9/7/07

Education too influenced by teachers' unions

A report from the Atlantic Institute For Market Studies called Getting the fox out of the schoolhouse, argues teachers' unions have a disproportionate impact on education policy in Canada.

The study's authors believe teachers' unions have "opposed many attempts to increase transparency and accountability in Canada's school system," lining up against standardized testing and performance-based pay for teachers.

Michael Zwaagstra, a high school teacher in Manitoba; Rodney Clifton, an education professor at the University of Manitoba; and John Long, a professor of educational administration at the University of Manitoba, co-authored the report. Among the report's recommendations are that teacher compensation be tied to performance and that strikes and lockouts no longer be allowed as ways to resolve disputes in the public school system.

Despite its aggressive arguments aimed at Canadian teachers' unions, the report isn't meant to attack them, said Charles Cirtwill, the institute's acting president. "This isn't about killing unions,'' Cirtwill said. "This isn't about removing gains that have been made to protect individual teacher's rights."

According to Cirtwill, the simple, focused mandate of unions is to represent the interests of their members, which may or may not match that of the public. "The unions have the ability to use the dues to influence politicians.

"They have a bully pulpit from which to comment very aggressively on policy changes and they've been very effective at stopping policy changes which they do not support."

Cirtwill said the report is meant to show a way to balance the unions' power with that of the public interest.

Educators and union leaders were less than impressed with the report's recommendations. Jane Gaskell, the dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, said she didn't believe unions represent the problem with schooling and argued that the American states with the highest educational achievement levels also have the strongest unions.

"I think by and large teachers' unions have been a positive force for the quality of education in Canada,'' Gaskell said.

She rejected the idea of linking teacher's pay with performance and said it would create dissension within the teaching community. "The kind of differentiation based on performance -- which is very hard to measure and to do in a fair way -- is not something that is politically acceptable in the Canadian context."

Frank Bruseker, president of the Alberta Teachers' Association, scoffed at the notion of standardized testing, another recommendation of the report. "Standardized tests are very effective at measuring the size of the homes in the neighbourhood -- and that's about all they measure,'' he said.

Bruseker called the tests simplistic and said they only offer a one-day snapshot of how a child is performing in school. "Right-wing think tanks like AIM and the Fraser Institute love them."

Bruseker also "flat-out" disagreed with the report's recommendations about strikes and lockouts. He said if unions want to preserve the teachers' right to strike, then they have to grant school boards the matching right to lock teachers out.

"Certainly, we try to influence government, but to be blunt, we're the experts," Bruseker said. "We have people with PhDs and Master's degrees and years and years of experience and we're in the classrooms. Why wouldn't you want to talk to the people on the front lines about what we need to do in education policy?"

But Cirtwill said everyone, including parents, should have a hand in setting education policy and that the public needs to be willing to step up and ask unions to prove their positions rather than just accepting it as gospel truth.

(canada.com)

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