No report cards is not the problem in Ontario’s schools

By Tara Ehrcke

B821949620Z.1_20150504080107_000_G851FNRHN.6_GalleryThe mainstream media wasted no time this week to engage in a round of teacher bashing at the news that some school boards would not be issuing report cards in response to teacher job action. Teachers, who are in a work to rule campaign, have produced reports but are not inputting the data into computer systems. Apparently, and unsurprisingly, school principals and administrators just didn’t want to do this extra work, so they cancelled the reports. While these boards have now relented and agreed to produce the reports, the incident provides an opportunity to look at they dynamics of the teacher job action and reflect on why and how both parents and workers should be standing up for teachers.

Across Canada, the US, and even in large parts of the rest of the world, public school teachers have been on the front lines of the fight against austerity. Teachers tend to be highly unionized, are typically a female dominated workforce, work in one of the last standing mostly public institutions (along with healthcare), and play a key role in the transmission of social values to the next generation. All these features make teachers a ready target for neoliberal austerity measures. Where better to smash unions, privatize, instil individualistic and pro-market ideas and put women in their place?

Ontario’s teachers, just like in BC last year, are fighting the austerity agenda. They want smaller classes so they can provide better services, they want to maintain their incomes and purchasing power, they want to stop government legislative interference and they want the autonomy to do their job in the interests of their students.

As Barrie teacher and activist Gord Bambrick describes:

“The main objective as I understand it right now is to stop a total contract strip. Bill 122 was created last year to allow bargaining on two levels, locally with school boards and provincially with the provincial government.

On the provincial front, we are fighting now to protect our working conditions and students’ learning conditions, especially around the issues of class sizes and teacher workload. The Ontario Liberal government, headed by Kathleen Wynne and Education Minister Liz Sandals, is pressing for the removal of class size caps and a significant increase to teachers’ duty time. They also want to continue wage freezes imposed by legislation in 2012.

The school boards want to remove protections around teacher prep time and school hours, giving principals more authority to delegate tasks. The boards would also like to change the teacher performance appraisal process and conduct external assessments of students. This, of course, significantly undermines teacher professionalism.”

Deconstructing the report card issue, we can see all of the standard teacher bashing tactics at play. Teachers tried to take full strike action, but were ordered back by the labour board. So they have chosen a job action designed to minimally impact student learning and maximally impact the functioning of school boards. They have provided assessment of their students, but not in the format usually required.

In response, managers (principals) and senior managers and even some school trustees made the decision to simply not do the extra work and blame teachers for not producing the reports. This exposes the presumption that it is reasonable to ask teachers to do more and more work (every extra student in a class is hours of marking time), but not those at the top ends of the hierarchy. It also shows that some layers of management are all too happy to publicly blame teachers when they themselves are not willing to do the job. A remarkably similar thing happened last year during the BC teacher strike when teachers refused to mark provincial exams. The ministry took the written response questions out of the exam to save administrators having to do the marking, despite the fact that teachers were on full strike and administrators were sitting in empty schools.

In addition to showing how government and media use the blame the teacher narrative to distract us from the real issues at play, the report card spat also highlights a more subtle, but equally important feature of the global education reform movement being imposed by neoliberals everywhere.

Both in Ontario and previously in BC, when teachers refused to complete report cards they were careful to continue to provide genuine assessment of the progress of learning. As the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario stated, “teachers have fully assessed your child’s progress”.

In BC, when report cards were not issued, teachers invited parents to speak in person about their child’s progress and many sent home anecdotal remarks directly to the parents, but not in report card form. In Ontario, teachers have submitted progress reports to principals to review and provide to parents. The reality is that teachers are doing what most parents want and expect – a genuine and thoughtful reflection on how their child is doing in school. In my district in BC when we did not provide formal reports there was only a single parent complaint out of 19,000 students.

Yet the corporate education reformers balk at the idea of no formal report going home and into the database. It is not teaching and learning that is central, but the ranking and sorting function that data driven reporting provides. The function that report cards should provide is communication to parents about their child’s learning successes and struggles. But all too often they become first a training ground for children and parents to rate each other and later for employers and post secondary schools to accept or reject them. Like standardized tests, they become a tool to privilege the privileged and stream the rest back into the socio-economic category from where they came.

When it comes down to it, formal report cards don’t matter. What really matters are the teaching conditions in schools and the communication with parents to enable students to meet their potential. My favourite quote this week came from parent Erika Shaker, who put it like this, “when it comes to the delay or absence of this year’s report cards, I would like to make something clear. I. Couldn’t. Care. Less.”

I asked teacher and activist Gord Bambrick how parents and workers can show support to teachers and oppose the divisive message from the government. He said it clearly:

“It’s hard for parents and other concerned citizens to cut through the disinformation coming from the government and mainstream media. Teachers are usually characterized as selfish ‘hostage takers’ despite the fact that they are fighting to protect children’s learning conditions. I would encourage citizens to speak up against the austerity agenda whenever they get the chance – in the blogs, on social media, and with a letter to their trustees and MPs. They could also get out and show support at the many protest activities that will surely be coming this autumn.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

6 thoughts on “No report cards is not the problem in Ontario’s schools

  1. I have been saying from the very beginning, that if teaching was a predominantly male profession, the government would not be putting forth the demands they are now.

    1. My thoughts exactly, Tracy!! Did you notice that when the police increased their budget this year, there wasn’t a peep from the public?

    2. As much as it pains me to believe, I have to say you are probably not far off the mark. Historically, if teaching had not been predominantly women’s work (something they did just to fill the time until they were married), the derision reserved for teachers by some factions and the lack of status in general would not permeate the culture the way it does. If it had been seen from the beginning as “a man’s job”, it would be considered worthy of respect and all that that entails. I also believe this is why high school teachers have certain advantages over elementary teachers (more planning time etc) because they have proportionally more males in the profession, so from the start it was somehow seen as more “valid” work.

  2. some boards are asking support staff to participate in part of the report card process. – be it stuffing envelopes, distributing etc…….threatening to hire outside agency employees – aka SCABS!! – solidarity in education is key at this time – support staff – the majority who are CUPE education workers 55000 strong – are in solidarity with ALL educators – for employers to use these strategies perhaps shows that OUR efforts are working??……regardless the above article poinnts out very well that the report cards ARE NOT what matters – it is the people -the environment- the support students receive from a TEAM of educators…too bad some school boards seem NOT to want to be part of this team

    1. Thanks Melody…and thanks to CUPE workers for acting in solidarity…we also had amazing support from CUPE workers in schools during our five week strike. The next step is to actually coordinate our bargaining positions to ensure we are never seeking to replace one with another, as there has been a tendency for employers to try and drive a wedge between the different groups of workers in schools. Here, for example, they try to replace special education teachers with education assistants, and then sometimes we are not good at supporting each other to say that we need adequate numbers of both. I totally agree that schools require proper staffing of a variety of different positions to meet the very diverse needs of students.

  3. As a parent, I have 4 problems with this perspective:
    1. Every year since 1973 has seen increases to the provincial budget for education despite declining birth rates & less students and with decreasing outcomes in math & sciences in particular. It feels like we’re spending more and getting less.
    2. I am fearful of teachers’ desire for autonomy in the classroom because it won’t be in the best interest of students, but the best interest of unions. I support my kids’ teachers, I don’t support the collective union message and tactics.
    3. I do not want teachers playing a ‘key role in the transmission of social values to the next generation.” That’s a parent’s job and I am doing it enthusiastically. Teachers do the teaching, parents do the preaching.
    4. I am troubled by the level of communication with parents to enable students to meet their potential – report cards are a huge piece of that communication when there is so little else (especially in high school). Parents have decisions to work through depending on what report cards say because we take our parenting seriously and we want our kids to be successful.

Add Comment