Thursday, February 7, 2013

Legislating teacher contracts only “if the kids are affected”?

Education Minister Jeff Johnson noted in an interview with the Calgary Herald that he would consider legislating teacher contracts only as a last resort.
“It obviously would be a last resort, something that we don’t want to do,” he said of a legislated contract. “We would only really look at this seriously if we felt kids would be impacted.”
It is useful to examine Johnson’s assertion that strikes impact children (negatively, one presumes). There is a modest but conflicting literature addressing the effect of work stoppages on student achievement (Lytle and Yanoff, 1973; Brison and Smith, 1978; Caldwell and Moskalski, 1981; Caldwell and Jeffreys, 1983; Crisci and Lulow, 1985; Wilkinson, 1989). Zirkel (1992) provides a thorough analysis of the Canadian and American literature to approximately 1990. His conclusions are:
  1. studies addressing the impact of strikes on student attitudes towards school are too remote and flawed to draw meaningful inferences from, 
  2. it is not possible to draw conclusions regarding the effect of strikes on student attendance and drop-out rates because the data is too thin and results too mixed, and 
  3. the most charitable interpretation of the data on how strikes affect student achievement is that they have a partial and short-lived effect. 
More recently, Thornicroft (1994) comparison of Ohio districts and Zwerling’s (2008) comparison of Pennsylvania districts found no relationship between work stoppages and student achievement. In Canada, Baker (2011) and Johnson (2011) studied Ontario strikes in the late 1990s and early 2000s to identify how labour disruption affects elementary school performance.

Examining 11 strikes between 1998/99 and 2005/06, Baker found reductions in grade 6 mathematics scores among schools that experienced strikes of 10 days, with the primary impact being in the year the strike occurred. Examining 15 strikes and 20 work-to-rule campaigns between 1998/99 and 2003/04, Johnson found labour disruptions were associated small reductions in grade 3 reading and mathematics assessment results. Longer strikes were associated with reductions in grade 6 mathematics results, with the effect concentrated at schools with lower socioeconomic status. Neither Johnson nor Baker addresses the effect of strikes on long-term student achievement.

The upshot is that there is some (but not very much) evidence that strikes and lockouts have a (very) small negative impact on (a small number) of students and that affects tends to be short-term. I’m told that (unpublished) government analysis of the 2002 Alberta teacher strike basically came to this conclusion.

So much for Johnson’s “oh, think of the children!” rationale.

The real impact of a teacher strike is that is messes up childcare arrangements. This was certainly the message I heard from parents during the 2007 strike in Parkland County (I was with the government then and got to take angry phone calls from parents—good times…). The political fallout from strike-triggered childcare woes is what the government is really concerned about, especially since the government already turned down a wage-freeze offer from the teachers and its prospects for legislating teachers back to work are limited.

The government would do well to remember then-Chief Justice Allan Wachowich’s 2002 admonishment that decisions about what justifies abrogating the collective bargaining rights of workers “should be informed and reasonable, not whimsical, speculating or political.”

-- Bob Barnetson

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