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Keep Your Eye on the Prize

Vivian McCaffrey

In April 1999, former Premier Mike Harris announced that the government would introduce teacher testing in Ontario. In June 2001, he made good on that promise when the government introduced Bill 80, the Stability and Excellence in Education Act that prescribes a program for teacher recertification. From the beginning, the issue has been intensely political. The fight against teacher recertification will only be won at the political level and with the support of strong, collective action on the part of teachers across the province.

The Harris government, more than any provincial government in recent history, has operated according to simplistic, ideological notions. The details of the recertification requirements are highly offensive to teachers. They are not based on sound research about professional learning or the art of teaching. Teacher recertification is a political gesture based on the assumption that the electorate is ill-informed about teacher training, the nature of teaching, the role of the Ontario College ofTeachers, and the professional accountability measures already in place through teacher evaluation. The government manipulates public communications about these issues to its political advantage to win support for a simplistic response to the complex issues related to effective teaching and student achievement. At a time when Tory ratings among voters are in steady decline, the government continues to score high in public opinion polls on the issue of teacher testing.

Teachers tend to be extremely idealistic about how democratic governments should work. ETFO has responded to the government’s teacher testing proposals with sound, rational alternative policies. Those proposals would ensure high professional standards for Ontario teachers and would provide real accountability for teaching and student learning in our classrooms. While ETFO’s alternative policies and our lobbying at Queen’s Park to promote them have won the federation important credibility on the issues, they, by themselves, are not enough to win the fight.

Since the passage of Bill 80 in June 2001, ETFO locals and members have responded with great determination to the call for action to protest this teacher recertification legislation. Local leaders were busy this fall and early winter lobbying MPPs in their ridings and making presentations to school boards and faculties of education. Thousands of teachers have returned recertification letters to the College and have written letters of protest to the College, the Minister of Education, and opposition MPPs.

These actions have had an impact. The vast majority of public school boards and faculties have agreed to respect teachers’ requests not to forward any results of professional development courses to the College for the purposes of recertification. While all public boards have applied for provider status, few are rushing to submit courses for approval by the College’s Professional Learning Committee. In response to presentations from their ETFO locals, the Renfrew County District School Board has agreed not to forward any courses for approval to the College and the Upper Grand District School Board has endorsed the ETFO Alternative Accountability Model as an alternative to teacher recertification. In response to concerns expressed by teacher federations and individual teachers, a number of providers have withdrawn as providers from the College. These include various subject associations, the Stratford Festival and Shaw Festival theatres, and the Bureau of Education and Research. More withdrawals are anticipated.

ETFO members have written letters and signed petitions. The notification letters returned by teachers in the first recertification cohort, the protest letters from thousands of other teachers, and the petition calling on the Governing Council of the College to denounce recertification have all sent a clear message that teachers lack confidence in the way the College is implementing its mandate to govern the profession.

Most importantly, the actions addressed to the College and the letters directed specifically to Queen’s Park have caught the attention of the opposition leaders. Both Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty and NDP Leader Howard Hampton have clearly indicated that, if their party forms the next government, they will withdraw the recertification program and work with teachers and the College to implement meaningful professional development for teachers. But they have gone further. Both leaders have acknowledged that the current governing structure of the College is not working. They have indicated the College requires reform to reduce the politicization and the political interference and to transform the College into a more truly self-governing body.

These are significant gains won during the early days of recertification implementation. To fully realize the goal of having recertification withdrawn, we must keep up the pressure and continue the collective action. If teachers consistently avoid taking courses that are registered as Professional Learning Program (plp) courses, more school boards will be forced to abandon their PLP courses and focus on providing professional development that responds directly to their teachers’ needs. If school boards fail to forward courses for approval to the College, the recertification program will begin to crumble. If all this happens, the next provincial government will truly have a crisis to resolve and we will be calling on them to live up to their commitments on the issue.

There are other developments that will, in the longer term, have an impact on Ontario government policy on teacher recertification. The government adopted its simplistic proposals for teacher testing and high-stakes standardized student testing from the “accountability reform” agenda of the Republicans in the United States. There is a growing body of research in the United States that challenges the validity of both forms of testing. An increasing number of teachers are protesting how the testing is being implemented. Eventually, the waves of repudiation and protest will wash over the border and in time influence those of our politicians who continually look southward for inspiration and direction.

So keep your eye on the prize. We can win the battle if we remain focused on sending a strong message to the college and to the politicians at Queen’s Park that, without teacher support and compliance, recertification will not work. We support accountability, not recertification.

Vivian McCaffrey for ETFO's Strategic Services Service Area