One of the most startling recent shifts in U.S. education was the adoption by the National Education Association (NEA) of a resolution supporting the use of student standardized test scores, along with other measures, in the teacher evaluation process. Meeting in Chicago on July 3, 2011 the nation’s largest teachers’ union with 3.2 million members reversed its previous position to head-off what the New York Times described as “a growing national movement to hold teachers accountable for what students learn.” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/05/us/05teachers.html?pagewanted=all
The momentous decision by the NEA not only brought the union more into line with the rival American Federation of Teachers, but responded to the changing reform dynamic now affecting some 15 American states. That policy shift stood out in sharp contrast to the strong resistance expressed by both the Canadian Teachers Federation (CTF) and its de-facto lobby organization, the Canadian Education Association (CEA)
The Canadian teacher unions now find themselves as outliers, fighting a rearguard action against teacher quality reform. While NEA president Dennis Van Roekel sought to respond to the inevitability of change, the Canadian teacher unions continue to demonstrate a “head in the sand” approach.
Canadian teacher unionists continue to inhabit another planet when it comes to education reform. Instead of reacting to the NEA decision, the CTF continued to hide behind its own opinion surveys and to present “smaller class sizes” as the panacea. Indeed they continue to base that opposition on teacher-sponsored surveys purporting to show that 67% of Canadians favour “teacher evaluations of students” over “standardized tests.” http://www.ctf-fce.ca/Newsroom/news.aspx?NewsID=1983984692&year=2010
Teacher unions in Canada, from coast to coast, continue to resist teacher quality reform and to maintain a hard-line stance. Since the rapid unionization of the teaching ranks in the 1960s and ’70s, teaching has been a white-collar profession central to the rise of public sector unionism. While teachers aspire to be professionals, they toil in what Education Sector aptly termed “locally controlled civil service regimes which were, in turn, grafted upon industrial unionism.” The inherent contradictions of this situation periodically reveal themselves, most recently in the about-face by the NEA on the critical issue of student-test based teacher evaluation. http://www.educationsector.org/publications/admirable-move-countrys-biggest-teachers-union-yes-you-read-correctly
Teacher unionism improved teacher salaries, but teachers were incorporated into a standardized “one-size-fits-all” system. Everyone had to get a bachelor’s degree from a recognized university, then obtain a standard provincial teaching license before entering the classroom. Once they entered the system, everyone was paid according to the same union salary schedule, which doled out raises based on years of experience and credentials such as master’s degrees. There were few differences in rank or status, meaningful performance evaluations were non-existent, and it remains nearly impossible to be fired for cause.
On the inside, however, teachers inhabited a different world. Until the 1990s, standards and curricula were largely left in the hands of local districts and schools. Principals, in turn, gave individual teachers broad discretion over what happened every morning after students settled into their desks and the classroom door closed behind them. That meant huge variance in what students were taught, even among students with different teachers in the same school and grade. It also meant tremendous variances in how well students were taught. As with all legitimate professions, some people are much better at it than others, but the official line was that raising the issue was tantamount to “teacher-bashing.”
Teachers’ unions found solidarity, and thus power, in promoting uniformity in the modern bureaucratic education world. Then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the educational standards-and-accountability movement took root and brought the return of new forms of standardized student testing. At the time, nobody seriously proposed using the tests to evaluate individual teachers—the Canadian and American teacher unions made sure of that. http://www.aims.ca/en/home/library/details.aspx/1862
Over the past decade, accountability for student learning has become widely accepted and independent think tanks like the Fraser Institute and the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) have begun to rank schools and to raise new questions about the limits of education reform. With the financial support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) and Education Sector have succeeded in putting improved teacher evaluation on the public policy agenda. Initial research demonstrated that up to 33% of student learning was determined by the quality of teaching in the classroom. More recent research has shown that some teachers were much better than others in raising student performance levels.
Canadian teacher unions tremble at the prospect of performance-based evaluation and tenure. After two years, most teachers secure a permanent contract and never again face any kind of real scrutiny unless they commit some chargeable office. Unions always tend to rally to the defense of their weakest links. Confronted with teacher quality reform proposals, they simply go to ground hoping the agitation will blow over. Opening the door to more effective teacher evaluation they fear will put “the whole system of unity through uniformity” at risk.
Leading Canadian policy researchers like Dr. Ben Levin continue to turn a blind eye to the latest research on teacher quality measures. In May of 2011, Levin told the Nova Scotia media that he was opposed to student-test based teacher evaluation because “no reliable measures existed” to assess teacher performance.
New American research suggests otherwise. A June 2011 Education Sector report by Susan Headden explores the initiatives underway in more than a dozen American states. She was particularly impressed with IMPACT, the Washington D.C. model combining five classroom observations with student test scores in rating teachers on a four-point scale of effectiveness. As her report made clear, “multiple measures teacher evaluation is the future of K-12 education. And in Washington, D.C., the future is happening now.” http://www.educationsector.org/publications/inside-impact-dcs-model-teacher-evaluation-system
Why is the Canadian education establishment so resistant to teacher quality reform initiatives? Who is really calling the tune – provincial education authorities or the Canadian Teachers Federation backed by the CEA? Should we put much stock in the assessment of teacher unionists who defend the status quo and still oppose the current student testing programs? If teacher unionists remain cool to testing, then why would we ever expect them to embrace student test based teacher evaluation?