Michael Aird: Reframing the B.C. teachers’ labour dispute

To the certainties of death, taxes, and labour disputes, perhaps we should add a predictable onslaught of misinformation and the advancement of thinly veiled agendas. It’s good to see, then, that nothing has changed in the current stand-off between teachers and the B.C. government.

To begin with, it might be worth pointing out to those in the mainstream media that the choice of who you highlight as experts is not innocuous. In this particular instance, the fact that the Frontier Centre has repeatedly been cited as an authority on educational research, especially in relation to class size and composition, is nothing short of a shameless political gesture.

Coming from a long line of “independent” think tanks like the Cato and Heartland institutes, the Frontier Centre’s pursuit of individual liberty and freedom includes studying “consumer-centered schooling models that offer choice, with decentralized school governance systems and merit pay for teachers”.

If this sounds eerily similar to a Naomi Klein shock formula, that’s because an organization of right-wing intellectuals interested in “building a case for a more diverse and innovative range of schooling models” showing up during a crisis in public education is entirely opportunistic.

Let’s be honest, they do not do research that is helpful to understanding what is going on in B.C. public schools. If you wanted to find out what the benefits of smaller class-sizes actually amounted to, you wouldn’t have to do a lot of advanced academic research.

An excellent peer-reviewed study, like Peter Fredriksson et al.’s “Long-Term Effects of Class Size” is readily available on the Internet, as is Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach’s “Does Class Size Matter?” The work of Tennessee’s Project Star is pretty decisive. Even Project Sage comes to the conclusion that reducing class size at least allows teachers to pursue a best practice, which is likely to result in better student outcomes. Alternately, you might talk to any number of teachers themselves—you know, practitioners in the field—none of whom are going to say that they can meet their students’ needs better by having more of them in the class.

Composition is a feature of the debate that often gets mixed in with class size, which is understandable given the fact that if you reduce the number of designated children in a class that presupposes more classes and hence fewer students per class. Still, it is worth underlining the importance of this issue by itself, especially since it seems to have crept under the radar.

From my limited knowledge, I know of three classes on Vancouver’s East Side that have upwards of eight designated students in each. In fact, I know of a kindergarten class that is projected to enrol six designated students, or one-third of its numbers, next September. I’d be highly interested to hear what justification there is for this phenomenon, when 2002 levels stipulated no more than three designated students per class.

Minister of Education Peter Fassbender, in an interview with CBC’s Stephen Quinn, presented some garbled logic about how increased class sizes actually serves as a benefit to some gym and cooking classes. I wonder how he might rationalize how a couple of autistic children, some with chronic health concerns, a few with garden-variety learning disabilities, and a few more with behaviours that require interministerial support benefit from being put in a class together with 20-odd other unique individuals.

The issue of teacher remuneration is a bit of a sore spot, granted. I personally feel that teachers are paid fairly well, whereas support staff, some of whom have gained some far-reaching expertise, receive a dreadful wage. And yet, you can’t expect a hyper-professionalism from teachers, as those right-leaning intellectuals are wont to do, and not pay for it. I can almost guarantee that you would never hear another peep from teachers should their wage be pegged to inflation, or even half the inflationary rate, and that be the end of the story.

It’s also entirely unhelpful to talk about how teachers only work so many months or days out of the year, and only keep such and such hours. In a kind of pataphysical exercise, I’m sure you could come up with some sort of measurement tool to determine the amount of energy expended by a teacher during the course of the day, and then average it out over the entire year, and you would likely come up with the equivalent of what any other “professional” also expends.

While that is thoroughly facetious, it’s not facetious to make some simple comparisons. A doctor, for instance, is responsible for attending to the needs of one or two patients at a time. At any given time, a dentist is responsible for attending to the needs of maybe three or four patients. Upper management are responsible for overseeing the schedule and productivity of x number of chosen individuals. Teachers, to round out this analogy, are responsible for meeting the needs of 22 to 30 individuals who lack the developmental capacity to be independent.

While it may be obscene to demand a wage increase when the “economy” is in perpetual crisis, tossing up a number of zeroes during bargaining discredits the complexity of what teachers are routinely asked to perform.

Debating on this level does, however, only serve to distract from what is really going on. A number of figures have been thrown around that attempt to estimate the cost of remedying the government’s illegal and decade-long stripping of the teachers’ contract. The right-wing intellectuals like to reside in the $2 billion range. Supreme Court documents suggest more like $300 million.

But there is a general bemoaning about what Premier Christy Clark likes to refer as “asking the B.C. taxpayer for more”. The fact is we choose what to fund, and we fund what we value. Vancouver school board chair Patti Bacchus has made some more than reasonable propositions about how to fund our education system sufficiently.

And yet, beyond that, this current dispute opens into a much larger field. Nobody seemed to suggest that there was no money to fund our recent Olympic Games, for instance—remember that two-week-long, corporate love-fest?

If you want to live in a society where wealth is persistently shifted upward, then we have arrived. If you want to live in a society of monumental projects, punctuated by large sporting events, then let’s just legislate a contract. (Why don’t you ask those in Brazilian favelas how that is working out? In fact, ask any South American how a neoliberal, Friedmanite paradise feels.)

But if you want to live in a society where we care for the everyday well-being of all of our members, and where we value our common resources, then it’s time to negotiate a deal that funds this education system in a way that reflects that sentiment.

Comments (15) Add New Comment
Hazlit
"Alternately, you might talk to any number of teachers themselves"

Strange how no one one really wants to do that...
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Martin Dunphy
Thanks for your usual dismissive contribution to the discussion, Hazmat.
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Jean-Michel
I completely share the author's view. Better education does not require a greater effort from BC taxpayers, but a better management of existing funds. The future is smart kids, not oil. Sort out your priorities, Mrs Clark!
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Ariadne
I think this is a great letter and thank-you for sharing it. I might add that while I respect the knowledge, professionism and commitment of Education Assistants, it would be like apples to oranges to compare theirs to teachers salary. While the demands of both jobs may appear similar, an EA's responsibilities do not include planning, researching and prep for lessons which by and large, are done by teachers after school hours, (since prep time is not nearly enough time to do this). Also, while an EA may be available to support the entire class and teacher, their responsibilities do not include assessment, marking nor reporting. From my knowledge, it is fair to say that for an EA, when the day is done, so is work, unless they are volunteering their time for extracurricular activities.
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Brian Topping
As a 20-year veteran of the B.C. high school system, I have watched a series of governments freeze funding and yet force school districts to cover the increases in basic operating costs (heat, light, teaching supplies). I have been dismayed that, EVERY time the BCTF begins to negotiate on behalf of its members, we are told that there is no money for wage increases (which for BC MLAs in 2007/08 was an average 24%) or no desire by the government to add a simple cost-of-living increase to the teacher contract (which politicians in BC receive automatically). And I have been disgusted by the government wasting taxpayer money (and all teachers are also taxpayers, and many are parents) on appealing the SECOND court ruling chastising the government's provocation of teachers and their appeal of the order to restore Class Size and Class Composition to 2002 levels. Make no mistake: this is a government that does not value public education, and the Minister of Education is a promoter of Charter Schools as the best education model. Governments can always find money for the things that they value.
Perhaps it is time for teachers to allow the government to set classroom size and composition, but parents should understand that I will not be able to adequately address the needs of all learners if my numbers are too large or if I have too many students with learning needs or behaviour issues. As well, they will have to lobby the provincial government for changes instead of going to the school to advocate for their child.
I have worked tirelessly for my students, in class and at home. I am a well educated professional with a passion for my career. I need parents and voters to support me and to save this "world class education system" from the clutches of those who would turn it into a business. Contact your politicians and yell. It is our only hope.
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Do I hear violins?
Yeah, yeah, your job is tough. That's why you need to take July and August (and Christmas and Easter, etc.) off.
The endless stream of rationalizations for blatant self-interest is troubling. The most disappointing element is the fact that, while teaching non-confrontational problem-solving to their students, they fail to practice it in their own professional lives. They assume the students (and everyone else)are too stupid to see the contradiction.
The desperate tone of the union's pronouncements is but an echo of the dying screams of those social institutions rendered obsolete by the digital revolution. Teachers and unions and school boards have outlived their usefulness. The fact that students accepted at local universities (GPA 85%ro better) require remedial English, Math and Physics courses after twelve years of instruction in the public system is proof of the system's failure.
That's when the pathetic excuses come out: Not enough money; too many kids; too many "special-needs"; private schools cherry-pick, we can't; don't get no respect; rich kids are smart, poor kids are not; etc. Let's all listen to you whine about your job and pretend we sympathise, then try to come up with the 3 grand for the school tax.
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I hear your violins!
I find it amazing that with all the information available that some people are still vilifying teachers for asking for change in the classroom. And as for a raise,well! I'm sure that the composer of "violins" doesn't want or need one so make sure you let your employer know. If you apply any kind of logic to the class size and composition debate, one can only conclude that smaller classes,less special needs and esl students per class and more special needs asst. will allow teachers to "teach" so all can get a better ,well rounded education. We will probably never have the perfect public school system with all parties involved totally happy but we need more people with useful ,forward thinking input who want to build an orchestra ,not listen for the violins.
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a little bit of both sides
I am a mother of 3 children. 2 are in public school and 1 is in his Gr 12 year of private school. His father and I made the decision to place him in private school during the last disruption of the school year in 2012. He was a middle of the road kid and was falling between the cracks in public school because of too many kids in his class and not enough attention from the teacher. We are lucky enough to afford the $20,000 price tag for him to have 12 kids in each class and he has benefitted from what the private system has given him. I am very concerned about my two children, especially the Gr 9 and what her academic future will hold. We are considering sending her to private school next year just so she has 3 years of uninterrupted schooling and won't have to worry about whether or not her provincial exams will be marked or whether her graduation ceremonies will go ahead. I support the teachers 100%. I support smaller class sizes 100%. What I do not support is how the BCTF is demanding huge wage increases so out of touch with reality that their employer has had to be heavy handed. BCTF, lower your wage demands. Accept what is on par with other public sector workers. Don't use our children as hostages. Work with your employer and be reasonable. They ultimately hold the cards. Age old saying: you get more action with honey than with vinegar.
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Martin Dunphy
little bit:

Thanks for the post. Perhaps you should read Brian Topping's comment above and then research what he says yourself if you want to be sure.
Every time the BCTF sits down to negotiate, they are essentially told flat out to forget any wage increase, that there basically is no money.
They want 2.75 percent per year and a cost-of-living catch-up. They have had no wage increase for four years.
I have a hard time seeing that as "huge wage increases" and "out of touch with reality".
I have had two kids in the public-school system for a combined total of 28 years. I have noticed zero ill effects on their quality of education as a result of teachers' job actions during that period of time.
I have noticed, however, the quality of education in terms of class sizes, lack of resources, etcetera fall remarkably quickly in that time.
All of that happened in spite of the teachers best efforts to stem that tide. None of it has been the fault of teachers or their "huge" wage demands. No children are being held "hostage".
It is a constant source of amazement to me how so many parents fall for the government line every time. But a convenient scapegoat is just that. Convenient.
When your kids grow up, they will not look back on their school days as full of work stoppages, picket lines, and being held hostage.
They will, however, remember having to pay for every little thing, all the supplies and trips that used to be provided for free. They will remember being given photocopied textbooks, chapter by chapter, throughout their entire grade-school period. They will remember being asked to supply their own toilet paper from home at the start of the school year. They will remember their poorer classmates having to apply for permission to go on field trips without paying even though it is illegal to charge for such events. Or they will remember their friends who didn't go and stayed home "sick" because their parents didn't want to identify their children as poor to their peers.
And they will remember teachers who paid out of their own pockets for supplies denied them by their administrators (whose hands were tied by the province).
Ah, good times.
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a little bit of both sides
Martin,
My husband is a legal aid lawyer and has not had a wage increase in...i can't remember when, but in turn has had his wages and hours cut drastically in the last few years. They continue to allow him only a certain number of hours to charge per year and those hours decrease every year. Do you see the lawyers striking and denying the people their right to a lawyer? No. I don't have any sympathy for the teachers when it comes to wages.
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Martin Dunphy
little:

I'm sorry for lawyers' poor financial outlook, but that has absolutely no relevance to this discussion.
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tina
Obviously, I think one of the main (and very obvious) problems here is that BC teachers want both a decrease in class sizes AND a raise in salary (among other things). Now, I'm sure that BC students and teachers both deserve those things, but does it make any sense to demand both things? Isn't that a bit contradictory?

If class sizes go down, more teachers will need to be hired, and all for a greater cost per teacher. That makes no economic sense whatsoever. Really. Furthermore, aren't BC teachers paid $48 000 per year as a starting wage? Isn't that a lot? No one in my family has ever made that much money, yet we are all hardworking and making the best of things.

I remember when I was in high school 15 years ago, except for a few very dedicated teachers, most couldn't care less about us and made no special effort to help us with school work beyond what was required. I'm very grateful to them all and I somehow survived high school and am now on my Master's degree, but I just can't see what all the fuss is about.

Let's just hope that this is resolved soon to the satisfaction of all four parties (let's not forget the students and their parents), but I somehow feel that that will be hard to do.
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Katy
Tina, the fact that you feel that way about teachers shows that you've experienced the negative impact of under funding the education system. It is this that fixing the system will seek to eliminate.
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Tom
Hi tina,
As a matter of fact, teachers gave up a wage increase in order to place class size and composition in the contract. It was these clauses that the government, with Christie Clark as Education Minister, illegally stripped from the contract.
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ND Parent
So we revert to the 2002 wording. We have small class sizes and no more than 3 designated kids in a class. It's perfect! And then, mid-way through the year, a child moves to the area who needs in that class. Where do you put him/her? Do you make that child try every school in the area? Do you make just those parents drive outside the district to find a school where that child will fit? That child has rights too - even if they have a designation or require an IEP. Sadly, as wonderful as the wording is/was, it's not a sustainable way of doing things which is why the BCPSEA didn't want the NDP to add it in the first place. Two wrongs don't make a right, and I fully agree that stripping the language wasn't the answer, but if the roles were reversed, the BCTF would be fighting the court ruling just as strongly as the current government so that $$ was down the tubes no matter what.

All the finger pointing, name calling and anger directed at any of us that point out some of the holes in the BCTF's demands is so disheartening. I see both sides of the coin on this one and in my daughter's 3 short years in the public school system, she has endured 2 strikes and countless hours of limited job action. It has to stop. I am jaded. I have had her in a dream class with only 15 kids and a full time EA but the teacher was horrible and it did more damage than good. All complaints were brushed aside and I shudder to think how many more teachers like that my daughter will come into contact with. I want desperately to support the good teachers but until there is a way to value their merit and not those of their poor counterparts, it's just throwing more money at a system that doesn't work. Whether we like it or not, it needs a complete overhaul. 20+ years of strife under 3 different political parties tells us that.
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