What we can learn from Canadians

August 24, 2011

By Katharine Herrup
The opinions expressed are her own.

This piece is part of a great debate we are having on Reuters around Steven Brill’s op-ed on the school reform deniers. Here are pieces by Diane Ravitch, Joel Klein, Deborah Meier among many others.

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.

“We live in a knowledge based economy so it’s imperative to keep financing education,” Taillefer explains. “We’ve managed to avoid that and it’s nowhere near what’s happening south of the border.”

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



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The teachers union in Ontario is too powerful. Many Canadians think teachers are overpaid and have too many benefits. Many teachers lack a fundamental understanding the subjects they are trying to teach. The quality of teachers varies from one school to the next in one city. As a union they are very protective of their turf and they will not let an expert into the classroom even for one visit. Like other civil servants they are a closed system that looks inward not outward. Most teachers do not have a clue as to what the real world looks like.

Posted by donvalley | Report as abusive

Most workers do not have a clue what a teacher’s world looks like. Have you ever received a scathing note from a parent first thing in the morning, and then had to get up to greet the class as a happy teacher, and teach lessons and deal with behaviour problems as though nothing has happened, all the while while wondering when during the day, (when you may have no work-free periods) you will have time to reply to sometimes unjustified comments or accusations?
Have you ever wondered when, while dealing with before school, recess and/or after school playground duty, and frequently coping with lunchtime meetings, concert practices, or supervising lunchtime intramural sports, you will ever have an opportunity to eat, go to the baththroom, or prepare homework for parents who have requested it for absent students.
I look at many of my peers who have time during their workday to make and answer phone calls, surf the net, and even view and answer email, and wonder if a time will ever exist when teachers can do such tasks in the course of their workday.
By the way, contrary to popular belief, teachers do not work from 9 to 3, and our ever more time-consuming and complex report cards (and interims) are all completed during our evenings and weekends. Before and after school we are busy helping students, preparing lessons for every subject, ordering and gathering materials (many of which we pay for with hundreds of dollars per year of our own money) organizing and counting funds for field trips, collecting money for hot lunches, and school fundraising, organizing the classroom, climbing high on ladders to put up and/or take down bulletin board displays, doing extra-curricular activities, keeping track of who has (or has not) handed in assignments and which are completed at an acceptable level, and which need to be redone, planning to get absent students caught up with their work, entering marks into grading programs, attending staff meetings, committee meetings, professional development, ordering Scholastic books, communicating with parents, preparing special work for students on adapted or modified programs, and ultimately, doing so many other tasks, that I cannot remember them all at this time.
As for vacations, I was at an all-day Pro-D session today. Many of my colleagues will attend week-long workshops next week. Some are working on Master’s degrees, and a lot of us have been in the classroom preparing since early August (and some in July).
No matter what challenges we may encounter in the course of our duties, (which may involve teaching 30 8-9 year-olds with reading levels ranging from grades 1-7) and widely varying special needs and behavioral challenges, we are expected to act as kind and judicious parents, and must always be aware that even raising our voices too much may result in a parent’s report to our provincial College of Teachers, and a possible investigation and/or reprimand.
Oh, and, by the way, intermediate teachers must prepare teach and mark lessons and assignments for Reading, Writing, Spelling, French, Science, Social Studies, Health and Career Education, Information Technology, Physical Education, and Fine Arts (officially defined as Music, Art, Drama, and Dance). We are also expected to provide Daily Physical Activity, which is a distinct challenge in the winter in a small room crammed with 30 desks.
The curriculum, the textbooks, computer reporting methods, and the programs supported by the school district constantly change. We are expected to keep abreast of these changes and communicate with district staff, administrators, learning assistance teachers, teacher-librarians, counsellors, and in some cases nurses and social workers.
When I began teaching in 1989, we were given $150 a year to spend on classroom materials. Then this declined to $125, and has not changed since.
As for benefits, we still get $200 for glasses or contacts every 2 years. This will seldom buy a set of frames, let alone lenses. This has not changed since I can remember.
Elementary school teachers in my district get two 45 minute blocks a week for preparation time. (a time when we are not actively teaching, and another instructor takes our class so we can get some work done.) This time has not altered since I can remember, and is way behind what other teachers in other provinces in Canada receive.
Notice that I do not mention salary. Sure, I would like a raise, but that is the least of my concerns. For those who do not think that teachers understand what the real world looks like. I recommend that you spend a year in an elementary intermediate classroom. I guarantee that you will come away with a new perspective on the life of a teacher.

Posted by Dashacrick | Report as abusive

An excellent article in fact. Thank you for writing it!

For Donvalley, I am sorry to hear that you have had a bad experience with the Ontario school system. I am a teacher in Ontario, and in fact, I find my union not strong enough. As for the pay, I went to school for it and my diplomas (emphasize the plural form)prove it. I am still taking courses for upgrade, attend countless workshops and still learning to become a better teacher, after 23 years and hoping for many more. My salary and benefits are well earned. Being a teacher is more than just standing in front of the classroom; it is knowing how each student learns, how to deliver a strict curriculum, how to assess it, how to be flexible, how to keep the students motivated and engaged and thus, improving their performances. It is how to communicate with the parents and guide them in being involved in their child’s education.
As for welcoming experts in our classrooms, our doors are opened because we don’t keep secrets. In fact, we keep abreast on the new philosophies and teaching approaches, based on research. We invites experts because we want to know how to be more efficient as teachers.

And the outside world? Well, we are preparing 21st century learners for jobs that do not exist yet! These learners are critical thinkers, amazing problem solvers, they see things in a different light and help us see that. Children are amazing teachers. We are privileged enough to be preparing the agents of change of the world of tomorrow. So do not accuse us of being clueless, in fact, maybe you should open up your eyes to the world around you and see the impact that we have. Simply said, if you know how to read, write and count, thank a teacher.

Posted by rocstar | Report as abusive

The Canadian one and two year teacher education programs are limited to those who already have a bachelor’s degree in some other subject, usually in the subject area that the applicant wants to teach. To become a high school math teacher, then, you can do a four year education degree, in which you with study both teaching and mathematics, or you can get a BA in mathematics and follow up with one or more likely two years at a teacher college.

You can’t get a teaching license with only one or two years of tertiary education. Everyone’s gotta have at least a BA, BSc, etc.

Posted by StanWright | Report as abusive

Both these aritcles are terrific on paper. My experiences as a mother was back in the 1960′s, when the public school system in Ontario was terrible. It was the time of Dennis and Hall, a couple of simpletons. My son’s marks were very good, but they did not reflect his
knowledge of English or Math. We finally took him out of the public school system, and are thankful we did so. I still question the system, looking at some of the young people today, how little they really know, except to play games on the computer. They still can’t spell or add up a few figures in their head. Yes there are some extremely clever children, but only some instead of most.

Posted by mopalot | Report as abusive

I read the comments by donvalley that teachers do not understand the “real world.” What exactly is this real world? Is it that everyone should work for $5/hr.? What exactly is it? And what makes that person an expert on the real world? I am 52 yrs. of age and I am still not an expert. I have found in the past that when people make these types of comments are usually bitter for their choices in life.

Posted by taximan72 | Report as abusive