Making sense of the Chicago teachers' strike (where the two sides were reportedly moving toward resolution on Friday) is like trying to understand the failure of a friend's marriage. You can't help speculating about who's to blame, but you'll never really know. In truth, it doesn't matter. Many countries have revolutionized their education systems in recent years, but not one of them has done it through strikes, walkouts or righteous indignation.
Just about every country in the developed world has a teachers' union, so the mere presence of a union doesn't determine the quality of a country's schools. There is, however, a significant relationship between the professionalism of the union and the health of an education system. The all-important issue is not how easy it is to fire the worst teachers; it's how to elevate the entire craft without going to war with teachers.
That's where other countries can show us a better way. Working with unions doesn't mean turning into Mexico, where the education system has been gifted to the union in exchange for political favors—and teenagers perform at the bottom of the world in math and reading. In a few countries, politicians and union leaders have managed not only to raise expectations but to get teachers to drink from the same punch bowl as reformers.
In Finland in the 1970s, teachers had to use special diaries to record what they taught each hour. Government inspectors made sure that a rigorous national curriculum was being followed. Teachers and principals weren't trusted to act on their own.
At the same time, however, the government began to inject professionalism into the system. The Finns shut down the middling teacher-training schools that dotted the rural landscape and moved teacher preparation into the elite universities, where only the top echelon of high-school graduates could study (something the U.S. has never attempted). Opponents said the changes were elitist, but the reformers insisted that the country had to invest in education to survive economically. Once teachers-to-be got into the universities, they were required to master their subject matter and to spend long stretches practicing in high-performing public schools.
In the 1980s and '90s, with higher standards and more rigorous teacher training in place, the reformers injected trust. They lifted mandates and asked the teachers themselves to design a new, smarter national curriculum. Today, Finland's teenagers score at the top of the world on international tests.
If Finland feels too remote to serve as a model for the U.S., consider Ontario, Canada. After years of labor strife in the 1990s, a new provincial premier was elected in 2003. Dalton McGuinty chose Gerard Kennedy, a critic of the old regime, as his education minister. He spent months in school cafeterias, principals' offices and parent meetings before the negotiations began. "You couldn't wait until you were at the bargaining table," explains Benjamin Levin, the former deputy minister. When it came time to negotiate a new teachers' contract in 2005, Mr. Kennedy harangued the bargainers and kept them at the table all night on more than one occasion—deflecting the distractions that normally dominate such talks—until he finally got an agreement.
The plan that emerged put pressure on Ontario's schools to improve results and also offered more help to educators. This worked in part because Canada already had fairly rigorous and selective education colleges, so teachers had the skills to adapt to these changes. And by giving in to teachers' requests for smaller elementary-class sizes, politicians bought themselves enormous good will.
The system in Ontario became "a virtuous circle," says Marc Tucker, author of "Surpassing Shanghai," a book about top-performing education systems. "When the young people came out of their training programs, they were damn good teachers. Because of that, they were able to raise public and political confidence—and when that happened, it made it possible for them to get higher salaries and even higher quality recruits into teaching."
For the past decade, there has been a détente in labor relations in Ontario. Despite a diverse population of students, a quarter of whom were immigrants, the province's high-school graduation rate rose from 68% to 82%. Teacher turnover also declined dramatically. In 2009, Ontario was one of the few places in the world (aside from Finland) where 15-year-olds scored very high on international tests regardless of their socioeconomic background.
Interestingly, Ontario had its own labor flare-up this week—over a proposed wage freeze and a law that could limit strikes. But coming after years of relative harmony, the response has been reasonable so far. The union urged members to temporarily stop coaching sports and limit other voluntary activities. The situation could deteriorate, but for now, the tone in Ontario is revealing.
What happened in Chicago is about more than just Chicago. It's about the deeper problem of transforming America's schools. For too long our education reformers have tried to create a professional teaching corps from the top down, and union leaders have fought to maintain an untenable system. Both sides need to enter the 21st century.