Nova Scotia shouldn’t lower standards to address teacher shortage

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Appeared in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, March 24, 2024
Nova Scotia shouldn’t lower standards to address teacher shortage

Like many other provinces, Nova Scotia currently struggles with a teacher shortage, which is a significant problem since it affects the quality of education students receive.

Having too few teachers in the education system also puts added strain on the teachers currently working in schools. For example, the lack of substitute teachers means regular teachers must give up their prep time to cover classes for teachers who are ill. This leads to teacher burnout, which makes the teacher shortage even more acute.

To address this problem, Premier Tim Houston recently announced plans to lower the entrance requirements to education faculties. While prospective teachers must currently complete a bachelor’s degree prior to applying to an education program, Houston proposes to open eligibility to anyone who’s completed two years of undergraduate studies.

Since the minimum length of a bachelor’s degree is three years, Houston’s proposal will shorten the total length of time it takes to become a teacher by one year. At first glance, this sounds like a sensible reform because it makes it easier to get more certified teachers into classrooms.

However, Houston’s proposal gets things backwards. Instead of removing the bachelor’s degree requirement, Houston should instead look at cutting the number of education courses students must take for a bachelor of education degree (B.Ed). In other words, shorten the B.Ed. program itself, not the prerequisites for getting into that program.

It’s important that teachers are well-versed in subjects they teach. Math teachers should have a deep understanding of mathematics while history teachers should be knowledgeable in the field of history. This means taking many university courses in their subject areas.

Simply put, teachers at all grade levels must have a wealth of knowledge. Allowing prospective teachers to apply to an education faculty after completing just two years of university education is a pennywise but pound-foolish decision. If teachers are going to be put in charge of educating students, there’s no reason why they should not at least have completed a bachelor’s degree in the subjects they teach.

In contrast, one of the worst-kept secrets among teachers is that most education courses are worse than useless. Back in 1954, Time magazine reflected the prevailing sentiment when it dubbed New York’s 120th Street, which separated Columbia Teachers’ College from Columbia University, as the “widest street in the world.” More recently, Arthur Levine, former president of Columbia Teachers’ College, wrote a candid analysis about education faculties where he described the typical teacher education curriculum as “a confusing patchwork.” Many other writers have also noted serious problems with teacher education programs.

However, there’s one component of the B.Ed. program that’s nearly universally praised—the teaching practicum, when prospective teachers work under the supervision of experienced teachers while creating lesson plans, teaching students and marking assignments. This real-world experience is far more useful than the educational theory courses offered by education faculties.

Thus, it makes sense to enhance the teaching practicum while reducing the number of education courses prospective teachers must take. Instead of a two-year education program, compress the training period to one year. That year should consist primarily of a teaching practicum with a few basic courses in education law, psychology and assessment.

In addition, keep the current bachelor’s degree requirement in place. Instead of cutting the number of subject-specific courses prospective teachers must take, scrap the many useless education courses. This way it becomes possible to reduce the total length of the entire program by one year without sacrificing important academic content courses that make teachers subject-area experts.

Interestingly, this is exactly the type of program recommended by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. Based on international research, the Institute emphasizes the importance of subject mastery and “full-year properly supervised clinical training for future teachers.”

Lowering standards won’t solve Nova Scotia’s teacher shortage. Instead, it will ensure teachers are not as competent in the subjects they teach. The province has an opportunity to make positive changes to its teacher certification requirements. Hopefully, Premier Houston will take a hard look at the evidence before making any changes he will later regret.

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