Oct 062013

Article by Ben Sichel originally published by the Halifax Media Coop on October 3, 2013. Ben teaches in Dartmouth and is a member of Solidarity Halifax.

Hey teachers: Stephen McNeil won't save youWith just a few days to go in the provincial election campaign, there are a few things that should be said about P-12 education.

The Liberals have set the tone of the debate on education in this campaign, and they look likely to form the next government. So, let’s give their platform a bit more scrutiny.

Anyone paying attention knows that teachers are mad at the NDP. Early in its mandate the Dexter government made large cuts to school board budgets, angering both educators and parents. While some rural schools with tiny classes occasionally made the news as symptoms of declining enrolment, some schools in HRM were bursting at the seams with elementary classes of up to 29 students. (That’s a lot of 5-year-olds in a room with one adult.)

The government slowly began to hire back teachers in order to reduce class sizes and bring the student-teacher ratio back to 2009 levels, but the Department of Education’s budget is still between $35 million (if you believe the department) and $65 million (if you believe the Liberals) less than it was pre-2009.

The Liberals stepped in and seized upon the mass discontent, promising to put $65 million into the public school system in order to hire more teachers and other educational workers, and launch a “comprehensive review” of the Nova Scotia curriculum, which they say hasn’t been done in 25 years. Class sizes in grades primary to 2 would be capped at 20 students under their plan, and at 25 students in grades 3 to 6. This compares to the NDP’s plan of capping class sizes at 25 for all grades from primary to 6 (P-3 classes are already capped at 25).

A few words on class sizes: the Chronicle-Herald reported that the average elementary class size in Nova Scotia in 2011-12 was 21.6 students, well below the mandated cap. However, it’s worth noting that average class size can be a relatively meaningless statistic. Class sizes vary quite a bit between rural, urban and suburban areas, and a small class in a rural area (of which it would appear there are many) does nothing to ease the burden of a large class in the city.

As well, there are some educational “experts,” such as Paul Bennett, an Atlantic Institute of Market Studies fellow and former private school headmaster quoted in the Herald article above, who love to claim that class sizes don’t matter anyway, since some studies apparently show that smaller classes don’t actually help children learn. Bennett says talking small class sizes is good politics, but bad policy.

This argument is drivel, since these studies take standardized test scores as their measure of classroom “success” and assume that all that matters in a child’s school experience is this test score. In real life, teachers have to be on the lookout for cyberbullying, harassment and intimidation, racism, sexism, homophobia, mental health issues, and much more, in addition to creating dynamic, effective lessons and assessments that cater to a variety of learning styles. This isn’t a complaint about all that teachers have to do – we want students to be safe and happy in school. But basic arithmetic tells us that larger class sizes make it harder to pay attention to individual students’ needs.

All this to say that small elementary class sizes, proposed by all three major parties with the Liberals’ cap being the lowest, are a good idea. Assuming these promises are kept (I know, I know), they could provide some much-needed relief for over-burdened teachers and neglected students.

Anyone hoping for deeper educational improvements under the Liberals, though, will almost surely be disappointed. To start, most Nova Scotians go to school beyond grade 6. There’s no mention of class caps for grades 7 to 12, even though several high schools in HRM this year are reporting classes of 35-40 students.

(Lest a casual observer think that teaching this many students is easier because they’re older, I’d invite them to come to my school and try teaching that many teenagers for a few days, then report back to me.)

Perhaps even more worrisome, however, is the Liberals’ vague talk of “curriculum review.”

First off, the party’s presentation of the issue is entirely misleading, giving the impression that Nova Scotia schools are still teaching exactly the same thing they did in 1988. I heard Liberal candidate Patricia Arab, a teacher, say this in the Fairview-Clayton Park candidates’ debate, even though she would know that curriculum documents are constantly changing; as a case in point the African Canadian Studies 11 course didn’t exist in 1988 and got a brand new curriculum in 2009, and the NDP’s much-touted full-year grade 10 math curriculum just took effect this year.

Claiming that the curriculum hasn’t changed in 25 years – ostensibly something quite different from not having had a “comprehensive review” – is disingenuous and just plain bizarre.

Second, according to the Liberal platform the review would be led by a “Blue Ribbon [sic] panel of experts” and focus on “aligning the needs of our economy with the skills of our students” as well as “[l]iteracy, numeracy, and creative thinking.”

I’ve had no luck so far in trying to find out who exactly would be on this Blue Ribbon panel, but given the track record of “experts” who want to align curriculum content with “the needs of our economy,” it might be time to start to worry.

The language used here is that of the corporate-driven education “reform” sweeping across the U.S., and making inroads in Canada. In this line of thinking, standardized tests are the best measure of a school’s effectiveness, and results are compared across schools and jurisdictions. Teacher autonomy is reduced, and non-testable subjects such as music, art or phys ed are de-prioritized.

Basic literacy and numeracy skills become the only focus of education (saying you want to improve literacy and numeracy is politically similar to saying you want to lower taxes), teachers are de-professionalized, and their unions demonized. Schools are constantly said to be in crisis, even if their standardized test scores rise or stay the same. (See this report which shows that Nova Scotia’s scores barely budged between recent testing periods.) You can read much more about these topics from authors such as Drs. Diane Ravitch and Lois Weiner.

Meeting the supposed needs of the economy – educating students to be functionally literate and numerate, and not much else – is a hallmark of corporate education reform. But it leaves obvious gaps in what might be considered a healthy, complete educational program. Take social studies, for example: in every election for the past 20 years, pundits have decried the steep, steady decline in voter turnout. Yet there is no talk of improving students’ historical and political education in education platforms. I teach Mi’kmaq Studies 10, where students learn about Aboriginal history and current issues, which I hope one day will help Canada mend its abusive relationship toward Aboriginal peoples. Is this a priority in a curriculum review process which aims to ‘meet the needs of the economy’?

And, would the money spent on a complete curriculum overhaul be better directed toward class size relief in higher grades?

I admit I could be wrong about what the Liberals mean by curriculum review, and if they’re elected I’d love to be proved wrong.

However, it seems that the world of education’s obsession with data, driven by the needs of big business, is going nowhere fast – and worth noting is that neither the NDP’s nor the PCs’ platform on education is much better.

The education system is part of a society which has allowed a tiny minority to gradually accumulate vast amounts of wealth at the expense of everyone else while destroying the natural environment, yet public education focuses more and more on preparing kids to become cogs in the great machine. No matter who is elected in Nova Scotia next week, on October 9th teachers, parents and students should follow the excellent example of the Chicago Teachers Union and start fighting for a real education. I hope to write more about this in coming months.


Note: Articles published by Solidarity Halifax members do not necessarily reflect positions held by the organization.


Oct 032013

Solidarity Halifax members Judy Haiven and Evan Coole write to The Coast‘s editor with their thoughts on the election. Letters originally published on October 3, 2013.

In response to Blake Hunsleys’ article on why he’s not voting for the NDP (“Here’s why I’m not voting for Derrell Dexter,” Voice of the City, September 26), I understand, but I don’t really.  I am not a member of the NDP, nor do I have a sign outside my house.  But what I know is this:  better the devil you know than the devil you can’t remember.

Remembering back to the MacDonald and Hamm governments, and the Liberal one before those, it should warn him about the dangers of voting for a government that will do less for the poor, the elderly, the homeless and even for young professionals like Hunsley.  With the Tories or Liberals in government, Halifax will be a developers’ playpen, there will be less oversight of occupational health and safety laws (remember: in NS, one worker dies in a workplace accident every 10 days) environmental laws will be abandoned, hospital beds will close, the minimum wage will stay the same.  There are no easy fixes when it comes relying on the NDP, but maybe progressive people across the province have to ride the NDP harder this term to do the right things.

-Judy Haiven, Halifax

When the major parties in this provincial election have all accepted the logic of austerity and spend their time on the campaign trail arguing over who will have the lowest taxes, most balanced budget, leanest public services, and the best ways to be business friendly; how can they differentiate themselves other than petty attacks on party brands and leadership personalities?

Calls for civility and respectful dialogue sound nice but fall short of addressing the real problem of our politics. We live in a society with clear divisions between the 1% – who are rapidly growing wealth and power – and the 99% – who are being told to tighten our belts and get by on lower wages, fewer jobs and austere public services.

Partisanship in its truest sense should recognize these divides and pick whose side you’re on. All of the parties have made clear that they accept the dominance of the 1%, leaving thinking voters to figure out who will be the least harmful for the rest of us. Does it really matter whether the parties angrily or politely agree with each other? We don’t need a change of tone, we need a change of ideas.

-Evan Coole, Halifax


Note: Articles published by Solidarity Halifax members do not necessarily reflect positions held by the organization.

Oct 032013

By Solidarity Halifax member, Omri Haiven. Originally published in the Halifax Media Coop on October 3, 2013.

Memo from City Council to Residents: Out with the Poor, In With the Rich!“The Roy [Building], without a doubt, will be the jewel in the crown in Halifax’s Historic Downtown,” “Residents’ entitlements will include world-class hotel style amenities, executive concierge, porter services and cutting edge security. The Roy, with its forever protected views, unparalleled height and center ice location, will reign as the landmark address to call home in Halifax.”

– Property developer Louis Reznick on his project to re-develop the Roy Building on Barrington Street

And there you have it my fellow Haligonians, the future home of our city’s wealthy elite. ‘High-end living’ for what councillor Waye Mason calls a new ‘niche’ of downtown residents who are apparently eager to dole out cash from their fat wallets to our starving urban core.

But let’s pause here to ask ourselves:

When will our city stop scrounging to collect pennies from the ‘trickle-down’ droppings of the super-rich?

I would like to remind councillor Mason and his associates in city hall that this new ‘niche’ of high-end residents to which he is referring already has a name and that is the 1%.  We already built them a convention center and now we’re giving them our downtown as a package deal.

Councillor Mason goes on to praise the new development as ‘progress’ on the original Roy building where the bricks were ‘falling off of it’, implying that it’s in need of repair — some repair it must be if it requires adding on 15 stories!

If progress is replacing a building that houses some of this city’s most committed non-profits with one that houses some of this city’s most wealthy for-profits then maybe we should regroup and start this conversation from the top.

This re-development of the Roy building represents a decision made by our city council on behalf of all of us who live here. They have decided that Halifax’s downtown is better suited as a playground for the rich than as a place for community organizations to flourish.

City council undermines its own authority and the will of the people who it represents when it ignores its own decisions by exempting this and other new developments from the ‘HRM by Design’ rules.

By allowing developers like the Roy Building’s Reznick or the convention center’s Ramia to openly flaunt the rules set out by city council on height restrictions, and in permitting important community groups to be priced-out of the downtown, our representatives have chosen the wealthy over the poor in what has become yet another example of gentrification.

Luckily, residents are refusing to permit developers a monopoly on space in this city. The case of St. Pat’s-Alexandra school is a good example of what can happen when communities get together to reclaim a piece of their neighborhood from the grasp of developers. We need more examples like this if we are to avoid the fate that has befallen too many buildings in our downtown core. Once designed on a human scale they now act as fig leafs for the unrestricted towers of the wealthy.

We can do better than this as a city, we owe it to ourselves.