Lessons we must learn: You can’t improve education by disrespecting teachers

These days, everyone is agog over Finland’s model for public education, which seemingly produces the brightest students in the world. Likewise, people swoon over the performance of Asian students, particularly in math and science.

These days, everyone is agog over Finland’s model for public education, which seemingly produces the brightest students in the world. Likewise, people swoon over the performance of Asian students, particularly in math and science.

Alberta students rank right up there with them, but there’s a Canadian ethos that says anything foreign must be better. So in our eyes, the Finns and the Asians rule the world today.

Except when they don’t. Red Deer educators have told me that Alberta’s public school curriculum is the top-requested program among countries looking to improve their own education systems, and international test results.

Why? Because our students are consistently top-flight, and the curriculum that brings the knowledge to the students is delivered in English.

Both Finnish and Asian languages are difficult adapt to educational policies for most nations. Alberta’s curriculum is far more adaptable to other cultures. As a result, I’m told that Alberta teachers with experience delivering our curriculum find the doors to international teaching opportunities open quickly.

That said, what are the commonalities between the programs in Finland, Asia and Alberta that a layperson can understand?

One that has been related to me — sometimes with pride and sometimes with despair — is that the role of the teacher is highly respected in top-flight programs. It takes a lot of training to become a public school teacher in these countries, both academically and in experience. When people suggest that a high proportion of public school teachers should have — or should work toward — a masters-level degree, that implies a high regard for the importance of the job.

So there is a disconnect, then, when teachers feel they need to resort to job action to achieve the working conditions (and, yes, pay) needed to make the job and the program work.

Today’s example of that disconnect is the ongoing dispute between the government of British Columbia and its 41,000 teachers.

Rotating one-day strikes are set to begin this week in an all-too-public battle over negotiations for a new provincial contract. While individual schools will be closed for one day, the province has moved to dock everyone’s pay by 10 per cent, call the teachers greedy and try to set them against other public sector unions.

The teachers rejected a $1,200 signing bonus for a new contract, saying they’d rather have rules instituted about class size caps, and a policy that enforces better supports in cases when classrooms exceed pre-set limits for special-needs children.

B.C. does have the second-lowest per-student funding regime in Canada. B.C.’s teachers have not seen a raise since 2010 and want to play catch-up.

But those are issues for the negotiating table.

What can be seen by outsiders here is that you can’t build a top-flight public education system when you don’t respect the professional opinions of teachers.

It must be noted that Premier Christy Clark was B.C.’s education minister when the government outlawed having classroom conditions as part of the collective bargaining process with teachers.

A decade of court battles that followed — in which the government lost every round — had its most recent round end in January with a B.C. Supreme Court ruling that you cannot separate the working conditions of the classroom from the contracts of teachers.

In the industrial world, the conditions of any job — workload, safety, physical workplace standards, etc. — all have a bearing on wage expectations and quality-of-product standards.

In education, you can’t expect world-level quality of education in a system in which there are no limits to classroom size, or when a good portion of students who need special attention aren’t getting support.

What those class sizes should be, and what levels of support there should be are well-documented in international studies: check Finland, Asia and Alberta, where these workplace standards have negotiated numbers attached.

In the working careers of pretty well all B.C. teachers, there have only been two contracts settled without some kind of job action or arbitration needed. Only once has this been achieved in the last 10 years.

Clearly, following B.C.’s old script isn’t working. And it wouldn’t work here, either.

Either you trust your teachers to know how to deliver one of the most envied curriculums in the world or you don’t. Either you listen to their professional advice as experts on the ground, or you denigrate them as greedy and try to have the cheapest education system in the country.

A world-class public education system can’t be delivered without collaboration, and without public investment.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.

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