Making change in the education system seems to be a difficult thing to accomplish! I get that. And I also get that it can be incredibly frustrating when it doesn’t seem to be happening.
So often, I hear things like “What’s the matter with teachers – they have to change…”
Well, anyone who works in the system or works with human/systems change knows that there are many barriers.
I’ve been pondering change in education quite a lot – for many years. I’ve been a parent of three wonderful (and non-neurotypical) kids in the public system for twelve years now. I was DPAC president for almost six years. I’ve been on Ministry and District advisory committees. And I’ve worked with Districts as an ed-tech consultant for many years as well.
Something isn’t sitting well with me – it gets me quite upset, actually!
From my IT project management experience, there are two ways to make large, transformational change:
- Start Fresh: This is when you plan, design and implement a new system, but there is nothing of value to save from the old system, nothing to transition over. No archival data. No users. The old system is a “throw away.”
- Transition From Old to New: This is when the data is too important (or too expensive to recreate) and you need to migrate in a conscious, planned method from the old system to the new one.
Here’s the thing, when we’re talking about changing the education system and schools, we’re not talking about critical data – we’re talking about children’s lives! The stakes are incredibly high and we need to be constantly, painfully aware of what happens to kids if we aren’t thoughtful and incredibly careful! Not a single child, in my opinion, is a “throw away” or not worth planning for! And that needs to shape our approach to educational change – this is a project with NO acceptable losses.
I don’t think that the BC Liberal government is keeping this central enough in their planning and actions right now.
I used to work for the BC Government, in the IT department of the Ministry of Attorney General. I worked there under the NDP, and during the transition to the BC Liberals. And I have to say, the Liberals made many positive changes – they definitely knew how to run the business aspects of government better than I saw under the NDP. And, in the beginning, they put pressure on Ministries to save money – with great success! There were so many things we saw, at the ground level, that weren’t being done efficiently and savings could be had.
But let’s be honest, we’re way past that now in the BC education system. The “low hanging fruit” of easy savings and simple changes were “picked” long ago. The changes left are complex and cost money to successfully implement.
I feel strongly that the BC Liberal government is underfunding our education system, with a devastating impact on kids, families and communities. Districts are told to “figure it out” and (how many times have I heard??) “the money is the money” – so Districts are supposed to identify savings that will fund changes. However, I realize that feeling of mine is because I have a base assumption that none of our children should pay the price for systemic change!
Looping back up to the two types of change I identified above, only the first kind (throw away the old system and start fresh) would allow this approach to funding to work – and it would. But only if we are willing to accept that the kids who are currently going through the system will have to fail or lose services they would have otherwise received (and still need.) Only if we accept that some kids just won’t make it can we also accept funding levels from government that require Districts to make change “off the side of their desks.”
For example, if we believe that every child deserves the equivalent of an IEP (individualized education plan), not just kids labelled by psycho-educational (or other) testing as having an identified learning disability or challenge, then how do we make that change?
The first way is we stop funding school psychologists, stop identifying kids, therefore stop providing services and programs to meet the specific needs of those labelled groupings, and instead redirect that money/resources into training classroom teachers how to teach in more differentiated ways, in order to better meet the needs of diverse learners on a daily basis.
But think about it – there’s a gap. In this scenario, we have to stop funding the old system, in order to “ramp up” the new system. How much time would it take to form committees, hire or second a project team, plan what “personalize” means, what it would need to include, seek out relevant research, focus and prioritize, design school wide and District wide strategies, design assessments, communicate changes, provide training, research resources, pilot at some locations, and ultimately implement changes? I’d say years – more than one or two. In a District the size of my children’s (30k+ students and something like 60 schools), I’d say more like 4 – 6 years to full implementation.
In the meantime, kids don’t just wait. They grow up, they move through the system that is failing them, and damage is done. Life changing, devastating, and long reaching damage. Let’s be honest – lives are lost, either figuratively or literally. This is simply unacceptable!
(Not to mention that all students getting their needs met within even a perfectly differentiated classroom is impossible – but that’s another post.)
So, what is the alternative? We take the second approach – plan and fund change so that our “critical data” (aka our precious children) successfully transitions from the old system to the new.
Change has to be planned. And while I appreciate that the complex change projects needed in education can’t be “top down” – I also know that successful change has focus. Andy Hargreaves, in The Fourth Way, talks about the need for leadership of successful systems to set the overall “direction” and for the organization to “have a dream.” The details of how you get there can vary according to the needs of individual communities, socio-economic circumstances, even personalities. But where we’re headed has to be the same!
That takes me back to my previous post: Understanding our Priorities and the triple constraints of education that I proposed:
As I also said in that post, you can’t have all three. You can’t have cheap, relevant AND inclusive. Something drops. And since the budget isn’t increasing, we lose either relevance or inclusion.
What I’ve seen again and again is that Districts focus projects on engaging students, making learning more relevant and interesting. And yet, we have kids who can’t read. Or there are significant increases in mental illness (particularly anxiety and depression). And Ross Greene hits a painful nail on the head in his book “Lost at School,” talking about executive function, lagging skills and behaviour challenges.
Why is it then that, again and again, we invest energy into starting/running pro-d, projects and specialized programs (Mandarin Immersion, Reggio Inspired, hockey academy, elite athletes, etc…) that focus on relevant learning, not on inclusion? These actions certainly work to increase student engagement and make learning more interesting, but they often do little to serve the most vulnerable students.
For one thing, there is this false (and dangerous) belief that if only we could sufficiently engage/interest/motivate students, then nothing would stand in the way of their learning. This simply isn’t true for all learners!
Some students need psycho-educational assessments, extra supports, specialized resources and intensive interventions in order to be able to participate in their learning. And these things all cost money!
I think we (as communities) see this – we know it. We see that both relevant and inclusive programs cost money – they aren’t cheap and certainly aren’t free! We see (and are frustrated by) the fact that we just can’t meet the needs of all learners without additional resources – no matter how hard we try. We see the kids who struggle, don’t fit in, bully or get bullied, don’t attend school, aren’t allowed to attend full days at school, etc…
But I also think that we seem to be suffering from some version of an organizational Stockholm Syndrome. Budgets have been reduced and cut and not enough for so long, that we don’t even ask for or suggest programs that would cost money anymore. We seek to “do what we can” – putting together proposals that are cost neutral compared to regular classrooms, so that we can maybe meet the needs of learners by doing things just a little differently. But we don’t ask for smaller class sizes for special situations, or for additional counsellors or specially trained teachers or for collaboration time or suspension of Provincial exams, etc… We seem to have accepted the government line that there is no more money, and adjust accordingly. Like children of poverty, we’ve stopped asking because we know the answer will always be no…
The current labour dispute, that includes issues around class size and composition, resides deeply in this concern – the loss of truly inclusive education for ALL students.
Unfortunately, more money isn’t the only part of a successful solution! Simply moving to smaller class sizes or hiring more specialist teachers won’t suddenly make our school system truly inclusive – it won’t necessarily meet the needs of our most complex and vulnerable learners. That’s the part of the BCTF’s approach that worries me the most – it lacks strategy and, I fear, threatens to entrench our system further into dysfunctional paradigms. More of what we used to have isn’t necessarily what we need now.
We need to see both an investment in education AND we need thoughtful, focused strategies for using that money to meet the needs of all students! How would we do that?
We need a clear focus and commitment (or we need to demand this) from government on a transition that doesn’t “throw away” kids who need more help in the meantime. We need leadership in setting our “direction” as inclusive (first and foremost) AND personalized/relevant – and the planning/funding to match.
We need clarity of and a drastically narrowed focus. For example, the fact is that if a student can’t read and communicate at grade level, it matters very little whether the topic is interesting or whether they are engaged and motivated. There are very real barriers that need to be removed or mitigated (preferably in an early and proactive way) – whether those barriers are intellectual, physical, emotional or behavioural. Take that ONE core focus and get good at it. The use of educational technology, self regulation, Genius Hour, inquiry learning, critical thinking, social-emotional learning and all sorts of other strategies or approaches can be part of the delivery of that core focus – they just aren’t THE focus.
We need meaningful dialogue as communities (not JUST teachers and government, or teachers and District leadership – but including consultation and collaboration with parents, special needs groups, researchers, teachers, principals, CUPE, students, etc…) We truly need to work together and “be the villages” who raise our children together, which requires understanding and communication. Kids and communities benefit when we work together. Period.
And we need data. Yes, I said data. Not as a way of holding teachers “accountable” (which I read as policing and wanting to punish those who don’t meet the “standard”) – but as a part of effective feedback loops and continuous improvement. As a system, we need to put into practice the ideas we embrace around student assessment – formative, assessment as, for and of learning/change.
I know our system needs more money and resources – that’s easy. That’s why I find it easy to advocate for more funding from government for our education system.
And if the BCTF were suggesting ways to address class size and composition issues, within a framework for governance that includes clarity of purpose and focus, required data collection, measurable improvements towards inclusion and relevance, and collaborative decision making, I could get behind that much more fully too!
Really, this moves beyond this specific labour dispute. This needs to be something we discuss and explore as communities – whether as classrooms, schools, Districts or even Provincially.
We have an incredible responsibility to “catch” all of our children. None of them deserve to be thrown away. No amount of “loss” is acceptable – so need to strive to do better!
So let’s get it together and do this!