The state of the teaching profession is a critical public policy issue — and one that rarely gets addressed unless, and until, periodic revelations surface of “professional misconduct” involving a small minority of so-called “bad apples” who besmirch the reputation of committed, caring and upstanding teachers everywhere.
Dozens of Canadian teachers in Nova Scotia 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.”
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, pointed out that this seemingly isolated episode revealed deeper problems besetting the teaching profession.
Establishing and maintaining professional standards in Canada has, in practice, been delegated to provincial teachers’ unions and federations. Nova Scotia demonstrates how that approach turns professional matters over to the employers (school boards) and results in professional bodies like the NSTU propping up particularly loose regulations, 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 has abrogated its responsibility to uphold teaching standards by leaving matters to the province’s school boards. Under the Teaching Profession Act , the province 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, our 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” under-performing 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 various horses — the Education Department’s certification branch, the school boards, 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.” That 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. In the report, we reconstruct the rise and fall of the B.C. College of Teachers from 1988 until its demise in 2011 amid controversy over internal conflicts and public revelations of keeping “bad teaching records spotless.”
After assessing the recognized strengths and critical shortcomings of two earlier College of Teachers ventures in Ontario and British Columbia, we proposed a better model for Nova Scotia and its neighbouring Atlantic provinces – the establishment of a teacher regulation branch with an independent board capable of upholding and enforcing professional performance and conduct standards.
The AIMS report really set the cat among the pigeons in Nova Scotia’s rather inward looking provincial school system. When the NSTU refused to comment and went into hiding, the Minister of Education finally responded with the explanation that disciplining teachers was the role of school boards, implying that the union was not a professional body at all. The Halifax Regional School Board was then compelled to make public its disciplinary practices and record, reporting that only 1 teacher out of 4,000 was disciplined for performance issues each year.
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 called 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.
Whatever happened to Teaching Standards upheld by members of the profession themselves? Are teachers’ unions like the NSTU (focusing primarily on “protective services”) capable of honouring their commitments under the Teaching Profession Act to deal with “conduct unbecoming a teacher”? In view of the collapse of the B.C. College of Teachers, has the potential for a truly self-governing profession been lost here in Canada?