Opinion: Governments and Teachers’ Unions Should Remain at Arm’s Length

August 19, 2019 Updated: August 20, 2019

In 2016, the Alberta NDP government signed an unusual memorandum of understanding with the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA). The memorandum stated that the government and the ATA would “co-lead in the development and implementation” of a new provincial curriculum for all public schools in the province.

This agreement was unusual because curriculum development is an area exclusively of provincial responsibility. While it makes sense for the province to consult with the teachers’ union, making the union co-leaders in the development process sends a clear message that all other stakeholder groups, including parental groups, have only secondary status. What goes into the curriculum should matter as much to trustees, parents, and students as it does to teachers’ unions.

Given the close relationship between the NDP and unions in general, this memorandum led to serious concerns about the ATA having unacceptable influence over the curriculum development process. Thus, it came as little surprise when Alberta’s new education minister, Adriana LaGrange, announced her intent to cancel the agreement. Predictably, the ATA was not happy.

However, it makes sense for provincial governments—of all stripes—to remain at arms length from teachers’ unions, particularly since they represent interests that are different from those of other stakeholders. The job of teachers’ unions is to represent their members in bargaining for wages and working conditions, which may or may not coincide with good public policy. Of course, the same is true for any union that must work within government regulations. Imagine letting airline unions co-develop a passengers’ bill of rights or allowing police unions to co-develop a new criminal code.

When it comes to teachers’ unions, there are times when they advocate for positions that are contrary to the public interest. For example, two years ago the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario passed a motion at its annual general meeting calling on all schools and buildings named after Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, to be renamed because of his government’s harmful assimilationist policies. However, this motion threatens to erase our history because it ignores all the positive contributions Macdonald made to Canada throughout his long political career. Imagine the damage this type of historical revisionism could do if allowed to influence the development of history curriculum guides.

Ultimately, teachers’ unions promote policies that benefit their self-interest. For example, while teachers’ unions are generally strong advocates of smaller class sizes, research shows that reducing class size has, at best, a modest impact on student achievement. But it means that many more teachers will be hired, all contributing union dues. While hiring additional teachers obviously improves the union’s bottom line, it is important to ask whether it makes sense to allow a province’s education budget to be eaten up by an initiative that has only a modest impact on student achievement.

Another example is that teachers’ unions generally oppose accountability initiatives such as standardized testing. Because of concerns that standardized test results might be used in the evaluation of specific teachers, unions have generally opposed their use.

As a case in point, the ATA recently opposed the Alberta government’s reintroduction of grade 3 provincial exams. Ironically, the student learning assessments that replaced these exams are actually more onerous and more time-consuming for teachers since they need to spend a significant amount of class time administering the assessments.

In addition, teachers’ unions are sometimes at the forefront of promoting useless education fads. Back in 2012, Edmonton physics teacher Lynden Dorval was fired for defying his principal’s no-zero policy. However, instead of helping Dorval, the ATA investigated him for allegedly unprofessional behaviour. While Dorval was ultimately vindicated, it is unfortunate that his own union did little to support him. No doubt this was because many union leaders had already bought into the no-zero approach even though there is no good research supporting this policy.

Fortunately, not all teachers’ unions support useless education fads. The Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) and the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association led the fight against no-zero policies in their respective provinces. In addition, last year the OSSTF even sponsored a researchED conference in Toronto where presenters challenged many of the worst education fads imposed on teachers. It would be nice if more teachers’ unions followed OSSTF’s example.

The sensible approach would be for provincial governments to treat teachers’ unions like any other stakeholder group. When it comes to curriculum development, teachers’ unions should neither have privileged access nor be shut out completely. Rather, their proposals should be duly considered and weighed along with the proposals of parents, trustees, and students. The cozy arrangement between the Alberta NDP and the ATA may have been good for NDP politicians and union leaders but it was not healthy for the province.

For the sake of all public education stakeholders, provincial governments and teachers’ unions should remain at arm’s length. All stakeholders deserve fair treatment.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of the newly released book, “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.