What we can learn from Canadians
By Katharine Herrup
The opinions expressed are her own.
There is a debate, if that’s what you can even call it, raging in America about how to improve our public education system. While disparate groups rip each other apart, it would seem wise to look to our neighbors to the north. Americans love to casually pick on Canadians, but we should be seriously analyzing their public school system, which has emerged as one of the most successful school systems in the world.
Why? Because all constituents – teachers, teacher unions, school boards, the government — work together. At least, that is the explanation given by Canadian Teachers’ Federation President Paul Taillefer. It’s also because there is required rigorous training for teachers — not just before you can become a teacher, but throughout their entire career.
In Canada, there is a concurrent teacher training program for undergraduates who know that they want to be a teacher once they graduate or there are teacher colleges where you go for either a year or two of training, depending upon which Canadian province you live in, that Canadians must attend before they become a teacher.
“Good teacher development and ongoing development while you are a teacher is one of the key components in making our education system successful,” Taillefer said. “Making sure that teachers are well-prepared to face the challenges is very important.”
But it’s not just training teachers that makes the Canadian school system arguably better than America’s; it’s also because of how they train them. Taillefer believes his country’s system is so successful because they have been able to reduce the impact of socioeconomic status in their students’ education and they tailor their teaching to meet the needs of their diverse student population and communities:
Even though we have a large immigrant population, teachers are trained to meet the needs of the people that come into the country and the particular students in the classes. There are different learning needs and styles that have to be addressed.
While Americans may shy away from comparing our system to Finland’s, Andy Hargreaves at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College (in the U.S.) does not do so when it comes to Canada. What makes Finland and Canada’s school systems more successful, he argues, is that both countries value teachers and professional training for them. Moreover, Hargreaves says their pay is acceptable, working conditions are favorable, facilities are good and there are all kinds of opportunities for teachers to improve their practice. Most importantly, perhaps, there is discretion for teachers to make their own judgments.
Why that is perhaps the most important aspect of those two education systems is because teacher autonomy, or, at least, teachers’ voices, are crucial to education reform. Education reform has failed in countries where the teacher voice is absent – and also where teacher unions are absent. “When teacher morale is good, a lot more gets done,” Taillefer says.
He notes that Steven Brill, in his piece for Reuters.com on education reform, ultimately makes the same point – that teachers are the classroom experts and we have to keep them involved if we want to positively move things forward.
Where Brill’s argument falls down for Taillefer is his point about teacher unions being the main stumbling block of moving education reform forward. Quality teaching, which involves attracting and retaining strong teachers, and which Brill talks about in his piece and new book “Class Warfare” is a crucial aspect of any school system, and unions are critical to doing just that – attracting and retaining good teachers.
An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report states the importance of teacher engagement in school reform. “School reform will not work unless it comes from the bottom up,” says Taillefer, “which means working with the people on the ground and those people are the teachers.”
But there are a number of points that Brill brings up in his piece that don’t make his case or fit his conclusion says Taillefer. While Brill does mention the importance of collaborative work, Taillefer does not agree with the way Brill suggests getting teachers, teacher unions and ministries of education to work together.
“Unions are definitely not the enemy,” says Taillefer, who was an English high school teacher for 20-plus years in Timmins, Canada. He says teacher unions definitely have a role to play and have a number of different hats to wear – not just a labor one:
Here in Canada, unions are additional qualification providers as well so teachers can take professional development courses through their union. We work on the labor side of things, but also in teacher upgrade and preparedness. We give teachers the tools to succeed in the classroom when it comes to facing the different challenges. When engaged positively, teacher unions will have a salutary effect on classroom and teacher experience.
What also makes the teacher experience different in Canada is that they are in a supportive environment says Taillefer. Part of where the contention comes in for teachers in America are teacher evaluations, which Brill talks about, and which can be tied to their pay. In Canada, it is not. Their teacher salaries there are not tied into student test scores. Instead, teacher evaluations are meant to help the teacher; not to intimidate or provoke fear. Taillefer explains:
What teacher evaluations are meant to do here in Canada is improve a teacher’s progress – it’s meant to support the teacher. The idea is that we want to make teachers have all the right support for what they were hired to do. There is even a teacher induction program for a teacher’s first year in some provinces that provide additional support for them and assign them mentors. It’s a very supportive process. It’s a process that’s meant to make them better teachers – not a system that’s meant to threaten or intimidate them.
That doesn’t mean teachers can’t be fired though, which is another area where Brill has a bone to pick in the U.S. system. If teachers in Canada don’t improve after help and training, they will get fired Taillefer says:
As a previous local union leader I’m aware of teachers that were let go by a school board after a teacher evaluation process. People who do not have the right stuff do not remain in the profession, but those that can be helped receive it.
What makes Canada’s teacher unions different from America’s, Taillefer says, is that they listen to all the rest of the organizations that make up the school system because the end goal – for everyone – is the education of the student.
In fact, that’s where most educators can – and do – agree. No matter what side of the debate they are on, education is (or should be) all about the students. Teachers are just one part of making sure children receive the education they deserve. Community involvement is another piece of the puzzle.
Schools are community schools. You need to make sure you have a connection to your community, especially when we have such a diverse one.
Where the U.S. school system falls down is that there’s no collegiality and communication among the community, the teachers, teacher unions, school boards and state legislatures.
One of the biggest challenges facing the American system is making sure all the stakeholders and partners show some good faith and deal with these problems head on in a less confrontational way. If we can’t collaborate, what’s our hope for the future? We’re all in it for the same reason – it’s for the benefit of the student.
Canada makes it well-known that education is a priority. After healthcare, education is where Canadian provinces spend most of their money.
Although the financing of education has come into question in every country now that there is a full-blown global economic crisis. What helps shield Canada from having to make drastic cuts in education spending is progressive taxation, an important part of their system. Taillefer elaborates:
We believe in strong public services and we are willing to pay for them such as health care and education. The couple of thousand dollars that I can keep in my pocket buys me nothing compared to what that money can do pooled together with everyone else’s. The Canadian school system teaches their students to be a part of a caring society, and the way to teach that is to model it.
Whereas the U.S. seems to be trying to solve the economic crises on the backs of students. Deciding where to spend and how much will be an ongoing challenge for a number of years, perhaps even decades, but there are too many good and critical reasons not to cut corners in education spending. So long as we can get past short-term thinking and start stressing long-term outcomes, this should be achievable.
Canada’s school system has not always been so hunky dory though. Between 1995 and 2003 many teachers retired because they were unhappy with the system. The reason for that Taillefer says was because the government wasn’t as progressive as it is now and teachers did not feel valued and appreciated – or as they say in French Canadian valorisation:
A lot of cuts were made to education during that time period and there was no communication between the government, teachers and teacher unions. Reform was imposed rather than done through collaboration and consultation. Which is why it is so important to make sure that everyone is part of the discussion and that all concerns are taken seriously.
This is quite disparate from how the U.S. system currently, and quite sadly, seems to be functioning:
Positions in the U.S. are so radically different there doesn’t seem to be an ability to work toward common ground right now. Everyone seems to be digging in their own heals and not dialoguing – and by that I mean not just the ability to verbalize and listen, but also the ability to change based on information. Things can change and new ideas can come out.
It happened in Canada. And it can happen in the U.S., too. Perhaps it will be America’s next lesson plan.
Photos, top to bottom: Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper (R) and Industry Minister Tony Clement attend a roundtable meeting at the Spencer Leadership Center, part of the Richard Ivey School of Business, in London, Ontario March 25, 2010. REUTERS/Geoff Robins; Jon Montgomery walks through past the students of Olympic Heights School after he was announced to the 2010 Winter Olympic skeleton team in Calgary, Alberta, January 27, 2009. REUTERS/Todd Korol; Custodian Doug Des Brisay cleans door handles as an extra precaution against the H1N1 virus in one of Lester B. Pearson School Board’s elementary schools in Montreal, October 29, 2009. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi; Students from Lord Roberts Elementary School visit the Hollow Tree in Stanley Park in Vancouver, British Columbia April17, 2008. REUTERS/Andy Clark