by Charles Moore

Teachers’ unions aren’t the only problem afflicting public-school education in North America, but they are a significant element of the difficulties. To observe that a labour relations model designed to address industrial conditions in the 19th century doesn’t translate successfully to educational work environments in the 21st century is an understatement.

That’s pretty much the finding of a new research paper from the Halifax-based Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), Getting the Fox out of the Schoolhouse: How the Public Can Take Back Public Education, which examines teachers’ unions and their disproportionate impact on education policy in Canada.

The AIMS report’s conclusions are consistent with those of other North American education-watchers. At an education-reform conference at Austin, Texas in February, Apple Inc. CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs lambasted teachers’ unions. He said no amount of technology in the classroom would improve public schools until principals could fire bad teachers.

“I believe that what is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way,” Jobs said. “What kind of person could you get to run a small business if you told them that when they came in they couldn’t get rid of people that they thought weren’t any good? (reportedly to loud applause).”

The AIMS paper notes that “on matters of educational reform, teachers’ unions have opposed many attempts to increase transparency and accountability in Canada’s school systems. Specifically, the unions have been strong opponents of standardized testing, increased parental choice in schooling, and any form of performance-based pay for teachers. At the same time, teachers’ unions favour reforms such as limitations on class size, even though smaller classes cannot assure improved student performance without considerable cost … not one of the major objectives of teachers’ unions is framed in terms of creating or maintaining effective schools. Indeed, teachers’ unions often advocate policies – such as salary schemes that take no account of teachers’ performance (teachers salaries consume some 85 per cent of the N.S. education budget, averaging about $65,000) – that actually inhibit the development of effective schools.”

Tough row to hoe

I’m not a teacher-basher. I appreciate that teachers have a very tough row to hoe these days because of a complex concatenation of societal dysfunctions and distempers in our unravelling culture. But the effective impossibility of firing teachers for anything short of extreme incompetence or criminal activity has a crippling effect on promoting excellent academic outcomes.

I agree with the paper’s conclusion that “it is time to correct the imbalance between unions’ interests and those of the public in the development and implementation of policy for school systems … to enable parents and citizens to become more influential in their own right, to become a more effective counterweight to teachers’ unions.”

Toward that end, the authors make five recommendations they believe are critical in rebalancing the interests of teachers’ unions and the public to achieve more effective schools and school systems:

– use a standardized testing regime to assess the achievement of students;

– give parents greater choice in the schools their children attend;

– adjust salary schemes for teachers, to recognize meritorious performance;

– remove principals from the bargaining unit for teachers; and

– replace the provisions for strike and lockout with binding arbitration.

I say amen to all that without reservation. Professionalism in any field – especially one as important as education – should be oriented toward promotion of competence and excellence, not obsession with work rules, seniority, and circle-the-wagons “worker solidarity.”

Broadly speaking (exceptions acknowledged), the teaching profession has become a strange hybrid of pseudo-professional arrogance and belligerent trade-union tribalism. Ideals of academic excellence have fallen by the wayside on the road to economic self-interest, politically correct socialization, and half-baked avant-garde teaching theories.

According to Statistics Canada, 29 per cent of Canadian 16-to-24-year-olds lack the basic skills to read a newspaper, and the general Canadian functional illiteracy rate is about 46 to 48 per cent. In any other field of supposed competence, outcomes such as these would result in mass firings.

Ironclad contracts

Unfortunately, ironclad teacher’s-union contracts make it all but impossible to weed out incompetent teachers, which is neither in the interest of students or of good teachers who have little to gain from union protection since their skills are likely to be recognized and rewarded without unions.

A more meritocratic structure is badly needed – and, as AIMS advocates, imposition of some accountability.

Charles W. Moore is a Nova Scotian freelance writer and editor whose articles, features, and commentaries have appeared in more than 40 magazines and newspapers in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., and Australia.

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To read the complete paper, Getting the Fox out of the Schoolhouse, click here.