Education International
Education International

Taking a stand for teachers

published 9 November 2012 updated 1 March 2017
written by:

Take a Stand for Teachers and Education Unions

The theme for this year’s World Teachers’ Day is “Take a Stand for Teachers”. In light of all the challenges we face today, perhaps the theme should be extended to “Take a Stand for Teachers and Education Unions”. The original aim of World Teachers’ Day was to highlight the contributions of teachers to education. If one looks at examples of how World Teachers’ Day is celebrated around the world – and even by EI – there is little mention of the role of educators’ organisations. EI has always directed World Teachers’ Day activities toward the important role of the individual teacher. Now might be a good time to focus on the role of educators’ organisations in developing the profession and improving education, in general, and to counter some of the myths about unions and education.

Fred van Leeuwen, General Secretary

Crisis and austerity measures undermine quality education

The other current threat to public education and educators’ organisations is the international economic crisis. Evidence abounds of the effects of the crisis on public education systems throughout the world. Greece may be the symbol for the crisis, but nearly all governments are feeling the pressure of declining tax revenues and the need to cut budgets, especially for public services. The latest Programme for International Student Assessment  (PISA) study of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), released in early September, reported that “public expenditure on education as a percentage of total public expenditure has decreased in 19 out of 32 individual countries, between 2005 and 2009”. The report notes that austerity pressures resulted in “reductions in teachers’ salaries in Estonia, Hungary and Ireland”. That was reportedly the case until 2009. In fact, educators’ salaries have declined or stagnated in many more OECD countries in recent years.  Many teaching positions also went unfilled or were cut as a result of the effects of the international economic crisis on national budgets (the result of neo-liberal political decisions with only peripheral connection to the economic crisis).

The math is simple - education funding often competes with defence spending as the highest single ticket item in many national annual budgets and educators’ salaries represent a relatively high percentage of education budgets (the other aspect of the “political math” for government officials is that, in many countries, defence budgets have more political friends than education budgets!). When budget cuts are necessary, education becomes a prime target. In most countries, tough economic times result in cuts in funding education generally, including increased class sizes, increased school fees for parents and cuts in the numbers and salaries of education staff. Often, education unions themselves are criticised for trying to defend their members’ interests. The slogan of many conservatives and even liberal political groups is, “We can’t afford unions”.

Education unions help increase education quality

The biggest lie about educators’ unions is that where they exist they inhibit the raising of the quality of education standards. For the past decade or more, many national education systems have regarded the OECD’s PISA reports as something of a report card on the quality of education in their respective countries. A lot has been written about these multi-national studies; however, some important highlights of the studies have not been well publicised. First, in nearly all top-performing countries, education is public. Second, there are strong, independent educators’ organisations in most of the top-performing countries. An additional finding is that Chile, which once had a national public education system that was a model for quality in Latin America, scores in the bottom cohort of countries which participate in the OECD studies. In the late 1980s, Chile adopted a national education credit system that shifted substantial public funds to private schools which undermined its public education system.

PISA, and other international comparisons of education outcomes, have been seen useful for lower-performing countries to look to for effective models for education systems in higher-performing countries. The success of Finland in the PISA results has created a virtual travel industry for foreign education officials to see what makes education there so successful. The problem is that the education systems in the highly performing countries vary greatly. For example, in Finland, there is no rigid curriculum and little student testing. On the other hand, in Singapore, there is a great emphasis on testing and measurement of teacher performance. However, what the Finnish and Singapore education systems, along with other PISA high-performing countries, share, are national cultures in which teachers and public education are highly valued by the general public.

EI will continue to stress the value of educators in the world. We will also continue to emphasise on World Teachers’ Day and throughout the year, that education organisations are important actors in any effective education system. We need to highlight how they help to shape a profession which must continue to attract and retain the “best and the brightest” as educators.

Education unions weakened to enforce harmful education reforms

Part of the attraction of education reform initiatives for many education authorities is that they can weaken educators’ unions and, in many cases, become a discreet way to cut government education costs. For example, the proposal for governments to give students education credits, known as “vouchers” in the US, which would allow them to pay for all or part of their tuition in a public or private school, was attractive to education officials, because the value of the “credit” was usually less than the cost per student in public schools.

Another example is a scheme to encourage young college graduates to work as a teacher for a year or two before they start a career in a higher-paying line of work. Some education reformers argue that these ‘classroom volunteers’ benefit education because younger teachers are somehow better because they have more energy and enthusiasm for the job than more experienced teachers. It is convenient for education officials to popularise this idea, however, for an additional reason. Simply put, first and second-year teachers are less expensive than teachers with five, ten, fifteen, or more, years in service.

Education unions unfairly scapegoated

Often when education unions oppose such schemes, which undercut educators’ job security among other things, unions are painted as blocking education “reform” because they are trying to protect the job security of their members. The question that education reformers have not answered is how do they expect to attract good quality, well-prepared teachers - crucial to creating world-class quality education systems - to a career where pay is low and there is little to no job security?

It is true that the central purpose of most educators’ organisations is to promote and protect the interests of their members. It is the central purpose of nearly all unions and professional associations. In addition to protection of individual members, most good unions and professional associations also understand the need to protect their ‘industry’. Education unions have recognised the need to improve schools and protect them from the pressures of the current economic crisis. In many countries, they have accepted wage freezes and contract modifications to meet both education reform proposals and financial austerity requirements. Educators’ unions around the world have initiated or are cooperating with projects to help improve the quality of teaching in their respective countries. We have featured many union-led programmes in the pages of Worlds of Education and on the EI website.

Opposition to independent education organisations and workers’ rights for teachers and related public employees has always existed. Clearly, non-democratic governments try to quash any attempt to establish independent unions, both public and private. That is no surprise. Even in some established democracies, teachers are denied the right to strike and bargain collectively. Now, and over the past few decades, there is a growing movement against teachers and their organisations and against public education which is fuelled by conservative political forces under the guise of education reform and innovation. Today, this is exacerbated by the growing support for this movement from political moderates and liberals and by the effects of the current international economic crisis.

Danger of education reforms preaching more privatisation

As reported in a 2007 EI study entitled “Hidden Privation in Public Education” and again in a 2012 EI survey of teacher union attitudes, there are leading education authorities and critics in many countries who advance the position that unions of teachers and other education workers  “inhibit innovation”, “sabotage reform”, and “oppose improvement” (in schools). The extreme version of this criticism argues that, in systems where educators’ unions are strong, the only way education may be reformed is by privatising education. Their mantra, “Public education is bad, private is good”, sounds as Orwellian as “War is peace” and “Freedom is slavery”. Other more moderate elements in government and education circles around the world are not as strident, but are trying to find ways to marginalise educators’ organisations by creating semi-private government schools, abrogating union contracts and supporting volunteer-teacher initiatives. This is done in the name of education reform, but may be even more dangerous to education unions and public education than the neo-liberal rejection of government involvement in education.