A very expensive contract to honour

May 13, 2017

Published in the Telegraph Journal (New Brunswick)

Suppose a province and a teachers’ union were in the midst of negotiating a new contract. Student enrolment is rising steadily and the province wants to keep costs down. So, the provincial bargaining team proposes a new clause which guarantees that the number of teachers will not increase over the life of the agreement—no matter how many more students enrol.

Of course, no teachers’ union worth its salt would ever agree to such a clause, for the simple reason that it would make it impossible for schools to respond effectively to the pressures that come with increased enrolment. The union would doubtless argue that with more students comes a need for more teachers. And it would be right to do so.

However, if this principle is true, then it logically works the other way. If student enrolment declines, fewer teachers are required. A province with 100,000 students should have about half as many teachers as a province with 200,000 students. Demand for teaching positions is directly dependant on the number of students who need to be taught.

Unfortunately, the New Brunswick government has ignored common sense in its new teachers’ contract. The contract states that the total number of teachers across the province shall not fall below 7,280 during the five-year contract, no matter how much student enrolment declines.

The issue is not an abstract one for New Brunswick. Between 2002 and 2014, enrolment declined by 18 percent. While the recent influx of Syrian refugees last year led to a small resurgence in student numbers, this year was an exception to a long-term trend.

As a case in point, recently released census numbers show that the Canadian population is aging, particularly in Atlantic Canada. One in five Atlantic Canadians is 65 years or older and this number continues to rise. In contrast, the number of school-aged children continues to drop. Short of a complete demographic turnaround, the New Brunswick government had better be prepared for a society with more seniors and fewer children.

By guaranteeing a minimum number of teachers regardless of student enrolment, the New Brunswick government has essentially delinked teacher supply from student population. This is a windfall for the New Brunswick Teachers’ Federation since it no longer needs to be concerned about decreased union dues from a reduced number of teachers. Now the union can safely plan its budget for the next five years without worrying about its bottom line.

If the union succeeds in keeping this clause in future contracts, NB taxpayers will have to pay salaries for 7,280 teachers in perpetuity, even when the total student population won’t remotely justify the expense.

No doubt the province will defend this agreement by arguing that more teachers will result in better student achievement. However, there is no reason to assume that this is the case. Even if these extra teachers are used to decrease class sizes, research is mixed on whether this will significantly improve student achievement.

As John Hattie, the director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, has pointed out, reducing class size has a modest impact on student achievement but a huge impact on education budgets. If the province is serious about improving student achievement, it would be much wiser to focus on improving instructional practices than simply adding more teachers to the payroll.

In addition, it’s quite likely that many surplus teachers will not even be assigned to classrooms at all. Rather, they will fill the growth industry for non-teaching positions in school divisions. Whether they are called instructional facilitators, learning coaches, support teachers, or assessment consultants, they will add to the growing ranks of non-teaching teachers. As the number of students continues to decline, more non-teaching positions will be created to accommodate the surplus.

It was foolish for the New Brunswick government to enshrine a minimum number of teachers in its latest contract. Teacher supply should remain directly linked with student population.

Put students first when hiring substitute teachers

March 3, 2014

Published in The Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

Every spring brings the predictable spate of stories about the shortage of teaching jobs for new teachers. Declining student numbers mean the problem is particularly pronounced in Nova Scotia. As a result, many graduates languish for years on oversubscribed substitute lists.

Then in the fall comes a series of stories about how new teachers aren’t getting enough substitute days. Invariably, the blame is placed on retired teachers who continue to work as substitutes. According to the Nova Scotia Pension Agency, retired teachers can substitute up to 69.5 days in a school year without any reduction to their pensions.

Because of their proven experience, many principals prefer to bring in retired teachers rather than untested new teachers.

This doesn’t sit well with a considerable number of new teachers. They argue that retired teachers have already had their chance to teach and are being selfish by taking positions that could be filled by new teachers. Some school administrators in neighbouring provinces agree with this concern.

For example, the Anglophone East school district in New Brunswick officially excludes retired teachers from its substitute list. During a CBC interview last December, superintendent Gregg Ingersoll defended his district’s policy. “They (retired teachers) have already done their career, whereas these new people, this is their only income,” explained Ingersoll.

On the other side of this issue, retired teachers claim that banning them from substitute lists amounts to age discrimination. This was the argument put forward by Fred Hall, a 67-year-old retired teacher, who recently launched a human rights complaint against the Anglophone East school district. The New Brunswick Human Rights Commission has yet to rule on his case.

Thus, the issue is often presented as a choice between the interests of new teachers versus those of retired teachers. Lost in the shuffle is the one group whose interests should receive the most weight: students.

Substitutes are called in to fill in for regular teachers for reasons ranging from professional development sessions to illness to personal leave days. This means students can expect to see substitute teachers many times throughout a year. When calling in a substitute, the first thing school administrators should consider is the impact on student learning.

For example, a retired math teacher with 30 years of successful teaching experience will often be the right person to step into a high school teacher’s math class. On the other hand, a newly minted teacher who shows initiative and enthusiasm may be the right choice to take over a group of rambunctious Grade 8 students for the day. In all cases, the interests of students must be paramount.

As a result, substitute lists should be open to all qualified teachers, whether retired or not. Substitute teachers who know their subjects and can effectively manage classrooms should be called in as frequently as possible. Ineffective substitutes should be removed from the list entirely. The age of substitute teachers should be irrelevant; their ability to teach the students should be the only criterion.

Furthermore, school districts should avoid policies that unreasonably restrict the ability of administrators to hire the best substitute teachers. Forcing school principals to give an equal number of substitute opportunities to all teachers on an official list may benefit newly minted teachers, but isn’t in the best interests of students. When the regular teacher is absent, students deserve the substitute teacher who best provides a quality learning environment.

As for the plight of newly minted teachers unable to find a job, there is no easy solution to this problem. Education faculties continue to graduate far more teachers than needed in Nova Scotia schools. The ongoing decline in student numbers makes this problem even worse. Until things change, new graduates can expect to enter a difficult job market.

However, we cannot allow our sympathy for these new teachers to override the needs of students. Banning retired teachers from substitute lists may help some new teachers get a few extra days of work each year, but at the cost of depriving schools of many of the best available substitute teachers. This is not an acceptable tradeoff.

When this year’s news cycle brings with it the predictable stories about the plight of new teachers getting too little work, let’s remember whose interests matter the most. Principals should always put students first when hiring substitute teachers.

Longer school days will not make students smarter

December 10, 2012. Suppose a provincial health minister announced that the best way to improve health care is to lengthen the average time each patient spends with his or her physician. Millions of dollars are then allocated to cover the expenses associated with extending the hours of medical clinics across the province. Would it be considered an effective reform?

The correct answer is, “It depends.” If there was clear evidence that patient health was being compromised because visits with their physicians were too short, then longer visits might make sense. However, a mandatory lengthening of visits could just as easily lead to more time spent on small talk without improved patient care. It is more important to use existing time efficiently than to mandate longer visits.

Education reformers would be wise to take the same principle of efficiency and apply it to public education. All too often, proposed reforms are implemented whether warranted by the evidence or not. Lengthening the school day is one such reform. It pops up with regularity, particularly in the United States.

As a case in point, five American states recently announced plans to add at least 300 hours of instructional time to some of their schools each year. The three year pilot program will involve more than 40 schools and a total of approximately 20,000 students. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a long-time advocate of longer school days, hailed this initiative as a “critical investment” that will prepare students for success in the 21st century.

The demand for longer school days finds support among some Canadian politicians as well. In the recent Quebec election, Francois Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Quebec, proposed the addition of one extra hour to the school day for all secondary students. Under his proposal, high school students would be required to be in school from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday. He suggested the extra hour could be used for homework or extracurricular activities.

Interestingly, the main reason Legault offered for a longer school day had little to do with improving student achievement. Rather, he focused on the need to synchronize the school day with the workdays of their parents. He suggested that keeping students at school longer could prevent them from getting into trouble when their parents are still at work.

However, before we jump on the longer school day bandwagon, it makes sense to ask whether the promise lives up to its hype. Do jurisdictions with more instructional time outperform jurisdictions where students spend less time in school?

They do not. For counter evidence we can look to Finland, a country whose students consistently receive some of the highest reading scores in the world on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Finnish students spend less time in school than students in most other countries. School days are shorter, students attend fewer days, and compulsory schooling only begins at age seven. The Finland example shows that academic success is possible without making students spend more time in school.

Lengthening the school day is a superficial solution to a more fundamental problem. While it is true that students who spend more time on task usually experience greater success, there is no evidence that simply lengthening the school day results in more time on task. In other words, administrators should make better use of their existing time first before trying to add more hours to the school day.

For example, students would be more successful at math if teachers taught basic math facts and standard algorithms instead of the nebulous “new math” methods imposed by provincial curriculum guides. Similarly, reading levels would improve dramatically if students had more background knowledge about what they were reading. Unfortunately, most English Language Arts curriculum guides are virtually empty of content.

As Mike Schmoker points out in his book Focus, schools need a stronger focus on the essentials. If every school had a reasonably coherent curriculum, sound lessons, and purposeful reading and writing in every discipline, student achievement would improve. Unfortunately, schools are often distracted by initiatives that have little or nothing to do with their core mandate, taking time away from the essentials of learning.

If something isn’t working, spending more time doing the same unproductive thing is unlikely to result in improvement. Schools should make better use of the time they currently have before adding more hours to the school day.

Cell phone lawsuit should be thrown out

Originally published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, August 25, 2011. Original link

A recent lawsuit against a Saskatchewan school division threatens to undermine even more the ability of schools to establish a safe and orderly learning environment. The case directly pits the privacy rights of students against the right of administrators to maintain order in schools.

The circumstances behind this lawsuit started out with a routine matter of discipline. A 12-year-old student was caught using his cell phone in a Prince Albert school where such devices are banned. The teacher confiscated the student’s phone and turned it into the office.

However, things soon became more complicated when the vice-principal discovered text messages on the phone about a recently stolen vehicle. Because of the illegal activity involved, the vice-principal contacted and handed the matter over to police. Upon meeting with the student, the police told him to send a text asking about the location of the vehicle. The police used the response to track down the stolen vehicle and then released the student.

The student’s grandparents allege the vice-principal violated their grandson’s right to privacy when he looked at the text messages on the confiscated cell phone. They further allege the actions of the police made it possible for criminals to identify their grandson as a police informant. As a result, they lived in fear of retaliation and drove their grandson out of Prince Albert every weekend to stay with relatives. Eventually, their grandson moved away to live with his mother on a permanent basis.

The grandparents are now suing the school division for $50 000 in punitive damages along with an additional $1424 in travel costs. They also allege their grandson has anger problems and his grades have dropped as a result of this incident. In their view, all of their grandson’s problems stem from the vice-principal looking at his cell phone.

This lawsuit epitomizes much of what is wrong in society today. Instead of affirming the importance of the teacher and vice-principal enforcing clear disciplinary policies, these grandparents sided with their grandson even though his actions were the direct cause of his predicament. Parents and guardians should not take school administrators to court simply because they disagree with the way rules are enforced.

As for this particular case, it’s unrealistic for a 12-year-old student to have an expectation of privacy when using a device banned from the classroom. It is well established that teachers who confiscate notes passed from one student to another during class have every right to read those notes. Text messaging on cell phones has, in many ways, become the 21st century version of note passing. If there’s something on your phone you don’t want the teacher to see, don’t use it in the classroom.

While it is true that section 8 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right “to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure,” the courts have also ruled that students in school cannot have the same expectation of privacy as the general public.

For example, in a 1998 decision known as R v. M (M.R.), the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a vice-principal who searched a 13-year-old student for drugs in the presence of a police officer did not violate that student’s right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure.

In that decision, Justice Peter Cory, writing for the majority, affirmed the importance of giving school administrators the authority to enforce school rules and maintain discipline and order. “School authorities must be accorded a reasonable degree of discretion and flexibility to enable them to ensure the safety of their students and to enforce school regulations,” concluded Justice Cory.

As for the student’s fear of retaliation from criminals, it seems patently obvious that his situation was entirely of the young man’s own making. He chose to bring a cell phone into class despite knowing it was banned, but he also chose to use that same phone to communicate with a car thief. Unfortunately, instead of encouraging their grandson to take responsibility for his decisions, the grandparents chose to blame the school system.

Teachers and school administrators face many challenges in trying to maintain order and discipline in our schools. Frivolous lawsuits like these are part of the problem rather than the solution.