Saturday, October 27, 2012

Teachers, Contracts and Change - Time for Courage in Alberta

Alberta's education system is generally regarded as amongst the best in the English speaking world, at least using international assessment measures such as PISA and TIMMS. While there are significant challenges - equity for First Nations, the challenge of inclusion, funding, securing and retaining teachers - the baseline from which the Province starts is strong and sound.

This is about to be eroded. The Government of Alberta, the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) and the Alberta School Boards Association (ASBA) are engaged in bargaining to secure four years of labour peace to build on the five years of peace which ended in August. The hope has been that a framework agreement would be reached Provincially that all could agree to, within which local bargaining on implementation could take place. These talks started under two previous Ministers (Dave Hancock and Thomas Lukaszuk) and are due to be concluded under Minister Jeff Johnson by 31st October. It’s not likely to happen.

The ATA offer with respect pay, according to street talk, is  0% (2012-13), 0% (2013-14), 1% (2014-15) and 2% (2015-16). Given that inflation is running at app. 2% in 2012 (and assuming no change over the life of the deal, even though inflationary pressures are high, especially with respect to energy costs), then teachers are offering an effective reduction in the buying power of their pay by (app.) 5% over four years as well as enabling the government to budget for a predictable budget. You would think the ASBA and the Government would be leaping tall buildings and popping Champagne, but they are not.

The sticking point is not salary, but what is referred to as "the conditions of practice" or hours and nature of the work.

The ATA see changes in the conditions of practice as an essential condition for the curriculum transformation, social inclusion and pedagogy agenda both they and the Government have been working on collaboratively for some time. Going from 1,326 objectives at Grade 7 to say 150 - 200 with teachers doing more of the curriculum design work locally so as to better engage students requires more quality preparation time. This could be found by reducing the "ministrivia" (admin and paper work driven by the Government) and "administrivia" (admin work driven by the school district) teachers are asked to do and by focusing on quality time for effective preparation and professional development.

The ASBA argument is that all this costs money - more teachers would need to be hired to create system wide capacity for more PD and more preparation time. The Government appears to be supporting the ASBA with the "mantra", coming from Doug Horner, "that there is no new money". Caucus, who seems to have more authority and power than would be normal for a Government at this stage in its mandate, also does not want to “give in” (sic) to teachers. This is the same caucus that supported a 6% over three year raise for nurses.

The ATA has used a demographer, Linda Duxbury from Carelton University, to look at the work-life balance of teachers. It is not a pretty sight. Teachers are working on the basis of 1.5x their contracted hours or more (up to 62 hours a week) to support the learning needs of students and the administrative needs of the system. This is leading to faster departures from teaching as a profession and the more rapid transfer within the system of teachers - all of which is a significant real cost to the system, both financial and emotional. It is more difficult to recruit, retain, develop and sustain a teacher and to enable their appropriate role as professionals in the system.

The response of the Government is cynical. More money will be spent on health care over the next four years since it is politically unacceptable to cut health care. Yet most health care costs are sunk costs, with the exception of costs associated with effective prevention. Educational expenditures are investments in the future of the Province.

There is new money to be found. Alberta's administrative system for the support of education - the number of school boards, the size of the support infrastructure in central offices and in the Department of Education seems profligate relative to value created. The abolition of Grade 3 Provincial Achievement Testing (promised by the Premier and previously agreed to by the House in a free vote) would reduce costs as would the abolition of all provincial achievement tests.

I know Jeff Johnson, our Minister of Education, and I k now him to be a smart and intelligent Minister. I also have met the Premier on more than one occasion and see her as the best hope we have for a new kind of progressive Government in Alberta. But I don’t see courage, leadership or imagination in what is happening now.

Leading experts from around the world look at this conversation - they don't see it as just about pay or work, they see it as about the transformation of our education system. They see it as enabling major change to happen by creating the right conditions for change to occur. Transformation of our school system along the lines both government and teachers have agreed will not occur by tweaks and twists - courage and change are needed.

So, some free advice:

1. Madam Premier: do what your predecessor did and "make it so". Show courageous leadership and real foresight and agree to the ATA proposal. Simply tell the ASBA (who actually don't represent all school boards and are simply a sample of opinion) that the future is about transformation and that teachers need the quality time they are asking for.

2. Minister Johnson: reduce the number of school boards in Alberta through amalgamation (force the issue) and reduce the size of the Department of Education so as to enable transformation to take place nearer to the student. Accelerate the path for curriculum reform to begin in 2013-14 school year. Abolish immediately all aspects of Grade 3 provincial achievement testing. Use new revenues (see below) to fund a major change in the conditions of practice. Show courage.

3. Minister Horner: Raise provincial taxes. There are a variety of ways of doing this, but it must be obvious to you that you have both a revenue problem (not enough to cope with balancing health care cost growth versus the needs in Alberta for other services) and a cost management problem (profligacy and bureaucracy). Deal with both, but it is not just about costs. The current Results Based Management approach (RBM), while the right thinking, is poorly executed. Keep at RBM, but do it more rigorously and liberate substantial sums from the process. Everyone knows RBM is about reallocation. Take up the suggestion of halting any more expenditure on CO2 capture and storage and use this to fund the teacher deal. Show courage.

4. The Alberta Teachers Association - Engage the people in Alberta in understanding the opportunity that is being missed because of current conditions of practice. Champion the idea that liberating teachers from the drudgery of administrivia and restoring balance to their professional work will have benefits for students, community, employers and Alberta. Don't focus on the stress for teachers of the current situation and don't get sucked into the cost argument. Focus on what Alberta is missing by its current practices. Show courage.

5. Members of the ASBA - tell your representatives to do an analysis of the costs of recruitment of teachers, attrition, stress and health related costs and the impact of demographic changes within and on the profession (including length of stay in the profession) over the next 25 years. Suggest to your colleagues that these costs far outweigh the costs of the change in conditions of practice now proposed by the ATA, both in terms of money, time and impact on quality of learning experiences and learning outcomes. Its time for trustees to be champions for teaching and teachers not their adversaries - without high quality and focused teachers, we will have no world-class education system at all. Show courage.

6. Journalists. The coverage of the bargaining by the ATA, ASBA and the Government has focused on the costs of implementation. Wrong focus. What should be looked at is the costs of not implementing a change in the conditions of practice - on teachers, learning, students and costs - especially given the demographic shift we are in the midst of. We are in a global war for talent and teachers are front line troops in this battle. Show courage - take an in depth look.

I look at my granddaughter, who loves books and is already a critical thinker at just two (why, what, whom, where, how…) and hope that we get this right. Transforming our schools, most's agree, is mission critical for Alberta. Without enabled and empowered teachers we will not make it. Show courage and .make it so.


Nancyb said...

Stephen, you have hit many nails on the head in this blog - you are indeed a master carpenter.

Bonnie H said...

Stephen, as always, you are able to cut to the chase and provide valid support for your position. Thank you from the teachers and parents of Alberta.

Anonymous said...

Another way the government could find revenue is to remove public funding from private schools. That WOULD take courage. So would instituting a public conversation about one public secular education more separate schools. That would also take extraordinary will and bravery.
Also, I am a school board trustee, and I understand this is about the transformation of education. The last 5 years of labour peace have allowed wonderful things to happen in our schools. Our teachers are the best paid in Canada - by a long shot - so of course money wouldn't be the issue this go-round.
Lastly, may I point out that school boards are the duly elected representatives of their communities? They are the voice of their constituents. Shouldn't there be a public consultation on the matters described by you above? Otherwise, it is not leadership, it is bullying.