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Elizabeth Simpson who teaches French Immersion at Laura Secord Elementary in Vancouver April 3, 2014. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

A couple of decades ago, Alberta's education system was the envy of the rest of Canada and indeed most of the developed world. Alberta's students routinely outperformed their peers in math, reading and science. Educators from the United States and Europe would flock to the province to unlock the secrets of its educational success.

Today, though Alberta continues to perform well internationally, its students' scores on global surveys have slipped. The government has vowed reform – a retooling of the provincial math curriculum, for example. Now a provincial task force has called for the recertification of teachers every five years, raising the ire of unions who dismiss it as an attack on the integrity of the teaching profession – exactly the kind of knee-jerk response that we have come to expect.

Recertification is an idea sure to raise opposition. And it may miss the point. More important than figuring out how to fire weak teachers is the idea of rewarding good and excellent ones. Earlier this year, a report commissioned by the CEOs of Canada's largest employers wisely suggested linking pay and promotion to teacher performance. In virtually any other field, performance-based evaluations and rewards are the norm. In teaching, it's the exception. Most teachers are only evaluated intermittently by school principals on a "pass or fail" basis. There is no middle ground. Nor is there any incentive to improve over the course of a career.

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This makes no sense, especially when study after study shows the overwhelming impact a good teacher can have. One paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2011 looked at 2.5 million American schoolchildren and found the benefits of having a good teacher are lifelong and profound: Students who had better teachers earned more as adults, were more likely to attend college and were less likely to have children as teenagers. Economists also found the difference between poor and average teachers can be just as crucial as the difference between average and superior.

Yet our current system for teacher evaluation doesn't measure or reward that kind of nuance. It's almost impossible to identify and weed out teachers who routinely underperform, or reward those who are excellent. Recertifying teachers every five years, in some ways, could prove just as ineffective as any other binary model. It wouldn't be needed if we had an effective performance-based evaluation for teachers in place. That's the root of the problem: We don't.

Alberta is right to be rethinking the current model of teacher assessment, which dates back to the early 1900s and has no place in a 21st-century classroom. The rest of Canada should take note.

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