So, there’s yet another teacher’s strike in British Columbia. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve seen this movie several times before and I didn’t like it very much the first time. Watching the traditional ritual unfold once more – stalemated “negotiations” in which both sides talk past eachother, prolonged minor labour disruptions, back-to-work legislation, and finally a brief spasm of public rage on the part of the teachers – one cannot help but recall Marx’s remark, after the coup of Louis Napoleon, that history is damned to repeat itself first as tragedy and then as farce. It strains the mind to wonder what exactly it would take to ever bring to a close BC’s endless educational Battle of the Somme.
It astonishes me that no one on either side seems to have ever stopped to reflect upon the cause of this intractable struggle. The BCTF and its supporters appear to believe that the government has a bottomless well of money somewhere that it can reach into in order to produce practically any amount on demand. This government – like every other BC Government in my lifetime – just wants the thing to be over with as soon as possible one way or another. It seems to have occurred to neither that the cause of the conflict is that the system itself is utterly and irretrievably broken.
Our education system is a relic of older ages. The 9-3 school day. with schools open for about nine months out of the year, is an artifact of the rhythms of 19th Century agricultural life. The tightly organized system of rotating classes and bells was meant to train the next generation of assembly-line workers for factories. In an age where only a handful of the kids graduating from BC public schools are ever going to even visit a farm, let alone spend a lifetime working on one and where those who end up working in manufacturing are more likely to have a Master’s Degree than they are to get their jobs by showing up at the factory gates a week after they graduate the current system is an absurd anachronism.
Most of the kids attending our schools today are, when they enter the workforce, going to be asked to do jobs that will require them to creatively use their minds. Using the same methods to train knowledge workers as you would use to train factory workers is worse than useless. We need schools that encourage best and most authentic form of diversity: namely that of the intellectual sort. We need to be creating a generation of original thinkers and future entrapanuers. I can think of no greater disincentive to that sort of education than bitterly clinging to a system that hires, promotes, evaluates, and pays teachers using methods dreamed up to improve the lot of 19th Century miners.
I think that teachers are great. I am certain that there are some teachers in British Columbia who not only deserve a modest raise but who, in fact, ought to be paid double or more what they are being paid today. However, I am equally sure that there are also many teachers who ought to find other careers who are being shielded by a system that makes defending mediocrity a higher priority than creating excellence.
If we ever want to move past the endless deadlock that has characterized education in British Columbia for longer than I have been alive, than we need the government, the public, and – perhaps most important of all – everyday teachers to realize a simple fact: the BCTF doesn’t have the solution to this problem, the BCTF is the problem. Teachers are, as any teacher you meet will surely be quick to remind you, hard-working, dedicated, skilled, and highly (and expensively) educated professionals. Bargaining with them as if they spent their days doing repetitive, unskilled, and undistinguishable labour – acting as though one teacher is a cog randomly interchangeable with another – is an insult to their skills and professionalism. The only people it helps are the relative handful of below-average teachers who are thus shielded by the union and the rent-seeking bureaucrats and NDP politicians posing as teachers who hold positions within the organization.
The way to improve education in British Columbia is to embrace the opportunities created by a century of technological change. We can find ways to use our schools year-round, instead of a third of the day for two-thirds of the year. We can embrace new methods of delivering instruction and free up teenagers to learn trades and gain other specialized knowledge. We can give both parents and kids an authentic choice about what sort of learning environment works best for each student. We can do all of those things, but we won’t do any of them so long as the BCTF is allowed to stand in the way.