Industrial Revolution Values vs. 21st Century Education System

Last week, the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) unexpectedly walked away from the province-wide tri-partite negotiating table with an announcement that the best they can offer is a four year deal with wage increases of 0%, 0%, 1% and 3% over the term of the contract.

The ATA did this knowing full well that wages are not the issue.  They were hoping to pull the wool over the eyes of Albertans.  They came out on the offensive by pointing to just how reasonable they are being.

When it comes to the issues the ATA and Government actually disagree on, however, the teachers’ position is the furthest thing from reasonable. It’s based on concepts applied during the industrial revolution, when the rise of unionism was an important counterbalance to the rise of the industrial enterprise.  This is a time that has long passed – and our education system needs to get away from.

Before reading on, I urge readers to take the time to listen to Minister Johnson’s audio interview
( for a very full and detailed explanation of the Government’s position including a q&a with the media.

The sticking points between the Government, School Boards and the ATA come down to 2 key issues –  workload and what the Minister calls a comfort letter, which is essentially an agreement from the government that they won’t make any changes to regulations, teaching quality standards or legislation that pertains to a teacher’s role for the duration of the contract.

The ATA’s position here is patently unreasonable and completely predictable.  All parties involved in this discussion will say that they want what’s best for students, but the teachers’ union by its very nature is there solely to look out for the interests of teachers and, by extension, its own power over the system.

While the Government of Alberta and school boards are looking to transform the education system so that it can function properly in the 21st century, the teachers’ union is protecting long cherished and severely antiquated principles of seniority, as well as the power the union holds when its members keep a monopolistic grip on the education system.

In other words, for the ATA these negotiations are about the very core of what gives a union its power. And for the Government, it’s about taking some of that power back in order to bring transformational change to how education is delivered.

Seniority is important to a union’s power because the longer a worker stays in the system the more money they make and the more union dues they pay. Long term workers have also been paying union dues for longer, which means they deserve more loyalty in return. It’s a closed loop system that leaves little room for innovation and even less room for change.

As the Minister explains in the audio clip, the issue of workload can be addressed in two ways – through a hard cap on hours or by giving teachers additional support in the classroom and redesigning their roles so that low value tasks are removed and more time can be spent on high value tasks.

Given the union’s inherent bias towards the long term worker, the concept of changing a teacher’s role becomes more difficult. A teacher who has a year or two left in their career will be more resistant to this kind of change. It’s natural. Change is hard. Change takes work.

But the union’s motives in this negotiation are more sinister than their systemic bias towards more senior members. These negotiations are about the union’s own relative power over the system. Monopoly equals power – anything less is seen as an erosion of that power and unacceptable to any union in a negotiation.

The union’s solution to workload is to put hard caps on the number of hours a teacher can teach in say a day or a week. Hard caps mean more teachers; more teachers mean more union dues for the ATA. It’s simple – if a teacher can only work 40 hours but there is 60 hours of work that equals 1.5 teachers or 50% more union dues.

It’s a bad deal deal for taxpayers and in the 60% of Alberta schools that hard caps are in place, the problem of teacher workload has not gone away.

The ATA’s other demand of the government – that it not change legislation, regulations, teaching quality standards or anything else related to a teacher’s role is, once again about nothing more than the teacher’s union fighting to keep monopoly control over the system – or its own power.

When the Education Minister talks about providing teachers with more support in the classroom or eliminating low value tasks, he is likely referring to bringing people into the classroom to assist teachers. This way, teachers can focus on the high quality tasks of educating our children while the teaching assistants and other classroom support staff can help with discipline, focus, attendance, paperwork or other administrative tasks.

From a perspective of relative power within the system, this doesn’t work for the teacher’s union.

This new person (or people) in the classroom, who is most likely not a certified teacher and therefore not part of the teacher’s union, will reduce the workload of the teacher, meaning less (or the same amount) of teachers and less union dues for the ATA.

While I’m oversimplifying the examples and I realize that there are many different aspects of a teacher’s role or a classroom environment that can be changed, refocused, etc. … my main point here is that the ATA’s position in these negotiations are purely about self preservation and cynical power politics.

In other words, while the various ways of approaching the issues may seem complex, understanding the motives behind the union bargaining position is extremely simple.  The union is there to keep its power and, by extension, the relative power of teachers within the education system.

It’s important to understand that for the union, there is a fundamental disconnect between the interests of teachers and the interests of students, school boards and the Minister of Education.  The union exists for teachers, not students – yes, there are circumstances when these interests overlap (the collective bargaining sweet spot); this is not one of those times.

However, in a time where the Government and School Boards are looking to bring sweeping transformational change to the education system, that bargaining sweet spot may be nearly impossible to find.

As a result, we have the ATA’s annoucement last week that they are walking away from the province-wide bargaining table.
Alberta’s education system must embrace the 21st century to prepare kids to thrive in today’s fast paced and innovative world.  The longer we allow the teachers’ union to hold onto the industrial revolution values that led to its creation (seniority and self-preservation), the worse the rest of society will be.



Inspiring Education Requires Innovation

This blog was inspired by this 15 minute video – If you care about education you need to watch the video – if you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, watch minutes 5-7 for some key points.  Also, at about 9 minutes and 40 seconds, they say the program costs $5000 per child – I would love to know how much we pay per child in Alberta and what that cost includes.

I don’t have children in school, but since my good friend, Bill Campbell, asked me to join the Save Our Fine Arts group (#sofab) I have taken a keen interest in Alberta’s education system.  I have been learning about the role of teachers, school boards, principals, trustees, parents and lastly – unfortunately – students.  I have also discovered that employers are not part of the discussion in any substantial way.   (In health the hierarchy goes doctors, nurses then everybody else).

I have spent much of my professional life working for industry associations, where I get to study the economy from a macro level and observe patterns and trends from a birds eye view.  My degree is in Human Resource Management and while HR has never been in my title at work, every job I’ve had has dealt directly with workforce issues.

While I believe we have a decent education system in Alberta, I support Minister Dave Hancock’s vision for a transformational shift in how we approach the cultivation of tomorrow’s leaders in our schools.  I applaud Minister Hancock for bringing the Inspiring Education Initiative forward and for the approach he has taken, which attempts to be collaborative and inclusive.  Not everyone will agree on the details, but the direction Minister Hancock is trying to take education is right.

Looking at the interaction between the education system and the economy from a bird’s eye view, I see disconnect between the type of workforce employers say they need and the system we use to prepare students for that workforce.  If this disconnect continues we will fail our children and leave future generations without the tools they need to succeed in an increasingly competitive world.

The broad range of employers I have spoken to over my career consistently tell me they need a workforce that is innovative, creative and sharp – able to adapt to an ever changing world.  How can a system that rewards seniority over innovation and creativity achieve that type of workforce?

We need to provide our young students with confidence – that is the secret ingredient that wakes a child up and allows them to explore.  Teachers (I’m sure many already do) should take on the role of facilitator and confidence coach and our education system should reward creativity and innovation rather than stifle it.  How can we breed the confidence to innovate and create into our children when we don’t give our teachers the confidence and tools to do so in their classrooms?

We need a system that allows for honest and open dialogue amongst ALL participants.  Teachers need a voice that is separate from the ATA so that they can speak publically and with confidence when they don’t agree with a direction being taken.

We all remember Bill 44.  A great online debate took place but there seemed to be one voice missing.  Through @crontynen’s MA research, she learned that on several occasions the ATA told teachers not to get involved in the online debate and that the teacher’s views would be expressed by the ATA.  While this was fine for some, @crontynen spoke with teachers that were craving a platform to discuss how they personally felt whether they agreed or disagreed with Bill 44.

The type of transformational change Minister Hancock describes will not happen and we will not nurture the innovation and creativity we need in tomorrow’s leaders unless we address these disconnects directly today.  These old paradigms simply won’t get us to where we need to go.  We also need to involve business leaders in the discussion since learning is a life long journey that business takes over once people enter the workforce.  It’s in everybody’s best interest to allow and encourage business to help the system get better.  Business has created the innovative approached in education and compensation that can be modeled after to make the education system more effective.

I would be remiss if I didn’t suggest that this transformation could be facilitated though a focus on fine arts education.   Music, dance, theatre, poetry, art are expressions of creativity which can be used to educate children about every single subject.  Education through a fine arts lens can help foster the creativity, innovation and, most importantly, confidence our children will need to succeed.

We also need to fund the education system adequately.  This does not mean giving into teacher salary demands to buy their silence over the course of a collective agreement, it means rewarding innovation and creativity in the classroom.  It means providing enough money to supply the tools and resources teacher need to get their job done – but first we need to define how many resources are needed to get the job done.  It means bringing measurement and accountability into the school system and getting away from a system that rewards seniority.

To actually achieve a transformational shift in Alberta’s education system we will have to approach the system in a completely new and different way.  Everybody must have an opportunity to participate and we must be completely honest about the discussion.  We need to shine a very bright light toward the fact that the system we use does not mirror the outcomes we are looking for.  Then we need to have the courage to go there.  Old attitudes will do everything to stop us from moving in this direction.  We cannot let them stop us. Our children are changing and we need an education system that is fluid enough and innovative enough to change with them.


Merit Pay for Teachers?

The idea of introducing some form of merit pay for teachers floated by BC Liberal Leadership Candidate, Kevin Falcon, has started a frenzy of political chatter across the country as interest groups, media and commentators weigh in on the pros and cons of this issue.

What’s interesting about an issue like this is that it’s seen by most people as the kind of “divisive” issue that is better left alone.  As soon as it comes up, teachers unions from across the country go into hyper-drive to ensure that every newspaper across the country is filled with editorials and comments about how bad this idea is.  I take the view that rather than avoiding it, we should meet the matter head on so that we can create a reasonable compromise and move forward.

The most common argument against merit pay for teachers is that there are too many factors that contribute to student success or failure, many of which are completely out of teacher control.  It’s usually quickly dismissed as an idea that is too complex with too many unknowns – therefore not worth pursuing.  Teachers and union leaders, who are all “experts” in the system – a system which hasn’t changed for their entire careers – assure us it’s the wrong way to go.  Most people don’t know better, so we buy it and move on without much thought.

The current reward structure in the education system is based on seniority, which is hugely problematic given Alberta’s quickly aging population.  As the profession ages, the attraction and retention of as many new teachers as possible is a key priority and merit pay could be an excellent solution.  It’s important to note the staggering fact that 30 per cent of new teachers leave the profession within five years – a clear problem for the industry.

Before I move on, I feel the need to put my views about Alberta Education on the table.  It’s abundantly clear that Alberta has one of the most successful education systems in the world.  The test scores of Alberta students prove that we are doing many things right.  The reason I write this blog post is not to create a division or to suggest that we need to blow our education system up and start from scratch – that’s a ridiculous notion for any public policy idea.  I write it because I believe that when a suggestion like this comes up, the issue at the core of the debate is rarely touched on.

Having said that, our world is changing and Alberta is considering a significant update to its education system.  I agree with the need to update the system, since the world has and will continue to change very rapidly – we need to ensure that we are ahead of these changes if we are to stay on top.  Our children need to learn how to think on their feet, be creative and innovative – not just how to pass a standardized test.

Personally, I see very little value in standardized tests, so I definitely agree with the notion that it’s a bad idea to base merit pay for teachers on those results.  Furthermore, teaching children the curriculum is the teachers job – if most of a class fails a standardized test, that teachers abilities and methods need to be closely examined and actions need to be taken.  Currently, the preferred action is to shuffle bad teachers from school to school until they just decide to leave the profession – a less than inspiring reality.

But there are other activities, behaviors and attitudes that merit pay can reward, which are worth, at the very least, trying on a pilot project basis.

Merit pay could be given for extracurricular activity, such as helping to coach the school team, putting on the Christmas recital, or volunteering to take the class on its annual trip.  As I understand it, doing one of these activities is mandatory for every teacher in every school.  What if it wasn’t mandatory and the teachers who wanted to do it had the opportunity to earn a little extra income for their time.  This is sure to be appealing to new teachers who may have more energy and enthusiasm.

Some portion of merit pay could be given based on student evaluations – although this particular idea may only be practical in high school or later grades.  For example, every June students could be asked to fill out an evaluation.  The bottom 5 per cent of teachers could appear before a panel to discuss their evaluation results, or perhaps other teachers would sit in on their classes to evaluate their teaching styles more closely – this would be an important piece, as some unpopular teachers may be effective educators.  If five per cent of merit pay is based on these evaluations, a scale can be developed and percentage of merit pay can be based on how a teacher performs relative to their colleagues.

Merit pay could also be based on parent evaluations, peer evaluations amongst teachers, or a principal’s assessment.  Merit pay could be given to teachers who adopt new methods or technologies, consistently follow internal communications protocols, or get involved in community initiatives.  The point is that the corporate world has very effectively used merit pay to incent behaviors and attitudes, and there are thousands of models that could be utilized to create a teachers merit pay structure that works.

While teachers don’t enter the profession because of the pay, these extra incentives could be what keeps younger teachers interested in the profession for long enough to make a career of it.  The administration of such a system would be very simple and objective.  Merit pay could be 10 per cent of annual salary and points could be assigned for the make up of that pay – say 3 points for extracurricular activity (what that means would be defined), 3 points from student evaluations, 2 points for peer evaluations and 2 point for the principals assessment – as an example.

Another important notion to put on the table is that merit pay for teachers should be added as a bonus structure to current salaries, not as a way to pay some teachers more than they make now at the expense of other teachers.  The public would have to eat this cost – we should consider it an investment in our future.

The resistance to merit pay for teachers has less to do with whether it is a good idea, whether it will produce better or different outcomes, or whether it would be difficult to implement.  It has everything to do with union control and ideology – raw power politics.

A union gets its power by controlling a workforce – the most valuable asset in any industry.  If there is a hill to die on for any union, it’s on the notion of merit pay because this idea inevitably means that some degree of control over compensation has to be given to “management” or put in other words, taken away from the union.  The unions desire to maintain full control over teacher compensation is the only real reason behind such fierce objection to merit pay.

The solutions to most problems in society are in the middle or through compromise.  Let’s move past the notion of hard-core right or left wing views and get to the root of the issue.  This issue is NOT about reducing union power or control; it’s about the retention of new teachers and creating the best education workforce in the world.

I look forward to your thoughts ….