Ontario’s teacher labour disputes must prioritize education and incentives

Ontario’s teacher labour disputes must prioritize education and incentives

Education policy debates in Ontario, which range from curriculum changes to labour relations, are akin to schoolyard rivalries – they’re loud, disruptive, and sometimes difficult to control.

Right now, Ontario is in the middle of a labour dispute with teachers’ associations. The debate revolves around teachers’ working conditions and student learning. Here are three key lessons teachers’ associations and policy-makers should keep in mind when addressing these issues.

A Hurried History Lesson

Ontario’s 116,000 teachers – represented by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation – are contesting class sizes, control over teacher preparation time, and hiring practices. Since May, elementary teachers have carried out a partial withdrawal of service and, as of July 20th, high school teachers have been in a legal strike position.[1] Teachers’ contracts actually expired in August 2014 and, unless new agreements are reached, unions are threatening to escalate job actions when classes resume in September.[2]

The Ontario Public School Boards Association is bargaining on behalf of the province and prioritizing the improvement of student achievement and well-being. Lost in the middle of the debate are approximately two million Ontarian students and their parents who stand to lose class time, feedback on their progress, and the opportunity to partake in extra-curricular activities.[3]

Labour disruptions in schools deserve a failing grade. In Ontario, labour stoppages between the 1998-99 and 2002-03 academic years had a strong, negative impact on students’ learning outcomes, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.[4] Following disputes in 2014, Ontario passed the School Boards Collective Bargaining Act, which established a two-tier collective bargaining process.[5]  This time around, both sides of the bargaining table need to ensure that the dispute is resolved before the school bell rings and that the outcome is feasible, sustainable, and evidence-based.  

A Marketable Math Lesson

Reductions in class size are often marketed as a way to balance the left- and right-hand sides of the educational equation. Lower teacher-to-pupil ratios have been demonstrated to improve student achievement, but these results do not hold after grade one.[6] This suggests that schools with smaller classes employ more and potentially less-qualified teachers, or that other factors (such as socio-economic context) have a greater influence on student learning.

It’s time for teachers’ unions and policy-makers to break for recess and reflect on the evidence. Reducing class size is expensive and may not be a cost-effective way of addressing teachers’ concerns and enhancing student learning. Instead, resources could be directed toward other educational initiatives (continuous teacher training, for example) in order to address teachers’ demands and improve student outcomes.

A Mainstream Music Lesson

Teachers’ salaries in Ontario are relatively flat – they are based on educational level and professional experience up to a salary ceiling. Arguably, this seniority-based salary policy is not sharp – it does not reward effective teachers for high performance or incentivize specialized training.[7] With regards to the current labour disputes in Ontario, both parties should harmonize the existing salary policy with a merit-based system that rewards teacher performance and incentivizes speciality education.

In its latest annual report, the Institute found that student performance in math and science declined in Ontario over the past decade. Importantly, poor performance in these subject areas jeopardizes the province’s ability to compete in a highly skilled, global labour market. The quality of instruction may be impeding student achievement, especially given teachers’ relatively low knowledge of math and science. [8] 

Research on the salary structures of Canadian universities suggests that universities with merit-based salaries perform higher than institutions with seniority-based compensation.[9] Other evidence shows that student test scores significantly increase when teachers are offered financial incentives framed as salary losses.[10] In Ontario, modifying the seniority-based pay structure and incentivizing specialized training can improve student achievement in the short-term and enhance Ontario’s human capital competitive advantage in the long-run. Measuring performance as a teacher’s value-added, for example, could allocate resources toward attracting, retaining, and encouraging more productive teachers.[11]

Lesson Learned: Teachers’ Unions and Policy-Makers Should Read Between the Lines

When analyzing and addressing the current labour dispute, teachers’ associations and policy-makers need to do their homework and read between the lines. Research suggests that labour disputes, lower class sizes, and seniority-based pay adversely affect student learning. Offering continuous teacher training, while incentivizing high teacher performance and speciality education, are issues that should be discussed at the bargaining table.


[1] Elementary teachers have withdrawn from administrative duties while the high school teachers’ strike is limited to extra-curricular activities.

[2] Job actions, such as a strike or a slowdown of work, are carried out by employees as a protest and means of increasing their bargaining power.

[3]To compensate for lost class time, some school boards are offering supplementary learning resources and opportunities.

[4] David Johnson, (2009), “Collateral Damage: The Impact of Work Stoppages on Student performance in Ontario,” C.D. Howe.

[5] The first tier is for province-wide issues such as salary, benefits, and paid leaves. Before bargaining begins, the parties involved agree to which items are to be negotiated centrally. All other issues are reserved for second-tier bargaining which occurs at the local level.

[6] Yvan Guillemette, (2005), “School Class Size: Smaller isn’t Better,” C.D. Howe Institute, no. 215.

[7] This is not to suggest that there are non-monetary rewards associated with the profession, but greater competitive pressures in teachers’ salaries can promote higher quality teacher performance and improve student learning.

[8] Task Force on Competitiveness, Productivity and Economic Progress, (2014), “Finding its Own Way: Ontario needs to take a new tack,” Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity. While almost all of Ontario’s teachers are equipped with a least a bachelor’s degree, few have specialized training in math or science.

[9] John Chant, (2005), “How We Pay Professors and Why it Matters,” C.D. Howe Commentary, no. 221. These institutions performed better in a variety of research-based and quality measures, such as entrance grades, the success of faculty in gaining research grants, and the citations received by faculty publications.

[10] Roland G. Freyer et al., (2012), “Enhancing the Efficacy of Teacher Incentives Through Loss Aversion: A field experiment,” National Bureau of Economic Research working paper no.18237.

[11] Raj Chetty et al., (2014), “Measuring the Impacts of Teachers I: Evaluating Bias in Teacher Value-Added Estimates,” The American Economic Review 104, no. 9: 2593-2632.

Photo Credit: Dacian_G, Getty Images 

Category: Education, Employment