A Tale of Two Cities

Recently, Chicago resolved its teacher strike, delivering the teachers a 17.6% pay raise over four years. This was seen as an immense victory by many in the labour movement.

In Ontario, the dispute between teachers and the government still rages. (The Toronto Star has produced a helpful primer on the topic.) I’ve written before about the importance of teaching wages keeping pace with those of other professions, but the recent news from Chicago highlights two very different approches in these very different districts.

The stance taken by the province seems to be taking a position rather than negotiating in line with its interests, to use the language of Urry and Fisher in Getting to Yes. The province had no interest in most of what has emerged as contentions – they had an interest in keeping costs down and quality up. Now they have become embroiled in a dispute over the minutiae of the contract. In Chicago, they seemed to understand this difference.

Shame and Blame

It is a tired axiom that teachers get blamed for things that aren’t always their fault. And while that matter deserves exploration on its own, for today let’s leave it at a judicious reprinting of two worthy commentators.

The first is, William Johnson, a special education teacher from Brooklyn, NY, who writes in the New York times:

As you might imagine, my job can be extremely difficult. Beyond the challenges posed by my students, budget cuts and changes to special-education policy have increased my workload drastically even over just the past 18 months. While my class sizes have grown, support staff members have been laid off. Students with increasingly severe disabilities are being pushed into more mainstream classrooms like mine, where they receive less individual attention and struggle to adapt to a curriculum driven by state-designed high-stakes tests.

On top of all that, I’m a bad teacher. That’s not my opinion; it’s how I’m labeled by the city’s Education Department. Last June, my principal at the time rated my teaching “unsatisfactory,” checking off a few boxes on an evaluation sheet that placed my career in limbo. That same year, my school received an “A” rating. I was a bad teacher at a good school. It was pretty humiliating.

Like most teachers, I’m good some days, bad others. The same goes for my students. Last May, my assistant principal at the time observed me teaching in our school’s “self-contained” classroom. A self-contained room is a separate classroom for students with extremely severe learning disabilities. In that room, I taught a writing class for students ages 14 to 17, whose reading levels ranged from third through seventh grades.

When the assistant principal walked in, one of these students, a freshman girl classified with an emotional disturbance, began cursing. When the assistant principal ignored her, she started cursing at me. Then she began lobbing pencils across the room. Was this because I was a bad teacher? I don’t know.

I know that after she began throwing things, I sent her to the dean’s office. I know that a few days later, I received notice that my lesson had been rated unsatisfactory because, among other things, I had sent this student to the dean instead of following our school’s “guided discipline” procedure.

I was confused. Earlier last year, this same assistant principal observed me and instructed me to prioritize improving my “assertive voice” in the classroom. But about a month later, my principal observed me and told me to focus entirely on lesson planning, since she had no concerns about my classroom management. A few weeks earlier, she had written on my behalf for a citywide award for “classroom excellence.” Was I really a bad teacher?

In my three years with the city schools, I’ve seen a teacher with 10 years of experience become convinced, after just a few observations, that he was a terrible teacher. A few months later, he quit teaching altogether. I collaborated with another teacher who sought psychiatric care for insomnia after a particularly intense round of observations. I myself transferred to a new school after being rated “unsatisfactory.”

Behind all of this is the reality that teachers care a great deal about our work. At the school where I work today, my “bad” teaching has mostly been very successful. Even so, I leave work most days replaying lessons in my mind, wishing I’d done something differently. This isn’t because my lessons are bad, but because I want to get better at my job.

In fact, I don’t just want to get better; like most teachers I know, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I have to be. Dozens and dozens of teenagers scrutinize my language, clothing and posture all day long, all week long. If I’m off my game, the students tell me. They comment on my taste in neckties, my facial hair, the quality of my lessons. All of us teachers are evaluated all day long, already. It’s one of the most exhausting aspects of our job.

Teaching was a high-pressure job long before No Child Left Behind and the current debates about teacher evaluation. These debates seem to rest on the assumption that, left to our own devices, we teachers would be happy to coast through the school year, let our skills atrophy and collect our pensions.

The truth is, teachers don’t need elected officials to motivate us. If our students are not learning, they let us know. They put their heads down or they pass notes. They raise their hands and ask for clarification. Sometimes, they just stare at us like zombies. Few things are more excruciating for a teacher than leading a class that’s not learning. Good administrators use the evaluation processes to support teachers and help them avoid those painful classroom moments — not to weed out the teachers who don’t produce good test scores or adhere to their pedagogical beliefs.

Worst of all, the more intense the pressure gets, the worse we teach. When I had administrators breathing down my neck, the students became a secondary concern. I simply did whatever my assistant principal asked me to do, even when I thought his ideas were crazy. In all honesty, my teaching probably became close to incoherent. One week, my assistant principal wanted me to focus on arranging the students’ desks to fit with class activities, so I moved the desks around every day, just to show that I was a good soldier. I was scared of losing my job, and my students suffered for it.

That said, given all the support in the world, even the best teacher can’t force his students to learn. Students aren’t simply passive vessels, waiting to absorb information from their teachers and regurgitate it through high-stakes assessments. They make choices about what they will and won’t learn. I know I did. When I was a teenager, I often stayed up way too late, talking with friends, listening to music or playing video games. Did this affect my performance on tests? Undoubtedly. Were my teachers responsible for these choices? No.

The other voice is Bill Gates, responding to a recent decision in New York State, also writing in the Times:

LAST week, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that teachers’ individual performance assessments could be made public. I have no opinion on the ruling as a matter of law, but as a harbinger of education policy in the United States, it is a big mistake.

I am a strong proponent of measuring teachers’ effectiveness, and my foundation works with many schools to help make sure that such evaluations improve the overall quality of teaching. But publicly ranking teachers by name will not help them get better at their jobs or improve student learning. On the contrary, it will make it a lot harder to implement teacher evaluation systems that work.

In most public schools today, teachers are simply rated “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory,” and evaluations consist of having the principal observe a class for a few minutes a couple of times each year. Because we are just beginning to understand what makes a teacher effective, the vast majority of teachers are rated “satisfactory.” Few get specific feedback or training to help them improve.

Many districts and states are trying to move toward better personnel systems for evaluation and improvement. Unfortunately, some education advocates in New York, Los Angeles and other cities are claiming that a good personnel system can be based on ranking teachers according to their “value-added rating” — a measurement of their impact on students’ test scores — and publicizing the names and rankings online and in the media. But shaming poorly performing teachers doesn’t fix the problem because it doesn’t give them specific feedback.

Value-added ratings are one important piece of a complete personnel system. But student test scores alone aren’t a sensitive enough measure to gauge effective teaching, nor are they diagnostic enough to identify areas of improvement. Teaching is multifaceted, complex work. A reliable evaluation system must incorporate other measures of effectiveness, like students’ feedback about their teachers and classroom observations by highly trained peer evaluators and principals.

Putting sophisticated personnel systems in place is going to take a serious commitment. Those who believe we can do it on the cheap — by doing things like making individual teachers’ performance reports public — are underestimating the level of resources needed to spur real improvement.

At Microsoft, we created a rigorous personnel system, but we would never have thought about using employee evaluations to embarrass people, much less publish them in a newspaper. A good personnel system encourages employees and managers to work together to set clear, achievable goals. Annual reviews are a diagnostic tool to help employees reflect on their performance, get honest feedback and create a plan for improvement. Many other businesses and public sector employers embrace this approach, and that’s where the focus should be in education: school leaders and teachers working together to get better.

Fixing Teacher Salaries

There are few professions with a reputation among members of the public so conflicted as teaching. On the one hand, most people do acknowledge that teaching is a noble job – often one, as I’ve written before, that has a certain charity feel to it (“Oh, you teach? Good for you!”) But on the other hand, few professionals are so widely regarded as being lazy and overpaid as teachers are. The issue normally lies dormant, but in an era of budget pressures the slings and arrows are readied once again.

The Ontario government, ignoring some of the advice of their advisor, Don Drummond, has made some strong early moves to curb spending. Since education spending is its second-largest program commitment, keeping the budget growth to 1% cannot be successful if previous trends were allowed to continue.

Two measures have been proposed, both of which seem to be counter to long-standing agreements and labour conventions: cancel retirement gratuities and “fix” the salary grid. The first refers to agreements that provide a lump-sum payment, reported as about half the final year of salary, for teachers who have banked most of their sick days throughout their career. Presumably, the measure was created to reward teachers who saved the system money by forfeiting their negotiated sick days. To cancel this for anyone who is anywhere near retirement obviously runs counter to collective agreements won over the years.

The second idea is to “fix” the salary grid. As I’ve written before, merely freezing new cost-of-living raises doesn’t achieve much, because yearly raises for years of experience are much higher than 1%. And Laurel Broten, education minister, has pushed for a two-year freeze of the grid, and moreover, a complete rethink of teacher salaries once that two years is up. What might that mean? It certainly doesn’t mean more money for teachers. Might it mean salary cuts? Almost certainly that’s the motivation. Might it mean some sort of new grid entirely, which lowers the majority of salaries in order to create new levels, in the name of ‘pursuing excellence,’ or some such – ie, a new level for graduate degrees, while all others get a 10% pay cut? Might it mean some version of merit pay, an idea that has been argued against by the former Deputy Minister of Education for Ontario? All these are possible, but the Minister isn’t saying much right now. (And the language of the debate – to fix what is broken – is appallingly conservative for a government that fashioned itself the carrier of the progressive banner.)

According to the Globe and Mail:

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario and Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation both reacted with outrage. In a scathing letter to his members, ETFO president Sam Hammond called the tone of the proposal “mean-spirited” and wrote, “To say we were insulted is an understatement.” The ETFO has also pulled out of two days of talks scheduled for next week.

The union is right to fight for the retirement gratuity if they are to represent the wishes of their membership, which happens to be fairly mature. But from a public policy standpoint, it is a relatively small measure: the entire obligation, province-wide, over what appears to be a generation for teachers, is $1.7 billion. To increase the gap in salary, not a bonus earned over 30 years, between teaching and the other professions is obviously short-sighted. And if you are a younger teacher, the freeze in wage growth is far more troubling – older teachers are already at the top of the grid, so it hurts them much, much less.

There is a lot to like about most of Drummond’s recommendations – again, in the broad sense. And of course this wasn’t the suggestion Drummond made – he was in favour of saving money through larger class sizes in the primary years, and the reversal of the hard cap by McGuinty’s government, since so very little evidence exists in its favour. And a delayed roll-out in the very expensive full-day kindergarten that, again, was an election showpiece.

But it is preposterous to suggest that in an era of inflation over 2%, and average salary increases across this country of 3.1% (according to the Conference Board of Canada), to freeze, then cut, teacher salaries, without expecting any concomitant long-term repercussions in the quality of education. If education is important, we needed the best and the brightest to enter the field. It isn’t enough to echo the old refrain, “No one becomes a teacher for the money.” (Or if the refrain holds true, it should hold true in all professions – a return to higher personal income tax rates on high earners should demonstrate that. The government would have all the money it needs with a high income surtax).

Teachers need to be paid at a rate similar to other professions of equal social value and equal educational requirements. I think we’re quite close at this exact moment, but with at least two years erosion by inflation, and then a complete overhaul of teachers salaries (downward), the gap between accounting, law, medicine, even law enforcement will grow so great that the only folks interested in the profession will indeed be the ones looking for summers off. And that’s a shame.

Teacher Pay in a Time of Austerity

In the rush to fix the many budget problems that have beset governments around the world, many have turned to spending cuts as a solution.  In education, this can sometimes mean larger class sizes, hiring freezes, layoffs, and pay cuts.  Some districts in the US have been fierce; in Canada, teachers have been spared.  But for how long?Ontario, a province with a significant structural deficit, has hired Don Drummond, a former bank economist, to find efficiencies, savings, and outright cuts.  Obviously, no jurisdiction can have, for very long, deficits that far exceed growth rates, so Ontario does have to act.  But with so much spending wrapped up in health and education, where to find the money?  Early in the new year, we’ll find out.The plan will be to keep spending increases to 1% in key areas – which would mean lower-than-inflation pay increases for teachers.  In fact, it might mean something much, much lower than 1%, and here’s why: pay increases occur in two ways – by moving up the gay grid with new years of experience, and with each new step of the pay grid increasing by about 2-3% each year (historically).  So, even if you stop the 2-3% yearly increases, the overall cost of wages will increase by much more than 2-3% per year because the yearly pay grid increase for each passing year of experience is often approaching 10%.The chart below is the Toronto District School Board pay grid, and it indicates the challenge:

Toronto Teacher Pay

Even if we froze that salary grid completely, every teacher who wasn’t yet at the top of the grid (any teachers in years 0-10 of their career), will receive a pay increase.  And it will cost more than 1%.  Much more.

To take a more radical step and freeze new levels of experience, freeze salaries entirely (not just cost-of-living raises), well much more savings could be found.  But to do so would put teachers in an even weaker salary position in relation to other professions.  And as that gap grows, will it be possible to find the best workers?

Everyone says “teachers don’t go into the job for the money,” but I disagree vehemently – this is one of those silly things people say to sound soft and fuzzy.  Teachers need to be paid fairly, and no teacher would work for free.  Money isn’t their key motivator, but wait to see what happens when salaries are cut or frozen and the gap between teachers and other well-educated workers grows and grows.  If good teaching is important, why reduce it to charity work?  Or on the other hand, why not apply the same thinking to medicine, or law?

Here’s Don and friends on a recent edition of TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin.  (Also featured is Ben Levin, one of my recent professors.)

Are Teachers “Too White”?

There are few educational policies more lauded than the twin but different aims of “equity and diversity.” Who would be opposed to that?

Probably no one, at least in the broadest terms.  But for those of us not deemed “diverse,” those of us white and male, a rigorous policy of hiring equity in hiring might make getting a job a lot harder.

According to a recent article by Louise Brown in the Toronto Star:

The Ontario Ministry of Education has told school boards this year to make equity a focus in hiring.

“It’s critical students see themselves reflected in their teachers and principals,” said Education Minister Laurel Broten. But Queen’s Park will not force boards to track the race of teachers, so it’s unclear how boards will show they’re making progress.’

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario has asked members to indicate their racial background since 2002, but a scant 5 per cent check off the “racialized” box and that number isn’t going up, which makes president Sam Hammond suspect the number is too low. Still, the union runs outreach programs in schools to encourage a broader range of students to consider teaching.

“We don’t mirror the student body, yet that’s what we need. It’s so important that students have appropriate role models,” he said.

The Toronto District School Board does ask teachers to indicate their background, and about 35 per cent of teachers hired last year were visible minorities, as were 30 per cent of those who were promoted, said Pardeep Nagra, the board’s manager of employment equity.

“Principals are the true stakeholders of equity because they’re the ones doing the hiring,” said Nagra. “I meet with principals and remind them that every single hire they do is important.”

The implication is clear: in order to redress the balance, most new hires should reflect the communities present in the school.  In the GTA, where most students aren’t white, it might mean that to follow the guidelines, few (if any) white teachers would be hired – at least for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps there is no place for a white male like me in public education – or, more properly, only a few spots.  But any process that rests on race is worthy of re-examination.

Of course, there are lots of tired, old arguments opposed to these kinds of policies – often originating in the US a generation ago with affirmative action programs.  And some of them have merit, I think.

After all, if the logic goes that teachers who are of a different background than their students are in some ways inferior, then classes or schools should be structured along racial lines – does one South Asian teacher represent all peoples of South Asia? Are races so reducible?  Would this policy entitle a rural school to avoid hiring visible minorities?  If not, why not?

But a better critique: what evidence exists to suggest that race is a key indicator of quality in teaching?  Would we ask that our doctors have our ethnic or racial background?  Isn’t good teaching just good teaching, regardless of race?

If You Pay Peanuts, You Get Monkeys…

Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari wrote recently about “The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries” in the New York Times.  They begin with an observation about blame:

WHEN we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!” No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.

And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.

Very, very true.  We do not blame most professionals for problems outside of their direct sphere of influence.  Let’s use an analogy closer to home than soldiers in Afghanistan: when we go to the doctor and she tells us to quit smoking, or lose some weight, and then we ignore her advice, few would say the doctor had ‘failed us.’  If we then sadly die of a heart attack weeks later, no one would blame the doctor.

Eggers and Clements Calegari argue one solution to the problems of our education system is to pay teachers more.  According to the Economic Policy Institute, “the average weekly pay of teachers (in the US) in 2003 was nearly 14% below that of workers with similar education and work experience,” pricing them out of home ownership in 32 US major metropolitan areas.

So how do teachers cope? Sixty-two percent work outside the classroom to make ends meet. For Erik Benner, an award-winning history teacher in Keller, Tex., money has been a constant struggle. He has two children, and for 15 years has been unable to support them on his salary. Every weekday, he goes directly from Trinity Springs Middle School to drive a forklift at Floor and Décor. He works until 11 every night, then gets up and starts all over again.

All teachers – like all professionals – are in favour of higher wages.  Luckily, teachers in Ontario do fairly well: the top salary for teachers in a secondary school will be something like $94,000 in the fall.  And perhaps there is a connection between teacher salaries and student success: the most recent PISA data from the OECD has Ontario ranked near the top.

But if anyone wants to pass a raise, I doubt too many in the professsion would object.  Taxpayers, on the other hand…

To Each According to His Needs, or Does the Victor get the Spoils?

In many, but not all, professions, pay is based on performance.  This is especially true in sales where salespeople who exceed their targets get rewarded with large bonuses.  In other fields, too, performance drives compensation: law, corporate management, and sports tend to stick out in our minds.These careers have the advantage of numbers on their side: relatively easy-to-comprehend factors can be assembled to understand the productivity of a salesperson, for example.  Lawyers have billable hours.  CEOs have targets assigned by the board.  Athletes have statistics.  To the degree that someone reaches these targets we can say he or she has done good work.  And then the compensation can increase.

Such a pay model assumes that we are motivated by compensation above most other factors.  And it assumes a certain degree of control over our work.  And for many people in many fields, it seems to work.  Do a great job, get lots of money; don’t do a great job, get less money.

Imagine applying the thinking to teachers.  Could we achieve the kinds of reforms demanded for generations (better schools) by simply changing the compensation arrangement?

Currently, most teachers across the western world earn a salary based on years in the profession, with a factor for level of education (Bachelor of Arts + Bachelor of Education + Years in Profession = Pay).  Which means that our pay isn’t directly tied to how well we do the job.  Teaching has resisted market measures like merit pay because of the highly unionized nature of the workforce.  But with more money than ever being spent on schooling, and (in some areas) mediocre results, the idea has been gaining momentum lately.

President Obama has repeatedly endorsed merit pay for teachers.  Laura Meckler, writing in The Wall Street Journal, quoted him as saying early in his presidency: “It’s time to start rewarding good teachers, stop making excuses for bad ones. If a teacher is given a chance or two chances or three chances but still does not improve, there’s no excuse for that person to continue teaching.”  I imagine most North Americans would agree with this statement.

Some do disagree, though.  One of my teachers, Prof. Ben Levin, a former deputy minister of education in Ontario, argues that merit pay will not achieve the kinds of results hopeful conservative policy-makers want it to.  He gives eight reasons:
1. Very few people anywhere in the labour force are paid on the basis of measured outcomes
2. No other profession is paid on the basis of measured client outcomes
3. Most teachers oppose such schemes
4. Pay based on student achievement is highly likely to lead to displacement of other important education purposes and goals
5. There is no consensus on what the measures of merit should be
6. The measurement of merit in teaching inevitably involves a degree of error
7. The details of merit pay schemes vary widely, yet these details have great impact on how such plans are received and their effects on teachers and schools
8. Merit pay schemes in education have a long record of failure
(For the complete essay, click here)

Ben was also in a debate last week with Peter Cowley of the Fraser Institute (a conservative think-tank in favour of merit pay and other market measures for education).  It aired on CBC’s Sunday Edition.  Click here to listen to the entire debate.

Who will watch the watchers, who will guard the guards?

Nearly all professions have some sort of performance review.  I am told that, in some industries, they can come very frequently: sometimes at the conclusion of each project.  Online survey applications like SurveyMonkey allow frequent (and sometimes meaningful) feedback from our superiors and our clients alike.  And in an enlightened world, those critiques are understood with a reasonable outlook: while there might be room for improvement, feedback shouldn’t be a noose to hang you.

In teaching, though, there is remarkably little oversight.  In most public boards, once you’ve cleared the probation period, you can more or less be guaranteed a job.  You are subject to periodic teaching appraisals, but if you get less than satisfactory the union will grieve it.  You can imagine how few teachers receive less than satisfactory appraisals.

Teachers can be quite defensive about their practice.  Even the act of stepping into another teacher’s classroom can be perceived as an affront – “who are you to snoop?”  Why are we like this – why so defensive?

I think this can be explained with a few things in mind.  First, teachers receive less affirmation from adult peers than any profession I can think of – you could go a year or two without anyone saying “Good job.”  So when people come snooping by, our first reaction can be out of fear.  And second, because the craft is so damn mysterious.  As a nurse, you are expected to follow protocol; as a doctor, even more so.  Most professions are quite mechanical, if I can be forgiven for the term.  If I walk into an emergency room complaining of chest pains, the staff will do the same thing no matter which western hospital I’m in.  Can the same be said of teaching?  And if not, if teaching is less mechanical and standardized than some would have it, what should I be doing at any given moment?

The New York Times recently profiled a technique that would possibly allow for more objective teacher evaluations (though it seems unlikely).  As Sam Dillon reports:

Bill Gates, who in recent years has turned his attention and considerable fortune to improving American education, is investing $335 million through his foundation to overhaul the personnel departments of several big school systems. A big chunk of that money is financing research by dozens of social scientists and thousands of teachers to develop a better system for evaluating classroom instruction. The effort will have enormous consequences for the movement to hold schools and educators more accountable for student achievement.”

I suggest something bold: teachers and all school administrators should be evaluated once per year by those above them and below (by whatever means, technological or conventional, we can agree on).  In addition to the usual power relationships, teachers should be evaluated by students, and principals by teachers.  Not maybe with the intention to fire, but possibly – and even if not, the exercise provides a tremendous amount of insight into our practice.  My school has every student complete a course evaluation in every single section of the senior school – more than 150 in total – in December so teachers can improve their practice.  Student-generated data isn’t everything, but it is a key component of how we understand the successes and failures of our methods.  (It should be noted that I teach in a private school – we are all on one-year contracts.  While it is not for everyone, I am certain such an arrangement improves the quality of teaching.)

When we compare teaching with other public goods, however, it does strike me how teachers might not get a fair shake.  I have never been able to provide meaningful feedback to my doctor (who, as most doctors in Canada, runs a partly-entrepreneurial practice: if you don’t like it, find another doctor), or a nurse in a hospital, or really any other public provider.  (There are exception, I suppose, for certain kinds of civil servants, those especially close to elected officials hoping to return to office).  And while we might gripe about nurses or doctors, we wouldn’t dream of instituting a meaningful, 360-degree evaluation scheme for them.

Scrutiny for all.  At worst, we suffer a little more job anxiety.  At best, we improve a whole range of performances.  Sure, criticism stings: but even in a world where we received frequent and honest criticism, we wouldn’t all get fired.  But we might, if we can get over ourselves, improve.

Teacher Hiring?

I have only ever worked in a private school.  This isn’t by intention; though most would imagine that I would prefer the privileges of private school, the truth is that the public system has never been interested in hiring me.  Six years into a teaching career, three university degrees and a fourth under way, six 100-hour-plus additional qualification courses, and the public system is still closed to me.

This isn’t to say that I don’t like private schools.  The school I started my career with, and the one I am starting a new position at this month, are wonderful schools with great programs, and looking back I wouldn’t change the past six years for anything.  But it is to say two things: part of the reason these (private) schools work well is that teachers could be – and sometimes were – fired; and two, if the public systems across the continent are to achieve greatness, they need to adopt the nimble approach of private schools – that is to say, the practice of any organization committed to success where hiring and firing decisions are based on competence, and competence alone.

There are three possible reasons the public system doesn’t hire people like me – or nearly all of my teacher friends who, like me, can only find work in private schools.  It could be that we are weak candidates, or that we present poorly on our CVs or in interviews – this remains an open possibility.  Second, it could be that those interviewing don’t know how to pick good candidates out of the pile.  But I think the third possibility is most likely: public boards are so burdened with bureaucracy and unionism that hiring decisions are often driven not by applicant quality, but by inflexible and unworkable set of practices designed for the needs of the organization, not student success.

The hiring process in the Toronto District School Board illustrates the point.  While much of what follows is conjecture, there are a set of agreed upon facts.  Any teacher wishing to be hired for the fall needs to apply the previous winter.  Exactly when isn’t clear – the TDSB website encourages applications from December until an indeterminate point, but there are lots of rumours about secret deadlines earlier in the year.  The application is on-line, and fairly basic: which degrees are possessed, what additional qualifications have been earned, and the like.  If those in charge of hiring (often former teachers who have moved up the board hierarchy) choose to, they invite applicants to a board interview.  At the interview, applicants are asked five questions – and the questions are easily guessed at through a Google search.   In order to keep the interviews standard (and fair, goes the logic), interviewers are not allowed to ask follow-up questions, but instead largely check-off a set of ‘look-fors’ – sadly, sometimes not more than educational buzzwords strung together.  You cannot leave any supplementary paperwork, like letters of reference, copies of a teaching portfolio, or even a sample lesson plan.  In fact, to remain impartial, the interviewers do not have a resume in front of them.  If against all odds you manage to impress during the interview, you are placed on the eligible-to-hire list.

And what a list it is. On it sit the collected hopefuls of the fourth largest school board in North America, and a district with two teaching faculties over-producing teachers.  There are rumours that there are divisions within the list between those ‘recommended’ and those ‘strongly’ so, but no evidence of this is available on the board’s website.  Principals determine staffing needs sometime in the late spring, and begin to fill vacancies.  First, openings are available only to those currently in the board.  And finally, when the leftover spots are still leftover, principals access a list of candidates who are ‘eligible-to-hire.’  The board maintains that those on the list could be called for one last school-lever interview starting in June – but it seems most common to get calls much later, even well into the fall term.  And by the time the principal interviews the candidate for the school-level job, the situation is often desperate and nearly anyone will do; teachers are frequently hired mere days before they are expected to teach.

The process, then, is at least six months long, and often much longer.   And at the end of it, questions remain: how can the best candidates emerge from such a slow process, on which is biased towards existing union membership, and relies primarily not on the judgment of the person legally responsible for the program of any school, the principal, but an educational Russian doll of sets of committees within committees?

Earlier I had argued there are three reasons the public board has never seen fit to hire people like me and my teacher friends, but there will be those arguing there is a fourth: they will say that as part of a demographic crisis in education there are fewer children, and therefore fewer jobs.  Public boards aren’t hiring, they say.  Doubtlessly true, but I would argue that with so many underperforming teachers, surely there are some on the unemployment rolls who would be better in the classroom than those with tenure.  And the argument against reform on the basis that ‘unionism prevents us’ is hardly a response.  If education is important, clever politicians and passionate educators must find ways around any impediment to the overall success and dynamism of our education system.  If we don’t change (some of) the teachers, any talk about reforming our education system is mostly air.