Students, not teachers, are the reason

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For the sake of a few jobs, teachers’ unions could win a battle and lose a war. Hong Kong parents will fight anyone they think threatens education. Unions beware.

Hong Kong is funny place when it comes to education. While people in many countries buy into the myth that smaller class sizes get better outcomes (studies show no correlation), Hong Kongers know otherwise.

Popular schools with the best reputations choose superior students. Parents move mountains to secure access for their precious darlings. Good schools are crammed with the best students they can pick, rewarding pedagogical excellence. The flip side, in a city where the student population has been declining, is that less popular schools lose students until they drop below a certain threshold and then lose their funding.

Good schools thrive, bad schools dive. Until…

A few years ago, a dangerous idea crept into education. Students were not the priority. Teachers were.

Around the world, teachers have organised and become more powerful than the governments that employ them. They focus on teacher welfare to the exclusion of student outcomes. The results are uniformly disastrous.

We’re #1

Here, The Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union is the heavyweight with over 90,000 members. It’s Constitution has 13 Objects (objectives). Only one Object has a small part,buried at the end of Object (10) that vaguely mentions the union’s ‘service to the community.’ Nowhere are improved student outcomes mentioned. Union self preservation comes first, followed by members’ wages, benefits, perks, status, and political clout.

Fair enough. That’s what unions do. Typically their concentrated political clout far outweighs the disorganisation of parents. Parental respect for teachers in Hong Kong means the two interest groups have not traditionally clashed here.

However, decline of the student population in the local system, accelerated by flight to the international schools, has put public school teachers and their unions on the defensive. Fears of job loss and a dearth of jobs for fresh education graduates have brought heightened a sense of panic. Fewer jobs means fewer union members, fewer dues, less power. Unions got to work.

New priority: job security

A few years ago, the unions and government came up with a voluntary scheme for schools to limit the number of classes good schools had. Good schools would take fewer students, pushing good students down to lower quality schools and so on to the bottom, ensuring more students would be stuck in the worst schools – and jobs would be saved (see Harbour Times Issue 5, July 5th 2013).

Unions started pushing the ‘small class, better outcomes’ message hard. Given it was contrary to parents’ experience, unions argued new teaching methods demanded it. Another argument was it would lighten teacher workloads – rarely a successful argument with Hong Kong’s ferociously long-houred labourers.

Politically, the Education Commission used to play a more significant role, providing political cover for the government. The centralisation of power in the Education Bureau has removed that cover, leaving the government more open to pressure.

Closing schools is not on the Government’s agenda, Secretary for Education Eddie Ng

That pressure is starting to show. Last week Eddie Ng, the Secretary for Education, appeared to be singing from the union’s song book. School closures are now unambiguously off the books. If you are in the worst of the worst, sorry – you’re stuck.

The ‘primary objectives’ , from the government video of Mr. Ng on Tuesday last week (March 25th) are to first protect capacity in the schools and second to address worries ‘about the redundancy of teachers.” Student education outcomes appear to have dropped off the map. That will no doubt be contested, but the priorities, as articulated, suggest at least student outcomes being accidentally forgotten.

The explanation for these priorities is that while student populations are dropping, they will rise dramatically in coming years. Ip Kin-Yuen (F-Education) has argued in these pages that the government has not planned according to obvious demographic trends. Mr. Ng appears to be addressing that deficiency. However, he does not mention that the population will drop again, as the demographic bulge brought on by the run of mainland mommy births moves through Hong Kong’s education system like a pig through a python. When the government effectively cut off cross-border birthing, the birth rate reverted to trend.

First teachers, second….

Last year, the hue and cry was about too many young teachers having to work on temporary contracts with no job security. There is no word about the various bodies training teachers slowing their gusher of surplus educators onto the market. The mainland baby bulge will save a few jobs for a while, but not all, forever. Someone needs to tell hopeful seventeen year olds that education is a terrible choice of profession and funding to teacher training should be cut.

Smaller class sizes are the holy grail of job preservation, not student performance. Study after study have shown it is a far inferior predictor of performance to home environment, parental involvement, teacher dedication and other factors. Preserving the jobs of teachers at the bottom of the heap hardly speaks to promoting the teachers who best help students.

When teachers rule

In places where teachers rule the roost, educational outcomes are disastrous. The United States K-12 systems, in particular New York and California, are probably the best known case of union intransigence resulting in drowning students. Mexico, Brazil, Poland and other nations have out of control unions whose political power is immense. In Poland, they went on strike last year when it was suggested they may have to work more than 18 hours a week. In Mexico, it is estimated 39,000 teachers on the payroll never show up at school. The new President has made it his business to break this power and improve educational outcomes. When the (now former) union leader was jailed, some took up axes and firearms last year in defiance of the government.

In most jurisdictions, parents are not very well organised. However that is changing. In California, things became so bad voters enacted, by voter-instigated referendum, “parent-trigger” legislation where parents of a school can vote to close an underperforming school (with a 50%+1 vote of parents of children at the school) and replace all or part of entire administration. No school board or union permission is needed. After all, they are presumably the ones who created the mess. Unions fought parents’ associations who backed these measures to replace school administrations.

In Hong Kong, the teachers are organised and savvy political operators. Politicians ignore them at their peril. The difference in Hong Kong from other places is that there are very few ignorant or indifferent parents. The resistance to the National Education program was a sign of their commitment to their children’s education. If parents believed that children education was being sacrificed for teacher interests, the war would be on.

Picking sides

The unions may be increasing their clout now, but should be careful of waking the parental giant. There are far more parents than teachers. Usually a small group with concentrated benefits can easily prevail over a larger constituency with diffuse interests. Here, the big group doesn’t have a diffuse interest – it is laser focused on their children’s education.

In addition to parents, the business community has a vital interest in the quality of graduates coming into the workforce. While less directly concerned and more distracted by other priorities, education could quickly move up their priority list if education suffers.

Right now, the teachers unions’ star is rising. However, smart politicians know that picking a fight with the right people can bring money, attention and support to their cause. A champion of education who managed to frame the debate to their advantage could ignite a firestorm. Almost nobody wants that war in Hong Kong. Almost.

Survival tactic: Unions putting students first

Confronted, unions can try to square the circle of saving the jobs of even the worst teachers while claiming to protect students’ interests. They know that with numbers come power. Unions seek to protect both.

But as the worst teachers, previously culled, persist in the system, parents will start to notice and protest. Business will get behind them. Politicians, smelling blood in the water, will seek to get out ahead of the madding crowd. The unions are strong and the war will be ugly. The ExCo will need to address thousands of teachers protesting one day, parents the next. In this war, students will be the collateral damage. ExCo members may do the numbers and decide that parents trump teachers and throw them under the bus, causing them to lose their hard won gains.

Better to focus on student outcomes now. Some union leaders, like Ip Kin-yuen, seem to genuinely care for student outcomes. Others are more politician than educator, calculating power outcomes, not student welfare. Unions need to go back to their charters to put students at the centre – not themselves.

Preserving a few more jobs in the profession could come at a cost of teachers’ unions finding themselves with new, powerful enemies in the political sphere. Better they take the high road, becoming champions of parents and students. A house united around that goal would then have a larger, more powerful constituency of parents behind them to make valuable change in society.

And the students might actually come out ahead.