By Robert Green
Following in the tradition of the Arab Spring and ‘Idle No More’, the latest political movement to come to life through the internet’s social networks features a growing number of America’s teachers. Calling itself the Badass Teachers Association (or BAT for Bad Ass Teachers) this Facebook group has shot up to over 17,000 members in a little over a week. It also organized its first mass action: a phone-in campaign calling for the removal of Arne Duncan as federal secretary of education.
Created by Priscilla Sanstead, a parent activist in Oklahoma, Dr. Mark Naisson, an African American Studies professor at Fordham University in New York and Marla Kilfoye, a teacher and parent activist from Long Island, BAT’s mission is:
To give voice to every teacher who refuses to be blamed for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality. BAT members refuse to accept assessments, tests and evaluations created and imposed by corporate driven entities that have contempt for real teaching and learning
On his blog, Dr Mark Naisson begins his description of what it means to be a badass teacher as follows:
Badass Teachers teach, love and nurture children everyone has given up on, in good times and bad, children with disabilities, children who have been kicked out of their families, children who can’t sit still, children who have seen unimaginable horrors, children who are homeless, children who are under constant stress, along with children who have happy lives, and happy families. They teach and love them all, and protect and defend them from physical threats and the threat of tests and assessments which humiliate them and destroy their love of learning.
While some may be surprised to see so many teachers speaking out in such a direct fashion, for those that have been following the horror show of corporate education reform that has transformed the US education system over the last decade, such action seems long overdue. This corporate education reform agenda was first introduced on a national scale by George Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ and has since been accelerated by Obama’s ‘Race to the Top’ legislation. It has been promoted vigorously by various foundations financed by millionaires and billionaires like Bill Gates and through slick high budget documentaries like ‘Waiting for Superman’. Though its particular manifestations vary from state to state it tends to feature the following three elements:
- attacks on the collective bargaining rights of teachers
- use of standardized test results (‘performance indicators’) to determine school funding and/or teacher pay (‘merit pay’)
- promotion of semi-private charter schools with non-unionized teachers, usually via a discourse focused on the notion of ‘school choice’
In some states the drive toward more testing and standardized curriculum has become so intense teachers are even losing the right to make their own lesson plans. Teachers are being viewed by policy makers not as professionals but as mere technicians who administer standardized materials for standardized tests.
The fact that such policies have failed to produce any measurable improvements and have instead lead to growing inequality in educational outcomes, a narrowing of curriculum, increased teaching-to-the-test and a long list of fraud scandals has mattered little to the corporate reformers that advocate such policies. Under such policies private charter schools and the production of materials for standardized tests have both blossomed into multi-billion dollar industries.
While none of Canada’s provinces have gone as far down the path of corporate education reform as the US, many of Canada’s provinces have been experimenting with one aspect or another of this agenda. As the politics of austerity become more entrenched in Canada we can expect this trend to accelerate as such reforms offer governments ways to appear to be fixing the education system without making the badly needed public investments.
Lets look at some examples of the three elements of this agenda at work in different provinces.
With respect to collective bargaining rights the last decade has seen some pretty major attacks on Canada’s teachers. The use of back-to-work legislation has become so routine that the notion of government actually negotiating with teachers in good faith has become laughable. The Ontario government recently threatened to legislate teachers back to work before they were even on strike. In BC the Liberal government has attempted to deny teachers the right to negotiate on fundamental aspects of their working conditions like the size and composition of classes. This in spite of a ruling by the BC Supreme court that such actions violate the charter rights of teachers. Similarly in Saskatchewan unions have had to appeal to the courts to stop government from passing legislation making it easier to force striking employees back to work. More recently the Saskatchewan government has shown its contempt for collective bargaining by unilaterally increasing the number of hours teachers spend in the classroom.
While thankfully thus far no Canadian province has enacted a US-style merit pay scheme for teachers, standardized test results are being used increasingly to evaluate and rank public schools in several provinces. In Quebec, the Charest government’s Bill 88 has imposed contracts on all schools and school boards which mandate them to commit to making specific measurable improvements in success rates, irrespective of the funding and resources provided to schools. All that is missing to mirror ‘No Child Left Behind’ is for these contracts to be incentivized with funding. Similar accountability schemes involving standardized test results have been implemented in Ontario under Mike Harris and Alberta under Ralph Klein. In 2004 New Brunswick began an extensive program of administering standardized tests that begins with kindergarten students.In the last year the Saskatchewan government has announced its intention to extend standardized testing all the way down to the pre-kindergarten level and expand it at most other levels by 2016.
With the exception of Quebec where large government subsidies for private schools allow over 30% of urban high school students to opt out of the public system, elementary and secondary education in Canada has historically been a largely public affair with less than 6% of students opting for private schools. But this is changing. Throughout Canada the free market doctrine of school choice has been gaining significant momentum. Both BC and Alberta have promoted competition amongst its public schools by eliminating community boundaries between schools and tying funding to enrolment. Quite predictably this has lead to growing disparity between schools and increased pressures for schools to develop marketing campaigns and niche programs that will attract students. These two provinces along with Saskatchewan have also followed Quebec’s lead in providing public subsidies for private schools.
Faced with unrelenting pressures for reform from powerful corporate interests, American teachers are finally waking up to the fact that their own badass activism may be the only thing capable of halting the further advance of corporate reform. They are perhaps the only agents capable restoring the role of America’s schools as servants of the public good. This has been illustrated by recent victories of teachers in Seattle and Chicago. In both cases teacher activism and community building was the key factor in defeating corporate reform initiatives.
The question for Canadian teachers is how much further down the path of corporate education reform will we go before coming to the same realization. We have a major advantage in that the US experience provides us with a cautionary tale and substantial evidence of the anti-social effects of these policies.
However, if the experience of US educators is any indication it will not be enough to leave the opposition to these policies to our union leadership. If we are to protect Canada’s public education system we ourselves will have to become active; we ourselves will have to become badass teachers working to build badass teachers unions and alliances with badass parents!
For inspiration here is a gallery of badass teacher memes from the BAT facebook page: