Putting teachers to the test

John Schofield October 11 1999

Putting teachers to the test

John Schofield October 11 1999

Putting teachers to the test


In a bid to make education more accountable, testing has moved to the head of the class

John Schofield

For as long as he can remember, Leon Barrett wanted to be a teacher. Maybe its genetic: his grandmother taught for years in the small Jamaican community of St. Elizabeth, where he grew up, and seven of his nine siblings pursued the same career. Or maybe it has to do with his own passion for learning. Barrett, a Grade 3 teacher in Brampton, Ont., earned his masters degree in 1980, and is currently working towards a doctorate in curriculum studies. But if Ontario Premier Mike Harris has his way, those qualifications may not be enough. Harris has vowed that Ontario will be the first jurisdiction in Canada to regularly test all teachers on their subject knowledge and skills, with the procedure slated to begin next June. To date, little is known about just how the exercise will work, beyond the fact that it will include a written component. But the spectre of a proficiency exam has the provinces 120,000 teachers scratching their heads. “There are things in teaching that you cant put on paper,” says Barrett, 48. “Nobody seems to know exactly what they have in mind.”

The decision to test Ontario teachers is part of a larger trend to make public education more accountable. In a much-debated bid to boost academic standards, testing of both teachers and students is in vogue right across North America. In the U.S. presidential campaign, both Vice-President AÍ Gore and Texas Gov. George W Bush are trumpeting the importance of educational standards and teacher accountability. But there has been bitter opposition in

the handful of American states that have experimented with teacher testing. Hundreds marched on the Massachusetts legislature in June, protesting a teacher-testing proposal. In July, the Canadian Teachers’ Federation passed a resolution roundly rejecting mandatory teacher testing in favour of voluntary professional development programs. But Janet Ecker, Ontario’s minister of education, is unapologetic: “The goal is to make sure that teachers are as good as they can be. It’s meant to be a form of quality assurance.”

For many teachers, the litmus test of proficiency has become the performance of their own students on standardized tests. Last month, teachers in Denver voted to approve a two-year pilot program that links pay raises to student performance. The groundbreaking scheme would entitle teachers to annual bonuses of up to $2,200 if their students post improved scores. The plan has drawn fire for fostering a competitive environment,

prompting the best teachers to seek employment in affluent neighbourhoods, where students traditionally test well.

Ontario’s Tories have already proven their own love for testing. Students in Grades 3 and 6 now write annual standardized tests in math and language skills. As of next fall, students will have to pass a Grade 10-level literacy test to graduate from high school. But Harris’s sweeping reforms have left teachers bruised and battle weary. Since 1995, the government has amalgamated school boards and stripped them of their taxing powers, introduced a backto-basics curriculum, and fought teachers’ strikes. Last week, the government-appointed Education Improvement Commission recommended that school boards should face direct intervention by the province if students fail to meet performance standards. It also called for the formation of another agency to grant or deny accreditation of school boards based on student

achievement. “They’ve done a great job of inflaming the public,” says Greg Lorentz, a teaching consultant with the Peel District School Board, west of Toronto. “It’s hard for me to go to a party now, even in my own family, and not be picked on.” Ontario’s latest plan holds a different threat over teachers’ heads: the possibility of mandatory remedial classes. Teacher testing would add yet another layer to an already rigorous se-

-----ries of professional safeguards.

Those admitted to Ontario’s faculties of education must have an undergraduate degree. After being certified, teachers face a probationary period of up to two years, during which they are given at least two inWWé l depth evaluations. These gauge

lum, terest their rapport mastery with in professional of the students, developcurricuinment and a host of other skills. Subsequent evaluations take place every one to five years, de-

pending on the school board.

Teachers must earn additional certification to handle higher grade levels or to specialize in other subject areas. Many boards also require them to submit annual “professional growth plans,” outlining courses they wish to take and other teaching goals. Alberta has implemented the same practice across the province. Such requirements have turned many teachers into keen consumers of professional development programs. A national study conducted earlier this year for the Canadian Teachers’ Federation found that 85 per cent of teachers questioned had completed a formal course or workshop in the past year, compared with 60 per cent of the general labour force. Participation in professional development programs actually increased with a teacher’s years of service, the survey reported.

Still, Ecker believes that written tests are the only way to prove that such knowledge has been absorbed. She sees testing as an essential part of a larger evaluation process that would not only assess a teacher’s grasp of basic skills and their subject knowledge, but also their ability to teach. In the com-

ing months, Ecker plans to consult with teachers, principals, board officials and the province’s college of teachers on what form a written test should take.

She is blazing a lonely trail. In 1985, Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, introduced a mandatory skills test for the state’s 37,000 teachers. Just over three per cent failed, but the exercise was so contentious that it was dropped. Texas had a similar experience in the mid-1980s. As an alternative, 45 states have shifted their focus to certification exams for new teachers. In Massachusetts, 43 per cent of new teachers failed the three-part state certification exam in June. As a result, Gov. Paul Cellucci has proposed that colleges be stripped of their accreditation if fewer than 80 per cent of grads pass the certification tests. A similar policy is already in effect in such states as Texas, Florida and New York.

Many experts agree that topflight training is the best guarantee of excellence. But Ontario’s Harris has been slow to support that approach, says Rebecca Priegert Coulter, associate dean of education at the University of Western Ontario. Since 1995, Western has been ready to replace its one-year teacher-training program with a two-year alternative. Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Manitoba have already adopted two-year programs. But the Ontario government has failed to provide the extra funding, and a looming teacher shortage will likely keep the initiative on the back burner.

Similarly, the Harris government introduced a tougher elementary-school curriculum last year without ensuring that teachers had the training to handle its increased emphasis on math and science. According to the province’s Educational Quality and Accountability Office, only nine per cent of Grade 6 teachers have taken a university math course. “Ontario’s gone a bit test crazy,” says Priegert Coulter. “Teacher testing is just a simplistic gloss on what the real problems are.” Ultimately, she argues, even the best teachers flounder when faced with swelling class sizes, shrinking resources and poor support for special-needs students. And in the end, dealing with those issues could be the biggest test of all. E3