Eric and Kristen Wideen are among a small number of teachers who’ve led classrooms on both sides of the Ambassador Bridge, and the differences run far deeper than the Detroit River.
Student test scores indicate children learn less in Michigan classrooms than Canadian ones. And while the Wideens emphasize that teachers on both sides of the border are dedicated and passionate, education experts point to one major difference between the systems: teacher training.
It’s easier to get into university teacher training programs in Michigan than in Ontario. There’s less mentoring and professional development here. And far more young Michigan teachers flee the profession after just a year or two, before attaining journeyman levels of classroom competency.
“Absolutely that is the reason,” said Eric Wideen, who grew up in Livonia, earned a degree at Western Michigan, and has taught in Michigan and Windsor. Kristen grew up and was trained in Ontario before crossing the bridge to teach in Inkster. Both now teach in Windsor-area schools. Having experience in both systems led them to the same conclusion: More rigorous teacher training increases student achievement.
It’s not just Ontario. Countries across the globe that outperform the U.S. in standardized test scores are more selective about who gets in to their teaching programs, and those programs offer more rigorous and long-term training.
“There’s probably no bigger determinant of economic growth than the quality of education,” said Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. “And the quality of education is determined by the quality of teachers.”
In the United States, “we say we want better teachers, but we don’t,” Tucker said. “We treat them like interchangeable parts.”
Spending like Luxembourg, learning like Poland
Even though the United States spends more per student than any country except Luxembourg, its students score about average in science and reading and below average in math in the test most commonly used for international comparisons, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).
Students in countries ranging from Finland to Singapore perform better on tests than American kids. Canada, perhaps the country most like the U.S., spends less on education but performs better. Canada is in the top 10 in the world in reading, math and science. And Ontario leads the way in Canada.
In the past decade, graduation rates in Ontario’s schools improved from 68 percent to 82 percent. Reading, writing and math scores jumped 15 percent. Ontario’s dramatic education turnaround is partly the result of an emphasis on teacher training, said Warren Kennedy, superintendent of the Greater Essex County School Board in Windsor.
“Teaching programs are hard to get in to,” Kennedy said, a contrast to Michigan, where students can enter some education programs with a high school GPA below 3.0.
Tucker is editor of a book comparing the world’s education systems, “Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems.”
“The countries we’ve studied are the top 10 performers in the PISA rankings,” Tucker said. “In many of these countries, by design, it is now as hard to get into teaching as it is to get into the high-status professions, making teaching high status.
“In virtually all of these countries, they’re recruiting teachers from the top quarter of their high school classes,” Tucker said. In Korea, it’s the top 5 percent; in Finland, 10 percent.”
And the United States?
“Most observers agree we recruit teachers from the bottom third of high school graduates,” Tucker said.
Once in the programs, the differences grow bigger.
Canada’s secrets aren’t so secret
All teacher candidates in Ontario get a bachelor’s degree before they enter a one-year intensive teacher training program. In 2014, the training program is increasing to two years, meaning all new teachers will have the equivalent of a master’s before they can even look for a job.
Competition is so fierce to get in to teaching programs that candidates must score at least in the 85th percentile of those taking entrance exams to be accepted.
“I had all A’s as an undergraduate, and I was worried about getting in (to an Ontario teaching training program),” Kristen Wideen said.
Once they graduate, teachers typically work for at least two years as substitute teachers before they are considered ready for full-time positions. It took Eric Wideen five years as an Ontario substitute teacher (all substitutes are certified teachers) before being “awarded” a full-time gig. The result: the average new teacher taking over a classroom in Michigan is 22 or 23; in Ontario, they’re 25-30.
New teachers in Ontario work closely with mentors and take part in an intensive new teacher induction program.
“If a new teacher is having trouble, there’s lots of support, from other teachers, administrators and the union,” said Clara Howitt, new teacher induction program director for Greater Essex County School Board. “Everyone gets involved.”
In Michigan, training essentially stops once teachers leave college. In 2002, fresh out of Western, Eric Wideen started teaching at a charter school in Inkster.
“It was, ‘Whatever you learned, go apply it,’” Wideen recalled. “In four years, I went to one conference. I think it was $25, and I may have had to pay for it, I’m not sure.”
In Windsor, he has province-paid training sessions once a month in his school building. Several times during the school year, the schools rent a hall for a full day of training.
After one year, 17 percent of new teachers in the United States leave the profession; In Ontario, annual attrition is 2 percent.
“People (in the U.S.) would say to me, ‘Oh, you’re just a glorified babysitter,’ or “Oh, you just want summers off,’” Eric Wideen recalled.
It’s a sentiment that Eric and Kristen discovered stops at the Ambassador Bridge, even though teachers are just as unionized and more highly paid in Ontario.
“The reason we do so well, the key for all high-performing countries, is high regard for teachers,” said Howitt. “My impression is that it’s much more punitive in the U.S.”
Could Michigan adopt the Ontario system of teacher training? It would take a coordinated effort by state government, universities and public schools, said Tucker.
“We don’t select our teachers from the most competent kids out of high school,” Tucker said. “We don’t train them very well, we throw kids straight out of universities into classrooms and then don’t support them adequately, and they leave.”