The “teacher-union effect” on schools

This article is about the teacher-unions effect, negative and positive, 0n schools throughout Canada, the U.S. and Britain. No doubt, however, the issues would apply to other developed nations as well. Therefore, while I will primarily use Ontario examples, I will include international links where possible. The main thing is that the issues discussed are generalizable.

To begin with, let me state that I believe that most public school teachers are doing an excellent job, are dedicated to their students and work above and beyond the call of duty. Let me also say that most teacher union officials truly believe that, when they include areas of practice in their bargaining, it is in the best interest of their members and, by default, their students.

Well, unfortunately, there is no such default position, because when teachers’ unions do primarily what is in the best interest of their members, it is often not in the best interests of students and the taxpaying public — as the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) is currently promoting.

Here then are some of the intended or unintended consequences of the teacher-union effect on schools. I say some because I don’t touch on such government policies are pupil/teacher ratio and class sizes. Rather, I look at: 

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Iowa study vs C.D.Howe “best schools” report

How do we know what makes a good school? Is it on the basis of many variables and a wide variety of social and academic factors? Or, it is based solely on a single measurement such as the results of the annual reading and math standardized tests administered by the Ontario Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO)?

Well, to read the Fraser Institute’s annual school rankings report cards or this weeks C.D. Howe “Ontario’s Best Public Schools” report, you’d have to think that EQAO scores and percentiles were all that mattered.

To view the e-brief, which was authored by Dr. David Johnson, an economist with Wilfrid Laurier University, simply scroll down the page a bit and click on ‘What’s New” to get to the PDF file.

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Do Fraser rankings “really” reflect the quality of schools?

When families move into new communities, what is one of the first things parents ask their real estate agent?  You guessed it. They ask: Where are the best schools and how do you know they are the best?  And, on the basis of the answer, the parents decide then and there where they want to rent or purchase housing.

Now, just how do people find out where the best schools are located? In the past, they speak to everyone they know who lives in the community where they are moving. Then, they make an informed decision. Now, it seems, the Fraser Institute’s school rankings is the primary source parents are using.

But, is that all there is to a school? Do the rankings alone “really” reflect the quality of a school?  Or, should other criteria be used as well? For example:

  • Is there a strong emphasis on academics?
  • Is there a good sports program?
  • Are there extra-curricular activities in the arts?
  • Is there a school choir or band?
  • Is there a strong school spirit?
  • Do children like attending?
  • Do the teachers communicate well with the parents?
  • Are the staff dedicated?
  • Do the staff undertake professional development?
  • Is the principal approachable?
  • Does the principal treat parents with respect?
  • Are there a lot of parent volunteers?
  • Is the school council effective?

And, so on. Or, do the rankings themselves mean enough — as in — if the children do well in the annual tests, then that means there are good teachers and the school is good. Is that a fair analysis? Or, is this whole process a self-fulfilling prophecy? 

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ON school rankings confirm skill development

To all Ontario taxpayers — which of course includes parents — the school rankings that came out yesterday are a good thing. They not only indicate how some schools are struggling, they also show how some are gradually improving year-over-year during a five year period. And, of course, they indicate those schools that are doing exceptionally well. 

So, not only are the rankings giving parents and educators a snapshot of what is going on in the publicly funded system overall, they are also giving parents a choice.  For example, some boards of education have open boundaries and IF — and that is a big IF — there is room in a school that is ranked high, children from other neighbourhoods can attend. Similarly, if parents are about to relocate, they have an idea where they might want to move.

Of course, for the same reasons, many of those within the education system itself, don’t like the rankings. First and foremost, the criticism is that all teachers are doing is “teaching to the test.” Well, what is wrong with that if the students are all learning the same knowledge and skills?

Another criticism is that the testing is arbitrary and may seem unfair when two schools in completely different communities are being compared to one another. For example, you could have one school community that is full speed ahead with block scheduling and the balanced school day approach to curriculum with literacy and numeracy tasks taking up half the day — and — where lots of parent volunteers are available. Whereas, in another school community, the teaching staff are doing their best dealing with a high population of ESL and special needs students and there are few parent volunteers because the majority of parents work outside the home.

Nevertheless, while there are limitations to the rankings, as Moira MacDonald writes in today’s Toronto Sun, they are really the only comparison and accountability tools taxpayers have.  So, if for no other reason than that, they are a good thing.

However, let’s not lose track of the rationale behind the testing in the first place — that students learn and be tested on the SAME literacy and numeracy skills they all MUST have, no matter where they attend school.

That is the bottom line.