Opinion Social Policy

Help NWT teachers by investing in education: Territory’s plan to cut instructional hours only hurts students

The GNWT Department of Education, Culture and Employment (ECE) claims that every teacher in the NWT – approximately 800 – works 10 to 15 hours of overtime every week of the school year, for a total of about 480,000 extra hours per year.

They appear to base this on one survey of 700 NWT educators, in which 84 teachers participated. But for argument’s sake, let’s accept this survey as representative of the average teacher’s experience.

All that overtime says one thing: the NWT needs to hire more teachers. 

Instead of investing in education, the GNWT is decreasing the value of our children’s education compared to those of Alberta students learning the same curriculum.

But instead of hiring more teachers, or investigating why teachers work so much, ECE has instead promised to reduce instructional time by up to 100 hours, in every grade. This is being done through a Memorandum of Understanding attached to the latest agreement with the NWTTA, because ECE says there is no money to increase salaries.

So instead of investing in education, the GNWT is decreasing the value of our children’s education compared to those of Alberta students learning the same curriculum.

In recent communications to the Legislative Standing Committee examining Bill 16, An Act to Amend the Education Act, which includes reducing instructional hours to below those required by the Alberta curriculum, ECE claims that Alberta is going to revise their curriculum. They leave the impression that the NWT reduction will somehow be in line with Alberta’s.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Alberta students will continue to receive full instructional hours.

Another difference: Alberta has both resources and a plan for how it is redesigning its curriculum:

  • Over six years, it will consult with parents and the public on curriculum changes;
  • It is devoting $65 million to the six-year process;
  • Half of that money is devoted to experts focused on specific curriculum subjects;
  • Specific consultations will take place with Indigenous peoples;
  • Nothing will change until the year 2022, after consultations, reviews, and planning has happened.

Nowhere does the redesign talk about reducing minimum hours as a principle guiding change. Notice how this redesign comes out of a thoughtful, multi-year, planned project? In the NWT, our curriculum redesign comes out of a backroom union deal, with curriculum changes being done on the fly, by principals and teachers driven primarily by an arbitrary 10 per cent cut to instructional hours.

MLAs Do Not Have To Approve This Fundamental Erosion of the NWT Education System

There is no public evidence that ECE explored any other options that might address the reasons for teachers being overworked. Instead, ECE went directly into union negotiations with the NWTTA. 

The GNWT-NWTTA union agreement MOU appears to say that ECE will get MLAs to change the Education Act to reduce the minimum hours to below what is required by the Alberta curriculum. Of course in technical language it does not bind MLAs – but that distinction is easily lost on anyone who is not a lawyer. The MOU clearly implies that the law will be changed.

But a bureaucrat cannot promise anyone that an MLA will pass a law. In a democracy, only lawmakers can make laws, and the NWTTA and GNWT know that. They also know that a fundamental change to the education system should usually go through a process of public consultation before it is written up as a law for the legislature to consider.

They also would have known the MOU was a huge gamble. They would have been very negligent indeed if they asked teachers to vote on this union agreement, but did not tell them that the MOU was an extremely risky mechanism for getting teachers a reduced workload.

However, it seems that despite objections of some Indigenous leaders in the NWT, parents, and the public, some MLAs have publicly come out in support of this Bill. They, for some bizarre reason, think they have to do what they are told, even when they know it is wrong; even when they know it will harm our children’s chances to get a place at a trade program, a college, a university, or a job once they graduate; even when anyone can see that this change will harm the chances, in particular, of Indigenous students outside of Yellowknife. These MLAs plan to do what they are told, probably thinking that somehow the sky really will fall if this Bill does not go through.

The real issue is that we do not have enough teachers in the NWT. This government needs to invest in education. But instead of providing adequate resources to ECE, ECE officials have decided to erode one of the fundamental purposes of the Department of Education: to deliver a Grade 12 NWT diploma that will provide NWT students with a solid foundation for a good life.

The Sky Will Not Fall If They Don’t

ECE’s approach is ill-conceived. It does not result from the NWT Education Renewal Framework, but that is not stopping ECE from dishonestly implying that it does.

That is not surprising. Because this whole proposal was cooked up as part of the negotiations between a GNWT negotiating team and the NWTTA leadership, they agreed to cut the hours before they ever had a plan or a pedagogical rationale for doing it.

The NWTTA negotiators did not do their due diligence. They should not have tied a reduction in workload to MLAs having to pass a law. They should have made sure that if MLAs refused to pass a law changing instructional hours, that NWT teachers would still get a reduction in workload, regardless.

But, as the Minister assured us at the public hearing of the Standing Committee examining Bill 16 on April 7, 2017 in Yellowknife, ECE does not intend to honour the spirit of its agreement with teachers should MLAs vote against the Bill. According to the Minister, teachers would not get any reduction in workload. 

Some people are blaming teachers for this mess; after all, they approved this agreement. But that is inaccurate and unfair. Teachers relied on the NWTTA to negotiate an agreement. Overworked as teachers are, we could hardly expect them to do a full review of the agreement in its entirety before voting. They trusted their negotiators to do a good job, and trusted the NWTTA recommendation to accept it. Now it seems like that trust was misplaced: their negotiators should never have proposed that teachers trade salary increases for the very risky proposition of getting a law changed. The NWTTA did not negotiate a good deal for teachers, and if this Bill fails, only the NWTTA leadership should be blamed, not MLAs.

So if MLAs do not approve this deal, what will happen?

The GNWT will honour the spirit of the deal by reducing teacher workloads, by hiring more teachers or support staff.

Or, the GNWT will not honour the spirit of the deal, as the Minister seems to imply, and a new agreement will likely have to be negotiated.

But if MLAs do pass Bill 16?

The upshot: high school diplomas of NWT students will be substandard, compared to diplomas of Alberta students.

When our Grade 12 graduates apply to trades programs, colleges, universities, or jobs in the workforce once they graduate from high school, they will have a full 800 to 1,200 fewer hours of instruction than kids learning the same curriculum in Alberta. That’s a full year less. Anyone who tries to say that will make no difference is telling an outright lie. To pretend that NWT teachers can magically teach 100 per cent of the curriculum in 90 per cent of the time is laughable, no matter what amount of professional development they receive.

Indigenous students in small NWT communities, in particular, will be disadvantaged. They face barriers created by the impacts of residential school and colonization. They are the future leaders and decision makers who must steward multimillion-dollar land claim and self government agreements. Providing them with a substandard version of the Alberta diploma is an excellent way to ensure that their full potential will be that much more difficult to meet. It ensures that the economic, social, and cultural potential of land claims and self government agreements will be jeopardized.

Why are ECE and Some MLAs Supporting This Bill?

So why would the NWTTA support a deal like this? It is strange agreement, because of its lack of certainty; that is, its reliance on MLAs passing a law to make it work.

As we have seen in other publications, specifically News/North, tying a workload reduction to delivering a substandard version of the Alberta Grade 12 diploma sets teachers up as villains who are taking ECE resources to educate themselves instead of students, or as incompetents who, after getting their own university degrees and receiving the highest salaries in Canada, are unable to do the job required of them.

Neither of those characterizations are true. Neither are fair.

On the other hand, MLAs may fear being made the political fall guy for doing the right thing and rejecting this Bill. They don’t want to appear to not support teachers. When they cooked up this deal, the union leaders and GNWT bureaucrats also put together a narrative that would squarely place the blame on MLAs if this Bill fails.

But just as MLAs should not be blamed for not passing Bill 16, teachers should not be blamed for supporting a bad deal dreamed up by their union leaders and whoever authorized ECE’s negotiating mandate (which ECE refuses to reveal).

This deal is squarely the responsibility of ECE officials who authorized it, and the NWTTA leadership that recommended it. MLAs cannot be held responsible. Teachers would have been well advised to reject the risky nature of what their NWTTA leadership was recommending.

The real issue is that we do not have enough teachers in the NWT. This government needs to invest in education. But instead of providing adequate resources to ECE, ECE officials have decided to erode one of the fundamental purposes of the Department of Education: to deliver a Grade 12 NWT diploma that will provide NWT students with a solid foundation for a good life.

MLAs should vote against Bill 16. They should also pass a motion calling on the Minister of Education to honour the spirit of the agreement with teachers by taking other measures to reduce teacher workloads by 100 hours per year. In that way, MLAs would demonstrate what we can all support: valuing our teachers as much as we value giving NWT kids the best chance at a future that a standard Alberta Grade 12 education can provide.◉

Photo: istockphoto/Brainsil

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