Recent tensions in relationships between provincial governments and teachers, especially in British Columbia and Ontario, deserve to be understood in a wider context. Good labour relations in education and positive working relationships between provincial governments and teacher unions are a critical ingredient in the relative success of our public education system.
Canada's education system is generally recognized to deliver good results compared to most other countries.
Today, Canada has the highest rate of educational attainment in the OECD, measured as the proportion of the population (51%) with a post secondary qualification. The proportion of students who fail to complete high school has been falling rapidly in recent years and is now less than 8%.
The OECD, a major think-tank supported by the governments of advanced industrial countries, regularly tests 15 year old children in some 65 countries on a standardized basis for achievement in literacy, mathematics and science.
Canada has consistently stood near the top in these so-called PISA rankings, standing first or second in terms of average results among the large G-7 economies and ranking well above the United States. British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec all rank at or above the Canadian national average.
While we have recently slipped a bit in mathematics and science compared mainly to Asian countries, the overall picture is very positive and the OECD recognizes Canada as a strong educational performer.
Not only are average scores in Canada high relative to other countries, we also score well in terms of the performance of the bottom 25% of students and of recent immigrants. Thus we are relatively successful in terms of equalizing opportunities for all children.
Comparative studies conducted by the OECD show that there is no single magic formula for relative success. Overall levels of funding are not closely associated with better outcomes, but successful systems do deliver extra resources to help disadvantaged students. The United States does relatively badly because schools in poorer areas are under-funded, whereas the Canadian provinces fund schools much more equally.
Unsurprisingly, a key ingredient in success is highly skilled and engaged teachers. Teaching in Canada is a relatively well-paid and respected profession which is recruited from the top one third of university graduates, unlike in the United States where teachers are paid much less.
While there will always be tensions over pay between teacher unions and provincial governments, much of the collective bargaining agenda of the teacher unions promote higher quality education for students. Unions have bargained, for example, to reduce class sizes and to hire more special needs teachers who help children at risk. Teachers have also pushed for more time for class preparation and professional development.
Smaller classes, which have been a bargaining priority for teacher unions, have positive impacts on student achievement, especially for those who come from a disadvantaged background.
In a 2010 report, the OECD judged that Ontario was an outstanding educational performer and reformer from 2004, partly due to much improved labour relations after the fall of the Harris government. Collective agreements and ongoing consultations with the teacher unions improved working conditions for teachers. This included reduced class size as a key means of improved educational outcomes.
The OECD reports that “(the) Ontario strategy is perhaps the world's leading example of professionally driven system change. Through consistent application of centrally-driven pressure for higher results, combined with extensive capacity-building, in a climate of relative trust and mutual respect, the Ontario system was able to achieve progress on key indicators while maintaining labour peace and morale throughout the system.”
In the face of such international accolades, the recent bargaining position of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association - that class sizes be increased once again- is odd. It would seem counterproductive to improving or maintaining educational quality.
The right-wing have a strong tendency to attack teacher unions, claiming that they stand in the way of good educational performance. The truth is that a high quality educational system demands highly skilled and committed teachers, and that teachers seek to be partners in reforms which improve the performance of their students.
Andrew Jackson is a Senior Policy Advisor with the Broadbent Institute.