What the teachers’ union lacks as a society of professionals

And how this notable deficiency gravely weakens the credibility of  its educational advice

Permit me to return yet again to that extraordinary brochure entitled PRISM, wherein the Alberta Teachers’ Association delivers its views on the treatment in all Alberta schools of what used to be called sexual “perversions,” and have now become “sexual orientations.” (Which is unfortunate, of course. Where those with the perversions used to be known as “perverts,” those with the orientations cannot be known as “orientals” because that word has already been taken. Meanwhile, “perverts” has been classified as “hate speech,” so we’re left with no word at all, and have to be satisfied with only letters — LBQRS, or whatever– which old people like me can never keep straight.)

Anyway, I’m not dealing today with the content of PRISM, but rather with the question of why it exists at all. Why is the treatment of these variously oriented people being handed over to a union? We didn’t elect the ATA; we elected a government. If that government is now contending it knew nothing about the massive document, this is simply non-believable.

It knew all right, and it will now defend its off-loading of this problematic issue onto a union, by citing the ATA’s “professionalism.” That is, if government faces a public health problem, it consults the medical society. If it faces issues on the administration of the law, it consults the law society. On policies involving the public’s physical safety, it consults professional engineering societies or their members. Likewise, when it faces problems on the treatment of students in school, it consults the teaching society. What’s so unusual about that? Such will be its defence.

However, its whole case stands on the assumption the teachers’ union is a professional institution like the medical, law and engineering societies. But it is not. How much a doctor is paid by the health system depends on how many patients he has, and how successfully he treats them. The money, that is, follows the patient. If he switches doctors, the money switches with him. Similarly with lawyers, the money follows the client. So too with the engineer. Whether he gets the contract depends on the client choosing him, which in turn depends on his capability as an engineer. In each of these cases, the money comes through the customer. But that is not so in the public school system. The money teachers are paid does not follow the student. The money follows whatever the union can negotiate for teachers as a group. That is why one cannot equate the ATA with these professional societies.

The teachers put themselves in this situation more than half a century ago when what became known as “merit rating” developed into a major issue in education politics. Some argued that a system should be established under which good teachers would be paid more than poor teachers.

The unions went into apoplexy. There was no possible way the “merit” of a teacher could be objectively rated, they said. What about the results recorded by their students on departmental examinations? No good, said the unions. These measured the students, not the teachers. What about intro exams at the beginning of the school year and final exams at the end of it, so the performance of the individual teacher would be known. Too many other factors involved, said the unions, doubtless at this point threatening to play its familiar card: If we go on strike, who’s going to take care of your kids? Always a winner. Merit rating was abandoned.

Though few noticed it at the time, something else was also abandoned, or at least discredited. That was the claim of the teachers’ union to have the same status that is accorded to other professional societies. All of these are subject to a merit rating ultimately determined by the public they serve. The dollars come with the clients. Few clients equals few dollars. This is not so with teachers because they don’t want it to be so. But if there is no way to objectively judge the capability of the individual teacher, then how could there be a way to objectively judge the capability of the profession as a whole? There isn’t one. Which, surely, casts grave doubt over the viability and authority of PRISM.

Of course things could be different. Suppose the money were to follow the student. This would alter the whole structure of the education system. Good schools would soon be packed, poor schools half empty. The power to decide would lie with the parent and in later grades the parent and student. Good teachers would soon be making considerably more money, just as do good doctors, lawyers and engineers. Good principals would be at a premium, poor principals out of a job because good teachers wouldn’t work for them. Will it ever happen? I think it will one day, but I won’t be around to see it.

Ted Byfield was founder and publisher of Alberta Report news magazine, general editor of Alberta in the Twentieth Century. a 12-volume history of the province, and general editor of The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years, a 12-volume history of Christianity. His column on education appears in The Christians.com, a web journal. He has recently authored two little books on modern pedagogy: Why History Matters and The Revolution Nobody Covered. You can order both copies here.

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One thought on “What the teachers’ union lacks as a society of professionals

  1. As far as I know, at least Alberta teachers will not loose their teaching certificate either if they refuse to update their knowledge though recertification. Whereas other self respecting professional organizations do have such requirement. They are encouraged to update but not required.

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