By Alex Roberts

AS a commentator on educational issues, I have come to appreciate the research papers, “report cards” and various media communications that issue forth from the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies. AIMS, which dubs itself as “an independent economic and social policy think tank,” provides an invaluable service by “cutting through the noise” and focusing public attention on important issues, particularly in the field of education.

However, I must confess the right-leaning, market-focused, standardized test driven agenda set out by AIMS does not always mesh with my small-l liberal disposition; nor with my own “real-world” experiences as a former public school educator. Too often, the think tank’s findings are supported by ideologically biased and cherry-picked evidence; or the recommendations are so unrealistic that they would be virtually impossible to implement in any school or school system I’ve ever taught in – or visited as an educational speaker, for that matter.

AIMS’s recently released and emotively titled research paper, “Getting the Fox out of the Schoolhouse: How the Public Can Take Back Public Education,” is a good case in point.

Written for AIMS by three Manitoba-based researchers and funded by the Donner Foundation (a well-known “right-wing paymaster,” which also funds anti-union think tanks such as the Fraser Institute), the report examines the impact of teachers’ unions on public education. Not surprisingly, it lays out a strong, albeit one-sided, case for rebalancing what they perceive as the disproportionate and negative influence teachers’ unions have on education policy in Canada.

The report, which singles out Nova Scotia as a not-so-shining example of such negative teachers’ union influence, also goes on to make several recommendations for provincial governments. These range from increasing the use of standardized testing, and prohibiting teachers from striking, to tying teacher salaries to performance in the classroom.

Beyond the obvious fact that the conclusions in the report tend to propagate the values and mantras of its U.S.-founded sponsor – and that think tanks in general are inclined to employ researchers who produce findings that will please their remunerators – the AIMS report does score at least one bull’s-eye.

In fact, rather than critique the document per se, I’d like to offer at least my tentative support for one of the report’s most controversial recommendations: that principals should be removed from the collective bargaining unit.

I have long thought that schools would be managed more effectively, and in the best interests of the students, if principals were excluded from membership in the teachers’ union. Indeed, my own experience, and that of many of my teaching colleagues, is that there is an inherent conflict of interest in the current arrangement, whereby the principals and the teachers they supervise and evaluate, are members of the same union.

Simply put, principals and vice-principals, or “education executives” as they are referred to by Alberta’s Commission on Learning, are the de facto “gatekeepers” of important aspects of the collective agreement. The AIMS report characterizes this relationship as “awkward and unrealistic,” especially when the supervisory and evaluation duties may have ramifications for the teacher’s future compensation, disciplining, transfer or career mobility within the profession.

The AIMS report notes that, “Arguably such a situation places principals in a conflict of interest, constraining their ability to perform their classical managerial functions of planning, leadership, organization, and evaluation on behalf of their employer, the school board.”

One factor the AIMS report didn’t mention is that teachers’ union hierarchies and negotiating teams tend to be dominated by principals or former principals. In Nova Scotia, for example, both the executive director and the president of the union are former principals, as are several key members of the provincial executive and bargaining team. And this situation is not unusual, given that five of the last six NSTU presidents were former school principals.

Certainly, it is not unreasonable to suggest that these former educational executives might tend to view disputes, contract negotiations, and, most importantly, grievances between principals and teachers in a different light than a union consisting of only classroom teachers.

The ambiguous and conflicted relationship between principals-turned-union-bosses and the classroom teachers who make up the other 95 per cent of the union’s membership, is especially awkward in high-profile disputes. A case in point is the 2006 sexual discrimination case involving gym teacher Lindsay Willow and her principal. In the end, the Nova Scotia Teachers Union ended up supporting neither party – a situation no doubt complicated to some considerable extent by the fact that both the teacher and the accused in this landmark dispute were members of the same union.

It’s worth noting that in many countries (Britain, for example), separate bargaining units for administrators and teachers have been the standard protocol for decades. Within Canada, only Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia follow this practice – although these three provinces represent more than 75 per cent of Canada’s teachers.

In Ontario, principals and vice-principals were removed from all Ontario teachers’ federations in 1998. The most recent survey of Ontario school administrators indicated that 65 per cent were not in favour of returning to the teachers’ union.

Not surprisingly, the NSTU which seems to have adopted a “roll over and play dead” stance with most educational issues these days, has thus far chosen not to respond to the AIMS report.

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Alex Roberts is a Halifax-based writer and educational speaker.