Let’s treat teachers like they’re professionals

May 28, 2014

Published in the Calgary Herald

It’s not easy being a teacher. Teachers receive most of the blame when things go wrong, but they are powerless to make real changes in the system. That’s because they have little choice but to follow the directives of administrators who impose unproven fads on them.

Perhaps the most pervasive fad is that a teacher should be “a guide on the side” rather than “a sage on the stage.” In other words, teachers are encouraged to let students discover facts and concepts on their own and avoid direct instruction. This approach is known as constructivism. Though popular with school administrators, good evidence for the effectiveness of constructivism is severely lacking, as former Harvard education professor Jeanne Chall documented in her comprehensive book, The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom.

Despite the lack of evidence for constructivism, many teachers are under enormous pressure to use this ideology in their teaching. In fact, their professional evaluations often hinge on adopting student-centred methodologies. Thus, a teacher who delivers clear, tightly focused math lessons to her students may receive a worse evaluation than a teacher who encourages students to come up with their own ways of solving math problems — even if students learned better under the first teacher.

Unfortunately, the Alberta government is poised to take the coercion of teachers to the next level. Education Minister Jeff Johnson’s Task Force for Teaching Excellence recently released a series of recommendations regarding teacher certification and evaluation. What stands out is the task force’s insistence that all teachers must “shift from the dissemination of information and recall of facts to a greater focus on inquiry and discovery.”

In other words, the task force wants teachers to adopt constructivist methodologies. It will do this by having principals evaluate teachers on the degree to which they conform to Alberta’s Inspiring Education initiative, which is built on constructivist ideology. That is, ideological commitment will become more important than teaching effectiveness.

The coercion of teachers can also be seen in other areas. When grading students, teachers across the country are forced to follow the dictates of assessment gurus who advocate against awarding zeros for incomplete work, oppose reducing grades for lateness, and insist that all report card marks and comments reflect curricular outcomes and not student behaviour or other important criteria. As a sign of how seriously school administrators take these recommendations, Edmonton teacher Lynden Dorval lost his job in 2012 for refusing to comply with his school’s no-zero policy.

In Nova Scotia, teachers must follow onerous guidelines when writing report card comments. Instead of letting teachers use their professional judgment, they are expected to identify, for each student, an area of strength, at least one required improvement, and a suggested next step. Teachers have to do this without commenting on the student’s behaviour. In order to ensure teacher compliance, principals spend time reviewing all report cards and making teachers rewrite comments that do not reflect the guidelines.

In a recent blog entry, Halifax teacher Grant Frost noted that these guidelines resulted in “an edu-jargon based report that, although satisfying the criteria, does almost nothing to tell parents how their kids are doing in schools.”

Frost is frustrated because teachers are no longer trusted to do something as simple as write their own report card comments. This frustration is understandable since teachers, particularly good teachers like Lynden Dorval and Grant Frost, deserve to be treated as professionals.

While provincial governments should hold teachers accountable, they are going about it the wrong way. Instead of micromanaging teachers and forcing them to teach the same way and write the same mundane comments on report cards, administrators should give teachers considerably more autonomy. In other words, let teachers teach in the way they think best — as long as they can prove that their students are learning.

This is where standardized testing, when designed properly and administered in a balanced way, plays a key role. Teachers should welcome standardized testing as a way to objectively demonstrate the effectiveness of their teaching. Give teachers a specific target that is based on their students’ past performances and let them use their professional judgment to determine the best way to get them up to that level.

The professional status of teachers would be greatly enhanced if administrators focused less on process and more on actual results. Instead of imposing burdensome regulations and dubious fads on teachers, administrators should set them free and let them teach.