08 February 2017

The Classroom Jungle #nlpoli

CBC aired the first  of three half hour programs on Monday night featuring a bunch of teachers talking about problems in the Newfoundland and Labrador school system.  The rest will come along over the next couple of weeks.

To be perfectly clear, CBC claims ownership of the programs but, by the looks of things, CBC had very little to do with the program content, at least in the first one. The provincial teachers union picked the people to appear and covered their travel, meals, and accommodations for one Saturday to record the three 30-minute programs.

It's an absolute fascinating insight into how news media have changed in a very short space of time. 

Not so very long ago, CBC would have invested the time and staff to interview teachers,  confirm stories of the sort the public heard on Monday night,  bring in other perspectives, and air a story that was comprehensive in its scope.  Even in the "forum" format, as CBC described this one, they'd have had a few other people on the program to lend other points of view to the issues and the stories the folks from the teachers' union brought up.

We were supposedly talking about inclusive education this time around. No one really explained what it meant.  Nor did the teachers consistently speak about the issue.  Some included left-handed students in the broad category of students with exceptional needs that would also encompass children with developmental issues, psychological problems, and severe learning impairment.  

At the same time, some of the teachers talked about “regular” or “normal” students (using those words) who were, in effect, left behind as the teacher struggled to deal with the others.  That doesn’t sound like a very inclusive attitude, especially when, in one case, the students who weren't regular were those in foster care.  Their psychological problems were too much for that teacher – now retired incidentally – and she wanted a raft of expert others to take on those children while she taught the regular ones. That's not really inclusion.  

CBC’s audience got a program where balance was shockingly absent. It was little more than a host going from guest to guest and offering the opportunity to "tell us your horror story please." The language used by the teachers and by the host was a times quite troubling. They spoke of physical violence in the classroom. No one spoke of official response to the incidents or whether there were any consequences to what seemed like some horrific episodes.  

The teachers all wanted "more resources" but no one bothered to define it, beyond a call for more and more specialists of one kind or another. That's fine, as far as it goes, but there was also no suggestion of how this actually fostered inclusion.  We certainly didn’t hear anyone talk about how we might all afford this or how we might accomplish getting additional help for students with special needs in a system that is already very well funded.

Funding is a big part of the issue. There’s no accident that CBC ran the story and the teachers’ union gladly supplied the teachers as the union heads into contract talks with government.  There were 66,800 students in the school system in 2015-16, the lowest number of students in more than 50 years.  A 2015 comparison by the Fraser Institute showed Newfoundland and Labrador spent the third-largest amount per student of any province in Canada.  Enrolment decreased by 17% in the decade from 2003 to 2013 but spending increased by 32%.  

In the 2016 budget, education was the third largest expenditure after health care and debt servicing.  Until debt serving overtook education in the past two years, education was typically the second largest expense in the annual budget.  In 2016,  government budgeted $856 million for education.

Without balance and with out useful information, there really wasn’t much for anyone in the audience to actually take away from the 30 minute show.  One teacher mentioned a shortage of desks for left-handed students.  As the father of two left-handed people, that's a touchy subject for the scribbler, but it isn't the same league as a teacher who has a majority of students in the classroom who are from foster homes.  What school was this with the left-handed desk shortage?  How many left-handed students were in the school?   And most importantly what did the teachers do to help the students adapt and cope with this situation… besides complain about a lack of resources?

You see, this is going to happen a lot for left-handed people in a world full of stuff made by and for right-handers. It would be a lovely world if it didn’t have to happen, but we don't live in a lovely perfect world that meets exactly the most progressive and imaginative world anyone can think of. We live in this world.  Pretty good it may be but it still has lots of flaws and short-comings.  Some issues you fight about.  Others, like a lack of desks for lefties, are things you work around.  Adaptive behaviour and creative problem solving are two vital life-skills

CBC is promoting the series quite heavily. There’s been all sorts of hype, including the claim that the teachers are somehow very brave for speaking out. Series host Ramona Deering made a point of saying that on Twitter.  

That’s also a sign of how bizarre a world we live in. Except for the period between 2003 and 2015 – including when Darin King ran the Eastern school district – teachers have been quite vocal about issues like this one. Politicians may have been uncomfortable but the teachers and their union were usually quite strident in complaining when they thought things were wrong.

For anyone seriously interested in public education, CBC's series should be a major contribution to public understanding and public discussion.  The first show in the series failed.  Period.  Let's see if the other two are any better.