North·Analysis

N.W.T. students and parents 'thrown under the bus' in new deal with teachers

The N.W.T.'s education department and the NWT Teachers' Association sold out students and parents when they agreed to cut the amount of time students get with teachers.

Education department misleading the public about impact of reducing student instructional time

Teachers want to reduce the amount of time they spend with students in the Northwest Territories. (CBC)

The N.W.T.'s education department and the NWT Teachers' Association sold out students and parents when they agreed to cut the amount of time students get with teachers.

The department and the association have signed a four-year collective agreement for teachers that includes cutting students' instructional time by up to 100 hours a year. That amounts to a year's worth of instruction gone from a student's kindergarten to Grade 12 education.

"Students and their parents were thrown under the bus as collateral damage," says James Anderson, a former Northern teacher, principal and school superintendent.

Anderson now works as an education consultant. He says teachers, particularly elementary school teachers, need adequate preparation time, but says time with students is already short for many.

James Anderson, a former Northern teacher and principal, says the proposed reduction of class hours is a bid to save money. (CBC)

"School management reviews that I have undertaken in the N.W.T. point to the fact that many teachers, perhaps most, have great difficulty teaching the entire curriculum right now," says Anderson.

Education officials have tried to sell the reduction in instructional hours as something that will be good for students. Anderson says it was done to save money.

The president of the NWT Teachers Association was asked if the teachers he represents would have signed a four year-contract with no salary increases for two years and one per cent hikes in the third and fourth if the government had not agreed to reduce the amount of time they must spend with students by 100 hours each school year.

Fraser Oliver, president of the Northwest Territories Teachers' Association, says the government's openness to reducing instructional hours "certainly" helped with teachers' signing a new collective agreement. (submitted by the NWTTA)

"I think certainly this helped them sign that agreement," said Fraser Oliver.

Oliver then quickly moved on to the benefits of giving teachers the 100 hours taken from students to plan and develop professionally. It's a tactic the association, the department, the minister and the school superintendents have used to try to draw attention away from the fact that the hours were taken from students.

Teachers could have been given the time away from the classroom for professional development without taking it away from students. But that would have required adding additional backfill positions, an added expense.

When the deal with the NWTTA was negotiated last summer, the territorial government had vowed to cut spending by $150 million dollars. It was negotiating several other collective agreements, including its biggest, for thousands of employees represented by the Union of Northern Workers. It was offering zero-per-cent wage increases in that negotiation.

Misleading the public

Education Minister Alfred Moses took the sales pitch for reducing instructional hours a step further in the legislature on Thursday.

When asked by Nahendeh MLA Shane Thompson if reducing classroom time is part of the department's guiding initiative, Education Renewal, Alfred Moses responded: "I want to make sure that everyone knows that, yes, reducing instructional hours is part of the education renewal."

Education Minister Alfred Moses. (CBC)

That is incorrect. Nowhere in publicly available education renewal documents is there any suggestion that reducing instructional hours will improve student performance.

As Anderson points out, the department has been saying just the opposite, that addressing student absenteeism is critical to improving student success.

"It is disingenuous for E.C.E. officials," said Anderson. "How is it that a further reduction in instructional time is supposed to counter poor achievement?"

Questionable use of research

At the same time it tried to avoid talking about the impact of reducing student instructional time by focusing on the benefits of giving teachers more prep time, the department and NWT Teachers Association misrepresented research in an attempt to justify trading away student instructional hours.

For example, "...comprehensive research suggests that increasing instructional time produces little or no improvement in student learning," said the department in a background document when it announced the change.

The research does not say that. It says only that the intuitive conclusion that more hours of instruction results in better education is not necessarily true. The studies do not offer any evidence to suggest reducing instructional time is helpful for students.

"While it is tempting to assume that there is a causal relationship between hours of instructional time and achievement, we cannot assume that based on this study," said an analysis of one of the studies by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, a global organization of teachers, principals and education superintendents.

"For example, within some nations, as instructional time increases, achievement decreases. Is it the increase in instruction that causes the decrease? We can't tell."

The research does not take into account the quality of the teaching, something the department recognizes is the single most important thing it can contribute to student success.

MLAs have yet to pass the bill that would allow for instructional hours to be reduced. (CBC)

It also doesn't take into account the unique challenges of schooling in tiny, remote Northern communities, such as single classrooms with students of different ages and different grade levels. It doesn't take into account the impact intergenerational residential school trauma has on learning.

It also doesn't take into account the much-lower-than-average student outcomes in the N.W.T. school system in smaller communities. Common sense suggests that if a student is having difficulty keeping up, the student would benefit from more time with teachers rather than less.

The research the department and teachers association cite when they say teachers are working 52 hours a week is not as reliable as they suggest.

Both the NWTTA (together with associations in Alberta, theYukon and Nunavut) and the government did separate surveys to determine how many hours they work each week. Both came up with about 52.5 hours a week.

The association's survey was done in 2013. It asked teachers to keep detailed diaries of how they spend their time. Thirty-six N.W.T. teachers participated.

The government survey was done in 2015. The department sent it to all N.W.T. teachers and got responses from 112, about 15 per cent. Both surveys relied on unverified reporting by teachers of the hours they work.

Unlawful agreement

Government officials who negotiated the new contract seemed to believe they had the authority to enter into an unlawful agreement. They signed off on memorandums of understanding (one of many attached to the agreements) that allow less instructional time than required under the Education Act.

"During the 2016-2017 school year, the GNWT and the NWTTA will develop options for legislative change that re-direct up to 100 hours of instructional time per school year," says the MOU.

Members of the legislative assembly — the people responsible for making and changing laws — were not consulted before that commitment was made and have not agreed to change the law to fit the agreement. Only on Thursday did Bill 16 — which would actually allow the minimum hours of instruction to be reduced — undergo its second reading in the assembly. 

The negotiators went even further. They gave teachers an additional three paid days away from the classroom this school year for planning and preparation. Education authorities and school boards were given no additional funding for backfill to make up for that time taken away from students.

The move to cut back the amount of instruction students get is far from a done deal. MLAs will have three more opportunities to weigh in on it — when they review the department's budget during the current budget debate, when the Standing Committee on Social Development reviews Bill 16, and when MLAs vote on the bill for the third and final time. 

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