OSSTF/FEESO’s Research Partnership Strategy

Lending our voices to research

Psst…hey, wanna fill out a survey?

OSSTF/FEESO members have probably noticed a recent stream of invitations to take part in studies and surveys. Over the past year, these surveys have almost exclusively focused on COVID-19 and what it means to work as an education worker or teacher during a pandemic. The focus has not been exclusively on COVID-19—we’ve encouraged participation in studies on gender and work absences, as well as on employment security and professional identity—but COVID-19 is taking up a lot of research space, for obvious reasons.

When Provincial Office sends out an invitation to participate in a survey, the invitation often includes something along the lines of, “these surveys provide us with evidence to inform ongoing advocacy and programming” or “the data gathered from these studies will help inform our advocacy on members’ behalf.” OSSTF/FEESO strongly believes that our bargaining, member protection and political action strategies should be informed by solid evidence. For example, data from Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF-FCE) surveys have been shared with provincial councillors to highlight concerns about equity and mental health. Using social media, we also published results of a recent CTF-FCE survey on mental health. That survey showed the toll teaching during a pandemic is having as well as the resilience of our members.

The surveys OSSTF/FEESO promotes are part of our “Research Partnership Strategy.” The strategy is fairly new, with full implementation only happening in the last few months. Even so, it’s gaining traction. In this article, we’re going to explain the origins and future directions of the strategy as well as provide some preliminary findings from two recent studies.

So…why a whole strategy for surveys? Essentially, two things prompted us to develop a comprehensive and structured approach to research. In 2019, OSSTF/FEESO received a request from a researcher wanting us to promote a survey they had developed as part of a larger project on equity and inclusion. The impetus behind the study was good and it had considerable promise for improving public education in Ontario. Even so, the staff assigned had questions. Would the study unintentionally be harmful to our members? Hadn’t we just promoted a similar survey? Could some of the questions be re-stated to make more sense to our members? Could it be expanded to include education workers rather than just teachers? It was impossible to make a decision about promoting a survey—and tacitly endorsing the study itself—without answers to these questions. We knew this wasn’t the first time we’d been in this position and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

Around the same time, CTF/FCE was facing similar problems. A well-funded research institute had begun circulating a survey in other provinces. The study was ostensibly about mental health, but it in fact had the potential to be very damaging to education workers and teachers on both a personal and professional level. The study focused on teachers, but it framed the value of teacher mental health entirely in terms of impacts on student outcomes. Moreover, the study lacked proper ethics scrutiny and asked questions that were irrelevant, poorly articulated, and at times offensive.

In the wake of these two challenges, staff from OSSTF/FEESO and CTF/FCE began to collaborate on a process for evaluating research proposals. Our goal was to develop a template framework that could be adapted and adopted by other member organizations. We began with some basic principles:

  • Academic researchers have expertise in research methodology and data analysis, while OSSTF/FEESO has practical knowledge about members’ needs and interests.
  • A systematic approach to collaboration with external researchers would allow OSSTF/FEESO to promote high-quality research that supports public education and/or the labour movement in Ontario.
  • Successful collaborations will foster new opportunities for additional research.
  • A formal process would allow for consistent evaluations of proposals, a formal feedback process, and the ability to track the number of approved partnerships per year, their subject area, and the affected classifications.

We also knew that we could be a valuable partner in promoting surveys and studies as part of researchers’ recruitment efforts. We do this through District/Bargaining Unit memos sent to local leaders and through social media. Tweets about three recent surveys made a total of 13,114 impressions and Facebook posts about the same surveys reached 17,812 people.

The core of OSSTF/FEESO’s framework is a formal application and review process, which we have detailed for prospective partners in a short guidebook. The guidebook and related documents will be available on the OSSTF/FEESO website soon, but currently we simply share them when researchers initially contact us about their projects.

The first step for researchers is to complete an application form. The application form is—as one researcher described it—a beast. We ask potential partners to very clearly describe the aims of their study, its specific research question, strategies for answering the question (surveys, interviews, etc.), timelines, ethical considerations, budgetary expectations, and a publication plan. One application ended up over thirty pages long! It is a tough process, but has significant value. The level of detail we require shows that we take research design seriously. It tells researchers that we will only consider their study if they have thought through the most important considerations. At the same time, it allows us to be flexible and adaptive to researchers’ specific situations: applicants are always welcome to work with OSSTF/FEESO’s Policy Analyst/Researcher to make sure they are submitting a proposal that we will most likely be able to support.

Perhaps most importantly, the application gives us a comprehensive and concrete picture of the proposed project so we can give it careful consideration. The completed application form and supporting documents go to a four-person review committee for evaluation.

The committee scores the application according to five criteria:

  • Value alignment: Does the proposal align with OSSTF/FEESO’s principles? Does it support public education? Will it improve members’ professional development or general well-being?
  • Research contribution: Will the research answer an important question related to public education and/or Ontario’s labour movement? Does the proposed study help close a gap in current knowledge? Have we already endorsed studies in this area?
  • Research design: Does the proposal include a clearly articulated research question and provide a feasible strategy for answering that question?
  • Ethics: Will the researcher collect and store data in accordance with national research standards? Our preference is for the researcher to submit approval from a university Research Ethics Board (REB), although we will screen proposals internally if necessary.
  • Overall impression: This is an opportunity for the committee to think about the project in general terms. It also allows us to consider whether a proposal that does not yet meet our criteria might be revised into a project we could confidently endorse.

At the review stage, the committee also thinks about specific components that the researcher could revise to make the study a better fit for our members. For instance, we strongly encourage researchers whose proposal focuses solely on teachers to expand the scope of their projects to include education workers. It is not always possible, but wherever we can broaden the scope of a project, we do.

Next, the committee makes recommendations to the Provincial Executive for a final decision. At this stage, the committee makes one of three possible recommendations: accept as-is; accept on the condition that the researcher makes key revisions; or reject. If the Provincial Executive agrees to endorse a survey, staff continue to work with researchers on the questions asked as well as timing and promotion of the study. Usually, promoting a survey involves sending out a District/Bargaining Unit memo, social media posts, and an article on osstfupdate.ca. At this stage, we also ask researchers to commit to providing plain-language reports of their findings to Provincial Executive as well as at least one article for OSSTF/FEESO’s Education Forum magazine, so expect to hear more about recent studies in the coming months.

A significant benefit of the strategy is that we are able to track the surveys that we endorse. We are starting to track whether surveys are available in both English and French and which members are eligible to participate. Since we began tracking in June 2020, OSSTF/FEESO has promoted ten external studies. Of the four surveys for which we have data, an average of 1,400 members participated in each survey. We’re awaiting final numbers for another three of those ten studies.

Tracking research partnerships also ensures we receive the results of the study and so far, our partners have been happy to share. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, a number of researchers have asked OSSTF/FEESO to endorse participation in their studies. Most of those are still in the final stages of analysis, so we don’t yet have full results, but we do have some. For the most part, they confirm what we have already been telling the government and the public.

For example, Sarah Barrett from York University found that, “We now know that when emergency responses are not enacted smoothly, vulnerable students (e.g. having special needs, living in poverty, racialized, Indigenous) and non-traditional students (e.g. adult) tend to be disproportionately and negatively affected.” Therefore, emergency responses to COVID-19 should prioritize two-way communications with front-line workers. Barrett also emphasizes the need for professional development through coaching (as opposed to courses) in order to respond quickly to “unanticipated technological problems and pedagogical issues.”

Basem Gohar (University of Guelph) and Behdin Nowrouzi-Kia (University of Toronto) only recently completed collecting data from their survey of OSSTF/FEESO members on the psychosocial impacts of working during the pandemic. However, they were able to share some preliminary findings, which show some mixed results in terms of members’ feelings of safety. Approximately 75 per cent of participants reported that their respective board has been taking the COVID-19 guidelines seriously (i.e., responded as ‘Always’ or ‘Most of the time’). Nonetheless, approximately 40 per cent of participants expressed high concern returning to work due to worries about their health or the health of those living with them. Notably, significant numbers said they were concerned either sometimes or about half the time. Finally, 43 per cent of respondents reported adequate protocols at their school board, but said there were inconsistencies in implementation. In addition, approximately 28 per cent reported that the protocols need improvement. Only about 26 per cent reported that the safety protocols and practices had been “exceptional” or “very good.”

Given inconsistencies in providing safe work environments, it is no surprise that members are deeply concerned about their health and the health of their loved ones. Linda Duxbury (Carleton University) and Michael Halinski (Ryerson University) surveyed OSSTF/FEESO members as part of a study of how people across multiple professions have balanced work and life responsibilities in relation to the pandemic. Like Gohar and Nowrouzi-Kia, their findings are preliminary, but show significant concern about members’ own health and the health of their children. For example, the survey asked “what is keeping you up at nights right now?” and the top three responses were, “I/a member of my family will get COVID-19”, “the well-being of my children” and “the health and happiness of my elderly parents/in-laws.”

Now that OSSTF/FEESO has been through the entire partnership process with a number of researchers, we are in a position to begin to review and refine the strategy. We will likely streamline some areas, such as the application process and expand on others, such as our tracking processes. As the next step in the strategy, OSSTF/FEESO will be actively promoting research important to the Federation. We will be offering three grants of up to $3,500 to support research for emergent issues and priorities. At least one of the awards will be reserved for researchers who identify as Indigenous, belonging to an equity-seeking group and/or belonging to an oppressed group. Ultimately, our goal is to integrate the current strategy into a larger, more proactive approach to identifying and supporting high quality research. This will not only improve public education in Ontario, it will help cement OSSTF/FEESO’s reputation as a serious and evidence-based partner in policy-making, professional development, and advocacy.

About Cathy Renfrew and Chris Samuel
At the time of writing Cathy Renfrew was the Director of Educational Services, she is now the Associate General Secretary of the Professional Services Division and Chris Samuel works as the Policy Analyst/Researcher, both at OSSTF/FEESO Provincial Office.

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