I had written the bulk of this post before learning that the parties in the public education labour dispute had reached an impasse. My goal is always to try my best to understand issues and to raise awareness of them. Events tonight have left me questioning much about what I know, but here’s one thing I haven’t changed my mind about: this is not the way we should be dealing with education in our province and we need a resolution to what is rapidly turning into a real mess.
“Truth is the first casualty of war” or so the saying goes and make no mistake about it, the labour dispute in BC’s public education sector is a war (as distasteful as the metaphor may be): a war of words and a war of ideologies. Let alone a war of Twitter streams, blog posts, promoted advertisements, press releases, and media interviews.
The rhetoric obscures many of the issues which are now buried under layers of history including legal proceedings, appearances in front of the Labour Relations Board, and legislation. These are very complex matters and they are particularly difficult to understand for those who may not live and breathe education and politics whether or not they have children in public schools.
At this stage in the dispute, with the start of school hanging in the balance and talks stuck in the we-may-someday-mediate phase, even those with only a cursory interest in the matter recognize that the largest stumbling blocks to a new negotiated settlement are the issues of class size, class composition, and the ratio of specialist educators. To craft contract language around each of these issues which is acceptable to both factions — balancing teacher workload, student learning conditions, and school district financials — is a daunting challenge. I’ve written about this difficulty before in two pieces: Ratios, Ranges, and Caps in Education and Class Size and Composition: A Birthday Party Analogy.
In this post, I’d like to take a closer look at the issue of class size.
Because the dialogue around this issue seems to be the most divisive.
Class composition may be more difficult to deal with in terms of language for a collective agreement, but the consensus around accepting it as an issue which we must address appears to be broader. In addition to that,Tracy Sherlock has done a great job of looking at the issue of special needs in the classroom and I would only offer a very pale imitation of her excellent contribution. The Vancouver Sun published the first instalment of Tracy’s two-part series in today’s paper (the August 30 issue) and the second instalment will appear on September 2.
This discussion is by no means an exhaustive study of the class size issue nor does it purport to be an extensively researched one. I’m also not making any arguments for or against particular class sizes; I just want to highlight some of the facts to show why this is so difficult to negotiate.
Before I get into my presentation, please note that any errors of fact are my own as are the views expressed here: these are not the views of the West Vancouver Board of Education.
To understand the class size issue in relation to the public education labour dispute, we have to consider the contract language before and after the benchmark year of 2002. That is the year in which then Minister of Education, Christy Clark, led a government initiative which removed class size and composition from the collective agreement with BC’s teachers. This unilateral change has since been deemed unconstitutional by the BC Supreme Court in two court cases which the government has lost. The second of the two court cases is currently under appeal and the BC Court of Appeal hearing is scheduled for mid-October 2014 with a decision to follow.
Prior to 2002, the limit on the number of students in a kindergarten (K) class was fixed at 20 and at 22 for Grades 1 through 3 (primary). The legislated changes in 2002 moved those limits up and they were set at 22 for K and 24 for primary.
Setting aside the issue of class composition, the net difference may not seem so great. However, there are valid reasons, backed by research evidence, that smaller classes at these younger ages are beneficial and will have the greatest influence on future student outcomes.
[NB. The current BCTF proposal at the bargaining table is to set up a fund to address class size issues rather than reverting to a fixed number within the collective agreement. A BCTF representative kindly clarified that for me on Twitter this evening. Any teachers reading this who may have questions regarding the BCTF proposal should contact their local association for more information.]
Prior to 2002 the limit for Grades 4 through 12 was 30 students per class with some variation between school districts. As a result of the changes to the collective agreement in 2002, the cap was removed. There is technically no limit on how many students can be in any Grade 4 to 12 classroom although the objective is to aim for 30. A school and a school district must follow certain guidelines and protocols if a class does go over 30.
Some have argued that class size should be bargained locally, but that ignores two things: (1) class size provisions are considered provincial bargaining items, and (2) school districts are funded by the provincial government. This fiscal dependency means that even school districts in favour of bargaining class sizes locally cannot. Unlike a teenager who may have spent their allowance or a university student who may need more money for tuition, a school district cannot simply withdraw what it needs from the Mom and Dad ATM.
Even if a district has managed its budget exceptionally well and even if a district is not in a deficit position, it cannot on its own initiative reduce the limit for intermediate classes to 28 or 26 or 24. It may not have the funds required to hire staff and it may no longer have the physical space available for additional classrooms especially if schools in the area have been closed or if there’s been significant population growth.
With no easy answers for class sizes at intermediate, what about Grades 8 – 12? Again, leaving aside both the issue of class composition and what the best size for a high school classroom may be, the issue at this level gets more complicated in terms of a teacher’s workload.
High school teachers don’t just have one class of 30 or one class of over 30. They have multiple classes and the number of students they deal with adds up very quickly.
I asked teachers on Twitter to provide me with some real life examples and I appreciate all the responses I received. Here are a few for you to consider. One teacher has four classes of 18, 26, 27, and 27. On an individual basis, those are manageable numbers, but consider the cumulative effect. That one teacher is responsible for 98 students. How about the teacher who has 163 students in academic courses and a PE class of 30? That’s 193 teenagers to deal with. Or the teacher with 203 students, 113 of whom are seen on one day and 90 others on the next day which includes one block for preparation time. Or what about the teacher who has 7 classes with a total of 185 students?
Now let’s consider what the teachers’ jobs entail. These teachers are responsible for providing instruction, and they must also prepare for their classes, they test and assess the students, and they compile report cards. In one case, that’s two interim reports per semester and two report cards per semester for each student. And that’s all before we get into such issues as extra-curricular activities, meetings with parents, team meetings, staff meetings, professional development and so forth.
That is a substantial workload. And yes that’s the job and yes there are holidays and yes there are decent benefits which the teachers receive, but none of that detracts from the volume of the work and the challenging nature of the work or the validity of discussing classroom sizes as a learning condition for students.
As with the intermediate level, the issues here are primarily the financial impact of organizing and offering classes with fewer students in them and the restrictions of space, particularly in the Metro Vancouver area.
With all this in mind, perhaps it’s not surprising that the BCTF is looking for ways in which to reduce the workload for their members and to reduce the number of students in a classroom which will benefit all learners. The question isn’t whether or not we should aim for smaller class sizes in the K to 12 sector, but how to do so and by which mechanism.
As usual, it’s a lot easier to discuss an issue and to highlight the difficulties than it is to provide a solution. However, it’s virtually impossible to solve any issue without dialogue and it saddens me that the conversation around education at the provincial level, on topics such as class size, has become mired in recrimination and rancour.
In looking at the class size issue more closely, albeit in isolation, I have to say I don’t envy Vince Ready. If he does manage to engineer a negotiated settlement within the next week or two, given the difficulties I’ve touched on above and the others I haven’t yet delved into, then he will truly be one of the most amazing people I hope to some day meet.
Other People’s Moneyitis (OPM) is the syndrome commonly noted where those in charge of the public purse, such as governments who claim to be fiscally prudent, often seem to make decisions which do not appear to be supported by rational business arguments.
We see the symptoms of this syndrome, for example, when governments express concerns about spending, but then increase salaries for political staffers and themselves or run multi-million self-promoting advertising campaigns.
OPM is one of the few explanations which seems to make sense in trying to come to terms with the provincial government’s position on bargaining in the current labour dispute with the BCTF. A dispute which is threatening to dramatically derail education for approximately 559,000 students this fall.
As those following the intricacies of public education in British Columbia will know, the BC Supreme Court found that the government acted unconstitutionally in 2002 when it stripped provisions from the teachers’ collective agreement around class size and composition.
This original court case was not appealed which means the government accepted its wrong-doing and accepted class size and composition as working conditions to be negotiated with the union.
The government was given a year to fashion a remedy, but failed to do so successfully and Justice Griffin subsequently ruled that they had negotiated in bad faith, that the remedy was insufficient, and that they had to pay the BCTF $2 million in fines. This is the judgement which the government is now appealing and which will be heard in mid-October 2014.
What does it mean if the government wins the appeal and what does it mean if the government does not win the appeal?
If the government wins the appeal, it means that they acted unconstitutionally in 2002 and that class size and composition are working conditions to be negotiated. These facts from the original court case do not change.
With a government win, the BCTF may appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada and I understand there would be a significant possibility that the highest court would agree to hear the case in this situation.
If the case does go to the Supreme Court of Canada and if it is found to be in favour of the BCTF, that could have a huge cost implication not only for this one collective agreement but for any collective agreement with any public sector union and for all time. While the courts would never say how much money government is required to spend, a loss by the government — if they let it get this far — would have tremendous cost implications well beyond anything required to settle the current dispute.
On the other hand, if the government were to win at the Supreme Court of Canada, it would still mean they acted unconstitutionally in 2002 and that class size and composition are working conditions to be negotiated because the Supreme Court would not be examining the original court case. All those legal costs and all the hidden costs of time and resources will have been spent to end up back at the position in which the government started. To refuse to see that even a win at the Supreme Court of Canada may still lead to the government of British Columbia investing a significant amount of money in the public education system is a level of obstinacy and arrogance that can only be afforded with OPM.
Let’s go back to the appeal of the Griffin decision this October.
If the government loses, they can make application to the Supreme Court of Canada, but it’s my understanding that there may be less interest from the higher court in hearing this case under these circumstances. That means, if the court of appeal expedites its ruling and if the Supreme Court were to turn down the request to hear the case, the end of the legal process would in fact be a lot sooner than anticipated.
With an appeal loss, the government’s risky gamble will have been for nought. The original finding that they acted unconstitutionally in 2002 and that class size and composition are working conditions to be negotiated would stand. They would have to pay $2 million to the BCTF. The finding of bad faith bargaining would stand as would the finding that the remedy, which the government fashioned over the course of the year they had, was insufficient.
In addition to funding whatever number or formula or fund is established to deal with class size and composition, an appeal loss would also mean that every instance where a classroom did not comply with the provisions of class size and class composition as per the 2002 collective agreement would form the basis for a grievance.
Think about that for a moment.
Every class throughout the province from 2002 to 2014 which did not comply with the provisions of the collective agreement which existed prior to 2002 would be subject to a grievance with no further legal processes available for the government to pursue.
Every non-compliant classroom. For each of twelve years. Throughout the province.
Think about the cost implications not only in terms of the actual compensation that would be paid out in the end, but of the legal fees involved and the demand on resources. Instead of promoting and providing education, the Ministry of Education, school districts, the union, the local branches, and teachers, would be tied up in an endless series of grievances.
Any private entity, faced with the potential for such a future calamity, would be zealous in trying to extricate itself. In my estimation, it’s only the false confidence of OPM which prevents the government from doing so now.
That’s why I believe a negotiated settlement prior to the appeal being heard is actually one which serves the government interests the best and which would actually be much more mindful of taxpayers’ money. It would be the smartest business move and evidence of fiscal prudence as well as visionary leadership.
The government is standing on quicksand when it comes to the labour dispute with BC’s teachers although they are acting as if they’re secure in their bunker.
However, if they don’t pursue an out-of-court settlement now (a negotiated settlement which would enable school to start on September 2 as scheduled), if they don’t consider the abyss into which they are staring, when they fall, they will drag students, families, and one of the world’s best public education systems down with them.
When I chose to run as a candidate in the 2011 municipal elections, the K-12 public education system in British Columbia was embroiled in job action.
Almost three years later, the public education system in British Columbia is once again contending with a job action which many are calling the worst ever for the sheer rancour of the debate, the barbed rhetoric which abounds, and the crumbling relationships.
In other words, my entire term as a Trustee on the West Vancouver Board of Education has been characterized by the lurch from one job action to another.
While bargaining has chewed away at my time as a Trustee, it’s insatiable appetite has also served as an obstacle to discussions and innovations on a number of educational topics.
Because if you’re consistently caught up in trying to clean up the mess your guests have made with the appetizers, you’ll never have the chance to sit down with your company to enjoy the main course.
If our focus is concentrated on bargaining issues, what are we not talking about? Here’s a short-list of “big picture” items which I feel are overshadowed by the labour situation whether at a local level or provincially (in alphabetical order):
- which Ministry reports are essential and which ones aren’t?
- is there a way to simplify school district financial reporting to ensure better utilization of staff time and resources without sacrificing the integrity and thoroughness of the information required?
- aside from the issue of underfunding, is it time to review the current funding formula?
Assessment (I know much has been done in this area and some school districts have already begun experimenting with different approaches, but I’m afraid that work has been disrupted and the information won’t be available for sharing as best practices with others.)
- what should report cards look like at each level in the K-12 system?
- how do we continue to move forward on implementing models of formative assessment?
- is there a different way to organize credits at the high school level to enable a more flexible route to graduation rather than one based strictly on work in school or on a progression through grade levels?
- is grouping students according to their age still the desired approach to education?
- how do we balance the advantages of early learning with the fact that for some students a later start into a formal school environment may be more desirable?
- do all students require a full five years of secondary education or should there be a fast-track option for some learners?
Calendar (some districts are already working with different calendars)
- do we have to start school in September and stop in June with the traditional breaks at the end of each calendar year, for spring break, and so on?
- are balanced calendar models more successful for students and their families?
- what are the logistical barriers to changing the calendar within a district? That is, does it work well to have one or more schools on a different calendar or does it work better to change all at once?
- how do we break through the walls between our communities and our schools to improve and increase relevancy and connections?
- what sort of partnerships can we build with our community without compromising the integrity of our public education system?
- how do we draw on the expertise and skills of our community members to further enhance and support school learning and the work of our educators?
These are some topics I yearn to delve into along with other issues such as the new curriculum, pre-service requirements for future educators, and the structure of practicums for student teachers.
Oh, and what exactly is a teacher’s role and what do we even mean by education in today’s world?
And while I believe that a negotiated settlement is the best foundation from which we may be able to enter into a progressive and enlightening discussion on many of these issues, it makes me very sad to acknowledge that the time needed to repair relationships once a deal is signed means we may not have the time we need to talk about such things substantively let alone implement them before we’re at the bargaining table again!
In the meantime, school districts continue to strive to do the very best for the families of this province but if each electoral mandate continues to be a Ben Hur-like chariot race from one set of failed negotiations to another, we will — all of us — have failed in our duty to build a better world for our children.
It will be a collective failure of imagination.
I remember when students said
“We wanna go to school today”
And we said, “Yes, you do.”
They said, “That’s where we learn and grow.
And we’re not the kind that likes to stay at home.
It’s our future.”
We said, “That’s true.”
And so they took a stroll.
Wound up beside the school yard fence
And they said, “Now what do we do?”
Cuz they found teachers hanging around
Locked out recess, lunch, from the playground,
Who then ‘splained it to them
Said, “This job action’s for you!”
They said, “We don’t like lockouts and strikes
And that ain’t what it takes to teach us.
We don’t like lockouts and strikes
And that ain’t what it takes to teach us
Like we want to be taught by you.”
Well, I think about those students all the time
I’d like to call Clark up with this rhyme
And say, “Hello Christy.”
She’d say, “What to do?”
I’d say, “Do you remember when
And would you like kids at school again?”
She’d say, “Right away buckaroo.”
Kids say, “We don’t like lockouts and strikes
And that ain’t what it takes to teach us.
We don’t like lockouts and strikes
And that ain’t what it takes to teach us
Like we want to be taught by you.”
Peter Cameron, BCPSEA’s Chief Negotiator, seemed to call for a cone of silence today for Trustees when it comes to bargaining issues in the public education sector.
While I can appreciate his frustration with diverging viewpoints (solidarity matters to both parties at the bargaining table), there are many issues not being discussed in a larger context which may, in part, explain why negotiations are so acrimonious.
Which brings me to the topics I’d like to explore here: ratios for non-enrolling staff and specialist teachers, class size, and class composition.
Because if we talked about these issues in a meaningful way, apart from contract negotiations, perhaps we wouldn’t be in the same spin cycle of labour unrest every few years.
This is not an empirical study, nor an exhaustive analysis of the subject, nor does it represent the views of the West Vancouver Board of Education. These are merely personal reflections intended to stimulate debate.
Ratios for Non-Enrolling Staff and Specialists
To frame this discussion, I think we need to consider the minimally acceptable service levels for positions such as teacher-librarian, counsellor, special education teacher and so on.
Having said that, I realize that we must first agree on which of these roles is integral to providing a quality education for students. We can then determine the appropriate ratios. However, these ratios would have to reflect the needs and the realities of each local community. What may be needed in Vancouver, for example, may not work in Williams Lake, and what may be sufficient in Fort Nelson may not work on the Sunshine Coast.
Now that I think about it, perhaps this piece of the puzzle is not so easy after all!
The key question here is can we find a balance between the needs of the employer, the working conditions for a teacher, and the students’ learning conditions? For example, if a cap of 24 students is set for Grade 3 and a school has two fully subscribed classes of 24, what happens when someone moves into the neighbourhood and wants to place their child at the local school? Does a class of 25 present a significant deterioration in the working and learning conditions of the teacher and the students? Well, it may and it may not — it depends. An even more basic question is how do we even determine the optimum number of students in a classroom?
Rather than a singular number, I wonder if a range could work within the context of a collective agreement. For example, would it be possible to have a provision whereby a Grade 3 class can be anywhere from 15 to 28? Or 18 to 26? Whatever the range, provisions would also have to be considered regarding the process by which one were to go over or under – a process which balances the rights of the District with the working conditions of the teacher with the learning environment of the student.
There are also a myriad of exceptions to consider from classes that may have a defined capacity (such as foods and shop) to ones which may comfortably extend beyond a specified range (such as choir and band).
Given the many different factors to consider, you can see how difficult it becomes to distill class size down to a singular number which would apply in all situations in all regions of the province.
Of the three components I identified at the start, I find this one the most difficult to assess. The key question seems to be how do we set up a system which does not discriminate against our most vulnerable students and yet takes into account acceptable working conditions for a teacher? But I do know that by not addressing class composition issues, we are potentially compromising the education of all the students in a particular classroom.
I believe the answer lies in ensuring adequate support services and resources in the classroom. By that I mean if we are going to removing a limit on the number of special needs students in a classroom, we need to make sure the teacher in that classroom has additional help, whether in the form of special education assistants or education assistants (SEA or EA) or other specialist support, to meet the needs of all the students.
So, rather than saying there may only be three students with individual educations plans (IEPs) in one class, perhaps we have to say for every three IEPs in a classroom, there is one SEA or EA assigned to that classroom. But then we face the challenge of determining the demand associated with any particular IEP because the nature of the adjustments or assistance required can vary substantively. In addition, not every student who needs additional support has an IEP and it is often these students whose needs remain unmet not because of the teacher, but because of inadequate resourcing.
And yes, whichever remedies we put in place with regard to non-enrolling staff ratios, class size, and class composition will take money, a lot of money. But we are talking about 558,985 children in BC and we are talking about the future of our democratic society and no I’m not exaggerating.
And as much as our provincial government may be focused on shrinking public education to help reduce the amount it spends, the price of not doing education well is too high to pay, for all of us.