Geoff Johnson: It was a fascinating year for education

The past year was a great year to be writing about public education in B.C. and elsewhere.

In B.C., a new minister was appointed, followed by the appointment of a new deputy minister. In the parlance of school report cards, new Education Minister Peter Fassbender has a track record of “playing well with others,” having chaired, co-chaired or been a member of many serious public service committees that dealt with potentially troublesome policy and financial issues at one time or another.

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Fassbender found himself responsible for B.C.’s $5.3-billion education budget at the time when the B.C. Teachers’ Federation also enacted a changing of the guard by electing a new president, Jim Iker, replacing Susan Lambert, who gratefully retired from the fray.

To their credit and to the great benefit of public education, Fassbender and Iker moved education negotiations between government and the teachers’ federation off the front pages to a quiet room where they should have been all along.

Fassbender then appointed a sole negotiator, Peter Cameron, to hold talks with the province’s teachers as the B.C. Liberal government stepped up its bid to secure a 10-year contract with teachers. Cameron, as the government’s sole negotiator, replaced the broad-based multi-agenda B.C. Public School Employers’ Association.

The vigorous debate about the Fraser Institute’s annual school rankings once again tantalized readers. Paul Shaker, Simon Fraser University’s professor emeritus and immediate past dean of education, didn’t mince words, claiming the right-of-centre think-tank’s research wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny if its findings were subjected to peer review.

“The gloss or the veneer of science is put on these claims, but real science isn’t there,” said Shaker to quiet cheering from 44,000 public-school educators.

Nationally, Canada dropped out of the top 10 in international math education standings, which brought John Manley, Canadian lawyer, businessman, ex-politician and now CEO and president of the Council of Canadian Chief Executives, to his expensively shod feet at a soirée at the Canadian Club recently in Toronto to announce: “This is on the scale of a national emergency.”

Teachers across Canada — working in classrooms with as many as 30 kids, inadequate support and buildings needing to be brought up to 2013 standards — took a collective deep breath and carried on.

Teachers in B.C. also watched with growing interest and, in some cases, a smidgen of academic anxiety as proposed curriculum redesign for B.C. students focused on more personalized learning and flexible subject material.

“It’s going to be less ‘students will know exactly this’ and more, conceptually, ‘students will explore these things,’ ” said Glen Hansman, vice-president of the BCTF.

“Because there are broader concepts, it will allow schools to get more in depth into topics and focus on things that are more of interest to their community and the kids,” Hansman said in a statement uncharacteristically supportive of a government initiative.

B.C. also moved ahead with the implementation of full-day kindergarten in schools across the province. Some critics, watching the Ontario FDK experience, questioned the worth of such a costly initiative.

B.C. had originally made a $424-million commitment that was intended to include staffing, facilities and equipment to fund a full day of play-based learning for four- and five-year-olds in every school district.

On the more entertaining tabloid side of the education news, folks in the Ministry of Education contracted a 19-year-old high school grad a ministry official met at a Vernon party to figure out how to transform teaching and teacher education.

Anjali Vyas, a former DJ and a graduate of Stelly’s Secondary in Central Saanich, researched teacher-education practices in Finland for six months.

B.C.’s deans of teacher education were almost, but not quite, speechless.

Internationally, Elba Esther Gordillo, controversial president of Mexico’s politically influential 1.5-million-member national teachers’ union, was arrested and faces charges of “operating with resources of illicit origin” and “organized crime.”

And so it went in 2013. Can’t wait for next year.

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.

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