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(JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

GARY MASON

Imagine the uproar if we weeded out bad teachers Add to ...

A provincial task force looking for ways to improve Alberta’s education system had barely tabled its report before the teachers’ union lost its mind.

What the Alberta Teachers’ Association objected to was a recommendation that provincial educators get recertified every five years. The aim: To weed out teachers who shouldn’t be at the front of a classroom – the ones doing far more harm than good.

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Of course, that’s not how the association sees it. It views the plan as an all-out “assault” on its members. It even accused Education Minister Jeff Johnson of directing the task force to come up with the recommendation, a completely specious and reckless conspiracy theory that was repudiated by all involved.

It’s too bad teachers’ unions have become so predictable when it comes to any attempts to hold their members to a professional standard. Getting rid of incompetent teachers in Canada (and the United States, for that matter) is nearly impossible. The processes involved are so onerous, so stacked in the teacher’s favour, that most administrators throw up their hands in frustration and give up.

That shouldn’t be.

The Alberta task force noted that in 10 years, not one teacher has lost his or her job because of ineffectiveness – this, in a province that employs 35,000 full-time K-12 educators. That is a mind-boggling statistic and an indictment of both the government and the union. It’s not much different in most Canadian provinces. In British Columbia, just 16 teachers have been terminated or resigned in the past decade over incompetence-related issues. The province employs more than 30,000 K-12 teachers.

Talk to any teacher and they’ll identify at least one or two colleagues who shouldn’t be instructing kids for a living. That shouldn’t come as a great surprise. The teaching profession isn’t immune from the basic rules of the working world; 5 to 10 per cent of those making up any work force should probably be doing something else for a living. In the private sector, it’s much easier to push these people out the door and toward another direction. (And often, the departed are later happy they did.) In a unionized environment, where the mandate is frequently to protect the status quo, it’s much more difficult.

The thing is, most teachers are terrific at their jobs, which is good because at school, they play the single largest role in whether a child succeeds or fails. It’s not class size. Not class composition. It’s teachers and their ability to communicate effectively and make learning fun. It’s because teachers play such a vital role that it’s criminal to have people intent on building protective walls around those who shouldn’t be doing it.

The Alberta task force insists that a provincial system of performance evaluation must be introduced. In fact, every province should have one. Which metrics should be used to measure this performance is where it gets tricky.

In the United States, for instance, there have been some highly contentious attempts to evaluate teacher performance with a system known as “value added.” It’s based on measuring the average change in a student’s standardized test score from the beginning of the school year to the end. This, as opposed to just looking at the final scores, an outcome that often doesn’t take into account varying abilities, demographics and socio-economic circumstances.

I can just imagine the uproar if any provincial government in Canada tried such a thing. There would be wildcat strikes all over the place. And yet, surely, children’s academic progress has to be a factor in evaluating teacher performance, right? If the test scores of an entire class are noticeably off from a comparable group across the hall, doesn’t that say something? It’s not the only measure of a teacher’s ability, but it certainly is one.

It will be interesting to see where Alberta goes with all this. Provincial governments often talk tough, then get timid when it comes time to actually taking on teachers’ unions. Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives are incredibly vulnerable at the moment. They may not feel the time is right to force a confrontation with a group that will wield enormous clout at the polls.

Which would be too bad for kids. But then, they’re often an afterthought in these power struggles.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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