for opinions on issues that few outside of teaching could have any knowledge of, much less expertise, and although there was some good news about report card comments in June, the constant barrage of poor commentary around teaching reached an almost feverish pitch with the coming of July. From journalist Ralph Surette, to BMO Vice Chairman Kevin Lynch, to former associate publisher of The Chronicle Herald, Ian Thompson, the summer papers were full of misguided advice for educational improvement. Thompson’s piece, entitled “A better way to teach”, was my personal favourite. One of his largest complaints was that the system needed to improve because the government and the NSTU had created a system where teachers had the right to not have their professional performance assessed, echoing the Bennett error from earlier in the year.
Apparently Thompson had missed reading his own paper back in March.
Things remained relatively quiet on the educational front until October, when the results of the 2013 Pan Canadian Assessment Program were released. Again, the slant brought to these results were decidedly negative, with several stories emerging around how Nova Scotia students were slipping in literacy and math scores. True to form for 2014, no one seemed to care that this was actually a science test, nor that the authors of the test warned against drawing conclusions based on the literacy and math results it contained. Despite solid showings by Nova Scotia students in several areas, the commentary focused on improving educational elements the test was not designed to measure.
November saw the release of the report of the Minister’s Panel on Education, and, much as I and many others had predicted, many of the views and conclusions it represented were based on supposition, not fact, and the 2014 predisposition to “criticize without cause” was ingrained throughout the entire document. At one point, the authors stated unequivocally that “The current system is failing our students…” without so much as a whisper as to how, exactly that was happening, or what was meant by “failing”. Finally, as feared, the panel’s disconnect from the classroom led to a few erroneous and even somewhat embarrassing recommendations. Again, my favourite was around teacher assessment, when it was suggested that school boards should be empowered to dismiss teachers for performance issues.
Of course, this is a fundamental power of school boards in this province. The panel would have known that, had the Minister included a teacher among those chosen to review the system, or if they, too, had read the Herald in March.
Yes, in my books, 2014 will go down as the year of the uninformed opinion. It seemed that no matter how often edu-myths like “Teachers are not evaluated and can not be fired” were debunked, they continued to be part of the conversation. From pseudo-experts like Bennett to associate publishers like Thompson, from Ministers like Glavine to the education review panel, everyone, it seemed, was tossing around opinions on how to improve the system based on inaccurate, and in some instances, false, information.
And if the educational change of 2015 is based on these opinions, I fear we are in for a very rough ride indeed.
It is my hope for the new year that politicians, pundits, and most of all the public will realize that if they wish to know about the public education system, for better or worse, they need to listen to public educators. They may not agree with what we have to say, and they can certainly question our bias and motivation, but no one is in a better position to provide the answers as to what needs to improve in our system.
And I, for one, will gladly continue to offer my views.
All the best to you and yours in 2015.