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Where and how do teachers get their training in preparation for the demands of the 21st century classroom? This is an essential question educators and policy makers face in education systems across the globe.

The Empowered Educators international study from Linda Darling-Hammond finds that the process of teacher training and certification is quite centralized in the high-performing systems studied, with a small number of degree-granting institutions: a single teacher training institution in Singapore, eight in Finland and nine in Alberta. In contrast, Colorado has 35 such avenues for certification, and Washington state has 53 different routes to gaining a teaching certificate. (Here’s a link to order the book associated with the study. Note: a print copy of the book costs $31. The Canada brief can be read free of charge here. Other country briefs can be accessed free by scrolling to the bottom of this page. )

I often wonder about the multitude of routes to certification available in countries like the U.S., and the trade-off between ease or efficiency and consistency. While the numerous routes may allow for flexibility in finding and developing teaching staff, the cost of inconsistency likely does not serve students or schools very well.

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I teach social studies in Edmonton, Alberta in what we would consider a medium-sized school of slightly under a thousand students. Alberta’s population is around four million, similar to Kentucky, but with demographics more like California.

“The thread that runs through the province’s schools is a common idea of how to be a teacher.”

Student populations in the larger urban centers of Alberta are extremely international and ethnically diverse thanks to laws passed by the Canadian Parliament in the 1970s and 1980s and a constitutional amendment in 1982 that recognized Canada’s multicultural character and heritage, encouraging people from all parts of the world of varying cultures, languages, religions and perspectives to flow into Alberta’s cities.

The result has been both the richness and the complexity of diversity. In this context, school boards look for teachers who have some common and agreed-upon understanding of what should transpire in classrooms.

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Education is a provincial responsibility in Canada and is highly centralized by the Alberta government. The curriculum is developed and coordinated by government officials and staff, but the writing is done largely by committees of practicing teachers according to agreed-upon directives (a broad curriculum revision is currently underway now).

The curriculum is thus the same in all Alberta schools, although it may be taught in myriad ways. Teacher certification is also the responsibility of the government, and prospective teachers must hold a Bachelor of Education degree from a recognized institution before being deemed qualified to teach. While the nine universities with degree-granting status enjoy significant autonomy, their teacher education remains largely consistent across institutions.

In my own teacher training many years ago, I took various courses in curriculum theory, classroom management, education history and educational psychology along with content-based courses like political science, economics and history.

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My teaching methodologies courses explored varied instructional techniques and possible classroom activities, but they were all in relation to the set curriculum.

Today, my younger colleagues will describe similar coursework, although it will likely include such extras as aboriginal studies, assessment strategies or the use of technology in the classroom. This consistent, but never stagnant, approach to teacher development also plays out at the school level where teachers collaborate in planning and share resources and best practices.

One might argue the desirability of such a degree of parallelism among the universities in my home province. But does it undermine innovation or creativity in the classroom? From my experience, no. There are preferred textbooks, but not exclusive ones. I have my pick of a wide range of materials and resources, and of how I approach course content. Within this model there is still choice, but with a remarkable consistency.

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All teachers have similar teacher training, and a similar view of the common curriculum. I have colleagues who have moved from different cities and school districts into my own district and immediately began teaching senior-level courses with the same understanding of curriculum and same expectations for academic performance that I have.

Likewise, I could move from my current city to practically any other place in the province and, discounting individual school differences in policy and culture, fit in comfortably and begin my job easily. The same may be said for students who move in and out of schools.

I sometimes have students join my classes well into the school year because their families have moved from someplace else.

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When I ask these newcomers what they’ve learned so far at their previous school they invariably describe similar content, activities and teaching approaches that I myself have employed. This is not to say that everything is lock-step; however, the thread that runs through the province’s schools is a common idea of how to be a teacher.

In the United States, the various and divergent routes to certification seem to be driven by teacher shortages. One sympathizes, but I would submit that filling teaching positions is not an easy task. Preparation for a career shaping the minds, values and spirit of our youth requires people of substance who are attracted to the profession because being an educator is an engaging and secure job choice.

A Bachelor’s Degree in education from one of the provincially accredited institutions in Alberta is a significant accomplishment. With it, the public can be assured that teachers are well-qualified and will deliver similar experiences to all schools and classrooms in the province, helping to ensure the success of one of Alberta’s greatest assets – our students.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. It is the first opinion piece in a series highlighting teaching policies and practices from top-performing countries that participated in a study led by Linda Darling-Hammond and funded and supported by the National Center on Education and the Economy, called The Empowered Educators. Sign up for The Report’s newsletter.

Robert Gardner has taught with the Edmonton Public School Board in Alberta for 27 years. He has been a contributing writer of curriculum and a co-author of several textbooks and teaching resources.

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