The Quest for Teaching Excellence – Is More Regulation Going to Help?

How could teaching become more effective?

Although not new, this question is being framed in new ways as befits the ambitious changes envisioned for Alberta’s education: How can we ensure that for every child, in every class, there is an excellent teacher?” In September 2013 Alberta Ed appointed a Task Force to make recommendations for how to best answer this question. It was called the Task Force for Teaching Excellence and its recommendations – made public in May 2014 – were based on pertinent research and consultations with a few thousand Albertans.

Want a quick glance at all 25 recommendations made? Here they are! If you’re looking for the detailed discussion and rationale behind the recommendations, you’ll find it in the full report. And you can let the Ministry know what you think at EDC.TeachingExcellence@gov.ab.ca

Are you interested in hearing my highlights? If yes, read on…

Among the recommendations with a direct effect on the quality of teaching, I see #14 as the most impactful of all: “That teachers be provided appropriate time for planning, collaborating, sharing best practices and empowering innovation.” This absolutely needs to happen for teachers to be able to perform at their best! No one does an excellent job if they are overstretched, as it is currently the case with many teachers. However, given that teachers identified time as their most pressing need, I would have expected more specific recommendations regarding this issue. In the absence of further elaboration, the term “appropriate” could be inconsequential for policy makers. How will the “appropriate time” be determined for teachers with such a large variety of course schedules and responsibilities? Who will decide and based on which criteria?

Recommendations #8 through #10 are aimed at improving new teachers’ education and training. Expanding practicum for teaching candidates and introducing a mandatory internship and a mentorship program for beginning teachers would create more opportunities for learning “on the job” and would definitely improve quality of teaching. I find these recommendations to be some of the most explicit and helpful in the report.

Recommendation #7 is vital to bringing relevance and authenticity to education: “To bring people with diversity of skills,
expertise and background into Alberta classrooms”. I think it is imperative to make it easier for learners to access the knowledge and expertise of real world professionals and specialists from outside the school.

Another recommendation that holds great promise is #25: “That the professional regulatory model for teachers be modified”. This proposal has the potential to improve the effectiveness and reputation of the teaching profession in major ways. For schools to be able to select against incompetent teachers, unions’ powers must be reduced. In my opinion, union interference is the key element distinguishing public education from most other professional settings and the reason why the system of accountability for teachers doesn’t work very well.

Am I wary of any recommendations in this report? Unfortunately, I am.

For example, I am afraid that some of the changes proposed, such as the yearly progress reports that principals would need to complete for teachers’ certificate maintenance (recommendation #21), or the emphasis added to the annual professional growth plans (recommendation #11) would further increase the already heavy workload, stifle staff motivation and make the profession even less appealing.

Recommendation #21 proposes that teachers are re-evaluated every five years to determine if their competencies and knowledge are appropriate and current so they can continue to teach. This system of maintenance of teaching certification would require, among other things, that teachers prepare a teaching excellence dossier documenting their performance. And if the evaluation is not favourable, their certificate would be revoked. Once again, implementing this proposal would add more work and make the teachers’ job even more strenuous than it already is. However, this isn’t the main fault I see with it. To support the proposal, the report claims that teaching is one of the few professions where such regular evaluations are not taking place. In my opinion this comparison is misconceived. It’s true that periodic evaluations happen in other professions, and I agree that they would benefit the education environment. However, making the maintenance of teachers’ certification dependent on the outcome of these periodic evaluations would be – as far as I’m aware – unique to the teaching profession. In other professions, you could get evaluated at your work place, fail, and lose your job. But no unfavourable evaluation will deny you the right to profess your qualification somewhere else. Then, why do that to teachers? Why not try to be fair and create a system that is truly similar to the one other professions rely on? The fact is, in private schools where teachers aren’t unionized, that system is already in place. Teachers at a private school can lose their jobs for reasons of incompetence. But no private employer has the power to revoke their teaching certification. It could be similar for public school teachers if the regulatory model would change accordingly (see recommendation #25). To me it seems clear that union interference is a main reason why the system of accountability fails to work in public schools.

Finally, recognizing and motivating excellent teachers (recommendation #12) by inviting them to take on additional roles as mentors, leaders, and/or advisors of teacher candidates and interns, but with no explicit mention of incentives such as promotions, reduced course load, and increased remuneration sounds like no change at all – This is already happening, isn’t it?

To end, here is my general impression on the report of the Task Force for Teaching Excellence.

While it contains many helpful suggestions, the intention to enhance the control, regulation and standardization already high in the education system, seems pervasive. I believe that many of the recommendations, if implemented, would make Alberta’s education system more bureaucratic and inflexible than it already is. This would breed conformity and regimentation, and would discourage the creativity and autonomy of educators – And wouldn’t that go against the ideals of Inspiring Education?

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