Last week, Alberta’s Task Force for Teaching Excellence submitted its much-discussed report on the measures it thinks the province needs to take to improve teaching excellence. The most striking of these would see teachers evaluated every five years; ‘Bad’ teachers would have their certificates removed; ‘good’ teachers would be given extra pay.
The Task Force was created last September by Education Minister Jeff Johnson and follows American proposals that attempt to make teachers more accountable for their students’ success. The authors of the report, who have included the word “excellence” on each of the report’s 94 commissioned pages, never explicitly state what they mean. In one baffling sentence we are told that “Teaching excellence is achieved through a system that ensures that: For every child, in every class, there is an excellent teacher.” According to this definition, an excellent teacher is one who makes teaching excellent. It’s a nonsense statement, like describing the air as “airy.”
Only once, in parenthesis, do the authors allude to a definition. “The impact of a good teacher can be huge,” they write, before going on to tell us of an American study in which economists discovered that students assigned to good teachers, “(as measured by their impact on students’ test scores),” earned more money as adults. Finally, we know what the authors mean by good or excellent teaching.
The only trouble is that this statement technically classifies the report, and each of its recommendations, as economic policy, not education reform. Saying that a good teacher is one who can make his or her students the most money is another way of saying that the point of the teaching profession is to train future employees. And if the point of teaching is training, the point of learning is to be trained. We might then conclude that if all learning is training, the only reason to go to school is to become well-certified, not well-educated.
Aside from being a radical, if not entirely unusual interpretation of the purpose of formal education, the argument represents a reductionist position that is neither desirable nor defensible. An education is supposed to be broad. The knowledge at its core represents the accumulation of information that, once digested, leads to increased awareness, sagacity, and moral aptitude. We want to learn the things that make us better people, not just smarter or richer. That’s because knowledge itself is a public good, and part of its breadth is derived from this essential altruism. When we limit knowledge to the pursuit of capital, we’re saying that it has no intrinsic worth, only extrinsic value.
By trying to reverse-engineer success, the province of Alberta would not only rob students’ worth as educated minds, but impoverish their value as educated labour. For the same reason that it takes work to make knowledge valuable, it takes knowledge to give work worth. Education leads to creativity, creativity motivates innovation, and innovation is what produces capital. Remove “educated” from the phrase “educated labour,” and our future graduates would be both ignorant and unproductive; good at following instructions, but bad at generating the ideas that fuel the creative economy.
As for the screening of teachers, that should happen at the interview stage. Then, teachers should be left alone to do what we pay them to do.
Zander Sherman is the author of The Curiosity of School.