11 April 2011

Teacher quality and teachers' unions

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an international examination that assesses 15 year old students in each of the OECD countries and a handful of others.  The results are worth looking at.  In later entries, there will be more details about how the US performs compared to other nations.  But tonight this caught the eye as it is remarkably relevant to changes proposed in Wisconsin.  This excerpt comes from "Lessons from PISA for the United States."

As PISA shows, in most OECD countries, once teachers are hired, it is very hard to remove them from professional service, irrespective of the quality of their work. The high quality of teachers in those countries appears to be a function of the policies that determine the pool from which teachers are initially drawn, their compensation, the status of teachers, the high standards of entering university-level teacher-preparation programmes, the quality of their initial preparation, and the attention given to the quality of their preparation following their initial induction.

Critics of American education are sometimes disapproving of the teachers’ unions and of how they perceive these unions as interfering with promising school reform programmes by giving higher priority to the unions’ “bread and butter” issues than to what the evidence suggests students need to succeed. But the fact is that many of the countries with the strongest student performance also have the strongest teachers’ unions, beginning with Japan and Finland.

There seems to be no relationship between the presence of unions, including and especially teachers’ unions, and student performance.  But there may be a relationship between the degree to which the work of teaching has been professionalised and student performance. Indeed, the higher a country is on the world’s education league tables, the more likely that country is working constructively with its unions and treating its teachers as trusted professional partners. Witness the reports of Ontario in Canada or Finland.

The report on Canada, in particular, describes how issues of collective bargaining can be successfully separated from professional issues, where teachers and their organisations collaborate effectively with ministry staff in selfgoverning bodies to oversee issues of entry, discipline, and the professional development of teachers. Central to success in this area in Ontario was the signing of a four-year collective bargaining agreement with the four major teachers’ unions. In reaching the accord, the ministry was able to negotiate items that were consistent with both its educational strategy and the unions’ interests, thus providing a basis for pushing forward the education agenda while creating a sustained period of labour peace that allowed for continued focus on educational improvement. That was facilitated because union agreements could be reached at the provincial level, which may be more challenging in the context of the United States, with the more decentralised nature of union-management decision making.

Unless the United States raises the professional status of its existing teaching force as Ontario has done, upgrades the pool from which it selects new teachers, is more selective in admitting candidates for initial teacher training and education, greatly improves the quality of, and includes much more clinical education in, that training, changes the amount and structure of teachers compensation, finds practical and effective ways of raising the status of teachers, greatly improves the process of initial induction and restructures the occupation to provide increased and appropriate responsibilities for the best teachers, and leverages more effective union-management relations at local and state levels, it is unlikely to match the performance of the best-performing countries.

Important beginnings in this direction are under way. For example, the United States has directed new federal
funding for teacher preparation towards more clinical programmes such as teacher “residency” programmes, in which teacher candidates learn to teach in schools under the guidance of experienced teachers while taking classes outside of teaching hours. The Obama administration has also sought, through the Race to the Top programme and other efforts, to encourage states and districts to develop more rigorous systems of teacher evaluation that can inform new approaches to induction, compensation and career advancement decisions. These efforts are consistent with the approaches in the high-performing systems profiled in this volume.
In MPS, morale is extremely low right now.  No one is sure they will have a job in the 2011-2012 school year.  
What do you think?  Are we striving to upgrade the professional status of teachers?  Should we be changing the collective bargaining statute to only allow teachers' unions to negotiate with municipalities over wages and only in comparison to the Consumer Price Index?

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