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Teachers, Professionalism and Excellence: Why Do Unions Resist Teacher Excellence Initiatives?

Today’s public school teachers are on the firing line and find themselves caught on the horns of a dilemma. Since the advent of public schooling, teachers have aspired to be treated with the respect accorded professionals. From 1960 onwards, they have accepted teacher unionism and begun to act like educational workers as well as lower-order professionals. Most Canadians today consider teachers to be reasonably well-paid, favoured with generous pension benefits, and guaranteed tenure for life. Teacher professionals still aspire to excellence, but often do so at their peril.

Teachers in the United States are now being summoned to raise their game. Teacher quality initiatives spearheaded by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have focused attention and resources on the vital importance of improving teaching practice. ( ) Meanwhile, all across the United States, school districts from New York City to Los Angeles are either laying-off teachers or introducing public disclosure of teacher performance rankings based upon “value-added” measures of student test results. (See Andrew Rotherham’s pithy analysis at,8599,2020867,00.html)

The dam of teacher resistance has now been breached. Since March 2010, a courageous group of New York City teachers known as Educators4Excellence has arisen to challenge the status quo This courageous group has issued an unprecedented call for professionalism, produced a petition opposed to “Last in, First Out” regulations, and come out in favour of tying teacher evaluation to student data.

The American movement for teacher excellence sends a chill through the Canadian educational establishment. Teachers in Canada are highly unionized and teacher unions wield tremendous influence over our provincial education systems. Teachers unions in 7 of Canada’s 10 provinces conduct province-wide negotiations to arrive at iron-clad contracts guaranteeing tenure after an initial probationary period (2-3 years) and detailing every aspect of the teacher’s job in schools. Salary scales provide graduated increases for seniority and extra degrees and added certification. Job performance only becomes an issue in rare cases of gross incompetence or misbehaviour.

What’s the root of the problem of sheer complacency? The core interests in Canadian education (i.e. “the blob” of senior superintendents, teacher unions, and trustee organizations) function much like a rather blase “educational “fortress” that remains largely impervious to outside influences. Periodic calls for the introduction teacher merit pay, such as that of B.C. Liberal Kevin Falcon, are met with quiet giggles and dismissed as the insidious inventions of corporate business interests. The Canadian Education Association, based in Toronto, dares not to take a position, contenting itself with “cheerleading” for exemplary school board programs.

American president Barak Obama sends shock waves through Canadian educational circles, and especially those self-styled “liberals” strongly supportive of his presidency. His radical Education Reform agenda came as quite a jolt, all but reducing them to silence. In his January 25 State of the Union Address, he reaffirmed his stance: “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” he declared, and then called upon Americans to “win the race to educate our kids.” Improving teaching is critical to his vision and in South Korea, he noted, teachers are known as “nation builders.”

President Obama’s Education Reform agenda goes far beyond such platitudes. It’s a “Race to the Top” where teacher performance actually counts. “We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for the bad ones. And over the next 10 years, with so many boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want top prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math.”

The winds of education reform are now sweeping through the United States, freshly fueled by their abysmal PISA test results. Some 40 American states have now endorsed the “Common Core Standards” and taken an initial step in the direction of restoring academic rigour to the system. A few cities and states are moving quickly to introduce “Performance Counts” legislation aimed at ensuring teacher effectiveness. In the case of Illinois, the reform will tackle teacher tenure guarantees, evaluation standards and practices, and provisions for laying-off teachers. Replacing seniority rules with competence measures and removing ineffective teachers are at the core of these reforms.

Some public voices calling for teacher quality assurance are beginning to be heard here in Canada. In early February 2010, the Toronto Globe and Mail entered the fray with a front page feature assessing the merits of merit pay for teachers. Erin Anderssen’s thought-provoking piece, “Merit Pay: An Upgrade on the Apple,” made a compelling case for more teacher accountability for student performance. For the full story, see

One Canadian journalist, Gary Mason of The Globe and Mail , has taken up the call to repatriate the Canadian system from teacher unions and has been leading the charge for merit pay. In late January 2011, he claimed that British Columbians were always debating the question of who actually “runs the education system.” He claimed that the BC Teachers’ Federation was on the verge of gutting the province’s Foundation Skills Assessment Grade 4 and 7 student testing program and thereby thwarting the annual Fraser Institute school rankings. Three weeks earlier, he blamed the B.C. teachers’ union for publicly slagging Kevin Falcon’s proposal to explore merit pay. “Serious examination of the issues,” Mason stated, ” got lost amid the overheated, meaningless and ultimately self-serving rhetoric.” Given a fair chance, he contended that ” teacher merit pay could work” in B.C. and in other provinces.

The Canadian public debate over teacher merit pay has, so far, completely missed the point. Teachers as professionals have always claimed to be striving for teaching excellence when it comes to educating kids. In today’s era of public accountability, this is no longer good enough. How can we build better teachers for education in the 21st century? What can be done to ensure that “teacher excellence” actually matters in evaluating and rewarding teachers? And in staffing schools, when it comes to deciding who says and who goes, how can we best guarantee that students come before “job protection” in the schoolhouse?

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