Industrial Revolution Values vs. 21st Century Education System

Last week, the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) unexpectedly walked away from the province-wide tri-partite negotiating table with an announcement that the best they can offer is a four year deal with wage increases of 0%, 0%, 1% and 3% over the term of the contract.

The ATA did this knowing full well that wages are not the issue.  They were hoping to pull the wool over the eyes of Albertans.  They came out on the offensive by pointing to just how reasonable they are being.

When it comes to the issues the ATA and Government actually disagree on, however, the teachers’ position is the furthest thing from reasonable. It’s based on concepts applied during the industrial revolution, when the rise of unionism was an important counterbalance to the rise of the industrial enterprise.  This is a time that has long passed – and our education system needs to get away from.

Before reading on, I urge readers to take the time to listen to Minister Johnson’s audio interview
(http://www.education.alberta.ca/department/ipr/tripartite.aspx) for a very full and detailed explanation of the Government’s position including a q&a with the media.

The sticking points between the Government, School Boards and the ATA come down to 2 key issues –  workload and what the Minister calls a comfort letter, which is essentially an agreement from the government that they won’t make any changes to regulations, teaching quality standards or legislation that pertains to a teacher’s role for the duration of the contract.

The ATA’s position here is patently unreasonable and completely predictable.  All parties involved in this discussion will say that they want what’s best for students, but the teachers’ union by its very nature is there solely to look out for the interests of teachers and, by extension, its own power over the system.

While the Government of Alberta and school boards are looking to transform the education system so that it can function properly in the 21st century, the teachers’ union is protecting long cherished and severely antiquated principles of seniority, as well as the power the union holds when its members keep a monopolistic grip on the education system.

In other words, for the ATA these negotiations are about the very core of what gives a union its power. And for the Government, it’s about taking some of that power back in order to bring transformational change to how education is delivered.

Seniority is important to a union’s power because the longer a worker stays in the system the more money they make and the more union dues they pay. Long term workers have also been paying union dues for longer, which means they deserve more loyalty in return. It’s a closed loop system that leaves little room for innovation and even less room for change.

As the Minister explains in the audio clip, the issue of workload can be addressed in two ways – through a hard cap on hours or by giving teachers additional support in the classroom and redesigning their roles so that low value tasks are removed and more time can be spent on high value tasks.

Given the union’s inherent bias towards the long term worker, the concept of changing a teacher’s role becomes more difficult. A teacher who has a year or two left in their career will be more resistant to this kind of change. It’s natural. Change is hard. Change takes work.

But the union’s motives in this negotiation are more sinister than their systemic bias towards more senior members. These negotiations are about the union’s own relative power over the system. Monopoly equals power – anything less is seen as an erosion of that power and unacceptable to any union in a negotiation.

The union’s solution to workload is to put hard caps on the number of hours a teacher can teach in say a day or a week. Hard caps mean more teachers; more teachers mean more union dues for the ATA. It’s simple – if a teacher can only work 40 hours but there is 60 hours of work that equals 1.5 teachers or 50% more union dues.

It’s a bad deal deal for taxpayers and in the 60% of Alberta schools that hard caps are in place, the problem of teacher workload has not gone away.

The ATA’s other demand of the government – that it not change legislation, regulations, teaching quality standards or anything else related to a teacher’s role is, once again about nothing more than the teacher’s union fighting to keep monopoly control over the system – or its own power.

When the Education Minister talks about providing teachers with more support in the classroom or eliminating low value tasks, he is likely referring to bringing people into the classroom to assist teachers. This way, teachers can focus on the high quality tasks of educating our children while the teaching assistants and other classroom support staff can help with discipline, focus, attendance, paperwork or other administrative tasks.

From a perspective of relative power within the system, this doesn’t work for the teacher’s union.

This new person (or people) in the classroom, who is most likely not a certified teacher and therefore not part of the teacher’s union, will reduce the workload of the teacher, meaning less (or the same amount) of teachers and less union dues for the ATA.

While I’m oversimplifying the examples and I realize that there are many different aspects of a teacher’s role or a classroom environment that can be changed, refocused, etc. … my main point here is that the ATA’s position in these negotiations are purely about self preservation and cynical power politics.

In other words, while the various ways of approaching the issues may seem complex, understanding the motives behind the union bargaining position is extremely simple.  The union is there to keep its power and, by extension, the relative power of teachers within the education system.

It’s important to understand that for the union, there is a fundamental disconnect between the interests of teachers and the interests of students, school boards and the Minister of Education.  The union exists for teachers, not students – yes, there are circumstances when these interests overlap (the collective bargaining sweet spot); this is not one of those times.

However, in a time where the Government and School Boards are looking to bring sweeping transformational change to the education system, that bargaining sweet spot may be nearly impossible to find.

As a result, we have the ATA’s annoucement last week that they are walking away from the province-wide bargaining table.
Alberta’s education system must embrace the 21st century to prepare kids to thrive in today’s fast paced and innovative world.  The longer we allow the teachers’ union to hold onto the industrial revolution values that led to its creation (seniority and self-preservation), the worse the rest of society will be.

PP

 

PC Government deserves a ZERO for not doing their job

Sometimes, it’s difficult to be a PC supporter.  Reading stories about rampant corruption within our healthcare system are hard to stomach, especially considering the sub-par care my mother received in her dying days only a few years ago.  It took 3 months of doctor appointments (in her last 6 months of life) to get a diagnosis in our monopolistic system, yet when we flew to the US and paid for a diagnosis in a private clinic we got the diagnosis in 1 day.  After she was diagnosed here in Canada, our shitty healthcare system failed to provide her with homecare; somebody forgot to order it for her.  She died in emergency because there wasn’t enough space in the hospital for her.  It was a horrendous experience that left me very upset.

But I didn’t blame the PC government for that.  I understand that MLAs don’t run the healthcare system and I don’t think it’s a good idea for them to.  The healthcare system should be run by health professionals, which for the most part, it is in Alberta.

It is the job of MLAs and Ministers to broadly oversee the system and to make adjustments when those who run the system day to day make mistakes.  This is why Premier Redford took decisive action when the Merali story broke and why she is implementing more transparency in the way government officials report expenses.

The no zero policy story, which concluded yesterday with the firing of a high school teacher with 30+ years of experience is something I can’t believe our elected officials would allow to happen.  The Redford Government deserves a zero for not stepping in to stop this.

I agree that our Education Minister should not get involved in the day to day decisions made within our education system.  We have Trustees, Superintendents and other education professionals who are better suited to run our system at the local level.

But firing a teacher for giving HIGH SCHOOL students who don’t complete assignments zeros is far more offensive and egregious than any story of corruption or misuse of public dollars.  And the fact that Alberta’s Education Minister is not planning to step in to correct this is shocking and unacceptable.

The no zero issue is about far more than a teacher who isn’t following policies or a local firing decision as the Minister has suggested. It’s about teaching values and principles.  In a province where small business is the backbone of our economy and where our big businesses are global leaders, the values we teach with a no zeros policy is unacceptable.  Failing is one of the most important components of success and teaching our future leaders about consequences is one of the best ways we can prepare them for the competitive and cruel world.

Like I previously said, it’s the job of MLAs and Ministers to broadly oversee the system and to make adjustments when those who run the system day to day make mistakes.  A man lost his income because he would not follow the offensive no zero policy and the PC Government needs to make this right, just like they did recently regarding the expense claims of health officials.

Otherwise Albertans might decide to teach them that there are, in fact, consequences for not doing their work.

PP

Alison Redford’s Leadership Win and Unions

One the funniest and most ignorant comments on Twitter about Alison Redford’s PC Leadership win last weekend has been coming from both the left and right side of the political spectrum – mainly, the idea that Alison won the election thanks to unions.

While it’s true that Redford met with the Alberta Teacher’s Association and promised to put $100 million back into Alberta classrooms within 10 days of being elected to office, she does not owe her win to organized labour.  Instead, she owes her win to teachers, parents, students, nurses, doctors, engineers, electricians, janitors and every other Albertans who gave her their vote – whether they work in a unionized environment or not.

Alison Redford’s campaign was focused on policies that matter to everyday Albertans.  She talked about increasing accessibility to Alberta’s public healthcare system and providing predictable and sustainable funding for education.  She had ideas about making Alberta a global energy capital, as well as thoughts on economic diversification and job creation.  She talked about those expensive cell phone charges that annoy Canadians to no end.

On the specific topic of labour and unions, Alison is on record several times indicating that she is fully aware that the Alberta Labour Code hasn’t been touched since 1988 and that she supports a review to ensure that Alberta’s labour market remains competitive relative to other provinces in Canada and jurisdictions around the world.

So I just can’t help but laugh when I see tweet like “#pcldr chosen by unions” from a known NDP supporter or “I can’t believe we have a ‘conservative’ Premier in Alberta that is now beholden to unions …”

Of course this is nothing more than filthy and meaningless political rhetoric from terrified opposition party supporters who know that Alison is one of the most intelligent and capable leaders the PC Party has ever elected.

However, Albertans need not be afraid.  While Alison Redford did win the election with the help of teachers, she is NOT beholden to unions.

Take if from David Climenhaga, the most hard core union sympathizer I have ever met, who said in a recent blog that:

…while it’s a fact Alberta labour leaders can’t usually deliver their members’ votes to anyone, union members are paying attention and labour votes matter anyways.  In other words, you can’t tell union members what to do, but they’ll figure it out for themselves.”

David is right – individual union members don’t blindly follow what union bosses tell them to do.  The fact that teachers may have supported Alison Redford’s leadership bid because she promised to put money back into classroom has nothing to do with the union itself.

In fact, I look forward to testing Mr. Climenhaga’s conclusion that “Alberta labour leaders can’t usually deliver their members’ votes anymore” when the Alberta government undertakes a labour code review.

Will individual union members run to the polls to take down a government that considers an idea such as eliminating the fines that a union can charge its members for working for a non-union company?  I doubt it.

Will individual union workers get fired up about potential amendments to the labour code that could allow them to opt-out of paying the portion of their union dues that go towards political causes they don’t want to support?  I can’t see that happening.

What about recommendations that would allow both union and non-union construction workers to work harmoniously and efficiently side-by-side on the same jobsite.  Do you really think union members will drop their tool belts and run to the polls to vote against the Party their hiring hall tells them is making them commit this atrocity?   I wouldn’t hold my breath on that ….

If Alison Redford is beholden to anyone its Albertans – she campaigned directly to them with policies that matter to their everyday lives.  I am confident that as long as Alison Redford continues to do what is right for individual Albertans and Alberta’s economy, she owes nothing to unions themselves.

PP

Hush Money

Much has been said in the past month about a “culture of intimidation” in Alberta’s healthcare system.  Allegations of bribery and corruption, hush money and two sets of books have been made with virtually no proof, and Alberta’s opposition parties have added a healthy dose of drama and theatre to the whole event in an attempt to keep the story alive.

It’s been quite a show and it may continue for a while.

But I’m here to argue that Albertans have accepted and condoned a culture of intimidation in this province, and the consequence has been a substantial erosion of our public services, as well as a democratic deficit.  If this culture continues, I’m afraid that the hard working silent majority of Albertans will continue to lose.

I have spoken to several seniors on a board I serve on in the past few weeks who have been asking me why Alberta’s teachers are receiving these relatively large raises in this economic environment.  While these individuals are not against paying teachers well and don’t suggest that the Government should not support public sectors employees, they feel that the raise this year is too high relative to the economic realities in the province.  The fact that most of these seniors received an extra ten dollars a month from government support programs, while teachers received much more doesn’t exactly sit well with them either.

What also doesn’t sit well with them or with me is that despite the fact that teachers are getting these increases, the quality of our education system is eroding.  What makes this pill even more difficult to swallow is the fact that most individual teachers I have talked to say that they would rather see this money go into the system to support their ability to teach effectively.  Teachers, like every other professional, need tools and resources to be effective.

Have you ever tried to fix something in your house or on your car without the proper tools?  You can usually get the job done, but it will typically take much longer and the final product will not be as good as it could have been.  This is the situation our relatively well paid and over worked teachers face on a daily basis in their professions.

Why?

Five years ago, the government and Alberta Teachers Association signed a historic 5 year labour deal, which turned out to be a very bad deal for tax payers.  At the time, the government was comfortable signing huge cheques to pay for the unfunded pensions and generous pay increases.  After all, the future was bright for our province and there was no place to go but up!

WRONG!

The global economy tanked and Alberta’s economic situation flip flopped more extremely than Rob Anderson did on Bill 36 after switching political parties.  Down was the new up – red the new black; and many Albertans found themselves in financial difficulty.  So did the Alberta Government.  Teachers, however, received pay increases that did not fit the economic realities of the times and classroom resources suffered.

Actually, Alberta’s students suffered and the many hard working taxpayers with kids in the system are picking up the tab.

The Alberta government and ATA are now in the preliminary stages of discussions about what the next collective agreement should look like and the province has once again indicated that another five year deal is desirable.  At the same time, the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) has mounted an offensive against the government, asking Premier Stelmach “to confirm he is not considering U.S.- style attack on the rights of public sector workers.”  These two things are not happening at the same time by accident.

AFL is throwing up a smoke screen to create an environment where the government has its back up against the wall during negotiations with the ATA.  The rhetoric is getting ratcheted up and a completely unfounded environment fear is being created.  The AFL’s open letter to Premier Stelmach is nothing more than public fear mongering and intimidation.  As a tax payer, I find the entire exchange appalling!

The ATA and AFL are working together to give taxpayers another raw deal, while the quality of our education system continues to erode.  We are buying the silence of public sector unions at the expense of future generations and it’s not right.

If the government insists on a five year labour deal with the ATA, that deal should have no pay increases for teachers in the next three years and very modest increases in the last two.  Money needs to be directed back into the system.  Taxpayers got a raw deal last time, so the ATA should be reasonable.  Teachers need the right tools to effectively do their jobs and all available resources should go toward providing the tools.

I have no faith, however, that the ATA will agree.  The rhetoric will continue to get ratcheted up and the culture of public fear will be alive and well.  AFL will play trusty wing-man and help to create this “culture of intimidation” against taxpayers based on claims of a potential attack on the public sector, which are made with virtually no evidence or substantial support.

Tax payers should not be so willing to give into this culture of public intimidation that is created by the ATA, AFL and other public sector unions and we should not be OK with buying their silence.

Either the government or the opposition parties should stand up for tax payers.  Enough hush money – lets fix our problems.

PP

Inspiring Education Requires Innovation

This blog was inspired by this 15 minute video – If you care about education you need to watch the video – if you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, watch minutes 5-7 for some key points.  Also, at about 9 minutes and 40 seconds, they say the program costs $5000 per child – I would love to know how much we pay per child in Alberta and what that cost includes.

I don’t have children in school, but since my good friend, Bill Campbell, asked me to join the Save Our Fine Arts group (#sofab) I have taken a keen interest in Alberta’s education system.  I have been learning about the role of teachers, school boards, principals, trustees, parents and lastly – unfortunately – students.  I have also discovered that employers are not part of the discussion in any substantial way.   (In health the hierarchy goes doctors, nurses then everybody else).

I have spent much of my professional life working for industry associations, where I get to study the economy from a macro level and observe patterns and trends from a birds eye view.  My degree is in Human Resource Management and while HR has never been in my title at work, every job I’ve had has dealt directly with workforce issues.

While I believe we have a decent education system in Alberta, I support Minister Dave Hancock’s vision for a transformational shift in how we approach the cultivation of tomorrow’s leaders in our schools.  I applaud Minister Hancock for bringing the Inspiring Education Initiative forward and for the approach he has taken, which attempts to be collaborative and inclusive.  Not everyone will agree on the details, but the direction Minister Hancock is trying to take education is right.

Looking at the interaction between the education system and the economy from a bird’s eye view, I see disconnect between the type of workforce employers say they need and the system we use to prepare students for that workforce.  If this disconnect continues we will fail our children and leave future generations without the tools they need to succeed in an increasingly competitive world.

The broad range of employers I have spoken to over my career consistently tell me they need a workforce that is innovative, creative and sharp – able to adapt to an ever changing world.  How can a system that rewards seniority over innovation and creativity achieve that type of workforce?

We need to provide our young students with confidence – that is the secret ingredient that wakes a child up and allows them to explore.  Teachers (I’m sure many already do) should take on the role of facilitator and confidence coach and our education system should reward creativity and innovation rather than stifle it.  How can we breed the confidence to innovate and create into our children when we don’t give our teachers the confidence and tools to do so in their classrooms?

We need a system that allows for honest and open dialogue amongst ALL participants.  Teachers need a voice that is separate from the ATA so that they can speak publically and with confidence when they don’t agree with a direction being taken.

We all remember Bill 44.  A great online debate took place but there seemed to be one voice missing.  Through @crontynen’s MA research, she learned that on several occasions the ATA told teachers not to get involved in the online debate and that the teacher’s views would be expressed by the ATA.  While this was fine for some, @crontynen spoke with teachers that were craving a platform to discuss how they personally felt whether they agreed or disagreed with Bill 44.

The type of transformational change Minister Hancock describes will not happen and we will not nurture the innovation and creativity we need in tomorrow’s leaders unless we address these disconnects directly today.  These old paradigms simply won’t get us to where we need to go.  We also need to involve business leaders in the discussion since learning is a life long journey that business takes over once people enter the workforce.  It’s in everybody’s best interest to allow and encourage business to help the system get better.  Business has created the innovative approached in education and compensation that can be modeled after to make the education system more effective.

I would be remiss if I didn’t suggest that this transformation could be facilitated though a focus on fine arts education.   Music, dance, theatre, poetry, art are expressions of creativity which can be used to educate children about every single subject.  Education through a fine arts lens can help foster the creativity, innovation and, most importantly, confidence our children will need to succeed.

We also need to fund the education system adequately.  This does not mean giving into teacher salary demands to buy their silence over the course of a collective agreement, it means rewarding innovation and creativity in the classroom.  It means providing enough money to supply the tools and resources teacher need to get their job done – but first we need to define how many resources are needed to get the job done.  It means bringing measurement and accountability into the school system and getting away from a system that rewards seniority.

To actually achieve a transformational shift in Alberta’s education system we will have to approach the system in a completely new and different way.  Everybody must have an opportunity to participate and we must be completely honest about the discussion.  We need to shine a very bright light toward the fact that the system we use does not mirror the outcomes we are looking for.  Then we need to have the courage to go there.  Old attitudes will do everything to stop us from moving in this direction.  We cannot let them stop us. Our children are changing and we need an education system that is fluid enough and innovative enough to change with them.

PP