Teacher education must rise above political correctness

Blackboard covered in maths equations

Increasingly, Canadian universities seem to be more concerned about political correctness than educating students.

A prominent illustration of this is University of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson’s public battle with university administrators, professors and some students over his refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns when referring to students with varying sexual orientations.

A less well known but arguably much more serious example is the increasing tendency for Canadian faculties of education to use admissions criteria that are unrelated to the characteristics and skills needed by effective classroom teachers. At the University of Windsor, for example, special consideration is being given to candidates who reflect “the ethno-cultural and social diversity of Ontario’s schools”. And, last September, the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba went even further by aiming to admit 45 per cent of incoming teacher candidates on the basis of their self-identification as members of marginalised groups, such as indigenous, disabled, LGBTQ, minority ethnic or socially disadvantaged.

These admission policies are being implemented so that teachers increasingly represent the ever-changing social demographics of provinces. There is some merit to that aspiration, but there are several serious problems. One is that such self-identities are difficult to verify and, consequently, are potentially easy to “game”. A second is that such policies are not useful for identifying and admitting candidates who actually have the potential to become effective teachers, which is the most important reason for having faculties of education at universities.

Parents, students and even school administrators already know that there are substantial differences between the most and least effective teachers. A number of excellent studies have shown that the top 25 per cent are able to effectively teach 18 months’ worth of curriculum content in a year, while the bottom 25 per cent are able to teach only about six months’ worth. In short, the best teachers are three times more effective than the worst teachers. Addressing this unacceptable disparity should be the most important priority among Canadian faculties of education.

In addition, the literature identifies three characteristics of effective teachers: high language ability; a good education in the subjects taught; and a grasp of a variety of reliable assessment instruments and techniques.

Hence, it would make much more sense for universities to assess would-be teachers on the basis of their verbal and mathematical ability. In Canada, teacher candidates generally enter the professional programme after they have completed an undergraduate degree. Consequently, faculties of education should ensure that candidates are among the strongest in the university courses related to the subjects that they expect to teach.

Unfortunately, Canadian universities and ministries of education do not currently treat the education and certification of teachers as seriously as they treat the education and certification of dentists, lawyers and medical doctors – or even the certification of meat-cutters and hairdressers – all of whom are assessed on the basis of competence alone. After completion of their programmes of study, aspiring teachers are certified in varying ways across provinces. But they should be required to pass rigorous exams, covering both knowledge and actual teaching proficiency, such as the theory and techniques of test construction. The empirical literature shows that teachers spend about 15 to 20 per cent of their time formally and informally assessing students, yet they do not always know the best ways to do this.

Both universities and ministries of education have fiduciary responsibilities to prepare and certify the excellent teachers that all Canadian parents and students deserve. Fortunately, excellent admission and certification exams already exist. The Praxis exams, developed by the Educational Testing Service, could be used for selecting candidates and certifying teachers across English-speaking Canada, if not the entire nation.

All it needs is for universities and provincial ministers of education to stop being distracted by identity politics and put into practice such simple reforms, which will benefit all Canadians, regardless of their background.