Leading Futures – Unions: The Last Bastions of Progressive School Improvement

In this latest post in the Leading Futures Series, edited by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, Dean Fink argues that unions play an important role in maintaining and enhancing the professionalism of teachers and principals and as a result improve the quality of education. Fink is an international educational development consultant.  He is a former superintendent and principal with the Halton Board of Education in Ontario Canada. Fink has published numerous book chapters and articles on topics related to organizational effectiveness, leadership and change.

Recently, with considerable help from colleagues from seven nations, Australia, Canada, Finland, Lithuania, Sweden, the United Kingdom (England) and the United States, I wrote and edited a book that examined the relationship between institutional, relational and self-trust among the professional staff in schools and student achievement. What motivated the book was an interesting correlation between national measures of trust, and student achievement as measured by PISA (Program for International School Achievement).  For example, the World Values Survey  asked people in many countries around the world the following question: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you need to be very careful in dealing with people?” Possible answers included (a) most people can be trusted, and (b) you can never be too careful when dealing with others.

The first question reflected people’s trusting nature and the second their cautious or distrusting nature.  Of the seven nations in our study, Finland and Sweden scored highest on the trust measures, Canada and Australia followed closely, and the United States next in that order, then England, and well behind, the post-Soviet nation of Lithuania.  A second trust measure The Corruption Perception Index measured the perceived trustworthiness of a nation’s public sector on a scale from 0 to 100. The pattern was similar to the World Values Survey – Finland and Sweden scored at 89 %, Canada and Australia at 81%, the United Kingdom at 76%, the United States at 73% and Lithuania at 53%.

These rankings correlate closely with the 2009 and 2012 PISA scores. These results have now become the ‘gold standard’ by which politicians, academics and educational officials rate school systems. When one averages the reading, mathematics and science scores from the 2012 PISA as one measure of quality, the results follow a familiar order – Finland (529), Canada (522), Australia, (512), the United Kingdom (502), the United States, (492), Lithuania (484).  Sweden is an anomaly (482) when compared to its high trust scores. While scores in general for western countries are down from the 2009 PISA, with Lithuania as a significant exception, the rankings in 2012 were similar.

This suggests that there is a clear pattern, on admittedly flawed measures, that suggests that high trust countries produce higher student achievement. To prove this conclusively was beyond our resources but we were sufficiently intrigued to try in each of our countries to understand the trust dynamic and how it affected student and teacher performance at a much deeper level. To do this each member of our team surveyed samples of principals and teachers using the same 30 item five scale survey developed jointly and translated for non-English speaking nations. With these results, each country’s researcher(s) conducted interviews and focus groups with teachers and principals using a few generic questions on trust and distrust and then more specific questions arising from their survey results with specific reference to their trust in institutions like government and unions, relational trust among individuals in and outside of schools, and individuals’ trust in themselves in the current political climate.


Context Counts

The first and most obvious conclusion from our study is that each nation’s educational system is unique and levels of trust in each are dependent on local conditions. For example, Australia, Canada and the United States have federal systems of government with potentially three levels of government having involvement in education, national, provincial or state, and local. The national governments in Australia and the United States play an increasingly activist role in education, whereas the Canadian federal government has very limited involvement. The other four nations in our study have unitary systems of government that usually involve only a national and local government in education. While local governments are deeply involved in education in Finland, Sweden and Lithuania, the national government in England has severely undermined the involvement in education of local authorities. As a generalization, levels of trust among policy makers and policy implementers are directly related to their proximity to each other.  A teacher for example would have more trust in a local school board or local authority member than she might have in a member of the national government.  Conversely national politicians seem to have less trust in educational professionals than more local policy makers who actually meet teachers and principals in their daily activities and can learn from personal experience how their policies play out in practice. Recognizing the uniqueness of each education system and its patterns of trust well known Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg offer this caution:

…politicians and policy makers should be careful when borrowing ideas from other countries, be they Singapore, Canada, or Finland. What has made an education system work well in one country won’t necessarily work in another. Policy makers should also be aware of the myths about these systems and what made them successful.


Unions and School Improvement

A second and somewhat unanticipated revelation of our study related to teacher unions and levels of trust.  If one accepts the widely-held view that the most significant factor in the educational achievement of students is the quality of their teachers, then it follows that trust in institutions that impact positively on the lives and efficacy of teachers are vital ingredients of school improvement.  While a highly debated concept, especially in the United States, our data suggests that strong teacher unions contribute to better student results.  Unions appear to enhance the status and well-being of teachers in nations like Canada and Finland by providing professional push back against the forces of privatization and New Public Management, and by demanding reasonable wages and working conditions for teachers which in turn make the profession more attractive to younger people.  Both of these ‘high trust’ nations attract high quality university graduates into the profession and neither nation has had to resort to ‘quick recruitment fixes’ like Teach for America in the United States or Teach First in England.  Conversely underachieving nations, such as the United States, have undermined unions’ efficacy through right to work legislation which bans mandatory union membership (closed shop) and the payment of union dues which allows individual teachers to avoid financial obligations while still receiving the collective bargaining benefits of unions. In this way, governments have sought to erode the financial support for unions and weaken their ability to provide a counter narrative to the privatization agenda of many governments and to bargain for increased wages and improved working conditions.

A major motivating factor for such legislation is the widely-held belief that unions distort the natural process of labour markets by protecting inferior teachers and artificially driving up salaries for incompetents. In fact, the opposite happens.  For example, in the United States where unions are under extreme pressure, teachers experience 17% lower wage levels when compared to comparable workers. Unionized teachers have a 6% less wage gap when compared to nonunionized teachers but still below comparable workers.  Is it any wonder that most American states have teacher recruitment problems?

Dr. Eunice Han’s exhaustive study on the relationship between unions and teacher efficacy provides further evidence that unionization is in fact good for teachers and students alike and does indeed improve students’ performance. Han says that highly unionized districts actually fire more bad teachers.  She argues that by demanding higher salaries for teachers, unions give school districts a strong incentive to dismiss ineffective teachers before they get tenure. Highly unionized districts dismiss more bad teachers because it costs more to keep them.  In 2010-2011, Indiana, Idaho, Tennessee and Wisconsin changed their laws to dramatically restrict the collective bargaining power of public school teachers. Han compared these states to States where no change had occurred.  If teachers’ unions protect bad teachers, then teacher quality should have risen in the ‘reforming’ states, instead she found that the opposite happened. The new laws restricting bargaining rights in those four states reduced teacher salaries by about 9%. With lower salaries, school districts had less motivation to dismiss underperforming teachers which resulted in the ‘right to work’ states. Lower salaries also encouraged high-quality teachers to leave the teaching sector, which contributed to a decrease of teacher quality and a related fall in student’s achievement. Since teacher unions or some kind of teachers’ organizations will continue to play a part in every school jurisdiction it seems to make sense for governments that want to improve schools must work collaboratively with these organizations rather than to constantly confront, demean and ignore.


Principals and unions

A third and not unexpected result of our discussions with principals internationally is that principals find themselves in the crosshairs between big governments and more militant teachers’ associations and unions.  Strong unions complicate life for on-site school leaders.  On one hand Principals are mandated to implement policies that reflect policy makers distrust of teachers’ professionalism such as standardized testing and school inspections, and in which they themselves often have profound doubts as to their educational soundness.  In response teacher unions in some countries have grown more militant as the values of a market driven, production model of educational delivery become more established and ‘right to work’ legislation and other means to curb the power of unions including workplace agreements, becomes more popular among right-leaning politicians. This is especially so in countries such as Canada, where, in some provincesteachers and principals are represented by different associations.

Our survey of principals and teachers included this item – “Unions are an agency for school improvement in school systems and schools” – among the 30 items on our survey.  It is interesting therefore to consider how principals responded to our survey item on trust in unions.   Those principals who were not part of the teachers’ bargaining unit in Canada, such as in Ontario and British Columbia were very negative on the item.  Of our seven nations on the five-point scale, Canada scored lowest at 2.41. This low score probably reflects job (industrial) actions at the time of the survey’s administration in both large provinces as well as the legislated exclusion of principals from the teachers’ unions by production leaning governments that believed that education should be run like a business and principals as managers must be separated from their workers – the teachers.

These political decisions removed the moderating effect on unions of principals who generally see the larger picture and, as a result, unions in British Columbia and Ontario particularly, over the past 20 years, have become more strident and militant. Principals are now in the uncomfortable and often contradictory position of representing their school districts’ and provincial policies while trying to bring about school improvement with a staff that follows the lead of their unions.  Building collaborative cultures is difficult enough for principals without the added burden of negotiating these political waters.   Once again, education politics and policies that are designed to drive a wedge between principals and their staff on industrial matters cannot be seen to be conducive to developing high-trust relationships at the individual school level.  Ironically, Canadian school achievement is among the highest of our seven nations, and as stated previously, in general teachers are well paid and enjoy decent working conditions. There is no shortage of teachers in most Canadian jurisdictions with the exception of more remote and isolated areas. This is not the result of more benevolent political decision makers but rather the strength of teacher unions that are well financed and willing to push back. Principals, caught in the middle on a daily basis and excluded from unions tend to perceive only the short-term challenges presented by unions and not the long-term benefits.

Except for Canada in our seven nation study, there is no discernible pattern concerning principals’ support for and trust in teachers’ unions or their degree of influence on government policies.  Finland which includes principals in the teachers’ bargaining unit scored highest on our five point scale at 3.1.  Australian principals who are part of teachers’ unions in each state and nationally scored 2.68, and do play a high-profile role in influencing government policies.  Sweden scored 2.73 on our five-point scale.  Its secondary principals, who appear to be quite influential in an advisory position to government, operate outside the teachers’ union whereas most of their elementary colleagues are within the teachers’ union.   The two lowest achieving nations on PISA in our sample, the United Kingdom and the United States scored 2.92 on this item.   The United Kingdom’s two major principals’ organizations and three large teachers’ unions appear to have little impact on policy. The United States, that has a mixture of union and non-union States and separate principals’ organizations in most states, has had only modest success holding back the forces of privatization.

Lithuania at 2.59 on our measures, with its four teachers’ unions that include some principals and a rather ineffective principals’ association[i], tend to weaken their influence on policy by competing among themselves.  Where governments face multiple unions and principals’ associations, such as in Lithuania and the United Kingdom, governments often overcome opposition by playing one organization off against another. These large-scale dramas often add to the political challenges of principals in schools. Our study has suggested that, with the directions and destiny of the teaching profession controlled by the political process in each of the jurisdictions, and with principals called upon increasingly to be policy advocates and implementers, not designers, or at best recognized as having a limited voice among many in the policy-making process, it has been teacher unions more than any other group that have had the power to act as a voice on behalf of the teaching profession.


In our book, we portrayed the educational landscape internationally as a contest between two visions of educational change – a production model based on trust in the efficacy of markets, standardized test, privatized schools and invasive verification schemes and a progressive model that places its trust in well qualified, well paid, well treated, well-regulated professional educators. In this paper, I have tried to argue that unions play an important role in maintaining and indeed enhancing the professionalism of teacher and principals, although at times it may not seem like it, and as a result improve the quality of education.

Since unions were only a small and serendipitous part of our study this paper can only talk in terms of correlations not causes. What is needed is rigorous research to examine the relationship of unions and student achievement and to address such questions as:

  • what kind of unions are most effective – single interest unions such as the Ontario Secondary Schools Federation or inclusive teacher unions such as the Alberta Teachers Association;
  • what kind of legislation is needed to protect unionism while caring for the interests of taxpayers and students;
  • what are the most successful union configurations;
  • should principals be considered management and separate from teacher unions or as head teachers and part of a collaborative teaching unit included in Teacher unions?

As the foregoing discussion suggest, the field of unions and school improvement is wide open for bright young scholars to explore deeply.


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