Sunday, December 11, 2011

Bully for Him

It is probably largely due to both the verbal and physical abuse I suffered at the hands of my teachers as an elementary and high school student in the Catholic school system many years ago that I am so sensitive to abuses of authority, be it individual or institutional. I also suspect my experiences play a strong role in the visceral contempt I feel for the Harper government, so adept is it at wielding its power in ways so contrary to our democratic traditions and sense of fair play. Outside of that blanket contempt, however, I like to think that I am sufficiently critical as a thinker to recognize merit in the positions of those I do not support.

Readers of my other blog will know that I have been consistently withering in my assessment of Dalton McGuinty, the Premier of Ontario, largely over his complicity in the abuse of authority that defined the G20 summit in Toronto in 2010. Nonetheless, I have to commend him for his strong and unequivocal stance against bullying in Ontario schools, even when that position treads on the toes of the religious right.

There is an interesting article well-worth reading on McGuinty written by Catherine Porter in today's Star that explains the roots of the Premier's antipathy toward bullying.

Pity, however, that his aversion to strongarm tactics didn't manifest itself in June of 2010 in Toronto.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Power of the Documentary

Although traditionally avoided as a rather staid and boring genre, the documentary has enjoyed a real resurgence in popularity over the past couple of decades, no doubt in part due to the important and provocative work by people such as Errol Morris, Michael Moore, and Velcro Ripper. A good documentary, for me, is one that provokes thought and provides knowledge and insights we often don't have the opportunity to encounter in our day-to-day lives.

Nature documentaries, when done right, can accomplish much. A series on the earth called Earth From Above, spectacular when viewed on blu-ray, but I'm sure almost as visually stunning on a regular DVD, has much wisdom to impart. In the episode I just finished watching, called Amazing Lands, the point is made that every impact humanity has on the earth, whether intentional or unintentional, has far-reaching ramifications.

For example, deforestation means the destruction of habitats to a myriad of species, oftentimes resulting ultimately in their extinction. It also means the loss of flora whose possible medicinal benefits to humanity will never be known. Another impact of that deforestation is land erosion that means heavy rains carry formerly fertile topsoil down in to the rivers, the mud killing the fish, etc. But while we may understand all of this as a series of abstract fact, a naturalist on the show reminds us that we have no ability to imagine what any of this really means. It is very similar to when we are talking about the magnitude of national debts. The numbers really don't mean anything to us.

The only real wisdom here is for all of us to remember that we are not above nature, but rather simply a part of it.

I therefore highly recommend the series as a way of helping us to start understanding what the environmental destruction wrought by an unfettered corporate agenda, aided and abetted both by our political 'masters' and our own rampant and very disposable consumerism, really means.

And since this is Sunday, I will not apologize for the preachy tone of this post, but instead leave you with two of my favourite poems, both written at different points in the nineteenth century; both resonate very strongly with our situation today:

The World Is Too Much with Us - William Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. --Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreath├Ęd horn.


God's Grandeur - Gerald Manley Hopkins

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; 5
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; 10
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Criminal Teachers And Those Who Protect Them

As a retired teacher, I cringe when I read about wrong-doing by those in the profession. It enrages me that people occupying positions of trust and care would violate their duty to protect and nourish by exploiting their young charges. However, as one who aspires to the ideals of critical thinking, I can't turn a blind eye to these offences and wish them away.

A series in The Star, the result of a lengthy investigation, suggests a systemic problem in bringing these criminals to account. The paper theorizes that one of the reasons this is occurring, in some cases over many years, is a reluctance by teachers to inform on their colleagues. I cannot speak to that, having never known anyone to behave inappropriately in the classroom, but I do know from experience that just like the Vatican did in untold cases of pedophiliac priests, institutions try as hard as possible to conceal their problems, lest the institution suffer bad publicity that therefore impede the career paths of the ambitious.

For example, there was a case of an administrator who was stealing goods, money and services from his school; I have it on what I consider very good authority that a brave soul made every effort to bring the wrongdoing to the attention of senior administration and board officials. He was told unequivocally to drop his pursuit. Eventually, and I don't recall the precise details, his crimes became public, at which point he was permitted to resign, and the board signed a confidentiality agreement with him, an agreement that the board still insists is valid and thus binds them to secrecy. Of course, the critical thinker would immediately ask why the board entered into a secrecy agreement with him. I will leave you to ponder the implications.


The other problem, and I saw this with teachers who either had either very poor attendance or poor teaching practices, was an unwillingness by administration to confront the problem which, if done properly with several opportunities for improvement, can lead to dismissal of the teacher. The difficulty, as one of my friends and colleagues used to say was, “Lorne, they just don't want to do their jobs.”

The following example illustrates this perfectly:

Another administrator in my board, who was moved for harassing his staff as he constantly pressured them for money to feed his gambling problem, was moved to my school for a year where he was allegedly given the job of overseeing special projects which, to my knowledge, never went beyond scheduling on-calls when teachers were absent. The following year he was moved again and became an adult education administrator where, as far as I know, he finished out his career.

Note how the above shows the unwillingness to directly confront a problem employee. It was much easier to simply shift him around.


Public opinion notwithstanding, it is not unions that protect incompetence; the union's role is simply to ensure that the entire process that can lead to dismissal is scrupulously followed, which requires that administration, usually the principal, conduct many meetings with the teacher in question, offer constructive instruction as to how to improve, maintain the appropriate paperwork, etc., all guaranteed to ensure that his or her rights under the collective agreement have been observed and respected. Most principals, in my experience, did not want to put in the effort to do this, and were happy to simply arrange a transfer of the problem to another school, if one were available. Then, of course, he/she became someone else's problem.

It should be clear from the above that like so many other institution, politics in the worst sense of the word permeates education; indeed, taking a few quotes from the Star article demonstrates how officials no longer speak in meaningful ways, but use the obfuscatory language undoubtedly learned by watching the sleaziest of our so-called political leaders. Consider the following:

In an interview, College registrar Michael Salvatori said he could not discuss any individual cases. The Star had hoped Salvatori would answer questions about whether students were let down by the College or the school boards in cases where it appeared better screening or earlier detection would have saved a lot of pain.

“We are confident we have processes in place to protect students,” Salvatori said. “We can always do better.”

Asked about cases where it appears a teacher did not warn authorities of unusual behaviour (Baggio is one), Salvatori said “there are very few cases where (teachers or principals) do not carry out their duties.”

“The heart (of the College) is the public interest and safety of students,” said Salvatori, who added the College is concerned about “the welfare of students and ensuring teachers are well qualified and competent.”

I'll let you evaluate what he said, but for me, his comments do not pass the smell test.

Or consider the following criminal behaviour, which went on for 14 years, aioded and abetted by a feckless administration. I personally find the account difficult to read:

Antonio Raco

In what teachers commonly refer to as “passing the trash,” the Windsor-Essex Catholic District Board moved this Grade 6 teacher between at least four schools from 1991 to 2005. College prosecutors allege his assaults on girls from Grades 6-8 included taking students into the supply room and groping them; pulling a student close and thrusting his pelvis against her from behind; playing a game he called “Red Light,” moving his hands all over a girl's body until he touched her vagina; touching their breasts and hugging them so he could feel their breasts; and sitting on the floor in gym class and pulling girls against his groin. Raco swore at students, threw desks and played favourites. When one parent complained he told all the students he was going to “shun” her daughter. He was also, the college alleges, a dreadful educator.

One day, he told his young students never to share classroom discussions with parents: “This is Raco's circle — whatever happens in Raco's circle stays in Raco's circle.”

Raco, 53, was convicted of three counts of sexual assault in 2009 and sentenced to six months in jail. He is appealing his conviction. The College began a hearing two weeks ago but adjourned it because it was worried Raco (who was not in attendance) had not been properly notified.

Until those in positions of responsibility make the public good a priority over protecting and promoting their own careers, expect such betrayals to continue.

UPDATE: I just opened my Sunday paper, and The Star's investigation seems to be continuing. The latest headline: Sexting, cuddling with student, a teenage girl, did not cost teacher his job.

If you have the stomach for it, click on the above to read it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Unions' Self-Inflicted Problems

Although I spend most of my blogging time on my other site, Politics and Its Discontents, I still occasionally post here, sometimes cross-posting on both blogs. the following is one I posted today on my other site, but I feel it does have some relevance both to education and to the promotion of critical thinking skills:

Allow me to be unequivocal from the start: I am a strong believer in unions as virtually the only effective means of countering the depredations that employers would inflict upon their workers if given the opportunity. However, I also believe that in some ways, unions are their own worst enemies, an opinion I formed as a member of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation during my teaching career.

Like many if not most institutions, unions have become highly political in both their structure and their treatment of members. My own experience with my former union was that they had little time or respect for those, like me, who expressed opinions that challenged their positions, especially since I was not a member of the executive. I suspect it is this refusal to both respect and to cultivate the 'ordinary' union member that poses a threat to the union movement's future greater than any that might emerge from so-called 'right-to-work' legislation that is becoming increasingly popular in the United States.

I was prompted to reflect on the topic this morning during breakfast as I read The Toronto Star. A story entitled Construction union pays $10 million to buy off employees reveals a curious kind of union-busting tactic within a union framework that has been employed by the Labourers’ International Union of North America in Toronto.

The first four paragraphs of the story read as follows:

The continent’s biggest construction local is spending more than $10 million to muscle out its own staff and their new union.

In a twist to the explosive political infighting that occasionally flares up in the labour movement, the Toronto-based Labourers’ International Union of North America Local 183 is buying out about 80 employees with lucrative financial packages after they joined another union.

Several insiders say the move will effectively snuff out the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2, which represents Local 183 staff, because replacement members won’t have any allegiances and will eventually decertify it.

“It’s disgusting what Local 183 has done to get rid of them and the union,” one insider said Tuesday. “It’s a good example for non-union companies. If you don’t want a union, just buy off the employees.”


The rest of the story describes the political machinations within the local and how the staff joined a rival union to try to circumvent revenge firings that regularly ensue when staff has backed the wrong candidates for union elections. Indeed, there is even a tactic discussed in the story reminiscent of the show-trials popularized by Joseph Stalin during the 1930's.

I hope you will read the entire article to get the full flavor of union politics.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A New School Year Begins

There is no doubt in my mind that education is not what it once was. And no, this is not about to become a screed about the lowering of academic standards. Rather, it is only a recognition that like just about everything else, education has become a commodity, its value measured almost exclusively by its ability to lead to a good-paying job.

What's wrong with that, one might ask? While having a job that remunerates well is a desirable outcome, in my view, as a retired high school teacher, it should be one of the end results of a good education, not education's raison d'etre.

The classical notion of education, as a process whereby we gain the tools with which to interpret the world, is now considered a quaint notion, one that may be pursued by the wealthy, but one that has no practical place in the 'real world'. In other words, acquiring the tools for critical thinking, as opposed to the learning how to design something or to enter the business world, is largely considered to be a time-waster, something that will not serve one in good stead. That is how far we have deviated from and declined from real education.

And, at the risk of sounding like a wild-eyed radical, that departure serves the corporate agenda very well. Universities, once a breeding ground fermenting new ideas whose goal was to make us better as a society and as a species, has become so debased that it is now largely there to maintain the status quo, not to rock the boat. It no longer holds the potential for infusing society with new intellectual blood, but rather has become the silent enabler of the corporate aim, to serve the god of unfettered capitalism that masquerades as the friend to all.

So, on this first day back to school for so many, what can the average person do, hungry for change and challenge to what has become the status quo that has betrayed countless millions of North Americans? She and he can become educated and acquire critical thinking skills through the rigours of reading and informed discussion.

Here are a few suggestions to start off:

The Trouble with Billionaires – Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks
The Shock Doctrine – Naomi Klein
The Death of the Liberal Class – Chris Hedges

One warning to those who haven't read these works: approaching them with an open mind will inevitably lead to agitation, outrage, and a changed world view. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, you will now begin to see 'the man behind the curtain.' I do not advise perusal at bedtime, unless the prospect of insomnia inspires no fear.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Ontario Liberal Government's Proposal To Extend Teacher Training

Recently, the McGuinty-led Liberal government of Ontario has proposed extending to two years from one the training of new teachers. The logic seems to be that the additional training will make for better teachers AND reduce the number of unemployed new graduates.

While I can't really address the efficacy of such a proposal in turning out better-qualified teachers, my own memory of teacher training being that it was only during the practicum that I learned anything useful, I can address its second purpose with considerable confidence.

As a retired teacher who has long opposed teachers doing supply and contract work post-retirement, one part of the solution to unemployment amongst new graduates is to ban this practice, something neither the teacher federations nor the government have shown any appetite for. It has always seemed manifestly unjust and selfish to me for retired colleagues to be denying new grads the opportunity to gain some experience and make some contacts within the crucible of supply and contract work.

However, the proposed lengthening of teacher training to two years from one as a solution to teacher unemployment is only a way of avoiding political risks. Several years ago, in anticipation of a teacher shortage that never materialized, the Ontario government significantly increased the number of university spots to train teachers. Rather than now reducing that number to realistic levels, (which would also reduce education faculties' revenues,) the McGuinty government has once more opted to play politics instead of showing real leadership.

And speaking of politics, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, of which I am a former member, by immediately and reflexively supporting this two-year initiative, has demonstrated that it is more interested in supporting the objectives of the Liberal government than it is in representing the interests of its members.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Are All Attack Ads The Same?

In yesterday's Star, Bob Hepburn had an interesting article entitled Harper the king of nasty attack ads, an article well-worth reading. It got me thinking about fallacies of reason and the importance of critical thinking, subjects about which I have previously written.

So I decided to make a brief post here on one of the most common fallacies, the ad hominem, followed by video of two attack ads, one from the Liberal Party and one from The Conservatives. I will then leave you to consider whether one or both of the ads fall under the ad hominem label.

About.com offers some interesting insight on the purpose served by the fallacy known as the ad hominem, which means the attack on the person rather than on his/her arguments:

The abusive ad hominem is not just a case of directing abusive language toward another person. . . . The fallacy is committed when one engages in a personal attack as a means of ignoring, discrediting, or blunting the force of another's argument.

An example of an ad hominem would be the following statement:

I can't believe a word that Al Gore says about climate change because he couldn't even keep his marriage together.

You will notice the fact that Gore's marital status has nothing to do with the facts that he has been promoting for many years on global warming, yet the purpose here is for you to dismiss those facts by cultivating a disdain for those who experience marital failure.

Enjoy the videos:








Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Independent Project

I just read a very interesting piece in The New York Times revolving around a high school in Massachusetts that allowed eight students, ranging from near drop-outs to honours achievers, to design their own curriculum, essentially creating a school within the school. Called the Independent Project, the story of what it achieved can be read here.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Do We Need A New Political Literacy? Part 1

I take much comfort in reading the political views expressed by many members of Progressive Bloggers, giving me as it does a sense of community, shared purpose and the knowledge that passion for politics and love of our country is alive and well.

Nonetheless, I cannot help but be discouraged by poll results showing strong ongoing support for the Harper Conservative Government, despite its regular and unapologetic attacks on what many of us see as the fundamentals of democracy and good governance.

While there is hardly a need to provide a comprehensive list of those attacks, a few of the more recent and egregious examples will serve to illustrate that my antipathy toward this government goes well beyond philosophical disagreements:

- The request by the opposition members for the Afghan detainee documents was met by deep resistance and cries of confidentiality. Even a ruling by the Speaker of the House ordering those documents be made available was met with an unsatisfactory compromise, foolishly accepted by The Liberal Party.

= The unnecessary proguing of Parliament by Stephen Harper to avoid defeat of his Government in the House was a gross misuse of privilege, sadly abetted by former Governor-General Michelle Jean

- The contempt shown to Parliament by speaking lies about the need to reform the Census with the claim that many hundreds had complained about its intrusive nature when, in fact, there might have been no more than a dozen objections.

- The refusal by the Government to permit Ministers' aides to testify before Parliamentary Committees, despite the fact that the latter have the power to compel such testimony.
The entire tissue of lies surrounding the cessation of funding to KAIROS by Bev Oda.

I have asked myself why, despite these serious offences, they are dismissed so readily by so many. Of course, there are several combinations of possible answers, ranging from people's inertia, indifference to, or alienation from the political process to being too busy working and maintaining a family life to have the time for such concerns. I wonder, though, if there might be an additional factor at work: an ignorance of and therefore an inability to understand the very principles that are the foundations of our government.

We hear many cries coming from government and business that it is time to teach financial literacy at a young age so that people can avoid falling into crippling debt in the future. While I don't disagree with that notion, in my mind of equal if not greater importance is the imparting of a kind of political literacy by our schools that will help to bring about a more knowledgeable and engaged citizenry.

In future posts, I will try to suggest what such a model might look like, and some of the changes that would be necessary to bring this about.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Something New from Michael Moore - A High School Newspaper

I recently received an email from Michael Moore's website describing a very interesting and timely addition: a high school newspaper, edited by Moore's 17-year-old niece, soliciting the input of young people on a wealth of issues. While the stereotype of teenagers suggests that they are simply shallow and self-absorbed, I suspect the content in this paper will demonstrate otherwise.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Smart Saver Program

While I no longer subscribe to the Globe, I periodically check its online content, and this morning I read about a program intended to help poor families with the costs of post-secondary education. As described in Margaret Wente's column, the "federal government will contribute $500 for a Canada Learning Bond for any child born since Jan. 1, 2004, who lives in a low-income family. It adds another $100 every year, to a maximum of $2,000, and matches any extra family contributions by as much as 40 per cent.

Despite my antipathy toward the Harper Government, I have to give them credit for thus far not eliminating this anti-poverty measure in the name of fiscal restraint.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

New Evidence of Police Brutality at the G20

There is a compelling video on today's Star website in which Toronto student Dorian Barton explains how attempting to take some pictures of police horses during the G20 led to the police breaking his upper arm and arresting him for obstruction. Originally investigated by the SIU and dropped due to lack of evidence, it is to be hoped that this new spotlight will encourage them to revisit the assault. As matters now stand, Barton is suing the Toronto Police Force.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Why I Do Not Donate To Universities - Part 2

The other day I reprinted some material from The Hamilton Spectator dealing with the Freedom of Information request it had made to uncover some of the perks meted out to Peter George, the recently retired three-term President of McMaster, and his family.

Today, the paper has a hard-hitting editorial about the attitude of entitlement that afflicts so many of our institutions. I am reprinting it below:


Secrecy makes it all worse

It is too easy to simply rail against former McMaster University president Peter George regarding the university paying his spouse’s airfare so she could accompany him on a week-long trip to Australia in 2006.

He made a ton of money as the head of the university, we tell ourselves. Surely they could have covered the cost themselves. And besides that, he’s making a ton of money — $99,999 a year over 14 years — even after having left McMaster. Why shouldn’t we point our angry fingers his way?

Because this is not just about George and his ability to negotiate a lucrative employment contract and convince the university’s board of governors to pay his wife’s way to Australia.

It is about the “fat-catism” that seems to infect so many of our public institutions. And it is about the fact that those in charge of those institutions, including members of their governing boards, are so out of touch with both the optics of their spending habits and the day-to-day financial realities most of us face. Add to that a heavy shroud of secrecy and it’s no wonder individuals such as George end up at the business end of those angry fingers.

Most people would not object to an executive taking his or her spouse on a business trip. But most of us would also expect that executive to cover the extra cost. That an executive would ask for and be granted coverage of a spouse’s travel expenses smacks of a sense of entitlement and a complete lack of understanding of what the average person would deem appropriate.

What’s hardest to swallow, though, is the idea that expenses such as George’s — which totalled almost $30,000 for the Australian conference — are both so high and so, apparently, not our business.

Universities receive taxpayer funding and are supposed to be accountable to the public. Granted, universities are not solely funded through taxpayers’ money. But the public makes a substantial enough investment in post-secondary education that it is not unreasonable to expect an open accounting of that money.

The financial information regarding the Australia trip was released to The Spectator through a Freedom of Information request. That should not be necessary, just as it should not have been necessary for The Spectator to fight almost two years — between 2006 and 2008 — for disclosure of George’s contract, with details of its perks and job entitlements. It is even more aggravating that the university spent $66,000 on legal fees to prevent details of the contract from being released to The Spectator. McMaster abandoned its fight in June 2008, releasing the information to the paper.

It was a wise change last March when, four months before he took over as McMaster’s president, Patrick Deane’s five-year contract was made public on the university’s website.

Secrecy only makes bad optics even worse.

Lee Prokaska

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Response to Angelo Persichilli

As a former teacher now enjoying his fifth year of retirement, there are several contentions in Angelo Persichilli's column, 'Public sector unions serving up a juicy issue' (January 9) with which I must take issue.

Persichilli's general thesis, hardly fresh, is that those working in the public sector are both coddled and protected by their unions. More specifically, he endorses the idea, recently resurrected by B.C. Liberal leadership hopeful Kevin Falcon, that teacher salary increases should be tied to student performance. The columnist readily dismisses B.C. Teachers President Susan Lambert's criticism of the notion as “a destructive idea that doesn't bode well for public education” and asks, 'Why can every profession be evaluated but teaching?”

Both his dismissal and his question deserve to be addressed. First, his implied equation that good teaching=good student performance is flawed. While I never regarded myself as an extraordinary teacher, 30 years of experience in the classroom taught me several truths, perhaps the most important one being that no matter what learning environment I provided, it was still ultimately the students' choice to either accept or reject what I offered. While that would seem to be a self-evident truth, it frequently gets lost when the discussion of remuneration for results is raised.

There will always be, as we used to sardonically describe them, 'difficult to serve clients,' students who have no interest in school and are there only due to parental pressure, provincial legislation, or the fact that they have nothing better to do during the cold winter months. While this may appear cynical and counter to the current orthodoxy which asserts that every student can achieve, it is a truth that few experienced educators would deny. How could I ever convince Jason, for example, whose main interest seemed to be drugs and girls, that education was his key to a successful future, and that what schools offer have real value? Or what about Janine, who, owing to an abusive family background, saw adult authority figures as untrustworthy and not to be respected? Indeed, were salaries tied to student performance, how many teachers would want to face the challenges presented by a class of such students, knowing that their ability to make a living was tied to the academic results they obtained?

Conversely, there are always those classes with students whose motivation, focus, and ready engagement with the subject matter ensure a vital atmosphere that is a joy to work within. What teachers, knowing that their livelihoods would be enhanced, would be reluctant to instruct such self-directed learners? Because such an academic environment almost guarantees good results, would that really be a good method by which to gauge a teacher's effectiveness and salary?

Persichilli's second question, “Why can every profession be evaluated but teaching?” deserves to be addressed as well. Implied in the question, indeed, in the entire article, is that teacher unions are somehow defenders of the incompetent and that educators are not bound by the rules constraining mere mortals. While there is some truth in his observation that “less qualified and ineffective teachers are shuffled around the board and thrown into class after class where their students learn nothing,” readers may be interested to know one of the key reasons for such unethical practices.

First, under provincial legislation, teachers are required to be evaluated on a regular basis, usually by senior administration, i.e., principals and vice-principals. The reality of administering schools today inevitably means that many assessments are either rushed or not conducted at all, owing to time constraints. While few would argue that having first-rate teachers should be the highest priority for a school, administrative politics and career ambitions that require networking, keeping current with the pedagogical 'flavour of the month,' meetings with disgruntled but influential parents, etc. etc. often take precedence, leaving principals little time to be the 'principal teachers' the term once meant.

My friend Dom, also a retired teacher, long ago summed up a large part of the problem when he said, “Lorne, administrators just don't want to do their jobs.” He was alluding to the hard work involved in rooting out bad or incompetent teachers. Rightly, federations have contractual procedures in place to prevent the arbitrary dismissal of teachers; a detailed series of steps must be completed, including offering opportunities for remediation, before a teacher can be dismissed for incompetence. Given the above-mentioned constraints, few administrators are willing to invest the time needed to complete those steps, which can hardly be deemed the fault of teacher federations.

Therefore, to base teacher remuneration on student achievement, while for some a beguilingly attractive expedient, is a shortsighted notion that ignores the complexities and dynamics of today's classroom. If implemented, it will not be the panacea that vote-seeking politicians would have the public believe it to be.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Why I Do Not Donate To Universities

The following two stories, the first of which could only be obtained by the Hamilton Spectator through a Freedom of Information Request, demonstrate two of the reasons I do not donate to universities:

Mac defends $13,000 to fly former president’s wife to Australia

McMaster University spent more than $13,000 on executive class airfare for the spouse of former president Peter George so she could accompany him on a week-long trip to Australia in 2006.

The $13,125 spent for return flights from Toronto to Adelaide for George’s spouse was part of nearly $30,000 in expenses he submitted for attending the Australian conference, hosted by the Association of Commonwealth Universities in April 2006. The documents were released to The Spectator through a Freedom of Information request.

The airfare for George’s spouse is equivalent to the average yearly tuition for two McMaster undergraduate students.

The university also paid $700 AUS (about $588 CDN) for George’s spouse to attend social activities and city tours associated with the conference.

The trip also included five nights’ accommodation at the Hyatt Regency in Adelaide.

Documents released to The Spectator also showed that McMaster paid $445 in airfare so George’s spouse could accompany him to New York City in March 2006 for what was billed as a four-day trip for “donor cultivation.”

A McMaster spokesperson said the spousal travel arrangements in both cases were pre-approved by the chair of the university’s board of governors and considered an appropriate use of the school’s funds.

“Under Peter’s contract, spousal travel was permitted when it was travel that served the purposes of the university,” said Andrea Farquhar, McMaster’s director of public and government relations.

“This wasn’t a holiday,” Farquhar added. “It was a trip for a conference. It was just a week, so it was essentially fly there, do the conference and fly home.”

George attended the Australian conference to speak on issues related to leadership and fundraising. At the time, the university was in the midst of an ambitious four-year fundraising campaign that ultimately brought in $473 million.

The fundraising campaign necessitated a significant amount of travel, Farquhar noted, and there were times when it was appropriate for spouses to be in attendance.

“Spouses often play roles in different kinds of events,” she added. “They can be called upon to meet with alumni or donors or spouses or business or government representatives or other university representatives.”

Information obtained from an earlier Spectator FOI request showed that George claimed more than $200,000 in expenses from January 2006 to August 2008, while another $185,000 in expenses was claimed by McMaster’s five vice-presidents during the same period.

The Spectator also requested receipts for a $2,676 expense submitted by George to cover the cost of a rental car for the month of October 2006.

The university indicated that the actual receipt was lost. The university said that the vehicle rented by George was a Nissan Altima.


The following represents the flip side of McMaster's largess with its employees, and is written by Cupe 3906, the bargaining unit in the new labour dispute:


To Hamilton Area Unions and Labour Organisations and allies:

I am writing to inform you of a pending strike at McMaster University
by the Hospitality staff who are members of SEIU Local 2. At present
picket lines are scheduled go up Friday Jan. 7th at 6am.

For the past few months we have been in negotiations with McMaster
University and have reached an impasse at the bargaining table.

The employer, a publicly funded institution, has demanded concessions
and roll backs from some of the lowest paid workers at the University.
Importantly the administration has asked to remove a job security
clause that would then allow them to move to casualize the workforce.
This would mean the eventual end of 175 decent paying full and
part-time jobs in Hamilton. In essence the administration wants to take
these jobs away and create poverty level McJobs in their place.

Several years ago we worked with the University to adopt a living wage
policy that would ensure the university paid its staff a living wage
and would not contract out our jobs. The new administration wants to
throw that out and begin a race to the bottom.

At present, barring a miraculous change of mind by the employer, we are
heading into a strike position as of 6am Friday January 7th.

It is sad that an institution funded by public money can see fit to
give raises to its top administrators but demands the lowest paid give
what little they have.

We are hoping we can count on your support and where possible to ask
members to respect our picket lines, where that may not be possible we
ask that you request your members who may have to go into McMaster to
spend as much time as possible discussing the situation with our
members.

Further we will in the near future be calling for a solidarity rally at
the picket lines and we hope you will be able to send members from your
union or affiliates.

Of course all support on the lines is appreciated.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Fair and Balanced Reporting on Cuba - Part 3

Part Three of the program on Cuba, dealing with the country's medical diplomacy, can be accessed by clicking on the title above.

Fair and Balanced Reporting on Cuba - Part 2

Part Two of the Cuba report highlighting the role of preventative medicine can be accessed by clicking on the title above.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Balanced Reporting on Cuba - Part 1

Having visited Cuba twice in 2010, my wife and I have developed quite an interest in and affection for the people. Warm and gracious, they seem to exude a passion for life that transcends their very humble, in many cases quite impoverished circumstances. PBS, one of the few American sources of fair and balanced reporting, recently completed a three-part series on the country. Part One offers an overview of the country and its prospects for economic change and growth, while Part Two examines the vital role preventative medicine plays in the overall health of the people. Part Three examines the role Cuban doctors play in helping the people of poorer nations through medical missions.

While the reports do not gloss over the restrictive nature of life in Cuba, neither do they take a confrontational ideological stance towards what are remarkable achievements in a developing nation.

Part 1 can be accessed below: