Professional Development for Teachers

Upgrading professional skills can be very useful. Teaching is no exception. The province has an expensive program for teachers, but it is not focused on the needs of students.

We have real shortcomings in our schools. Nova Scotia’s scores on international standardized tests have been getting worse. We are seventh in Math and below the Canadian average there and in reading and science. This is hardly the route to success in the knowledge economy.

As reported by Paul Bennett students in low income areas doing particularly poorly:

By Grade 8, only 55 per cent of John Martin JHS students met the provincial reading standard and a shockingly low eight per cent made the grade in mathematics, compared to 56 per cent board-wide.

Yet students at Harbour View were far from the lowest performers in literacy and numeracy… the situation in a half dozen other elementary schools, such as Burton Ettinger, South Woodside, Rockingstone Heights and Joseph Howe is dire and calls out for more urgent action. The Grade 8 mathematics results in a few schools are nothing short of abysmal.

How do the province’s education development programs respond?

School boards are required by the provincial contract with the NSTU to annually set aside money for professional development. In the current year the total is $6.1 million, which can be used both for tuition costs and to enable leaves for study. Tuition for programs that are approved by the Department of Education must be funded by school boards whether or not they respond to identified student needs.

Completion of an approved programs result in an upgrading of the teacher’s certificate and a substantial raise of between $5,000 and $8,000. Programs include post-graduate degrees, diplomas, or certificates from accredited universities, as well as an Instructional Leadership program managed by the Department of Education.

To illustrate how this works, imagine that a high school English teacher with ten years’ experience (let’s call her Sue) can become more valuable by completing a post-graduate degree in Mathematics. If only it was that simple.

The program is designed to reward Sue whether or not the development she receives translates into value for students. She will still get the raise even if she decides to stay with teaching English. Or if she wants to teach Math but has less seniority than another teacher with fewer qualifications.

Imagine that Sue’s sister Sally has just moved to Halifax, having previously been the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge (Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking have been among her predecessors). If she wanted to teach Math in Nova Scotia schools Sally would be ranked behind every permanent contract teacher with a BA.

The big cost of the development program is not the tuition support, but rather the resulting raises in pay. If Sue has has just completed a program, the value of those raises, supplemented by regular increases and counting towards pension at retirement, easily exceeds $100,000.

In 2013 upgrades were granted to 568 teachers who had completed approved programs. The present value of the resulting increases is likely to exceed $60 million, in addition to the $6.1 million for tuition support and paid leaves. Of course much of this creates value for students, but significant sums are spent unproductively.

It was in this context that the story recently emerged about an online program from Drake University, a private institution in Des Moines Iowa. Its program appears to have contributed to a surge in applications to 1109 in 2013, up from an average of less than 900 over the three previous years. Noticing that the program had little or no faculty interaction, and was actually subcontracted to outside suppliers, the Department of Education decided to withdraw its approval.

By that time more than 500 teachers had been pre-approved. So taxpayers may ultimately spend more than $50 million to reward a program that the department views to be deficient, and which may be entirely irrelevant to the work of the teachers who take it. Did Minister Casey have that perspective when she decided to allow the pre-approvals?

Much of the program at Drake is for coaches and physical educators. If our friend Sue was preapproved she has seven years to earn another well-rewarded upgrade in her teaching certificate, while continuing to teach English and doing no coaching.

The Drake example is not isolated. What we have is a system that focuses on teacher certifications, whether or not they are useful or used. What we need is an emphasis on deploying skills that will improve student outcomes.

The government knows that education is important but money is tight. Every dollar must be spent with a strategic outcome in mind. Today’s expensive program for approving and rewarding professional development for teachers has the wrong priorities. It is not focused on the urgent need to do better for our students. It is time for the program to be repaired.


Related Articles

Scholar Dollars + Show all articles

Reference Material

Scholar Dollars + Show all reference material