Playing the Indian Card

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Ontario Teachers: The Arguments

Teachers' strike? YEAH!
As elsewhere in North America—Chris Christie’s legacy—the Ontario government is getting tough on teachers’ unions. They almost have to: Ontario teachers probably have the sweetest deal on the continent, second to Alberta.

An Ontario teacher has responded on the web, outlining the teachers’ case as she sees it.

On teachers’ salaries, she writes:

if teachers are not worth what they are being paid… who IS worth that kind of money? And who could ever possibly be worth more than that? Are we saying that corporate CEOs, professional athletes, and famous actors – whom we support by choice with our business all the time, and whose salaries dwarf those of teachers – are better people, truly worthy of more money? That they contribute more to the lives of normal people?

There is no need to ask this question. This is what the free market is for. Simply, a job is worth what people are prepared to do it for, and what people are prepared to pay for it.

Making education a free market would be relatively simple: first, vouchers, and second, eliminate specific legal requirements for the teaching profession (i.e., requiring teacher certification). Would teachers’ salaries go up or down? If teachers are opposed to voucher programmes, they obviously believe salaries would go down—that they are being overpaid.

I agree that teaching is an important job. So is farming—how would we do without food?—or construction work—how would we do without shelter? This means it is important to have good teachers, and avoid bad teachers. This the present situation prevents, and a free market would allow. Indeed, in a free market, salaries for the best teachers might well be higher, just as salaries for the best CEOs, professional athletes, and actors--our interlocutor's examples of high pay. Doesn't she want this?

Under the current system, though, essentially, everyone who has the job is paid the average. In Ontario, that is $83,865 ( She mentions CEOs, athletes, and actors as unjustly doing better than teachers. To be fair, we must compare average salaries in both cases. CEOs are businessmen who have reached the top of their profession; they are not a profession per se. The closest thing to a professional category is probably “MBA.” Average salary in the US: $92,000 ( A little more than teachers. But that avererage salary is also probably lower in Canada. For professional athletes? To become a professional athlete, you already have to be near the top of your “profession”—the number of high school athletes going on to professional ranks is 0.5% or less, in the US, depending on the sport ( By contrast, anyone graduating high school has the mental capacity to become a teacher--they cumulatively score the lowest SATs of virtually any professional category or major. And even most professional athletes probaby end up with a ten-year stint in the minors. It’s not so much a career as a lottery ticket. For professional actors, also already an elite group, the average salary is $23,490 (

 Old school school.

She objects to the standard observation that the rest of us pay her salary.

As if “you” pay “my” salary. Teachers pay hundreds of dollars per paycheque in income tax. There are more than 100,000 full-time teachers (and thousands of part-time ones) in the province. Lots of tax money. When the job market flounders, it’s the taxes from secure, well-paying jobs like ours that are supporting those people who have been laid off.

Here she is admitting unapologetically that she has a better-paying and more secure job than the average Ontarian. This seems troubling, because it means a general redistribution of wealth, through the tax system, from the poor to the rich.

Logically, if teachers had their pay cut tomorrow by 50%, would the government lose the tax money from their salaries? No. That money would simply remain in the pockets of other taxpayers, or spent by them in other ways, and could be taxed there. The taxes teachers pay, because they are paid by government, do nothing to the overall pool of government revenue.

In other words, the rest of us pay her salary.

On sick days:

BUT, let it not be forgotten that schools are basically the germiest places on the planet. Teachers are generously given every opportunity to get sick. Children as a group are SO. DIRTY. They are, on the whole, terrible at washing their hands (even when we explicitly teach them how). They cough all over the place, they are full of snot… Some of them pee on the floor (or worse), and some even throw up on their teachers.

A friend and former colleague of mine, Lisa (who also happens to be fantastic teacher), had a conversation with CBC on Ontario Morning, and it’s well worth a listen. One thing she explains is how parents, without realizing it, rely on teachers’ generous sick days by sending their children to school sick. [emphasis hers]

First, she is missing or dodging the point. Nobody seems to be especially worried about how many sick days teachers are allowed, as far as I know. What the Ontario government wants to get rid of is the practice of banking unused sick days for early retirement.

But, that aside, it does not sound as though this person really loves children, does it? Should she be teaching if she does not?

It is not just that she finds them dirty. She also considers them all at least a little thick. "on the whole..even when we explicitly teach them how." This is a red flag--she admits that most students do not learn what she teaches them. And this is automatically their, not her, fault.

She's not much easier on parents. Most families nowadays have two jobs, right? If kids are sick, their parents must take a "sick" day off from their job. Yet they should do this to avoid imposing on her. Whatever their job is, her job is more important. There is a definite tone of privilege here, isn’t there?

Teachers are the people who spend the time with students; teachers are the ones who truly know what is needed in schools. For the government to say, “Agree to these non-negotiable terms, or we’ll legislate and force you to agree,” is insulting and degrading, not to mention undemocratic.

It is hard to see what there is about the proposed pay freeze that requires special knowledge of what is going on in schools. And it is hard to see what is “undemocratic” about an employer setting wages.

I am also troubled by that stock claim that “teachers are the ones who truly know what is needed in schools,” always yanked out, here used inappropriately. Are they?

It is probably the students who know best whether they are actually learning, but they are never consulted. Studies suggest they are trustworthy on this, but everyone assumes kids are not to be trusted. Next to them, barring neglect, the parents spend far more time and attention on each individual student than the teacher possibly can; they should know better than the teacher, by this same logic.

To claim that the teacher knows better than the parents, then, is really to claim a professional expertise, based on specialized training—“doctor knows best.”

This claim, on the part of teachers, cannot be justified. There is no good empirical evidence that a “qualified” teacher teaches better than the average man or woman on the street. In fact, there is good evidence they do not: homeschooling consistently gets better results than schooling, and private schools that do not use certified teachers get consistently better results than public schools that must. “Operation Follow Through,” testing various educational approaches on a huge base of students in the US, found that all the techniques coming from the education schools failed, against present practice and against a technique developed by an ad exec. There is no valid knowledge or skill imparted by ed school. And nobody fails ed school.

On vacations, her argument is simply that without the long vacation, she would not have taken the job. Fair enough--easily settled by the free market.

On teachers’ unions, she writes:

I know lots of people have a hate on for unions. Many non-unionized working people think of us as whiny, greedy, unrealistic, and… well, see above. They think we live in a dream world of unreasonable bliss, and that we need to return to the real world with working conditions like regular people have.

Thomas Walkom doesn’t agree. He explains it very well at The Star:

“As unions disappear, so do well-paying, secure jobs. When labour is strong, even non-union shops pay well — just to prevent themselves from being organized. When labour is weak, that pressure evaporates.

…Personally, I would much rather that the working conditions that “regular people” have could progress toward those of unionized workers. Then maybe everyone would be less grumpy.

Granted that this is true. Unionized jobs pay better and have better benefits than non-unionized jobs. Now stop and think for a moment: if true, why on earth is union membership shrinking? Why wouldn’t everyone join a union, now?

Simple: unions price the job out of the market. Soon, no job. The unionized manufacturing sector has simply moved, en masse, to non-unionized jurisdictions. Other unionized job categories have been automated or just ceased to exist.

The only way to avoid this market pressure is to avoid the free market, i.e., to establish a monopoly and force payment, as government workers have.

But everyone can’t do this—if they did, nobody would get a pay raise. Their increase in pay would be more or less counterbalanced by an increase in all their costs, to cover everyone else’s increase in pay.

So the only way it works is by one privileged group exploiting the general public.

On putting kids first:

Recently, in The Globe and Mail, Education Minister Laurel Broten was quoted as saying, “I really want to encourage our teachers to put the interests of the students that they have the privilege of teaching every single day first.” In an attempt to invalidate any job action, the Minister has come up with a statement so condescending, it’s almost laughable. Laurel Broten is not a teacher. To say something like that (and many other similar inanities) shows that she doesn’t spend real time in schools, witnessing what teachers do every day, which is: put kids first. Her opinions and wishes, therefore, are irrelevant, except that along with Dalton McGuinty, she apparently has the power to force them upon us.

Let’s condense that down a little bit: “Laurel Broten is not a teacher … Her opinions and wishes, therefore, are irrelevant.” Is that fair? A sweeping expectation of special privileges for teachers, surely? It means she believes teachers should be answerable to no one—and need consider no one else’s wishes. This could not even be justified if they could demonstrate that, like doctors, they have some useful special expertise.

As to the repeatedly stated problem that only teachers really know what goes on in a classroom, there is a simple solution. Set up webcams in every classroom, accessible to the general public. Then parents, let alone government ministers, could know precisely what teachers do every day. Sound good? Does out interlocutor want that?

If not, perhaps she should back down on this point...

School as I remember it.

She concludes:

Hey, teachers….

None of us sleeps well the night before the first day of school, but I know you will go into your classrooms determined to be the best teacher you’ve been yet, to reach more children than any other year, to be even more awesome than you’ve been so far.

…You are amazing.

You know a group is privileged when it so easily assumes all of its members are first-rate, by dint of being members of the club. That is the mark of an upper class.

Worse, there is no evidence supporting the self-satisfaction.

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