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GRANT FROST: On the education front, 2016 was certainly one for the ages

2017 will undoubtedly be a difficult year. If Stephen McNeil and Karen Casey continue in their blundering ways, I can see any number of scenarios that might result in teachers walking the picket line. However, this strife, if it has done nothing else in 2016, has gotten people listening to front-line teachers on educational issues, instead of quasi-consultants or political pundits.
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Teachers protest outside the Nova Scotia legislature in December. (RYAN TAPLIN / Local Xpress)

By GRANT FROST

As the 2016 holiday season begins to wind down and as people’s thoughts turn from that plate of treats on the table to that dusty treadmill in the basement, it is time to once again look back on the year that was, educationally speaking, here in Nova Scotia.

And it was certainly one for the ages.

As the dawn broke on the educational landscape in January of 2016, things were relatively quiet. The political and editorial fervour that had been created in December when the public school teachers of this province had rejected a contract offer from the Liberals had dimmed to a simmer. Although Bill 148 was not far from anyone’s mind, talks between the Nova Scotia Teachers Union and the government were ongoing, and hope of a different deal was the mood of the day.

Although my own year did have an interesting start, with the rather disquieting discovery that another local commentator had appropriated some of my writing with a bit too much fidelity for my liking, all seemed rather quiet on this particular eastern front.

This calm rolled into February, and as the two sides met behind closed doors, closed doors continued to dominate the educational conversation in rural Nova Scotia. The Strait area school board was, at the time, wrestling with the ever agonizing task of reviewing its schools under the newly implemented provincial guidelines. Meant to be more humane and consultative, the process remains one of the most divisive and agonizing issues facing communities.

When half a jurisdiction’s schools are operating at less than 60 per cent capacity, as was the case in the Strait, tough choices become the norm. As this trend continues, however, I remain puzzled why the “hub school” model remains the only option presented to help save schools, particularly when it has had such limited success. The lack of appetite for even considering other options, such as implementing a four-day school week, seems to point to some rather regressive thinking on the part of the Education Department.

Alas, much as calm precedes a storm, those of us in education know that silence usually means trouble on the horizon. True to form, media outlets across the country were soon, again, lobbing another volley of criticism against the teaching profession, led this time by a singularly sensationalist CBC story.

The report, a Marketplace feature that ran on April 8, suggested that since it was difficult for parents or the public to find out the details of disciplinary proceedings for teachers, then it must be the case that the always nefarious unions were protecting “the bad ones." Using staged images of teachers physically assaulting students and portraying schools as filled with offenders, the piece bordered on the tabloid genre and did little to bolster the reputation of the CBC for upholding journalistic integrity.

However, it was the tone of this whole issue that seemed to me to represent much of what is systemically eating away at teachers, both regionally and nationally. This type of unsubstantiated negative commentary only serves to paint all teachers with the same sensationalist brush, and cannot help but leave a mark on the collective psyche of the profession.

By May, the Nova Scotia education system was again being assaulted, this time by a rather familiar source. In that merry month, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) published a report titled E-Learning in K-12 Schools: The Prospects for Disruptive Education which criticized our education system for falling behind other jurisdictions when it came to online learning. The report relied heavily on the work of Dr. Michael K. Barbour, a recognized national and international expert in the field, who was more than happy to correspond with me to discuss the AIMS paper. Barbour was quick to dismiss the piece as containing multiple misinterpretations and erroneous conclusions, and told me, quite unreservedly, that Nova Scotia was actually doing quite well on the e-learning front. However, local media outlets did not seem overly concerned with the notion that the report might actually be completely wrong, with one notable exception.

As the school year wrapped up, and June’s inevitable scramble began, there was a hint of a good-news story. In June, the education minister announced that she would be launching another one of her online surveys for the general public to weigh in on educational issues. This time, the issue was student absenteeism, and although I have been critical of this government’s penchant for weighing all views on education equally, this survey did hold at least some promise. The survey and the accompanying discussion paper seemed to represent a slightly pro-teacher stance, and stood in rather stark contrast to the decidedly neo-liberal leanings that the McNeil government had thus far displayed.

Then, unfortunately for us all, September happened.

The 2016-17 school year was hardly underway when it was announced that the NSTU and the government had reached a tentative agreement, and, at the time, I wrote that the story had  “… the potential to be either a simple point of interest or one of the most important stories of 2016.” 

I have to admit that after four months of ensuing turmoil, I rather wished it had been the former rather than the latter.

The new deal offered by the Liberals and recommended, for a second time, by the NSTU leadership, had little “new” feel about it. The Liberals had not changed the wage package or their insistence on the removal of the long-term service award. What was of greater concern, however, was that the contract held little in the way of concrete devices through which to address learning conditions for the students.

Feeling slighted by the government and let down by their own leadership, teachers voted soundly to reject the offer on Oct. 5. This began a dizzying series of developments that had even those of us embedded in the fight scrambling to keep up.

Once the contract was rejected, the NSTU executive scheduled a strike vote, for which they received overwhelming support. Immediately afterward, the NSTU called for a conciliation board to be appointed, and although Education Minister Karen Casey stated that negotiating had “run its course," her government eventually agreed to return to the table. The talks did not go well, and eventually the NSTU was forced to declare work-to-rule action.

Along the way, both Premier Stephen McNeil and Ms. Casey made any number of political blunders and odd missteps that must have even the most diehard Liberals doubting their leadership. These included the premier's declaration that Bill 148 did not actually apply to teachers (although the document uses the word "teacher" about a dozen times), Casey’s unilateral announcement that a series of standardized tests would be cancelled for Nova Scotia students, after many of them had already taken place, and her now rather infamous decision to lock students out of schools.

That is not to exclude, of course, the failed attempt by the Liberals to pass back-to-work legislation for teachers, which rumour has it, almost cost McNeil his government, and the hasty return to the bargaining table that quickly followed.

December did actually contain one educational good-news story that, somewhat tellingly, went almost completely unnoticed. The results of the Program for International Student Achievement tests (PISA) were released, and when it comes to understanding science, Nova Scotia students are actually some of the best in the world. Now, although I put little faith in such tests, the deafening silence on this story, I believe, tells many tales. When it comes to education in the province, good news, it seems, is rather no news at all.

And that, in a nutshell, was 2016.

In my year-end piece from 2015, I wrote that “… if 2015 was a 'rough ride' (for teachers), I am at a loss for an appropriate phrase to describe my forebodings about 2016″ and although there are a great many reasons for me to be concerned about 2017, I must admit that I face the year with some hope.

It will undoubtedly be a difficult year. If McNeil and Casey continue in their blundering ways, I can see any number of scenarios that result in teachers walking the picket line. However, this strife, if it has done nothing else, has gotten people listening to front-line teachers on educational issues, instead of quasi-consultants or political pundits.

If that trend becomes a benchmark of 2017, and someone can finally talk some sense into Stephen McNeil, it may end up being a very good year indeed.

And in the name of holiday season optimism, let’s not try to dwell too much on the alternative.

All the best to you and yours in 2017.

Grant Frost is an educational commentator who has been teaching for over 20 years. More of his commentary can be found at Frostededucation.com



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