Opinion: Raising Teacher Certification Standards Makes Sense

August 27, 2019 Updated: August 28, 2019

Prospective Ontario teachers will soon need to pass a basic math test in order to receive a teaching certificate. This test will be developed by the Education Quality and Accountability Office, the government branch also responsible for the standardized testing of students.

Not surprisingly, this basic math test has many critics. Teacher unions, opposition politicians, and education professors argue that making teachers write a math test undermines their professionalism and will do nothing to improve student math scores. As is often the case with highly controversial government initiatives, the critics are partly right and partly wrong.

The critics are wrong when they portray this math test as a draconian move that could disqualify hundreds of excellent teachers from their teaching positions. While there was some initial speculation about making currently employed teachers write the test, the government has since clarified that only prospective teachers will need to write it.

In fact, many prospective teachers will hardly notice the difference. That’s because Lakehead University already requires all of its early- and middle-years teacher candidates to pass a math proficiency test to graduate from its program. Interestingly, Lakehead set the passing grade for its math competency test at 75 percent, which is higher than the 70 percent proposed for the government’s math test. It hardly seems unreasonable to expect all prospective teachers to have the same math proficiency as those graduating from Lakehead.

In addition, there is nothing unusual about requiring graduates of professional programs to write high-stakes exams in order to practice their profession. Prospective lawyers must pass the bar exam, accountants must pass the CPA exam, and optometrists must pass the Optometry Examining Board of Canada’s national exam. High-stakes professional exams do not diminish professional standing—they raise it.

However, the critics are right that simply making all teachers write a math test is unlikely to dramatically improve the achievement of students. The math curriculum remains heavily focused on the discovery approach, and teachers are still forced to use fuzzy math textbooks like “Math Makes Sense” (a misnamed textbook series if there ever was one!) Until Ontario adopts a new math curriculum that requires students to practice and memorize basic math facts and standard algorithms, student math scores are unlikely to improve.

The key problem with the planned math test for teachers is its focus is too narrow. While it makes sense to ensure a certain level of math skills for teachers, implementing a single math test is, to say the least, a quick fix that fails to get at the heart of the matter. Math teachers need more than just a rudimentary grasp of the math basics in order to truly understand the subject and teach it well.

A recent study by Dr. Se Woong Lee, a professor at the University of Missouri, backs up this claim. The study, “Pulling Back the Curtain: Revealing the Cumulative Importance of High-Performing, Highly-qualified Teachers on Students’ Educational Outcome,” found that students taught by teachers who either majored or minored in mathematics at university had better academic results than students taught by teachers without a math major or minor. Not only that, but these students also benefited in the long term because they were more likely to graduate from college or university. It is reasonable to assume that if subject-matter expertise matters in math, it also matters in other subjects.

Unfortunately, prospective teachers are unlikely to acquire the necessary subject knowledge in faculties of education. That’s because education faculties have long been obsessed with issues of race and gender to the detriment of the academic basics. Typically, education professors spend their time critiquing the so-called neo-liberal agenda and getting students to write reflection papers about their “personal philosophy of education.” In other words, most education courses are sadly lacking in academic rigour.

Education faculties are, unfortunately, dominated by the failed progressive education philosophy of William Heard Kilpatrick, an early and influential twentieth-century education professor at Columbia’s Teachers’ College. This philosophy de-emphasizes academic content, discourages testing, and encourages each teacher to become a “guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.” Even though research supports more traditional approaches to instruction, education professors continue to indoctrinate prospective teachers with bad ideas.

A better way to raise teacher certification standards would be to reduce the number of education courses teachers are required to take and replace them with courses in the subject areas they teach. Fewer math education courses taught by math education professors and more math courses taught by actual math professors would be a great start. The same applies in other subjects as well—more history, science, and English courses and fewer education courses.

In addition, provinces should implement a comprehensive exam that all teachers must pass in order to receive a teaching certificate. This exam should be similar in rigour to what professionals in other fields need to write. With such an exam looming for all prospective teachers, education professors would find themselves under considerable pressure to focus more time and attention on academics and less on progressive ideologies.

Raising teacher certification standards doesn’t lend itself to quick-fix solutions. But it still needs to be done.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of the newly released book, A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.