What is Quality Education?

By Dianne Woloschuk
March 7, 2014

In recent years, the question “What does quality education look like?” has prompted a number of markedly varying responses. Some people say that a quality education must incorporate new technologies and “prepare children for the 21st century” (as they define preparation), or that students must be well-suited to the job market, or that a quality education can be judged by student outcomes on international and national standardized tests. For teacher organizations and unions, these perspectives on quality education narrow the conversation about quality education by focusing too closely on quick “fixes” that ignore key education indicators like government investment in public education, child poverty, child mental health, and equitable opportunity to learn. Launched in September, 2013, Education International’s “Unite for Quality Education” campaign refocuses our attention on three key characteristics of quality education: quality teachers, quality tools, and quality learning environments.

Recently in Canada, we have heard in the media about a proposed Teach for Canada (TFC) initiative, modeled after the flawed Teach for America program that has now been copied in a few other countries. This program puts forward the discouragingly familiar idea that university graduates, who are not qualified as teachers, are more effective in working with struggling students than qualified teachers are. The intention is that these university graduates, after a three-month crash course, be sent to remote rural and aboriginal communities to work in their schools for a period of two years before going on to other careers. A more appropriate title for this program might be the “Not Qualified to Teach in Canada” program.

This initiative also begs the question of why, in any Canadian public or First Nations schools, we would emulate practices used in countries whose student results are consistently and significantly below our own. Governments around the world have recognized that the key to educational success for their students is a well-qualified, professional teaching force. Where teachers are not qualified, student results are poor.  At the Commonwealth Education Ministers’ conference in 2009, the Malaysian Education Minister described her Ministry’s efforts to improve the qualifications of unqualified people currently working with students in Malaysian schools because of a shortage of qualified teachers, including on-going professional development and mentoring by qualified teachers. It is highly ironic that the proponents of TFC propose that unqualified university graduates replace qualified teachers in an effort to meet the needs of our most vulnerable students. Conceptually, this is equivalent to sending people with a Bachelor of Science in Anatomy or Biology to diagnose and treat patients in medical clinics and hospitals. Quality teaching means having qualified teachers and ready opportunities for professional development and growth.

Besides the quality of teaching, other factors also contribute to Canadian students’ success or lack of success. Relevant, meaningful curricula are a key to student engagement. For example, aboriginal students benefit greatly when curricula are culturally appropriate. Incorporating technology into teaching practices can be effective as long as the purposes are educational, students have equitable access to the technology, and the system is well-supported.  Given the development in recent years of new instructional approaches such as inquiry learning, formative assessment, and differentiated instruction, class size continues to be a significant factor in student learning and in resourcing schools. Provincial and territorial governments must accept their responsibility for providing appropriate funding for the public education system because this represents an investment in the future of their province or territory, and in the future of individual children and their families. Funding is a particularly pressing question for First Nations communities, where the federal government provides funding for First Nations schools at a rate that is $2,000 to $3,000 per pupil per year less than provincial and territorial funding for public school students. Quality education means quality tools and quality learning environments.

Internationally, Canada’s publicly-funded education system is highly regarded. Though Finland’s education system is often hailed as a model, Canada achieves similar results, despite having, among other concerns, a rate of child poverty twice that of Finland.  Poverty and food insecurity are recognized to have profound effects on children’s ability to learn. In its reports on Canadian students’ performance on PISA, the OECD has consistently emphasized that, in Canada, socio-economic factors have much less impact on student learning than in most other countries.

Quality public education is no accident. It does not result from short-term strategies and cutting educational or financial corners. Quality education is the result of a broad commitment to the well-being of children – a commitment on the part of society, government, communities, families, parents, and teachers. It really does take all of us to raise and educate our nation’s children.

Dianne Woloschuk is the President of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.

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Perspectives web magazine is published by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF), a national alliance of provincial and territorial teacher organizations that represent over 273,000 elementary and secondary school teachers across Canada.

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