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Education Ministry Launches GERM Warfare on BC Schools

With Bill 11, BC Liberals continue to infect classrooms with corporate philosophy.

Crawford Kilian 2 Apr

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

After a stressful, strike-filled fall, one can imagine that new legislation intended to "strengthen accountability" in the British Columbian public school system has not exactly been received with clouds of rose petals and hallelujah choirs of grateful teachers.

Expect that only when the whole philosophy of education behind it is expelled from the schools for good.

BC Teachers' Federation president Jim Iker got a heads-up about Bill 11, the Education Amendment Act, from the Ministry of Education only the night before it was tabled on March 26. School trustees are still trying to decode it.

Bill 11 looks suspiciously like a provincial version of a federal Tory omnibus bill, amending three other laws: the Independent School Act, the School Act, and the Teachers Act. In brief, it appears to threaten student privacy, cripple school boards' autonomy, and remove teachers' control over their own professional development.

The ministry hasn't done a great job of interpreting it. A March 26 news release was rich in buzzphrases and euphemisms. But educators have hard-won experience in translating them: "help school districts reduce overhead costs" (make districts cut spending); "shared services" (using services decreed by Victoria); "accountability for student outcomes" (if they flunk, it's your fault); "administrative savings and efficiencies" (make districts cut spending some more); "targeted, co-constructed approaches to enhance the system-wide focus on student learning" (whatever you want this to mean).

This language reflects the BC Liberals' continuing infatuation with what educators call GERM: the Global Education Reform Movement, which emphasizes high-stakes testing, accountability, standardized learning, and cut-throat competition between schools and between students.

The term was coined by Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg and used by education critics like Diane Ravitch. It describes an attitude widely adopted in the U.S., Canada, Britain, New Zealand and Australia.

GERM countries usually don't do very well on the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment. The U.S. ranked 36th in 2012. Canada, where GERM is generally less accepted, ranked 13th, just behind Finland.

What's the motivation?

Judging from the B.C. ministry's news release, Bill 11 is all about cutting costs and improving accountability -- always key elements of GERM. But it's hard to tell just how GERMy Bill 11 will be in practice. Vancouver School Board trustee Patti Bacchus said she's still uncertain about the motivation behind it.

"The bill is vaguely worded," she said. "We need to see the regulations" -- the practical terms under which Bill 11 will govern B.C. schools.

Vague or not, some of the terms are easy to parse. "Administrative directives" from the minister are direct orders to school boards. "The minister already has the power to replace boards," Bacchus said. "This seems to broaden ministry powers."

Directives may also include imposing "shared services," requiring boards to use, say, the same software program for particular administrative tasks. Too bad if a particular board doesn't find it suitable for local conditions.

Similarly, "special advisors" are ministry envoys sent to enforce the government's will on recalcitrant boards; the minister now also expects every board to pay the costs of its advisor and his or her staff.

Bill 11's changes for teachers and students are equally problematic. Student test data, for example, can be released to help determine the "effectiveness" of school boards and independent schools. Teresa Rezansoff, president of the B.C. School Trustees' Association, said the release of student information is "basic housekeeping," but added that the association's lawyers are working to understand its implications.

BCTF president Iker said that his lawyers are doing the same. "It's raising red flags," he said. "Individuals or corporations connected to the schools could share student information without penalty."

'Like a slap in the face'

In particular, the bill's changes to teachers' professional development "are totally out of right field," said Iker. "They never discussed it with us." It looks as if the ministry intends to set up and impose its own program rather than let teachers continue to run their own professional development.

Iker said professional development has always been a major concern for the teachers' union. "We take a lot of pride in it. We're the highest educated teaching force in Canada." He also noted that while trustees and administrators receive thousands of dollars per person in professional development funding, "we haven't been able to improve our pro-D funding since 1995."

Supposedly, pro-D will be discussed for two years before Bill 11's provisions are implemented, but Iker said the union would not support mandated pro-D. He added that "We take professional development and staying current very seriously. This is like a slap in the face."

Iker said Bill 11 is really just a "diversion" from Victoria's demand that school districts find another $54 million in "administrative efficiencies" while providing nothing for increases in fixed costs like MSP and heating and lighting.

He is as baffled as Bacchus about the bill. After a protracted strike and a contract, Iker said of the government, "I thought they wanted labour peace."

Labour peace does not seem to be in the cards. But Bill 11 does appear to be a local expression of a widespread desire to de-professionalize teaching and to centralize power at the top. That's basic to the Global Education Reform Movement. Its premise is that education should be run "like a business," as if students were widgets hooked to an assembly line, teachers were workers, and trustees were managers on the shop floor.

Business moguls themselves would never tolerate such treatment for their own privately schooled children, but they are so in love with the methods that made them rich that they seem to consider it quite OK for everyone else's kids. The politicians the moguls buy are in no position to disagree.

Tolerating the intolerable

So the politicians, who see no further than the next election, disregard the students lost to the future and the teachers who might have saved them.

B.C. tolerates one in five of its children being raised in poverty. Now a new study, reported in the British journal Nature last month, tells us that poverty shrinks a baby's brain right from birth -- dooming the child before it even has a chance, and dooming the teachers who try to save it.

The teachers themselves are doomed anyway by GERM's Dilbertian style of school management. Stress and overwork drive them into leaving the profession they love. The BCTF's Iker estimates that up to 50 per cent of B.C. teachers quit within five years.

It's the same in the GERM-loving U.S., costing the Americans $2.2 billion a year. In Britain, two out of five teachers bail out after just one year -- and thousands complete their training but never go into the profession.

That's because they've been smart enough to heed the people already in the profession, who warn them of the 70-hour work weeks, stress, and bureaucratic bullshit that GERM demands -- and that lead straight to burnout and bailout.

Like overfished cod, teachers don't survive long enough to be really good; the population is reduced to newbies fresh out of school who are likely to be gone after a few unhappy years, and a few stressed-out old survivors. And like demented fishers, the politicians keep demanding more "productivity" from the dwindling stocks.

Bill 11 looks like just another bottom trawl, designed to scrape up every last old professional and young idealist for the sake of employers who were clearly zoned out on something during most of their own education. The bill will pass, and GERM warfare against the schools will continue.

Eventually, however, even the most addled believers in GERM, with their zealous focus on the bottom line, will realize that their system will never deliver what it promises.

Then, perhaps, they may consider that ending child poverty might be the smartest, most profitable educational advance they could possibly make, followed by serious support for teachers and local school boards.

At that point, we can expect the rose petals and hallelujah choirs. Not before.  [Tyee]

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