Teachers protest against career and assessment system

A second national strike was held in January 2009, with strong support from the country’s teachers, against new measures introduced by the Ministry of Education. In particular, the teachers are protesting against the performance assessment of school teachers, the two-tier career system and use of performance criteria for teachers’ placement. The strike was followed by a strategy seeking to block the assessment system, the latest of which was due to be implemented from 26 February to 27 March 2009.

Background

After the decree regulating the performance assessment of school teachers (Decree No. 2/2008 of 10 January) came into force, Portugal’s Ministry of Education (Ministério da Educação, ME) gave schools a maximum of six months to launch the performance assessment process. However, the trade unions demanded the suspension of the assessment during the 2007/2008 school year, arguing that the ministry had failed to provide the appropriate tools for the assessment in due time. In March 2008, the Teachers’ Unions Platform (Plataforma Sindical dos Professores e Educadores) organised a national demonstration with the participation of 100,000 teachers, the largest demonstration ever organised by teachers’ trade unions (PT0608029I, PT0804029I). The Teachers’ Unions Platform includes all teacher trade unions, namely: the National Federation of Teachers (Federação Nacional de Professores, FENPROF), affiliated to the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (Confederação Geral dos Trabalhadores Portugueses, CGTP); the National Federation of Education Trade Unions (Federação Nacional dos Sindicatos da Educação, FNE), the National Federation of Education and Research (Federação Nacional do Ensino e Investigação, FNEI) and the Portuguese Federation of Education, Teaching and Research Professionals (Federação Portuguesa dos Profissionais da Educação, Ensino, Cultura e Investigação, FEPECI), all affiliated to the General Workers’ Union (União Geral de Trabalhadores, UGT); as well as nine independent trade unions.

Facing mounting pressure from the teachers’ trade unions, on 8 April 2008 the ME finally held a meeting with the representative trade unions, four months after their last meeting in December 2007. On 12 April 2008, the government and the trade unions set the terms of a memorandum of understanding (memorando de entendimento), in which it was agreed that in the 2007/2008 school year, only four parameters of the system would be assessed and applied universally in all schools; however, in 2008/2009 all parameters of Decree No. 2/2008 would be used. The four parameters to be assessed in 2007/2008 included: self-assessment, attendance, the completion of tasks, and participation in continuing training. It was assumed that for the latter school year, the negative effects of the classifications of ‘regular’ or ‘poor’ would be subject to a new assessment to be carried out in 2008/2009. In addition, it is planned that new negotiations will be launched by about June 2009 for the introduction of any modifications or amendments.

In September 2008, the ME announced that 12,000 teachers had been subject to evaluation in relation to the 2007/2008 school year. Nevertheless, in the 2007/2008 school year, it was claimed that teachers’ trade union action had undermined the effective implementation of the performance assessment system, as defined by Decree No. 2/2008.

Trade union protests escalate in 2008/2009 school year

During the beginning of the new school year – 2008/2009 – teachers had to deal with the implementation of the new performance assessment system, as defined by Decree No. 2/2008. Furthermore, in October 2008, they were confronted with a new ME proposal to change the law defining the terms of the annual nationwide application for teachers’ placement, which included a new grade criteria for teachers’ placement – that is, taking into consideration the results of the performance assessment. Therefore, teachers’ placement (or hiring) would depend on the performance assessment system. Teachers’ placement has always been a particularly sensitive issue – in the previous school year, for example, about 44,000 teachers were not placed in jobs (PT0709029I).

Teachers in a number of schools expressed their dissatisfaction with the new proposal concerning the grade system for placement. Furthermore, they highlighted that the implementation of the performance evaluation model was an enormous inconvenience to teachers, who had to spend hours filling in grids, sheets and plans that have no positive impact on the quality of teaching. On 15 October 2008, the Teachers’ Unions Platform announced that a new demonstration would take place on 8 November 2008, which constituted ‘a starting point to start the action in the school year 2008/2009’. Participation in the November demonstration was even higher than the March 2008 protest, gathering about 120,000 teachers. Teachers expressed their dissatisfaction with the career system, the performance assessment system and the new ME proposal regarding teachers’ placement.

The November demonstration therefore represented a turning point, with the 120,000 teachers approving a motion to call for a national strike on 19 January 2009 if the ME refused to suspend the performance assessment system. Although the ME rejected this request, it acknowledged that the assessment system could be simplified and started work on a new proposal. In response, the trade unions insisted that the assessment system be suspended and called for a national strike, which took place on 3 December 2008. The goals of the national strike were to question the overall policy of the ME – in particular, the career division, the assessment system and the placement criteria. According to the trade unions, the strike was a success in terms of teachers’ support.

On 17 December, the Council of Ministers (Conselho de Ministros) voted on a new draft bill simplifying the performance assessment system, which abandoned using student results and the reduction of school dropout as criteria for teachers’ evaluation, but only for the 2008/2009 school year; moreover, this will not apply to teachers who are eligible to opt for retirement in the next three years. However, on 22 December, some 70,000 teachers presented a petition to the government requesting the suspension of the assessment system and the implementation of a single career system.

National strike generates widespread support

On 31 December, the President of Portugal, Cavaco Silva, issued the decree simplifying the performance assessment system, which was published on 5 January 2009 (Decree No. 1-A/2009).

Nonetheless, the trade unions did not abandon their demands. As planned, on 19 January 2009, the trade unions organised a second national strike, which had been on the agenda since November 2008 and which, like the December strike, generated widespread support from the teachers. The two national strikes were a clear mark of the teachers’ dissatisfaction with the ME’s policy, in particular with the two-tier career system, the performance assessment system and the use of performance criteria for teachers’ placement.

The impact of the teachers’ demonstrations and strikes was felt across society, and every day in the mass media, the teachers’ action polarised public attention and political concern. In the end, it became a broader political issue when the opposition parties in parliament requested that the performance assessment decree be suspended. On a number of occasions, since December 2008, different left-wing and right-wing parliamentary groups demanded its suspension, and the socialist majority in the parliament voted against it. Finally, on 23 January 2009, the demand was reiterated by the right-wing People’s Party (Partido Popular, CDS/PP), and supported by all the parties from the left to the right, as well as by five deputies of the Socialist Party (Partido Socialista, PS). Nevertheless, the suspension of the current model of teacher assessment was again refused, with a majority of 116 to 113 votes against its suspension.

Selective blockade strategy launched

As a result, the trade unions decided to organise a blockade of the assessment system through two main mechanisms: by asking teachers not to present their individual goals, as required under the present system; and by organising strikes involving the teachers who have been asked to assess their colleagues’ performance. This particular strike strategy was put in place from 19 January to 20 February 2009; plans were also underway to launch a second phase of this strategy from 26 February to 27 March.

Maria da Paz Campos Lima, Dinâmia

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