Matthew Lau: Is education for kids or teachers’ unions?

matthew lau: is education for kids or teachers’ unions?

A classroom nearly ready for students at North Star High School in Amherstburg, Ont.

It’s quite remarkable: What is in the best interests of students in Ontario coincides exactly with what will make the teachers’ unions richer, more powerful and less accountable. I learned of this remarkable coincidence last week while commuting in the Toronto subway, where the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA), a union of over 45,000 teachers, is currently running an ad campaign. By happy synchronicity, everything the union says will improve students’ learning and well-being benefits the union, too.

As always, smaller class sizes are a central part of the union’s campaign. To promote student learning, it says , the provincial government should adopt the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ 13-point plan , the first four points of which are: increase teaching staff for grades 9-12, increase teaching staff for grades 4-8, increase teaching staff for grades 1-3, and — surprise! — increase teaching staff for kindergarten. It’s obvious such a policy would be good for unions: fewer students per class lightens teachers’ workloads, while more teachers mean more money and power for the unions. It is less clear it would be good for everyone else, however.

Smaller class sizes probably have some positive effect on some students, but the research shows there are better ways to improve educational outcomes using fewer resources. Improving the quality of the teaching, teachers, curriculum and instructional practices — as well as many other interventions — would make a far greater difference than reducing class sizes. To that point, a much better idea than spending more money on more teachers (which may or may not be a good thing) is spending smarter on better teachers.

This means paying teachers according to the quality of their work as measured by increases in student achievement. The norm in the private sector of the economy is a relative absence of unions compared to the government sector. It is the norm because it makes sense: pay should be tied to individual worker value, not rigid pay schedules based on tenure. Outside the teaching profession, another norm is incentive pay: the vast majority of workers receive some kind of performance-based compensation to encourage and reward effort and quality. This too is a norm because it works. Evidence from around the world shows it can work for teachers, too, although no union will advertise this fact.

In addition to more money for more teachers, the union advocates more money for: full-day kindergarten, publicly-funded child care, more infrastructure, Indigenous student programs, professional services, and many other things besides. Apparently, the only thing the union does not think is worth the money are the standardized tests issued by the province’s Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO). Coincidentally, it is one of few expenditures inconvenient to the unions because testing student performance increases the accountability of teachers and school administrators charged with improving learning outcomes. On this issue union leaders transform themselves into fiscal hawks: “Standardized testing is not a good use of education resources,” the union says. “Suspending EQAO would save money.”

According to the union, standardized tests, which many parents and educational researchers use to measure the quality of education, are not only unnecessarily expensive but actually harmful. It complains the tests negatively impact students’ health, well-being, learning and performance — effects it claims are “well-known and documented.” But well-known by whom and documented where, the union does not say. Its website link to back up its claim is to a news story about the efficacy of testing teacher-candidates, which has nothing to do with the EQAO’s testing of student achievement.

The “well-known” harms of standardized tests, moreover, evidently are not well-known among the parents whose taxes pay the teachers and whose children the teachers are supposed to serve. Quite the contrary, a poll last year by Leger for the Fraser Institute, found 80 per cent of parents of school-age children in Ontario support standardized testing. Thus it should be irrelevant that the union opposes the tests. The purpose of the public education system is to serve families, not the teachers’ union. Prioritizing union preferences over what families want is like running a restaurant that feeds the kitchen but not the guests.

Unfortunately, unlike in the restaurant business, under government monopoly systems, the customer is often served last. The Ontario government — unlike the governments of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Quebec — provides no funding for families who pay taxes for their children’s education but send their children to privately-run schools. Thus Ontario can expect to see continuing subpar educational quality and deep union pockets to pay for ads on the TTC, among other things.

Matthew Lau is a Toronto writer.

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