Revamping Teacher Certification

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre, Uncategorized

Manitoba is currently facing a teacher shortage, particularly in the inner cities, rural areas, and in the disciplines of math and science. Considering the large numbers of educators who are nearing retirement, the lack of qualified personnel will become acute in the near future. What, however, does “qualified” mean?

According to Manitoba Education and Training, anyone who completes a four-year undergraduate B.Ed. degree or a two-year after degree B.ED from an accredited university and passes a criminal-background check is eligible for certification. Graduates with the requisite tickets in hand are deemed capable — by virtue of the B.Ed. program’s in-classroom practicum and general courses on pedagogy — of instructing in any subject from kindergarten to senior 4 (grade 12), from 5 year old children to 20 year-olds.

There are, however, serious problems with the narrowness of the present criteria. A history major with a B.Ed., for example, could end up teaching Grade 12 pre-calculus mathematics while an Honours B.Sc. in mathematics with no B.Ed. could be considered to be unqualified. Does this make sense? How can anyone argue that someone with a B.Sc. in Math can never be a qualified math teacher?

Supporters of the status quo maintain B.Ed. programs provide essential specialized training much like that received by engineers, doctors and lawyers. The difficulty with this argument is that there is no easily definable minimum set of skills provided in, and only in, B.Ed. programs analogous to the ability to apply complex mathematical formulas, specific anatomical knowledge or jurisprudential principles and case law required by the other professional schools.

The same issue is now under study in the U.S. A review conducted recently by Frederick Hess, assistant professor of education at the University of Virginia and research associated with the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank closely aligned with the U.S. Democratic Party (see www.ppionline.org), has concluded that the standards used to define good teaching are so vague as to render objective performance measurement virtually impossible. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS), for example, requires aspiring high school math teachers to demonstrate “commitment to students and their learning,” “the art of teaching” and “reflection and growth” as a condition for certification. While these are commendable skills or qualities, it is impossible to ensure that B.Ed. teachers have acquired these skills.

There is also no reason why a B.Sc. degree in mathematics and a natural aptitude for teaching would not confer these same abilities.

The issue is not whether education programs have value. Rather, we should ask: is it possible to be a good teacher without a B.Ed.? If a rural school division is short of qualified math and science teachers, why should principals not be allowed to consider hiring subject-area specialists? Under a liberalized approach, school boards and principals would still exercise their discretion. The difference is that they would be hiring from a larger pool of candidates, some of whom also have been spared the many orthodoxies in teacher education programs particularly the obsession with moulding self-esteem instead of achieving academic excellence. These are described cogently by Rita Kramer in her very good book, Ed School Follies, a volume that all parents should read before sending their children to school.

This is by no means an argument for the abolition of minimum qualifications. Every potential teacher should, for example, possess at least a B.A., B.Sc., or other equivalent degrees. In addition to a crime-free background and command of the English language and basic mathematics, candidates should be required to pass a detailed skills- and content-based exam in teaching methods, child development, constructing lessons, and their subject areas.

Nothing in this proposal would prevent school divisions, especially those with an abundance of applicants (generally from suburban districts), from giving preference to B.Ed. graduates. That’s fine. However, considering the coming wave of vacancies in many areas — it makes sense to have a larger pool of candidates to draw from. This is especially true because the faculties of education will likely not be able to produce the number of B.Eds necessary to serve the needs of the rural and northern divisions.

Broadening our certification criteria could actually strengthen B.Ed. programs in the long run. Making B.Ed. degrees optional rather than mandatory would induce education faculties to ensure their courses are focused and more in tune with what is needed in the field. The disappearance of “fluff” courses, as Rita Kramer notes, would come as an additional benefit.

Our students, particularly aboriginals, rural, and those from poor families, deserve the best teachers available. If it is possible for individuals with training outside a formal B.Ed. program to teach well, then divisions should not be prevented from hiring them.

“The reformation of Canada’s schools: Breaking the barriers to parental choice” by Mark Holmes is available through the Frontier Centre online bookstore