A very expensive contract to honour

May 13, 2017

Published in the Telegraph Journal (New Brunswick)

Suppose a province and a teachers’ union were in the midst of negotiating a new contract. Student enrolment is rising steadily and the province wants to keep costs down. So, the provincial bargaining team proposes a new clause which guarantees that the number of teachers will not increase over the life of the agreement—no matter how many more students enrol.

Of course, no teachers’ union worth its salt would ever agree to such a clause, for the simple reason that it would make it impossible for schools to respond effectively to the pressures that come with increased enrolment. The union would doubtless argue that with more students comes a need for more teachers. And it would be right to do so.

However, if this principle is true, then it logically works the other way. If student enrolment declines, fewer teachers are required. A province with 100,000 students should have about half as many teachers as a province with 200,000 students. Demand for teaching positions is directly dependant on the number of students who need to be taught.

Unfortunately, the New Brunswick government has ignored common sense in its new teachers’ contract. The contract states that the total number of teachers across the province shall not fall below 7,280 during the five-year contract, no matter how much student enrolment declines.

The issue is not an abstract one for New Brunswick. Between 2002 and 2014, enrolment declined by 18 percent. While the recent influx of Syrian refugees last year led to a small resurgence in student numbers, this year was an exception to a long-term trend.

As a case in point, recently released census numbers show that the Canadian population is aging, particularly in Atlantic Canada. One in five Atlantic Canadians is 65 years or older and this number continues to rise. In contrast, the number of school-aged children continues to drop. Short of a complete demographic turnaround, the New Brunswick government had better be prepared for a society with more seniors and fewer children.

By guaranteeing a minimum number of teachers regardless of student enrolment, the New Brunswick government has essentially delinked teacher supply from student population. This is a windfall for the New Brunswick Teachers’ Federation since it no longer needs to be concerned about decreased union dues from a reduced number of teachers. Now the union can safely plan its budget for the next five years without worrying about its bottom line.

If the union succeeds in keeping this clause in future contracts, NB taxpayers will have to pay salaries for 7,280 teachers in perpetuity, even when the total student population won’t remotely justify the expense.

No doubt the province will defend this agreement by arguing that more teachers will result in better student achievement. However, there is no reason to assume that this is the case. Even if these extra teachers are used to decrease class sizes, research is mixed on whether this will significantly improve student achievement.

As John Hattie, the director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, has pointed out, reducing class size has a modest impact on student achievement but a huge impact on education budgets. If the province is serious about improving student achievement, it would be much wiser to focus on improving instructional practices than simply adding more teachers to the payroll.

In addition, it’s quite likely that many surplus teachers will not even be assigned to classrooms at all. Rather, they will fill the growth industry for non-teaching positions in school divisions. Whether they are called instructional facilitators, learning coaches, support teachers, or assessment consultants, they will add to the growing ranks of non-teaching teachers. As the number of students continues to decline, more non-teaching positions will be created to accommodate the surplus.

It was foolish for the New Brunswick government to enshrine a minimum number of teachers in its latest contract. Teacher supply should remain directly linked with student population.