Well, it’s late December again. It is that time of year when those of us who celebrate Christmas begin to turn our eyes away from preparing for the season to recovering from it. It is also a time of year when many of us spend a quiet moment or two reflecting on the year that was, and perhaps considering what 2016 will hold for us and ours. And much as the record snowfalls of 2015 have left an indelible mark on our collective Nova Scotia psyche, so, too have the educational policies and the politics of the past twelve months left and indelible mark upon the Nova Scotia public education system.
2015 opened with a bang when the Liberal government released its rather hastily prepared Education Action Plan. “Hastily prepared” is a relative term, of course, but governmentally speaking, the plan moved at break neck speed. The announcement that the government would be reviewing the education system had come a mere 10 months before, and in that short time, the Minister of Education had assembled a panel, distributed a survey, had the panel review the findings and report back to her, and had developed a “comprehensive” plan for educational reform in the Province.
Despite the haste, and the fact that it was based on public opinion rather than research, the plan did have a “something for everyone” feel to it. And although it contained the standard “edu-speak” about tougher discipline policies and commitment to technology, there were a few rather odd pieces to the plan that echoed the original report from the panel. These included a consideration of a number of dicey contractual issues, such as teacher evaluations, teacher professional development days, and the removal of administrators from the NSTU.
When the report was released, many teachers, including myself, were a tad confused by the inclusion of these issues in the Action Plan, as several had not been included in the original survey and had little to do with improving the education system for students. A possible motive behind this oddity would be revealed towards the end of the year, but I am getting ahead of myself.
By February, the airwaves were practically blue with commentary about the Action Plan, and, as is often the case in Nova Scotia, much of the commentary centered around public perception rather than actual fact. Seeing as how 2014 was a year where a number inaccuracies about the system were adopted as truths by commentators and columnists alike, this development did not really come as a surprise to anyone. But then, something else happened that would, bizarrely enough, become the second most talked about story, educationally speaking, at least, of 2015.
It started to snow.
And it snowed. And it snowed. And it snowed. The airwaves were now suddenly filled with alarm, again driven mostly by commentators from outside the system, that something had to be done. Cancelling school for snow storms suddenly became a major obsession. There was even a suggestion that teachers should perhaps prepare “blizzard bags” for students as a way of ensuring they keep up with their work. The hysteria (did I mention “blizzard bags”) reached such a pitch that by the end of February, the Minister of Education indicated that in order to make up time, she might consider having students come to school on Saturdays or during the March break. This announcement created a social media backlash that buffeted the Minister (and the Liberals) so badly that, by the end of February, they were looking for a way to distract from the story.
They were successful in doing so at the beginning of March when the Minister suddenly flip-flopped on a promise she had made to teachers in 2014. The issue here was distance courses taken by some teachers from Drake University in the U.S. to upgrade their licenses. Although Drake is fairly well respected, some concerns had been raised about its on-line courses being used to achieve license upgrades. Bowing to pressure brought to bear by media outlets and at least one local University, (for whom Drake was a direct competitor) the Minister had decided in 2014 to ban Drake’s distance courses for use as teacher upgrades. She had, however, assured teachers who were already enrolled that the decision would not impact them. This promise suddenly went out the window at the beginning of March, and, oddly enough, re-directed the conversation away from the idea of school on Saturday.
Pretty slick politicking, that one.
As the snow finally started to melt, there were a number of “feel good” announcements from the Minister. These included some new schools and the declaration that the Government had found $400,000 to spend on the development of “Brilliant Labs” in each of the Province’s 8 school boards. By late June, however, the Minister was again wading into some more controversial waters with yet another public opinion survey, this time on homework. This survey, much like the original that begot the Action Plan, was peppered with questions that seemed, to my mind at least, designed to elicit fairly predictable responses. That questions like “Homework assignments should be different depending on the needs and interests of each student” and “Parents should help their children with homework” would result in anything but affirmative responses seemed highly unlikely, and many were left questioning the purpose, (and the expense) of the entire endeavour.
However, it was towards the end of the summer of 2015 when this year’s top educational story began to take shape.
In August, the Liberal government announced that it was going to be taking a new approach to collective bargaining. They met with a number of Union leaders, and before long the press had wind of what the government wanted. Claiming that Nova Scotia was in dire financial straits, Stephen McNeil’s liberals were reportedly looking for a five year deal with all the public servants in the Province which included raises of 0% for the first three years, then 1% each year for the next two.
This approach of “collective non-bargaining” would colour the conversation from August until the government and unions began to trade asking packages in the fall. However, just as the government and the unions began to talk, there was a rather sudden announcement that not only had a deal been reached with teachers, but that it was being recommended by Union leadership for acceptance. The deal, according to newspaper reports, would see teachers receive two years of frozen wages, followed by an increase of 1% in year 3 and 1.5% in year 4, with an extra 0.5% being added on at the end of the contract. In exchange for accepting this deal, teachers were assured by the Liberals that they would remove those dicey contractual issues, such as teacher evaluations, teacher professional development days, and the removal of administrators from the NSTU, which had first appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, in the Minister’s Action Plan, then had somehow found their way into contract negotiations.
Did I mention slick politicking?
Well, we all know what happened next. Teachers turned down the offer, not because of the money, but because of the method. They apparently recognized the politics for what they were, and were feeling a bit bullied. The McNeil government then rammed Bill 148 through the legislature during the last few days of sitting of Province House in December. This Bill legislates wages for all 75,000 public servants in the Province, including teachers, and it is now tucked neatly into the Liberal’s back pocket for when negotiations resume in January. This whole affair has left a very sour taste.
And it is with that sour taste that we start the new year.
Last year I called 2014 “The year of the uniformed opinion” and concluded with the rather dire prediction that if educational change in Nova Scotia continued to be based on such opinions, 2015 was going to prove to be a very “rough ride” indeed. Well, if 2015 was a “rough ride”, I am at a loss for an appropriate phrase to describe my forebodings about 2016. Suffice it to say that I rather believe, come about mid-March, I may find myself wishing I was once again writing about nothing more educationally serious than snow days.
All the best to you and yours in 2016.