Teaching Profession

Lessons on Teachers’ Unions from Canada, Finland?

By Sean Cavanagh — November 14, 2011 1 min read
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Governors and lawmakers considering following the models of Wisconsin and Ohio in dealing with teachers unions might be well advised to look to Canada and Finland, instead, in the opinion of one observer.

That’s the suggestion offered by Marc Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, in a new essay published in the journal Education Next.

Tucker, who has studied schools in top-performing nations, is the author of the new book Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems. In his essay, he sketches the history of teachers’ unions in the United States, examining how they became increasingly organized and politically influential. He looks at how working conditions and seniority-based protections became a common feature of union contracts—and were largely viewed as commonsensical and unobjectionable, until many school officials came to see them as obstacles to school improvement.

Both Finland and Ontario have a long tradition of heavily involving teachers’ unions in policy decisions, Tucker says. Finland sets high standards for entry into the profession, gives teachers a lot of high-quality training, and then gives teachers a lot of autonomy in the classroom, in sharp contrast to the “top-down accountability systems” of the United States, with their “implied distrust of teachers,” the author argues.

In Ontario, the relationship between teachers and unions had gone through an acrimonious period, colored by lockouts, strikes, and bellicose public relations campaigns. But, more recently, peace has broken out, Tucker writes, and the current government has focused on giving teachers the skills and resources they need to succeed, assuming that “teachers wanted to do the right thing but lacked the capacity to do it.”

Tucker says the experiences of those high-performing jurisdictions offer lessons for the United States:

My conclusion is that the current impulse to curtail the influence of the teachers unions may return some powers to management that over the years have gravitated to the unions. But that victory is likely to come at the price of deeply alienating many teachers from the larger cause of education reform. Teachers know that if they lose their unions during a fiscal crisis, they will have no protection as long as state and local officials face enormous pressure to cut teaching jobs, compensation, and benefits. A determined, widespread effort to weaken or destroy the institution teachers are counting on to protect them economically will force them into retirement or to hunker down and wait in brooding resentment for a change in the political weather."

Unions in Canada, and especially in Europe, have much different relationships with employers, and the government, than they do in the United States, as Tucker notes. Do the Finnish and Canadian models for union-management relations offer lessons for this country, or is the comparison off-base?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.