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: 

  1. the removal of supervisory duties;
  2. the implementation of the balanced school day organization and its effect on preparation time;
  3. the reduction in before and after-school extra-curricular activities;
  4. the reduction in the number of report cards and reporting;
  5. the impact of legislation and policies on governing and licencing bodies, such as the Ontario College of Teachers;
  6. the desire to get rid of all manner of standardized testing; and
  7. the union money myth.   

The removal of supervision:

In recent years, it has become common knowledge that supervisory duties have been significantly reduced or removed altogether from what a classroom teacher does. Most union views are, apparently, that it is progress to remove teachers from having to do yard, hall, lunch and bus duty — because it allegedly takes away from the professionalism of the job.

Well, I disagree. Teaching involves rapport as in connecting to and bonding with students. When children walk beside teachers outside during recess, the teachers get to know them on an individual level. They also get to watch social dynamics at work, which kids were being bullied and which kids are popular and why. And, that more informal relationship and rapport carries on into the classroom.

So, when teachers’ unions include the removal of some or all supervisory duties in their collective agreements, they are in effect removing a major component of how a teacher develops a rapport with students.

Of course, there is also the issue of school safety. If teachers are not out in the hallways over lunch and between classes, seeing what is going on, how can they report or intercept bullying or other more serious incidents?

The results of the removal of supervision are also monetary because schools and school districts must allocate additional funds — from the taxpayers, not the unions — to pay outsiders to provide the supervision.

Balanced School Day/Preparation Time:

Then, there is the issue of the school day, the organization of the timetable. Interesting that, at the same time teachers’ unions were pushing hard for more preparation time, they also reacted favourably to the “balanced school day” timetable, going along with the notion that kids were better off when there were more frequent snack and exercise breaks.

Well, some parents and teachers actually prefer the balanced schedule, claiming some children concentrate better. However, let’s not forget that the longer periods are also better for the teachers because they provide opportunities for longer prep periods. Mind you, when you look at the sources on this topic, you have to look long and hard to pick up on the “administrative benefits.” But, they are there nonetheless.

Extra-curricular activities:

However, over and above the elimination or reduction of supervisory time, and re-organizing the school day, there is the issue of extra-curricular activities. Again, as I said at the outset, there are still some very dedicated teachers who start their school day early and leave late — coaching sports or providing one-on-one tutoring.

Yet, unfortunately, there are many who refuse to do anything “extra” even though, up until the mid to late 1990’s, everyone on a school staff shared such duties — considering them all part of establishing that rapport I talked about earlier. 

Now, it is usually only the newest staff members who do it.  Plus, it doesn’t help that the teachers’ unions now consider these types of activities as “voluntary.”As with supervision, some school boards now have had to resort to paying outsiders to do coaching.

And, lest anyone forget, extra-curricular activities like sports, visual arts, drama clubs, choir and band are just as important as academics to the overall establishment of school spirit, as well as personal growth and development. In other words, it is through these experiences that kids learn how to get along with others and what they want to do when they grow up. 

Report Cards:

Then there is the issue of report cards. Traditionally, there were four reports: an interim progress report by the end of October each year, with full report cards in December, March and the end of the year. Not anymore.

In Ontario, for example, the teachers unions have been able to remove or reduce the four formal reports to two, plus one interim progress report in late November or early December — while claiming that parent communications and feedback will improve with fewer reports. How that will happen remains to be seen of course.

I mean, the whole point of evaluation is for everyone involved to pick up on learning problems early so something can be done to remediate the situation. Of course, if all students are being pushed through to the next grade level anyway, I suppose, to the unions, tracking progress isn’t so immediate.

And, therein lies one of the reasons the reduction of report cards is so relevant. While the Ontario government calls having more kids pass their courses, or graduate from high school, their “success” strategy, others refer to it as the “no-fail” policy. Whatever you call it, it is a direction that actually helps no one in the long run as young people have to eventually join the real world.

College of Teachers:

Most provinces, territories and states have professional teacher bodies. In Ontario it is called the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT). It is where teachers are licensed and where they go for disciplinary action. And, it is where teacher records are kept and modified as teachers add new qualifications to their files. In other words, it is supposed to represent the public interest.

Well, in Ontario at least, the OCT board council used to be made up of both external appointees and teachers elected by their peers, with the appointees holding a slight majority. The McGuinty government, under former Education Minister Gerard Kennedy, changed that so that teachers were put in the majority. Here is what the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSF) wrote on that topic.

However, while the notion of teachers controlling their own licencing body may sound reasonable, the problem is that, prior to voting, they all had to be union approved.  As my husband knows, having run for the OCT council at one time, the various teachers’ unions send out a slate of names each year just before the OCT elects its governing council members. The union memos recommend, for instance, that teachers only vote for the names on their lists.  

Unfortunately, teachers do just that. Meaning, everything about OCT is now union biased — which is hardly in the public interest.

Standardized testing:

Lastly, at least for this article, is how teachers unions everywhere want to get rid of any kind of standardized testing. In Ontario, they make no bones about it. They want an end to EQAO, the government funded agency that is responsible for the testing. They use every kind of excuse you can think of. I have heard on this blog, for example, that more children fail because of standardized tests and that they are culturally and poverty biased.

The bottom line is that teachers’ unions simply don’t want to be accountable for anything and they most especially don’t want there to be school rankings where, heaven forbid, there might be competition or attribution of responsibility for poor results. Because, when you have the exact same grade and subject level testing in every school in a province or state, there is clear and measurable evidence on how well students are doing.

The money myth

Then, there is the teachers’ unions money myth, or outright lie as some would suggest, that all the public education system needs is more money for smaller class sizes, more money to pay teachers more and more money for “you name it” as the list goes on. I don’t believe that and neither do a lot of others.

Yes, we all know there is income inequality and disadvantaged students out there but paying teachers more money will do nothing whatsoever to help a child’s home situation. What will help is understanding and authentic teachers who are more than willing to do whatever it takes to help students succeed.

In conclusion:

Is it because I am a middle of the road conservative that I see these teacher-union effects as I do? I am not sure because I am definitely not anti-public education, nor am I anti-union. I understand and agree that collective bargaining is a hard fought right in all western nations.

But, where do we draw the line? Why should we allow unions to take over the role of setting government policy simply by what they include in their collective bargaining? And, where is the accountability for fiscal responsibility, student achievement and society?

Because, including the money myth, six examples out of my seven indicate that the teacher-union effect on schools is negative — with only the balanced school day seen as relatively positive.  Yet, it’s odd, really, that the public allowed all those changes to happen with barely a ripple of complaint. Is that too a sign that the majority of people are more left of centre? I don’t think so. I just think the changes have been so incremental that few noticed.

Until now. Thankfully, that lack of awareness is changing as new websites are cropping up, such as “Fixing Our Schools.”  Clearly, it’s time that we all paid attention, regardless of our political perspectives.

c/p Jack’s Newswatch.

Update: See follow-up article: “Why do teachers “identify” with their unions?”

7 thoughts on “The “teacher-union effect” on schools

  1. I used to think of teachers as “professionals” in the same manner as accountants, lawyers engineers and the like. They were paid as professionals, thinking about their profession 24/7. Due to the nature of teaching and how it was formally structured i.e.: summer holidays etc., there was always significant “time off”, benefits and pay. A teacher was employed in a public system by the people of the state as verses an accountant who is/was employed by a specific client. Teachers were trusted with the education of our youth.

    And then along came “the union”.

    Of all the “professions”, teachers seemed to embrace unionism more enthusiastically than others. It may have been the single employer system and the temptation to “get as much as we can” rather than relying on market forces that drove teachers away from the professions and towards the union (mentality).

    In general I don’t have problems with unions except when their members spend all their waking hours trying to screw the company or public rather than doing the job that they are paid to do and caring about their quality of work.

    My union experiences are in the healthcare industry and the forest industry (many years ago) and my non-union experiences are in Alberta oil and gas, which had/has a very small unionized component. Labour relations has changed drastically from the days of domination by the company boss but I feel that the pendulum has swung too far towards unionism, especially in the public domain including teachers.

    Thanks Sandy for putting up your analysis and comments. Your efforts are much appreciated.

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  2. I certainly know when there’s no point in me taking part in a discussion. Supporting teachers or acknowledging that you are a teacher (without even mentioning unions) has become a four letter word in Ontario over the last 15 years. It would be like you Sandy trying to take part some discussions over in the world of left wing bloggers.

    All I will say is thank you Sandy for recognizing that most teachers do an excellent job in the classroom – just like most parents do an excellent job raising their children.

    I also wonder what could be the reasons why (if this is actually true) teachers have embraced their unionist side (while still maintaining their professional side to the best of their ability)?

    Just remember that the option is possibly there for the PC Party to use the support of unions to get elected in a short period of time.

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  3. Sandy, Sandy, Sandy,

    The AFT has the right perspective, they call themselves “A Union of Professionals”. There is no contradiction. The OMA is one of the most powerful unions in Ontario. Does that mean that doctors are not professionals?

    It is the province that has dramatically increased the pressure on teachers through standardized testing and many many other tactics that make teachers life a misery. As a result something had to go. That something is supervision up front and EC activities. This will come as a big shock to some readers but EC activities are not in the teacher job description and they are not paid for them. As a result, when they feel happy and respected they do more and when they feel harried and disrespected they do less. Cities like Rochester pay for activities. People of the conservative bent seem to want pay for performance. Here is your opportunity, pay for EC activities. You will get more.

    Teachers oppose testing because testing increases the dropout rate, narrows the curriculum and reduces the quality of education. Witness the popularity of NCLB in the USA.

    Have you ever heard the adage “he who pays the piper calls the tune?” Teachers pay 100% of the cost of the OCT. It is not called the College of Other People to Discipline Teachers. Teachers were told when it was created, this is YOUR college. OK then we want to run it with an overwhelming majority. I believe teachers should have 90% of the seats on the college.

    More money does equal better education. I suggest we conduct an experiment. Remember the conservatives thought it was very unfair that Toronto had so much money even though they taxed themselves to get it. They demanded Harris take Toronto’s money and redistribute it across Ontario. I guess this is people’s exhibit A that all those Tory ridings believe that money buys a superior education or they would have said “who cares if Toronto has a lot more money, we can still do very well without it because money does not equal quality.

    I suggest that the MPPs take a vote on a radical increase in the education budget which will only be spent in the ridings of MPPs who vote for it. Nothing could be fairer than that. The ones who want more money get it and the ones who don’t believe it makes a difference save us a lot of money.

    The conservatives on the TBE when I was there were determined to close schools but did not have a majority and were very frustrated because the progressives would not close schools. I moved a motion that said yes we will close schools but only in the wards of trustees that want schools closed. Oooops, suddenly none of the conservatives wanted to close schools. Gee why not? Seemed like a good idea yesterday?

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  4. I think Sandy’s post is a bit misleading. Moira Macdonald’s article referenced above refers to supervision issues in secondary schools. I can’t speak to that, but supervision in elementary schools has not varied much for decades. Teachers still do yard, hall, recess, lunch and bus (if applicable) duty, usually 80-100 minutes per week. It’s about the same as it was in the 1980’s.

    A cap on supervision time was negotiated because some principals grossly abused it. Non-homeroom teachers (gym, French, resource, etc.) could be given supervision duties during instructional time — instead of teaching students — as well as regular supervision duties. One year I was assigned 70 minutes daily of lunch supervision during instructional time — that was 350 minutes per week (more than 20% of weekly instructional time) that I was not available to teach kids to read. No competent management assigns the highest paid employees to do the $10/hr jobs.

    I agree that supervising students gives one opportunities to relate to the kids outside the classroom. However, instructional time should be for instruction.

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  5. Thank you everyone for commenting. But, I stand by my seven points.

    If the unions just dealt with salary and benefits, and even professional development, that would be fine. But, they have now gone too far.

    In my last ratification meeting a decade ago, I remember it well. To hell with the new teachers. Let them eat cake. Give them RRSP’s but don’t take away the sick leave gratuity for the baby boomers. Same with prep time.

    What it has all become my friends, from the outside looking in, is a Greek government-like entitlement culture.

    Read what you have written. It’s all me, me, me. My right to this. My right to that. More, more, more. Every job has aspects to it that no one likes. Deal with it.

    I have to really hand it to guys like Matt, who just go to work and do their jobs every day, with all this entitlement surrounding them to such an extent that even he can’t see it.

    What I wrote is reality as the rest of society sees it.

    For heavens sake, get off your soap box Doug and do something about it! You are one person who could really bridge the gap between the teachers’ unions, taxpayers, the general public (parents) and the teaching profession.

    But hey, at least we can disagree civily. I thank you all for that.

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