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Teachers march outside Market Lane Junior and Senior Public School on Jan 20 2020. Elementary school teachers across Toronto are out on strike as well as several other boards.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Nina Bascia is a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

This past week, Ontario’s elementary and Catholic teachers joined their secondary school counterparts in staging one-day walkouts from their work. There is no question that these walkouts, as well as teachers “working to rule,” present problems and challenges for students and parents.

But while this is undeniably true, it is also true that what teachers are fighting for in staging these job actions is the loss of quality of the conditions of teaching and learning, without which the consequences for students and their parents would be even more problematic.

As in other provinces and many other countries, provincial laws in Ontario restrict teachers’ legitimate concerns – what they can protest about, or bargain for – to issues of salary, benefits and working conditions. Teachers are expressly prohibited from negotiating on issues of policy (for example, curriculum), even while policies may be serious issues of concern to them.

As a consequence, teacher unions are often criticized for emphasizing such “trivial” or “self-serving” issues seemingly at the expense of student learning. But the notion that the conditions of teaching are also students’ learning conditions is more than just a slogan. Research conducted in Ontario and other jurisdictions has demonstrated that the factors that allow teachers to teach well, and to know it, are the same factors that support student learning.

Rarely have teacher unions been as successful in articulating this connection as they have been in recent days. They are asking for a 2-per-cent salary increase to keep up with inflation (less than the increase that has already been awarded to Ontario’s police), but they’ve also made it clear to much of the public that some of the educational changes put forward by the provincial Progressive Conservative government are likely to compromise the quality of teaching and learning.

Full-day kindergarten has been shown by researchers to improve young students’ social and academic development as they move into the primary grades. Without full-day kindergarten, such gains will be lost.

The requirement that secondary students must take some of their courses online in order to graduate, while yet to be implemented, may not be the optimal pedagogical approach for all of them and may not be readily accessible to all students.

Finally, increases in class size, particularly at the secondary school level, have serious implications for students and teachers. The research base on class size is unclear about what the optimal class size is, or whether it matters more when children are younger, but it is clear that in larger classes, students get less attention and teaching is more teacher-centred and didactic, and students are more likely to get frustrated and disengaged by teachers’ inability to discern how and how much students are learning.

Increasing class sizes also means reducing the number of teachers and other adults who support children in schools – and fewer courses available to students that engage their interests, allow them to graduate with full credits and qualify for entrance into postsecondary schools.

And while the changes are touted as an increase in class size, the reality is actually a deeper, more widespread loss of revenue for schools, a greater loss of programs and services as boards must make difficult choices about what educational services should be retained and what can be cut.

Options for extracurricular activities, support workers, transportation and other “non-core” services may all be up for consideration, and the losses may disproportionately affect students who are members of traditionally disadvantaged groups, exacerbating social inequities. Further, facing the prospects of fewer teaching jobs and deteriorating working conditions, fewer numbers of young people are choosing to enter teaching careers, and applications to teacher training programs are down.

The dissolution of programs and services that have supported students is the issue with which teachers and their organizations are primarily concerned. Many parents and members of the public understand this and, indeed, share these concerns.

It will be important, and teacher union leaders know this, to keep testing the waters of public opinion. At least for the time being, the divide between organized teachers and the public is at a low ebb, and perhaps the three-way dynamic between government, teachers and public will shift for good. More importantly, however, is the reality that Ontario’s school system, revered around the world for the high quality of teaching and learning and its attention to educational equity, is in serious danger of losing its edge.

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