In a recent op-ed (Winnipeg Free Press, May 2, A7), my colleague from the Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba, John Wiens, argued that Bill 35, The Education Administration Amendment Act, goes too far. He claims that “it begins to look like just one more attempt by a bitter government to undermine public education.”
Bill 35 focuses on ensuring that students are safe from any teachers who may threaten or abuse them. This is a legitimate concern for parents, and obviously, they will be pleased that the government is tightening up on teachers’ accountability.
Of course, the bill will not guard against every physical or verbal abuse students could experience, but it will give them better protection than has been provided in the past. In fact, Bill 35 will bring Manitoba up to par with other provinces and territories.
This bill also includes a few clauses that address competence among Manitoba teachers. Of course, this is important, but the bill has not specified the procedures for ensuring that newly graduated student teachers will become effective teachers. Almost 20 years ago, three economists, Rivkin, Hanushek, and Kain, showed that the top 15 to 25 percent of teachers can impart a year and a half’s worth of material into students’ heads in one academic year, while the bottom 15 to 25 percent can only impart one-half year of material into the heads of similar students.
In other words, the most effective teachers are about three times more successful than the least effective teachers. In fact, the most effective teachers can offset the negative consequences of students’ disadvantaged socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.
For this reason, Bill 35 needs supplemental legislation to ensure that only the most effective teachers are awarded permanent teaching certificates and granted permanent teaching positions in Manitoba schools.
Rather than Manitoba developing a strategy for assessing teachers by itself, all provinces and territories should cooperate in developing a national certification process that would give certified teachers the opportunity to move from division to division and from province to province without thinking about the specific certification requirements in the various jurisdictions.
The Council of Ministers of Education (CME) is the natural agency that could develop and implement a Canadian-wide certification process for teachers, emulating the “Red-Seal Program” (formally known as the Interprovincial Standards Red Seal Program) for the national certification of tradespeople.
Fortunately, the Educational Testing Service in the U.S. has created a three-part suite of tests — The Praxis Exams — used to assess and certify teachers in various subjects and grade levels in most states. Obviously, before being used in Canada, the tests would need to be carefully examined and tailored to this country.
Praxis I exam assess general knowledge in reading, writing, and mathematics. These three tests are used to select students for admission to U.S. faculties of education. They confirm students’ preparedness for teacher education programs.
Praxis II is an exceptionally large suite of exams that test potential teachers on their understanding of the subjects they plan to teach at specific grade levels. The suite includes tests of history, English, mathematics, geography, etc. for different levels of teaching (early, middle, and senior years).
Also included are tests measuring knowledge on how to construct reliable and valid tests, various instruction strategies, and the responsibility of educational authorities (principals, school boards, departments of education), etc.
Finally, Praxis III is a battery of tests measuring teachers’ effectiveness in teaching and managing students in actual classrooms. This series has both knowledge and performance components, echoing tests that airline pilots must complete to fly commercial jets.
To serve the students (and their parents), the minister of education in Manitoba should augment Bill 35 with legislation outlining policies the government will implement to ensure that all Manitoba students have high-performing teachers. No longer should the minister rely entirely on faculties of education recommendations to certify student teachers who have merely graduated from education faculties without ensuring that they meet high standards in both their knowledge and teaching performance.
Rodney A. Clifton is a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba and a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy