Lots of folks have asked what I would recommend doing regarding the teachers contract.
Here’s what I would recommend…
It’s not a simple fix and I want to “show my work” because I think that process matters - so this is not a short note.
None of this is intended to be even an implied criticism of contemporary school teachers. We have many fine teachers in our schools. Most of them, however, are required to spend so much time on so many things having nothing to do with the basic education that they were trained to do that they have little opportunity to teach. The good teachers are also victims of the systems and ideologies "educationists" have imposed on our schools, which we are not prepared for or able to finance properly under the current system.
For those looking for a simple ‘yes or no’ quick fix easy-way answer to this complex problem faced in uncertain and changing times… well, I don’t have that.
I do have a process to follow and ideas, including the notion of a "non-stoppage strike", that I will work as a citizen to see pursued now, at the next election, and as the next contract negotiation comes up in the not distant future.
Mr. McNeil’s Mistake
Instead of soul searching as he says he’s doing, he should be fact checking, collecting information, looking for great advice, and finding comparative instances to guide good results.
“I couldn’t see a path forward”
McNeil said imposing the contract will allow life for students and parents to return to normal.
“There was no path forward. I couldn’t see a path forward to be able to get an agreement.” said McNeil. “This is now impacting kids’ futures and this was the only option left to me really.”
That is incorrect. Mr. McNeil’s choices are limited only by his imagination, the skill set of the people around him, and the effort he and his team are willing to put in to the matter. They must also be willing to openly take a stand for something and be willing to fail.
Some alternatives he has:
Mediation – Agreeing to a mediator, a neutral third party, to help them resolve their differences. Most often the mediator, as the name implies, will choose a middle ground so that the two sides can avoid more problems, and hopefully in this case, take the time to rethink the education system. Mediation is like collective bargaining with outside help.
Fact-finding – Mr. McNeil can appoint a fact-finder to work with both sides to get at the underlying problems using time wisely instead of as a countdown to disaster clock.
Arbitration In Total – He could agree to arbitration of the total package. Arbitration involves both parties presenting a case before a specially selected board who will then make a decision. It can be binding in advance or just a third-party opinion.
Arbitration By Issue – He could agree to arbitrate on an issue by issue basis. This could help identify and separate out the issues that are really at the core of this dispute.
Move on to the next contract… We’ve gone over a year now without a contract, and though things aren’t ideal they are better than bombing the whole system with heavy-handed legislation. In fact, the NEXT contract is not that far away. Mr. McNeil could agree to make some decisions now in concert with teachers to keep things rolling and begin work NOW on the next contract. When you engage your counterpart as early as possible in the timeline of a negotiation, you demonstrate your interest in building rapport and exploring options together. And by refusing to put limits on the number of topics under discussion, you exponentially improve the chances of discovering tradeoffs that will satisfy both parties – and head off a strike.
So what should government do?
Step one, I would not do what Mr. McNeil appears about to do – imposed contract, back to work legislation, outlaw the right to strike.
Premier Stephen McNeil said in a news release Saturday the two sides were at a clear impasse, job action had gone on for too long and was causing harm to too many people. It's time to get back to the normal routine for students, he said.
But the “Normal Routine” is at the exact heart of the problem. That’s the very thing that nobody wants any more, not government, not teachers, nor taxpayers nor students.
The union countered with a news release of its own, with president Liette Doucet saying the move displayed contempt for collective bargaining, further undermined trust between the two sides and would not fix the issues teachers say have broken the system.
I think they’re right about that.
Citizens appreciate that if not for this job action the chances of government getting to the heart of the problem with education are near zero. Antistrike imposed contract legislation is nothing more than an attempt to hide the dead bloated corpse of our educational system.
Mr. McNeil has wrongly identified the problem to be solved: That we must resolve the contract and pay the teachers the least amount possible.
He’s not understood the complexity and uncertainty of the system. He doesn’t seem to be at all interested in the more complex parts of the problem or parts of the problem where choices simply have to be made, and he sure does not seem interested in any new or progressive ideas that would see any real difference come to the system. Instead of confronting the real problems, making decisions and taking a stand, he’s saying ya ya ya and pushing them off to the future, to bureaucratic wastelands, and in all likelihood, to another government.
This is very important. Our democratic system absolutely depends on parties forming a platform based on clear choices and position so that people can vote yes or no on the direction to take and recheck the results, the direction and their opinion every four years. IF parties won’t take clear positions and then stay with them unless new information becomes clearly available to change course, then our system of government simply does not work or do the thing we want it to do.
Solving The Wrong Problem
Mr. McNeil is trying to solve an immediate problem but is not thinking about the new problems that solving the old (wrong) problem will create.
His failure is not happening in the Legislature next week. His mistake is coming at the end of a long list of small mistakes here and there, through all brands of government, which have added up to a crisis.
A legislated contract will do nothing to improve the state of our schools and will only further erode the trust between teachers and government.
Collective bargaining between teachers and school boards should be simple and direct. The public interest - the welfare of school children and the tranquil and efficient delivery of public services - demands that teachers legitimately possess the bargaining leverage of a strike.
The Critical Variable - Inclusion
I’d like a party to take a reasoned stand on inclusion and take it to the people in an election. This issue is so wrapped in political correctness that it took months for whispering to finally get to a point where someone could find a way to talk about it in the media. It is a CRITICAL ISSUE in this negotiation and a resolution MUST take a stand on the issue so that the people of Nova Scotia can talk about it and decide without fear.
It will take a certain amount of courage for a political party to form an opinion and go to the ballot arguing that opinion but that is what the parties MUST do. However, it does not have to be simple minded and divisive for or against. Citizens should ask for and expect well reasoned, well-supported positions that they can depend will be followed through on.
Inclusion of students with disabilities and other problems in the regular education environment is a very young idea in the overarching history of teaching and learning. In Nova Scotia we’ve combined that system with a cocktail of “Educastist” ideology that sees no consequences for behavioral or attendance issues, and indeed no consequences for not making the effort or meeting the requirements of learning. The education system is simply a conveyor belt with no possibility to fail, and therefore no possibility to really overcome problems.
"Age- and grade-appropriate placement is the most controversial component of inclusion because it is based on ideals, values, and goals that are not congruent with the realities of today's classrooms. Proponents of full inclusion assume that the general education classroom can and will be able to accommodate all students with disabilities, even those with severe and multiple disabilities. They assume that such students can obtain educational and social benefits from that placement. Those who oppose full inclusion argue that, although methods of collaborative learning and group instruction are the preferred methods, the traditional classroom size and resources are often inadequate for the management and accommodation of many students with disabilities without producing adverse effects on the classroom as a whole. Some special education experts, however, believe that some students are unlikely to receive appropriate education without placement into alternative instructional groups or alternative learning environments, such as part-time or full-time special classes or alternative day schools." (From Handbook for Successful Inclusion. Kochhar and West. Aspen Publishers, Inc.,
Teaching students with disabilities in inclusive settings is a multifaceted task that requires a team of mutually supporting players who provide the best practices for all students. The preponderance of research supports placing students with disabilities in inclusive settings because it benefits everyone involved, although researchers caution that a one-size-fits-all approach will be disastrous for students with disabilities.
Some researchers suggest that inclusion is not beneficial for a variety of reasons. However, our schools have been faced with the task of implementing inclusive education even though the cost of this work has not in the slightest been understood in terms of labour, infrastructure, community involvement, education and capital.
All these factors taken together as a whole system are essential to assure that each student's goals and objectives are met. Without out a complete system inclusion will not work and if handled in half measure will cause more trouble than any other plan. This, I believe is what we’re seeing in Nova Scotia today. New tools, curricula, instruction, and programs are needed that recognize all students' needs and behaviors. Professional preparation of school personnel is essential. Teachers must learn new teaching strategies and understand how to work cooperatively with other teachers, parents, and the community. Without proper planning and support, successful inclusive placements are difficult. This takes time, money, and a shared understanding and agreement in the community of the school and the larger community as a whole.
Inclusion Problems That Need To Be Publicly Discussed :
During tough economic times when cutbacks in government budgets are hitting the educational and other sectors hard, the monies for the extra staffing required by inclusion may simply not be there. Done properly inclusion would require specially trained teachers, social workers, psychologist, and leadership that is simply not available. It may be very well outside of any possible budget to hire paraprofessionals trained to attend to these children's toileting, behavioral or learning needs.
The teacher, who is responsible for the education of all her students, may not have the necessary specialized training to address the needs of students with special needs. She may not be capable of managing her classroom time so that she gives the special-needs students the time they need to succeed academically, while managing her time with her other pupils as well. This problem creates a negative feedback loop that diminishes any chance to regain positive effects in the system.
To avoid harm to the academic education of students with disabilities, a full array of services and resources is required including:
In principle, several factors can determine the success of inclusive classrooms:
Even if funding were available, community agreement was obtained, and all the work could be done to find and train the talented labour required, Full Inclusion is still an ideological socialist dream rather than a workable plan in our society as it is currently constituted.
Some students with special needs are poor candidates for inclusion because of their effect on other students. For example, some students may not be able to attend school regularly enough to be included. Students with severe behavioural problems, such that they represent a serious physical danger to others, are poor candidates for inclusion, because the school has a duty to provide a safe environment to all students and staff. Finally, some students are not good candidates for inclusion because the normal activities in a general education classroom will prevent them from learning. For example, a student with severe attention difficulties or extreme sensory processing disorders might be highly distracted or distressed by the presence of other students working at their desks. Inclusion needs to be appropriate to the child's unique needs.
What Level Of Inclusion Will Work?
Most students with special needs do not fall into these extreme categories, as most students do attend school, are not violent, do not have severe sensory processing disorders, etc.
The students that are most commonly and easily included are those with physical disabilities that have no or little effect on their academic work (diabetes mellitus, epilepsy, food allergies, paralysis), students with all types of mild disabilities, and students whose disabilities require relatively few specialized services.
Inclusion - Current Situation
We need to be clear that proponents of Full Inclusion are advocating a fundamentally different school system than the one we’ve traditionally used and no attempt has been made to understand and finance the actual full workload, infrastructure requirements and costs of a full inclusion model of education.
The argument for inclusion is a moral one. The no one should be ‘excluded’ and everyone is better off, even if some students education suffers, with inclusion. It’s ideology run amok – a form of extreme socialism. If anything but full inclusion were immoral then private schools and any separation of anybody from the human group at any time would be morally wrong.
Inclusion is like hoping a child will become a better plumber by putting her in a group of people who have various levels of plumbing problems as well as some people who are not interested in plumbing at all and expect that all our backed up toilets would somehow get fixed.
In A Perfect World
Here's a thought experiment. If you could design a custom education personalized many-on-one for each individual student, how close would it be to the 'best we can do' for the group results we are delivering today. Specialization of labour is the foundation stone of modern increases in productivity. Why would we reject the notion of specialization to the degree possible in education?
Where To From Here? – What Is Our Goal?
"For all children, the educational process must be one of the collecting factual knowledge to the limit of their absorptive capacity.” said Admiral, HG Rickover in his report to the US Education Department in 1958.
"Recreation, manual or clerical training, etiquette and similar know-how have little effect on the mind itself - and it is with the mind that the school must concern itself.”
"The student thus receives neither intellectual training nor the factual knowledge which will help him to understand the world he lives in, or to make well-reasoned decisions in his private life or as a responsible citizen...”
"She is instead handed a bag of know-how tricks; she is helped to become a pleasant, nicely mannered young person, able to get along with whatever group she joins...
"It is time we turn back to the home what is properly the function of the home and permit the public schools to concentrate on what is properly their function - the education of young minds."
In Rickover’s view the school is not the social epicentre of the community. The household is the basic building block of the community and the work it does cannot be delegated or assigned by proxy to a governmental system and bureaucracy.
I believe that is correct.
What is the purpose of education? The school’s primary concern should be with intellect - its identification and development. The school’s concern is not with social and developmental task functions. These belong outside of the school. The school is obligated to teach all students to the limits of their abilities. This requires a broad education for the average and below-average student and separate classes for both the talented and gifted, and special needs students.
There is much dissatisfaction with our schools today. Parents feel vaguely that the local high school is below par but they have no way of proving it or articulating the problem. We see that our results, in particular in math, are not as good as other similar places. But nor are our results the worst and it is a functioning system. Can we expect more and better? The answer is yes. If we can imagine better. If we can see that something has been lost. Then we can do better.
The curriculum emphasizes know-how subjects at the expense of academic subjects. Teachers have been committed by the government to teach “coding” in a world where technology is changing so quickly coding itself as changeable as the season and may not even exist in its current form five years from now. Worse the teachers being asked to teach coding do not themselves know how to code or perhaps don’t have an aptitude for the subject, introducing more stress and confusion in a failed system.
A Different Approach
I would support breaking the sentimental attachment we hold for the concept of a comprehensive school in which all children, at all levels od ability, march sedately up to the eighteenth year, absorbing so little real education that it takes another four years at college before the basic stage of education is completed.
Talented youth are not being identified. Very little is done in our schools to seek out and identify this top 15-20 per cent of our children.... We won’t move forward with our economy, our ecology, our politics, or our much prized ‘innovation' until we do justice to our talented youth - until we seek them out at an early age - no later than ten or eleven - and educate them separately from the rest of the children. This need not necessarily be in a separate school; it could be within the regular schools in a different stream of class programming but with a real sense of being part of the school in the same way PhD physicists and varsity basketball players can exist as different, but equally important parts of a university – with the same sense of pride and inclusion.
Here is a summary of much-discussed and studied methods of improving school performance:
New Ideas For Salvaging The Current Situation…
And Making Sure It Doesn’t Happen Again
With clear and well-articulated goals in mind, we need to make plans and carry them out.
It seems like such a self-evident thing to say, but our government, filled with powerful bureaucrats and professional politicians are paralyzed by fear – they would do almost anything to avoid articulating real goals, making plans and carrying them out.
Why are they afraid?
Because a lot of the time they are going to be wrong and a lot of the time someone will need to be held responsible. As Peachum, the beggar king sings in the Three Penny Opera,
“Go make you're a plan,
And be a shining light.
Then make yourself a second plan,
For neither will come right.”
Shirley Chisholm said, "You make progress by implementing ideas." Progress requires making decisions, not studies, boards, inquiries, or consultations.
Innovation and progress is about change. If you don't want change, if you don't want more to be asked of you, if you don't want risk, if you don't want things scrappy and half-baked, if you don't want to face the unknown, if you don't want to fail, if you don't want to work harder, give more, and take on more responsibility, then you don't want innovation and progress.
We have to accept, as an initial premise, that collective bargaining, including the right to strike, is part of the system that has, so far in the world, produced the best free market results within our system of government and accounts for some of the most important steps forward in the last two centuries.
What IS Working
1/ Teacher unity and union solidarity make a difference. Without their steadfast courage to stand up to government, to speak out, to say the system is broken, then the public would not be aware of the real problems in the education system.
2/ The community supports great public education, and people will back unions and political parties that stand up for improving education.
3/ The best defence is offence. It's time to not just draw the line anymore, but to start moving the line forward. Now is the time for a frank exposition of the facts no matter how uncomfortable they may be.
A Non-Stoppage Strike – A Real Alternative
In a non-stoppage strike, operations continue as usual. However, both the union and the employer make meaningful pre-defined payments into a special penalty fund. Contributions would be based upon a specified percentage of total cash wages. The fund would then be beyond recapture by either party and used to advance new theories, opportunities and ideas in education.
In this situation, while both parties would be under pressure to settle, there would be no disruption of service. Students could complete their education without interruption and parents could maintain job and vacation schedules without disruption. Pursuant to this proposal a union would have the option to initiate the mechanism and thereby increase union bargaining power by applying steady and potentially increasing pressure upon the government to settle while giving the government adequate time to adjust to a proposed settlement.
The Ghent System and Beyond
If we want to get the most out of unionism we have to give unions more responsibility and respect. The McNeil government’s unspoken but clearly perceived mandate to simplify the politics of Nova Scotia into a “people vs. unions” dilemma needs to be decided explicitly in an election rather than a this vague ‘dog whistle’ politics of anti-unionism. If that’s their policy idea they have to own it and stop saying they are being forced into anti-union, anti-collective bargaining positions by fate.
Though it seems contradictory, by giving the unions more responsibility we can help them help us and more closely align our interests.
The Ghent system is the name given to an arrangement in some countries whereby the main responsibility for welfare payments, especially unemployment benefits, is held by trade/labor unions, rather than a government agency.
The system is named after the city of Ghent, Belgium, where it was first implemented. It is the predominant form of unemployment benefit in Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden. Belgium has a hybrid or "quasi-Ghent" system, in which the government also plays a significant role in distributing benefits. In all of the above countries, unemployment funds held by unions or labour federations are regulated and/or partly subsidised by the national government concerned.
Because workers in many cases need to belong to a union to receive benefits, union membership is higher in countries with the Ghent system. Furthermore, the state benefit is a fixed sum, but the union benefits depend on previous earnings.
I like the idea of ‘what I call frontline fever, an active push and bias toward frontline workers – the people who actually do the work, deal with the public, and make things happen. The overhead and management burden in all aspects of government, particular the higher levels of bureaucracy is – in my view – the central challenge of broken government.
Beyond the Ghent System
We could make a plan to turn over the percentage of the budget designated for the classroom – at least 50% of the education budget – to the union and allow the union to decide how much its members are paid and how they are insured.
Government would be asked to accept the union and teachers are real partners in the education system. Government decides how much they have to invest in instruction and the union decides how best to invest it. The union will live within its means.
Between administrators, school boards and staff most citizens agree that the education systems, like other sectors of government is running a top-heavy operation that spends less in the classroom than it should.
We could immediately set a goal of increasing the percent of the education budget spent in the classroom.
The union would be responsible for instructional salaries and benefits - teachers, teachers aides and their benefits, textbooks and other classroom supplies - determined by union members. Essentially this would make them partners with the Department of Education.
There are risks for both sides, but we’re looking for creative solutions. Teachers are into their second year of working with an expired contract. The system is broken. We need to try new ideas.
In return the people, through our government and clearly defined performance goals, would earn the right to hold classroom teachers accountable to a measure other than old fashioned union seniority.
Let’s stop and begin again.
Khan Academy – type learning
From itunes to MIT, learning is being reinvented and made available in new ways through technology. We need to find the right place for technology in the education system, not as a bolt-on component , but the engine at the very heart of the system.
The change that has to take place is that learning must be driven by interest, curiosity, and desire, not as a punishment doled out by the government.
You can go to Harvard and any number of other schools for free online, surely we could be delivering a basic education using technology.
Work is held in profound contempt by our current educational system. We need to regain our respect for tradesmanship, art and craft.
Work is the fundamental way most of us relate to the world. To prepare us to work, to earn a living, and contribute to our self-support, our families, our communities and to the world, is one of the core goals of a good education.
It's also something that's lost its way as the nature and value of work changes profoundly in our lifetimes.
Little of what most of us do for a living would be described as "work' by our grandparents. The words have stayed the same but the baseline of the task has shifted so much that it's possible historians will look back and call this age "The End Of Work". And yet we know in our hearts that it takes tinkerers, modifiers, builders, and changers, to create the future.
It's lamentable. And it's problematic if, like me, you're addicted to toilets that flush and roofs that don't leak. We need smart, engaged, strong and innovative people to do a lot of work. Here’s a link to my blog post about people speaking eloquently on the importance of knowing about screwdrivers and how machines work.
Nova Scotia Youth Corps
The idea is a system that trades students university education for service to the community and bridges the gap between secondary school and university in a meaningful way that benefits society.
I believe we should fuse together various existing NS programs, policies and strategies and add an innovative approach to form a branded plan for ‘total education’ of Nova Scotian's children. The idea echoes Kennedy's Peace Corps, an institution that still resonates with young people and helps make a better, more connected world 65 years after it was started.
The Nova Scotia Youth Corps (NSYC) would provide the region with valuable public works such as national and provincial public park maintenance, forestry (maintenance and fire-fighting), conservation management (erosion control projects), disaster response and recovery operations, public infrastructure improvement projects, organizing public events and festivals, beautification projects, security augmentation, public social programs (for seniors and vulnerable citizens), statistical projects (like an HRM tree inventory) and all kinds of administrative support to provincial and local governments.
Youth would "enlist" in the NSYC for 2-4 years, earning 30 days of annual leave and medical benefits during the period. Honorably-discharged NSYC "veterans" would earn college tuition assistance (1 year paid per 1 year served) and some experience could even count toward course credits.
To accomplish the potential of this organization we should draw on our greatest growing resource of the next 25 years. The greying pensioned workforce with their health, wealth and knowledge have so much left to contribute to Nova Scotia. We need to find structured systems to allow them the opportunity to help.
Super School Projects
Like it or not, our most intelectually talented children are going to shape our future. We need to be at least as encouraging of intellectual talent as we are of athletic talent.
In Nova Scotia we have a firm grasp and shared understanding of what it takes to create the world’s best hockey players, and yet we’re both romantically naïve and genuinely in po-faced denial about what it takes to make the world’s best scientists, technologists, engineers, mathematicians and beyond. It can’t continue this way if we genuinely want the innovation, progress, and change we say we want.
From New York City to Singapore it should surprise no one to learn that they have within their school systems the mandate to seek out, guide, and educate the most talented children to the best advantage of society. They nurture the brightest, challenge their intellect, and enhance the odds that they would change the world.
If this is an unpalatable task for Nova Scotia, then we must accept also that the worst off among us, the poorest and most vulnerable will not be materially raised up by progress. We can not have one without the other and no amount of ideological communism in soft socialism’s clothing will fix that.
How do we “Teach” government to deal with complexity and uncertainty?
How do we get these issues and opportunities to a place where the people can decide what to do?
First we stop asking for simple answers and resist the temptation of the hucksters, con artists, and professionals who offer them. There are no quick fix, easy way, leisure economy answers to the complex questions of an uncertain age.
We need governments to take a stand, create meaningful understandable platforms and be willing and able to be held accountable for those platforms.
We need to look for people, groups, parties, and government that can articulate real end goals with measurable specificity.
We need government that is able to make decisions.
We need government that is able to make plans.
We need government that is able to take actions to carry out those plans.
There is no simple formula for solving complex problems in uncertain times but the process by which it happens best involves:
We need government that can be identified as right… or wrong and going in the wrong direction.
Then we need a different government.
That’s how the democratic system is supposed to work.
Writing about life, citizenship, and Nova Scotia.