Teacher unions should push for positive change in the classroom

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Appeared in the Edmonton Sun, July 6, 2022
Teacher unions should push for positive change in the classroom

Last month, before most students started summer vacation, Alberta teachers narrowly voted to accept a new two-year collective agreement. Although Alberta teachers will continue to receive some of the highest salaries in the country, the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) is not satisfied.

In a news release issued shortly after the ratification vote, ATA president Jason Schilling announced his intention to get directly involved in the upcoming provincial election. “As the provincial election draws near,” he said, “teachers will use public advocacy and political action to press for much needed and long-overdue improvements.”

Unfortunately, the “improvements” typically pushed by teacher unions tend to be either prohibitively expensive or educationally unnecessary. For example, the push for smaller classes. While smaller class sizes are moderately beneficial in lower grades, there’s no evidence they benefit student achievement in upper grades.

But reducing class sizes remains one of the most expensive education reforms. Not only must school districts hire thousands of new teachers, many school buildings would need to be expanded to accommodate extra classrooms. Blowing the entire education budget on something that has, at best, a moderate impact on student achievement hardly sounds like a responsible approach.

Teacher unions also want to negotiate the highest possible salaries. The problem is that teacher salary grids are set up to compensate teachers based on only two criteria—years of university completed and years of teaching experience. But there’s no evidence that either of these criteria has much, if anything, to do with teacher effectiveness in the classroom. This makes it harder to justify large salary increases since increases don’t depend on student achievement.

Things might be different if teacher unions were open to changing the salary grid to allow for some pay-for-performance incentives, but they’re not, so there’s no way to target salary increases to teachers who deserve them most.

In addition, it would be nice if teacher unions opposed education fads that undermine student learning. For example, like in other provinces, Alberta schools were for many years locked in the grip of nonsensical “no-zero” policies, which prohibited teachers from giving zeros for incomplete work. In some jurisdictions, policies even prevented teachers from deducting marks for late assignments. Consequently, teachers found it nearly impossible to hold students accountable for work that failed to come in.

Things came to a head in 2012 when Edmonton physics teacher Lynden Dorval was suspended then fired for refusing to comply with his principal’s no-zero edict. While Dorval eventually won his arbitration case, he did not receive much support from his union. This was a missed opportunity for ATA to advocate for something that would benefit students and teachers alike.

Fortunately, a handful of teacher unions across Canada stood up against no-zero policies including the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) and the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association (NLTA). Both of these unions saw that no-zero policies were adversely affecting education.

If teacher unions want to represent their members well, they should advocate for policies that would truly benefit student achievement. For example, the Ontario Human Rights Commission recently released a report titled Right to Read—a damning indictment of the ineffective “three-cueing” method of reading instruction where students spend more time guessing how to say words than learning how to properly pronounce the words.

Imagine the positive impact the ATA and other teacher unions could have if they pushed their respective provinces to implement curricula and teaching methods that truly promoted effective learning. Not only would students learn how to read more effectively, but the unions would also make the lives of teachers easier.

Teacher unions have the ability to advocate for positive reforms that would improve the learning of virtually all students. It would be nice if they pushed for these types of changes for the upcoming schoolyear and beyond.