Skip to main content

School's out. No, it's in. Check your local news for the latest.

In Ontario, the chaos in the schools has descended into farce. The elementary-school union ordered the teachers out of class on Friday to protest legislation that sent them back to work. Then a labour board ruling forced them back in. Parents are fed up, and everyone is mad. Most people blame the unions.

"I hope my union leadership is happy now," one teacher told me in an e-mail. "We've made ourselves look ridiculous. Is there anyone we have failed to alienate?"

Welcome to the next decade. Wherever you live in Canada, whatever party your provincial government happens to belong to, strife in the schools is about to become a way of life. The public-sector pie is shrinking, and everybody on the public payroll will have to take a hit. That's why Ontario's education-friendly government cracked down on the teachers. If they're not reined in, everybody else will fight back, too. More than 1.1-million people in Ontario – civil servants, social workers, nurses, teachers, police, garbage collectors – are on the public payroll; their collective paycheque amounts to around $58-billion a year.

The case for public-sector unions is arguable at the best of times. Public employees are supposed to behave in the public interest. But the more entrenched and powerful their unions become, the more money they are able to extract in the form of raises, bankable sick days, job security, generous pensions, rigid work rules, and the like. The unions' job is to act in the interest of their members, which is inevitably contrary to the broader interests of the public. Politicians are happy to comply because the public purse is bottomless (until it's not). Politicians are supposed to bargain on behalf of all the citizens. But the citizens don't have unions.

Teachers regard themselves, rightly, as professionals. But the standards and practices that govern most professionals don't apply to them. Their official work hours are precisely regulated. They have no meaningful performance reviews. They don't get merit pay. And virtually nobody gets fired for poor teaching. In other words, no one gets rewarded for outstanding work or penalized for awful work.

God help us if extracurricular activities become part of their union contracts, because then the coaching, the yearbook, the prom, the chess club, and all those other unquantifiable but crucial interactions with the kids will become just as regulated (and subject to union negotiation) as classroom time.

Teachers' unions are obsolete for other reasons, too. If children were widgets, and schools were the assembly line through which they pass from kindergarten through Grade 12, the union model might make sense. But kids aren't widgets and teachers aren't factory workers. Every kid is different, and the process of learning is nuanced and complex. The old industrial model of education, which was explicitly designed to produce a steady flow of reliable workers for the industrial age, is completely unsuited to the world we live in now.

Almost every aspect of our lives has been transformed since grandma went to school. Yet the education industry is remarkably impervious to change. Kids still go to school at fixed times and sit through a series of fixed class periods where information is chopped up into "subjects." As Salman Khan, the brilliant founder of the Khan Academy, observes, instructional practice has barely changed since the late 1800s. There are too many interests invested in the way things are. "Any effort at change is smothered under the vast weight of educational orthodoxy," he writes in his new book, The One World Schoolhouse. The main aspects of the system are "inertia and resistance to new and threatening ideas."

One example of a new and threatening idea is that the standard classroom model – what Mr. Khan calls the one-pace-fits-all lecture – is a highly inefficient way to teach and learn. Teachers try to work around this, but they can't do much about it. They're pretty much forced to teach to the middle of the pack, which means slow and fast kids are shortchanged. The system is hardest on the slower kids, who are passed along the line before they master basic concepts. This explains why so many kids graduate from high school without the functional ability to read, write or do basic mathematics.

The Khan Academy was born when Mr. Khan (who was educated at MIT and Harvard) began posting short instructional videos on YouTube. Students can watch them at their own time and pace until they get the concept, and they can also take targeted self-assessment tests. His big idea is to flip the classroom model, so that independent learning replaces in-class lectures, and class time is used for creative work, problem-solving and personal coaching from the teacher. The videos are now used around the world, and even in a few schools.

Other fields have been revolutionized by new technology and new ideas, which have driven down costs, unleashed creativity, and dramatically improved results. Why can't education do the same? Why can't teachers be liberated to be far more effective than they are? The answer is obvious. Public education is a monopoly, which means it doesn't have to change. The dead weight of bureaucracy and tradition repel innovation. The teachers' unions aren't entirely to blame for this, of course – they're just part of a bigger problem. Their entire reason for being is to preserve the status quo. That's why you can expect more strife at the schools – and hardly any talk at all about better ways to educate your kids.