Paul Taillefer, the new president of the 200,000-member Canadian Teachers’ Federation, is proud of Canada’s public education system-and the high scores our students achieve on international tests such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Last year, only South Korea and Finland had higher PISA scores than Canada in reading, math and science. Several of our public school boards have won Germany’s prestigious Bertelsmann prize for effectiveness in education.
“There is very little privately funded education in Canada, so our public school system is the main reason we do so well in international testing,” says Taillefer.
But Taillefer still has some major concerns. One of these is the shift over the past decade or so to standardized testing from the early grades on. “While this is somewhat useful in assessing the quality of the system, it has narrowed the range of topics taught in schools, particularly in the arts, because so much time is needed to prepare students for the provincial tests,” he says.
Another pressing challenge is the unremitting reduction in funding, as governments strive to balance budgets and eliminate deficits. “The movement to cut educational services and resources is very short-sighted since we live in a knowledge-based society, and the most important thing we can do is to ensure a highly educated, self-informing and adaptive citizenry,” Taillefer says. “We need to be increasing targeted and strategic investment to support specific demands on classroom teachers.”
In Ontario, he points out, such targeted investment has started to reverse a troubling trend that a few years ago saw stressed-out teachers leaving the profession within four or five years of having entered it.
One of the greatest stressors for teachers is the diversity of the inclusive contemporary classroom, with students presenting an array of abilities, ethnicities, first languages, learning and behavioural problems, income levels and parental support and expectations. “Teachers need support to be sure they can reach all students adequately,” he says.
These supports might include classroom teaching assistants, but more important are professional development programs that train teachers to address the increasingly complex composition of their classes. “The more diverse the class, the more effort and resources it takes to teach individual learners,” says Taillefer.
One solution is to cap class sizes in strategic ways. “We need to tailor class size to the specific composition of an individual class,” he says.
Another factor in educational excellence is giving front-line teachers a strong voice in designing change. “A study by Andy Har-greaves, a professor of education at Boston College, found that in countries that don’t do well in education, teachers’ voices are absent in educational reform,” says Taillefer. “In ones that do do well, teachers are well-respected professionals who partner with government in informing future change.”