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Do Teacher Unions Support Public Education


DO TEACHER UNIONS SUPPORT PUBLIC EDUCATION?

Recent post brought this up - so I decided to post this article with the paper's headline and original newspaper clip below as the link has since been removed. 

There sure has been enough “union bashing” going on during this economic downturn. Unionized autoworkers seem to be taking the brunt of the abuse this time around. Many observers have credited the “bloated” workforce of GM and Chrysler with contributing to their demise.  That point may be debatable, but it has got a lot more people talking about the merits of private sector unions in a competitive, global economy. Achieving great pay packages, improved working conditions and fantastic benefits don’t mean a whole lot if the company you work for closes shop because it can’t compete. As someone who became a teacher because of my passion and strong belief in the importance of public education, I have repeatedly questioned the role of entrenched teacher unions. Now as we move from the industrial to the information age, I fear the demise of Ontario’s own cherished public education system if major reforms are not made to the teaching profession.

Teaching the youth of Canada to be the leaders of tomorrow I believe is one of the most important jobs out there. It is why I wonder in disbelief, how can we continue to let the people who do this important work be paid the exact same with no consideration given to their ability?

Currently, the salary of a unionized teacher is determined by two factors – seniority and level of education, with seniority having by far the greatest influence. Whether in fact you are any good at it doesn’t factor into the equation. There are evaluations given to teachers to be sure, but the union has watered down that process so much that these infrequent evaluations take place only with advance notice and offer a non-descript grading system such as satisfactory/unsatisfactory.  Under the union, teachers are all equals and therefore an experienced teacher can’t formally evaluate another inexperienced union brother or sister. Performance appraisals are left to the short number of administrators that in too many cases have far fewer years of experience than the teachers they are trying to evaluate. Unfortunately previous educational reforms have made this more of a regular occurrence than it should be.

Former Ontario Premier Mike Harris threw administrators out of the union and into management. In doing so though he neglected to compensate this group well enough and left too much of the power within the schools in the hands of the union - protected teachers. It’s no wonder why Ontario’s public school system has trouble attracting their best teachers and school leaders to move up the ranks.  Very few want to leave their comfy union confines to become over-worked and under appreciated school administrators.
  
Don’t get me wrong here.  I am not in favour of dismantling the entire system. The teaching profession requires the need for greater legal protection that unions or associations provide.  However, that need has come with far too many “improved working conditions” and inability to weed out poor teachers that has put our cherished public education system in danger.  Don’t be fooled. What is good for teachers is not always good for public education. Twenty sick days might be great from the teacher’s perspective, but it is damaging to education.

To be fair, the unions have helped public education by fighting for good salaries and benefits that have lured talented individuals into the profession. Once in however, you will have to be incredibly, intrinsically motivated and wear blinders to avoid comparing yourself to and eventually becoming the lazy teacher down the hall that “does nothing” and gets paid the same amount as you.  

The concept of merit pay has been floated before. It does have its drawbacks though if the criteria for how it is disbursed are not in line with improved teacher performance. Relying heavily on one measure such as test scores or leaving too much power in the hands of one principal won’t suffice. It will require all the stakeholders in public education, including the teacher unions to devise a fair system of teacher evaluation that can allow for performance pay and the removal of bad teachers that are a barrier to student learning. If the teacher unions will not come to the table on this issue or rally their members to continue the status quo then their true colours will have been shown.  Public education will lose its relevance as a pillar of this province as fed up parents will choose vouchers and chartered schools for their children.  Hopefully this scenario can be avoided with strong leadership on this issue.

It is why I am encouraged to hear U.S. President Obama, a Democrat, speak of merit pay through revising their teacher evaluation process as a way to improve the American public education system. He recognizes the enormous impact improved teacher performance can have on student success. Let’s hope for the sake of our treasured public education system an Ontario political figure will emerge that has the courage take on the special interest and create meaningful educational reform so that we can develop the best teachers to inspire our young people to be leaders in the new knowledge economy.

   
Here is the editorial from the paper that supported my view... 

Guelph Mercury Community Editorial Board member Greg Cawsey likely purchased a few day-job conversations with his most recent submission to the paper.

His column this month asserted that we could likely improve the quality of our public education system if we improved the quality of the teaching. For Cawsey, a public sector teacher, to go down this road, was potentially hot terrain indeed.

What Cawsey mused about, however, shouldn't be taboo in his field or elsewhere. No doubt his fair comment that there are teachers within the ranks who are making a substandard effort -- but are unlikely to be weeded out or even obliged to improve would have rankled many education system stakeholders. But these players -- teachers' union honchos, those with the College of Teachers, education system mandarins, school board officials and others might have cringed at such talk. But Cawsey is right.

All public system teachers, heck anyone who has been a public system student, knows there are great educators and ones who offer much less value for the money. Further, they know the track record of effectively evaluating teachers and improving their performance is spotty at best.

Cawsey made mention of the difficult spot that school administrators are in to do teacher evaluations and how teachers unions have resisted making the process more vigorous.

He also suggested that adding the carrot of merit pay for effective teachers could be a strategy worth exploring.

These aren't radical notions. But they are political hot potatoes.

As a result there isn't enough attention paid to this type of potential educational reform. That's a shame.

My follow up column... 

When I wrote my column regarding teacher Merit pay I was asked what is my solution for coming up with a system that evaluates and rewards good teachers. My response has always been " did you read my column? In it I clearly state my view.

'The concept of merit pay has been floated before. It does have its drawbacks though if the criteria for how it is disbursed are not in line with improved teacher performance. Relying heavily on one measure such as test scores or leaving too much power in the hands of one principal won’t suffice. It will require all the stakeholders in public education, including the teacher unions to devise a fair system of teacher evaluation that can allow for performance pay and the removal of bad teachers that are a barrier to student learning. If the teacher unions will not come to the table on this issue or rally their members to continue the status quo then their true colours will have been shown. Public education will lose its relevance as a pillar of this province as fed up parents will choose vouchers and charter schools for their children. Hopefully this scenario can be avoided with strong leadership on this issue.``

As I predicted Teachers and their stubborn unions want no part of any meaningful evaluation system - according to the union - teachers are all equals and any system that challenges that falsehood is shunned.

Public sector unions continually fail to recognize that they are major stakeholders in public education and they cannot solely represent the interests of their member teachers. This strategy will only cause the destruction of public education as moderates will flock to support charter schools as is the case in the U.S. . Notable Democrats there have become fed up with teacher unions' self-interest and now talk over them and support Charter Schools as a way to improve the system.

The same situation will occur here in time as inner-city education decays and money flows out of the system. Make no mistake - public education in Ontario is beginning its slow death - and it's the teacher unions, not any right-wing government that will have blood on its hands.

Written by Gregory Cawsey


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