21st Century learning meets 20th Century struggle

The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous.
~ George Orwell

All war is deception.
~ Sun Tzu

There is a war happening in British Columbia over public education. The battlefield is broad, with skirmishes happening in districts around the province, over the airwaves through advertising and public debate, in our schools, boards of education and in communities. It is a war seemingly without end, such as the "perpetual war" described by author George Orwell in 1984. Another famous quote by Orwell is “The quickest way to end a war is to lose it.” For the moment, neither side is prepared to lose.

The object of policy makers is the rather complex challenge of shifting our current system of education from a 19th Century model and into the 21st Century. We hear about these goals in the latest round of advertisements on radio and television by the BC government. Those ads cost a lot of tax money to create and run. But this government is determined not to be outspent by the teachers union on advertising, which I don't like but cannot blame them for doing.

The BC Teachers Federation has built a formidable war chest to run advertisements and to conduct public relations. Ministers of Education likely dread the expiration of collective agreements with the BCTF because of the inevitable battle that awaits. Month after month the BCTF bedevils the BC government in communication to their members, which hardly creates a condition for a conciliatory resolution. Scan the websites of the various teachers union locals such as VESTA in Vancouver for newsletters which criticize every action surrounding public education by the government.

In a recent Globe and Mail column Margaret Wente characterizes the situation like this:

The [BCTF] is run by left-wing militants who sound like they’ve come straight from a Marxist-Leninist workers’ rally. Relations between the government and the teachers union in B.C. have been toxic for as long as anyone can remember. The teachers, too, are trapped in this mess, trying to do more and more with what seems like less and less. As John Watson, one young teacher, said in a letter to The Vancouver Sun, “We cannot face the 21st century with a 19th-century education model and 20th-century technology.”

To those on the left Wente's words amount to name-calling, but they are not without foundation. Look at this clip of union members rallying for teachers on the front plaza of the Vancouver Art Gallery singing the old union hymn Solidarity Forever:

Close your eyes and you can imagine it's the early 20th Century all over again. End the oppression! But what oppression? BCTF President Susan Lambert when pressed recently by CKNW's Bill Good about ways teachers were falling behind gave this answer:

Lambert: Well, the benefits across the province are different. For example, I have physiotherapy at $8 per session.

Good: Yes.

Lambert: Well, it costs about $60 per session — right?

Good: But you're suggesting the employer should be paying for your physiotherapy.

Lambert had the temerity last week to state that her union doesn't have nearly the money to spend as the government. Of course, that assumes that government has only one spending priority, which it doesn't. The BCTF is not so compromised.

The teachers union employs the rhetoric of battle. Their members are victims. The government are bullies who have taken away basic rights, and "bludgeoned" them into submission. These battles between regional governments and teachers unions are not unique to British Columbia. They're happening in other jurisdictions across the continent. Spare four and half minutes to listen to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in a speech he made in June 2010:

Does it sound familiar? The governor is a "bully". "It's about the kids". 4.5% annual pay increases. Christie's speech echoes all the rhetoric we've become used to here in our war between a union and an elected body. Maybe there's a lesson for our Premier in the Governor's tough talk.

Just like in BC, New Jersey's school boards are run by officials who depend upon the teachers union's money and their political organizers to get elected. I'll never forget the sight of BCTF organizers canvassing parents at my kid's school the day before Election Day, handing out literature translated into multiple languages. Six political organizers showed up at just one school to plug pro-union candidates, while the same scene repeated itself simultaneously at dozens of other facilities across the city. If you want to win in a political contest today, this is the kind of money and organization you need.

Teachers unions have such a profound effect on American politics it even caused a self-described "lefty" documentary filmmaker to explain their influence. This clip from the powerful Waiting for Superman is worth a few more minutes of time to watch. It describes the huge spending by teachers unions in support of election campaigns, even more money spent than the Teamsters. While the example is from American politics, it does remind us that these struggles go way beyond our province.

The BCTF will also play hardball when it comes to their own reputation. They sued a former Chair of the College of Teachers two summers back for defamation. Richard Walker wrote an op/ed published in the Vancouver Sun titled BCTF's control of college of teachers is unacceptable, where he noted that since 2003 there had been 270 public complaints against teachers filed with the college, but not a single teacher was disciplined. Walker argued that the BCTF worked against the public interest.

Will the "war" ever end? Note what happened to a previous BCTF president Kit Krieger when he settled with the government in 1998. Vaughn Palmer describes it like this:

But there was fallout on the union side as well, in the form of a backlash against BCTF president Kit Krieger.

He’d sold the deal to his members as the best that could be achieved against a government determined to hold the line on wage increases, offset by the reductions in class size, more jobs for teachers and other improvements.

But at the union convention the following year, delegates took their revenge by ousting Krieger in favour of the more militant David Chudnovsky.

Given that experience, it would seem that the lesson for the BCTF leadership is to never surrender. A recent broadcast by current president Susan Lambert to members of her union ended with a statement full of war-like resolve.

Quoting the Marxist-inspired Paulo Friere, Lambert states:

It is necessary for us to have the kind of resistance that keeps us alive. It is also necessary that we know how to resist so as to remain alive…. These are the bases for our non-conformity. For our refusal of that destructive resignation in the face of oppression. It is not by resignation, but by a capacity for indignation in the face of injustice that we are affirmed.

"Resignation", "resist", "indignation", "oppression". These are not the words of someone telling her members to keep their chin up. Rather, it sounds like soldiers about to do battle.

If there are moderate voices in the BCTF inclined towards compromise, they're surely not making themselves visible. It's hard to imagine that changing anytime soon.

– post by Mike

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  • Steven Forth

    Including NJ’s Governor Christie in this seems particularly odd. The US, at least the jurisdictions I know something about, MA, CA and NJ has a broken public edcucation system. Everyone who can afford it puts their kids in expensive private schools, where as far as I can tell they get an education roughly equivalent to what my kids got in Vancouver. This has fractured the social fabric in these states and is making it extremely difficult to address the educational system. Governor Christie is not even trying to fix the education system, he is playing political games with the budget. So , I hope we make the investments and build a system to give all of us the ongoing education we need to succeed.

  • boohoo

    What’s that, six post on teachers, all from the same perspective? Good thing there’s no need to be balanced here…

    I’ve asked this before, and of course had no answer.

    What are the teachers supposed to do?

    They ask for money, they are greedy.
    They accept no money, and agree to have a say in class size/composition and the government just tears up the contract illegally (as if that really matters of course…)

  • boohoo


    This is where we should be going.

    Funny you mention big brother in this post though–bill 22 is a good attempt by the government to get us there.

  • Bobh

    It is true that very few teachers are ever disciplined for poor performance. A teacher has to perform an egregious act to suffer termination. But there are good teachers who inspire their students. Just not enough of them. What is happening in BC is not uncommon. I have seen it before in California where the teacher’s union is very politically powerful. It is the kids who lose

  • I really can’t believe that the rhetoric of war helps anyone – and that goes for both sides in this dispute. As a parent I’d like to see less money spent on PR, and more spent on actually coming up with ways to improve conditions in our schools. And it’s something we should be talking about all the time, not just when it’s time to re-negotiate contracts. I believe this is what most teachers and administrators really want, as well.

  • George

    Boohoo this clip is very interesting, but I’m unclear what you are suggesting. Could you elaborate?

    What I am getting from this is that a major shake up and reexamination into the current supply of teachers and their ability to teach this new generation of students.

    I’d be curious to know your opinion on testing of teachers to keep them current…

    Thanks Boo.

    @ Mike, I miss the old preview button;) that was such a great feature…just sayin

    • George, your wish is my command. I’ve installed a comment preview feature. Just start typing your comment and it magically appears underneath!

      Also, I’ve received a request for a “printable” version of our posts, so as you can see now at the bottom of each post there is a “Print/PDF” button. Send it to paper or to PDF. WordPress is so cool.

  • George

    @ Mike what a great feature!

  • boohoo

    No George, it is a rethink on the entire system. Our entire educational model is based on society as it was 100+ years ago.

    This article ’21st Century learning meets 20th Century struggle’ is a bit silly, 21st century learning is still modeled after 19th century learning. If anything, our current educational model hasn’t kept up with advances in the 20th century and that’s why there’s such a conflict.

    I’m not sure how you arrived and teacher testing?

  • George

    I realized it is a rethink Boo,

    I was asking your opinion on teacher testing only because if there is an education update the quality and skill set of teachers will need to be rethought as well …right?

    I have raised my children in both American and Canadian school systems as well as my 3 grandchildren in both systems, so I have a bit of an opinion on the quality of the education…

    I asked because I know your wife is a teacher, and felt you had an opinion worth hearing..

  • boohoo

    She was, she got out before all this because she saw it coming. It’s even worse than she thought though…just saw in the Sun the government is stopping debate on the bill to ram it through, I guess it makes sense after hearing Clark a week ago wondering aloud why teachers are bothering to strike given the passage of bill 22 is guaranteed. Democracy meh.

    But sure, it’s a rethink on everything. The whole way we deliver education needs to be reconsidered. Admin, teachers, content, everything.

  • George

    I’m not focusing on the Bill 22, I don’t really have enough information to have an opinion, but I do know that a rethink is in order, that said it makes sense to me that everyone needs a dust off and update..

    Thanks Boo

  • Brilliant

    Isn’t it funny that the BCTF is moaning about net zero, yet offering exactly that to their own unionized employees?

    Funny as in bizarre, not HaHa.

  • Pete

    Regardless who wins this current battle, I think they are fighting the wrong war.  Boohoo and her youtube video are right…the solution is not about 25 (or 26 or 27 or 28) students per classroom, it's not about teaching kids solely to pass a standardized test, it's not about how much we pay for the same old work.  It's about changing how school works so that our kids succeed in life.
    Have a look at this video – its a bit long, but mesmerizing when you consider the implications.  Imagine a framework that allows students to progress without being left behind on certain subjects, while liberating the teacher to identify and concentrate on trouble spots rather than standing at a blackboard re-hashing basic concepts over and over again to a glassy-eyed class:
    I haven't got a PhD in Education and I'm sure there are issues with this program as presented.  But a critical re-think of education from the ground up might yield a better result for our children.  Regardless of political stripe, isn't that the whole point?

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