More Education Courses Are Not the Solution: Teachers do not need longer education programs

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty thinks teachers don’t spend enough time in education faculties. That much is apparent from his recent pledge to double the length of teacher training programs in Ontario.

Currently, prospective teachers in Ontario need to complete a bachelor’s degree and then apply for admission to a faculty of education at any major university. The teacher training program consists of eight months of classes along with at least 40 days of a classroom teaching practicum. Anyone who successfully completes this program can then apply for a teaching certificate from the Ontario College of Teachers.

At first glance, it’s not clear why the government feels teachers need more education courses. John Milroy, Ontario’s education minister, admitted the length of the practicum appeared to be sufficient already. When pressed for evidence that a longer program would be beneficial, he pointed to Finland’s intensive teacher training in which all teachers are required to earn master’s degrees.

However, while it is true that Finland has higher training requirements for its teachers, most of that training takes place in a specialized subject area such as math or history. In Finland, most teachers complete a bachelor’s and master’s degree in their subject area, and then apply for admission to a faculty of education. This bears virtually no resemblance to Premier McGuinty’s proposal that prospective teachers spend more time taking education courses.

In addition, there is very little evidence that more time spent in a faculty of education results in better teachers. John Hattie, a professor of education at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, analyzed the results of hundreds of studies about effective teaching in his 2009 book, Visible Learning. Hattie found that additional years of teacher training in education faculties produced only a minimal impact on student achievement.

When asked about the most useful part of their training, many teachers cite their subject area courses or their teaching practicum. They rarely mention their education courses. The usual comment made by teachers is that these courses were impractical, outdated, and useless. Education faculties are not held in high repute by many members of the teaching profession.

In addition, education faculties often provide training that runs directly counter to the research evidence. For example, John Hattie’s synthesis of research studies about student achievement found that traditional methods such as teacher-directed instruction significantly outperformed progressive methods such as inquiry-based learning (where students decide for themselves what they wish to explore). However, students in education faculties regularly learn the exact opposite and are encouraged to be a “guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.”

After months or even years of indoctrination in failed teaching strategies and outmoded ideologies, prospective teachers can actually emerge as less effective and discerning teachers than they were prior to their enrolment in the program.

Considering the minimal impact teacher training in education faculties actually has on teacher effectiveness, it makes little sense arbitrarily to double the length of their programs. A better approach is to focus on enhancing something virtually all teachers agree forms a critical part of their education—the teaching practicum.

Instead of making teachers take more education courses, university graduates with a solid academic background should be eligible to move directly into the classroom. There are many people with solid academic training in hard-to-staff subject areas such as math, science, and French immersion. Someone with a master’s or doctorate in math should be eligible to teach high school mathematics without taking a bunch of useless education classes.

These types of individuals could be matched up with experienced mentor teachers and apprentice with them for a full year before being given sole responsibility for a classroom. This extended practicum would be an excellent way of identifying who really belongs in the classroom.

A program in the United States known as Teach for America has attracted a great deal of attention. Teach for America recruits college and university graduates to teach for at least two years in some schools that are most difficult to staff. These teachers receive on the job training and extensive mentorship. Although the program is controversial among teachers’ unions, it has seen enormous success and many of its alumni have gone on to become excellent teachers.

Prospective teachers should spend less time in education faculties, not more.