Certifying teachers and regulating the teaching profession is now emerging as a critical public policy issue — and one that urgently needs to be addressed in the interests of students as well as taxpayers here in Nova Scotia.
Dozens of Nova Scotia teachers were recently revealed to have been boosting their salaries by thousands of dollars, acquiring additional credentials by taking “bird courses” offered through a distance learning program at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
The Drake course debacle became a full-blown controversy when Shelley Morse, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, spoke up defending the teachers who took the easy route to secure hefty salary increases.
Over the previous three years, some 41 teachers were discovered to have taken Drake courses, mostly in sports coaching and not acceptable for admission as graduate credits, to secure teacher salary upgrades of from $6,000 to $8,000 a year, and 505 teachers, in total, had initiated similar plans, representing two out of every three registered to take out-of-province courses.
Even after Education Minister Karen Casey called for a full investigation of the Drake courses, Morse remained undeterred. To the union president and her provincial executive, it was not a question of professionalism, but rather an unprovoked assault on teachers and another episode in the education “blame game.”
How and why the NSTU leadership felt compelled to come forward to defend such inappropriate actions is the fundamental question addressed in my latest AIMS research report, co-authored with Karen Mitchell, a Nova Scotian who served as a member of the Ontario College of Teachers Governing Board from 1997 to 2005.
Establishing and maintaining professional standards in Canada has, in practice, been delegated to provincial teachers’ unions and federations. Nova Scotia demonstrates how that approach can be particularly loose, virtually guaranteeing “spotless records” for teachers.
The province has about 9,400 P-12 public school teachers, all of whom are members of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. Today the Nova Scotia government essentially delegates to the union its responsibility for both professional development and upholding teaching standards. The province also has five university faculties of education, each offering B.Ed. and graduate programs leading to a teaching certificate and advanced degrees.
While Nova Scotia conducts periodic reviews of teacher education, the universities operate in an autonomous fashion. No independent body exists either to oversee or to accredit the province’s university teacher education programs or out-of-province added qualification programs.
Utilizing Nova Scotia as a test case, the AIMS policy paper makes the case for adopting a more robust provincial policy regimen to ensure the highest teaching standards as well as to “weed out” underperforming teachers and so-called “bad apples” who pose risks to students.
The four-year-long battle (2009-13) to remove New Germany school teacher Peter Speight in the wake of his sexual offence case drove the point home. It cost taxpayers well over $250,000 in settlement fees and revealed, albeit in exaggerated form, the damage inflicted by failing to set and uphold professional ethics and standards in Nova Scotia schools.
Promoting, maintaining and enforcing professional standards now falls between two horses — the Education Department’s certification branch and the professional committee of the NSTU, the teachers’ union also entrusted with protecting its members from moral and “criminal allegations.”
The NSTU staff manual does contain a “code of ethics,” but it is not a public declaration, nor does it appear to be applied when cases are before the courts or arbitration tribunals. The professional committee operates in a closed and private fashion, shielded by a regimen of publicly displayed “privacy principles.”
The NSTU professional committee, overseeing all matters of “professional misconduct” and behaviour “unbecoming a teacher,” publishes no minutes and is not required to disclose any data with respect to any and all teacher resignations, retirements or dismissals.
We are left completely unaware of cases such as that of Peter Speight until parents mount local school board protests or the criminal case goes to court and appears in public proceedings.
One reform option is to establish a fully independent College of Teachers with a clear provincial mandate to ensure Teacher Quality (TQ) and identify, establish, and enforce professional standards of practice.
After assessing the recognized strengths and critical shortcomings of two earlier College of Teachers ventures in Ontario and British Columbia, we propose a better model for Nova Scotia and its neighbouring Atlantic provinces.
The teaching profession is facing a crisis of confidence and the situation now calls for a major reform of teacher certification and regulation.
Starting in Nova Scotia and following the lead of B.C., we call for the establishment of a new, more independent teacher regulation branch with a clear mandate to raise professional teaching standards, rebuild public trust, properly vet teacher education programs, and safeguard students in the schools.
Paul W. Bennett is co-author, with Karen Mitchell, of the AIMS research report “Maintaining Spotless Records”
1. Initiate and establish a Teaching Standards and Regulation Act and transfer responsibility for setting and maintaining the Code of Professional Standards and Discipline to a new branch of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. Rename the Teaching Profession Act so that it is termed the Teachers Union Act.
2. Assign responsibility for overseeing teacher standards and discipline to the minister of Education and Early Childhood Development and require the public disclosure of all proceedings and decisions made under the new Teaching Standards and Regulation Act;
3. Establish a teaching standards board within the Education Department to assure professional self-governance for the profession, but limit the size of the board to 12 to 15 members, appointed by order-in-council, to allow for a fair representation of teacher, professional, and community interests;
4. Adopt a teacher quality standard, modelled after that of Alberta and built upon best practice in teacher quality (TQ) reform across North America and around the world, and introduce regular teacher effectiveness assessments, scheduled every five to seven years at critical stages in the career cycle;
5. Raise teaching standards and uphold professional ethics through legislative reform, removing supervisory officers and principals from the provincial bargaining unit for teachers and implementing professional training for school administrators in the assessment of teacher conduct, competency and effectiveness;
6. Mandate the new teacher regulation branch to initiate, develop and implement an evaluation and accreditation program for faculties of education and teacher training institutes to ensure the validity and quality of professional degree and additional qualification programs, including B.Ed., M.Ed., and Ed.D. programs, inside and outside of Canada.
*This piece appeared in the Chronicle Herald