Let me start by saying that I have no particular axe to grind with ex-finance minister turned political analyst, Graham Steele.
He is a respected writer, was an elected representative, and spent a fair deal of time serving our province in a number of ways. And I certainly understand that, as a political analyst, he is currently making his bones by presenting his opinion on a variety of issues.
However, in a recent article he penned for the CBC, Mr. Steele, inspired by the Minister of Education’s recently revealed action plan, took it upon himself to list what he called “seven hard truths” that need to be faced by the education system in this province. Seven truths that he felt, in his opinion, needed to be said “out loud” to elicit improvement. And as I read the piece, I was puzzled, as I often am these days, at how someone so credentialed, someone who, in this case, had once held sway over hundreds of millions of provincial dollars, could arrive at such a litany of erroneous conclusions.
Take, for example, Mr. Steele’s comment:
We will get nowhere [in improving education] until we figure out what the problem is. If the problem is poverty, then let’s say it out loud, and deal with it… If the problem isn’t poverty, that probably means we’re doing something wrong that other provinces are doing right.
Well, some folks that I know have certainly been saying “out loud” that poverty is an issue, and have been for ages. And I can only guess by Mr. Steele’s mention of other provinces “doing things right” that he has jumped on the “Oh no! Large scale standardized tests show we are falling behind other provinces!” bandwagon. This is one “problem” that certainly gets a great deal of airtime, but without a comparable amount of scrutiny.
For example, when the 2013 Pan Canadian Assessment Program results were released in 2014, the data showed that 91% of Nova Scotia students had met the national standard. If we want to make comparisons between provinces, we matched BC’s results with 91% and Alberta, with all their money, managed to have 93% of their kids meet the same standard.
Of course, we all know that good news is no news, and the headlines of the time here in Nova Scotia complained that our students had done poorly in literacy. This, despite the fact that the PCAP folks themselves cautioned that no conclusions should be drawn by literacy results on what was primarily a science test. Now, I have already taken issue with that one, but one would think that someone with Steele’s credentials would have had a long hard look at such comparisons before drawing conclusions.
Steele also spoke fairly disparagingly about the NSTU. He wrote:
The Nova Scotia Teachers Union exercises, by way of collective bargaining, too much control over the school system. The minister’s action plan contains a long list of items that will have to be negotiated with the NSTU. The list includes teacher certification, assignment, performance and discipline. Those are management functions. Once these functions are encased in contractual language, as they are now, it is almost impossible for managers to manage.
This decidedly anti-collective bargaining stance seems odd, considering Steele’s NDP roots. According to this logic, collective bargaining stops managers from managing. No, collective bargaining sets the terms under which managers can manage so that workers can have some protection from potentially tyrannical and unfair managers. As well, the responsibility for these “management issues” as Steele calls them, is already largely in the hands of the employer. For example, the DoEECD controls teacher certification. Performance appraisals? The NSTU Guidebook speaks to regional responsibility. Discipline of teachers? Education Act, sections 33 and 34. Firing of teachers? Teachers Provincial Agreement, Section 5.01.
You get my point. These documents are all readily available on-line and spell out quite clearly where responsibility lies. A lack of understanding of contractual language might be excusable coming from the average layperson; goodness knows it leaves me befuddled from time to time. But I remain puzzled as to how someone with Steele’s impressive academic background could look at these documents and conclude that the wording around these “management issues” is weakening our schools.
As to their inclusion in the contract, it seems to me that this is the entire point of collective bargaining. At some point, the employee and the employer sat down and decided that each side should at least agree to the rules by which the game was to be played. That an ex-cabinet minister has a problem with that process is a bit of a head scratcher.
Then there was this.
Current hiring practices are a roadblock to renewal. Too many retired teachers are called back as substitutes…blocking new teachers who need a toehold in the profession…
I’m not exactly sure how much first hand knowledge Mr. Steele has about hiring substitute teachers, but this perception is not exactly accurate. Yes retired teachers can still sub in schools, but they are not being called to prevent new teachers from entering the profession, they are being called because, in some cases, no one else is answering the phone.
You see, the system for hiring substitute teachers, in HRSB at least, is largely automated. If a teacher calls me for a sub, I, as a department head at my school, enter their name into a computerized system which begins to make phone calls. It continues to contact substitutes until the job is taken. The first teacher to accept the position, retired or not, gets the job. And there has been a very disturbing trend of late where, on seemingly more and more days, the job is simply not filled.
Now, there are many reasons for this. In some cases, it has to do with qualifications. This is particularly true in the science and specialty areas where there may simply not be someone available who can teach Grade 12 advanced Chemistry. In some cases, it is economics. Substitute teachers must often take on other jobs to make ends meet; jobs that may require them to work some days, impacting their availability. In some cases, the job itself may just not be worth the money we pay substitutes. An exceedingly long commute or a bad experience at a particular school could understandably lead some substitute teachers to conclude their day would be better spent elsewhere. Trust me, substitute teaching is not an enviable task.
This, and a litany of other variables, sometimes lead to retired teachers being asked back. They are often readily available, good with the kids and experienced in the classroom. The optics of this may not be understood by all, but these retired teachers are not a “roadblock”, they are, in fact, a rather valuable asset.
Now, Mr. Steele would not know any of this, nor could he. However, in this current climate of educational commentary, it seems that knowing the system is not a pivotal ingredient for suggesting changes to it.
And therein lies the crux of the issue. The problem with education in this province is not The Union, nor the test scores, nor intricacies of hiring teachers. The real issue is that the problems of the next “status quo” are often created when inaccurate conclusions are drawn about the present one.
Towards the end of the piece, Mr. Steele writes:
Teachers do not feel free to speak out loud…Too many teachers are afraid of contradicting the NSTU… So they keep their thoughts to themselves, or speak in whispers.
Well, I am here to say that I am neither afraid, nor am I whispering. And although I welcome Mr. Steele’s thoughts on education, it might be wise for him to consider that, like politics, educational issues are often a great deal more complex than they appear to be from the outside.
In order to suggest authentic and valuable changes to education, it might be advisable for him to more fully understand the current system first.