covereng.jpg (10339 bytes)
testing2.jpg (39327 bytes) The College wants to ensure that teachers new to Ontario have an adequate level of language proficiency to teach, but the College plan of action is stuck in the Ministry of Education bureaucracy.

Measures Needed to Ensure Language Proficiency

Teaching vacancies are increasing all over Ontario. Many school boards in Ontario are now offering contracts to teachers up to eight months earlier than they did just a couple of years ago.

Principals and superintendents say that some foreign-trained applicants face disappointment because, even with the shortage, they lack proficiency in English or French at a level adequate for the classroom. An adequate level includes not only the ability to speak a language, but also to read, write and comprehend it.

"Language skills are a key component of being a good teacher, and that is all the more true since the new Ontario curriculum requires students to pass literacy and numeracy tests," says College Registrar Margaret Wilson. "The College has a responsibility to ensure that the teachers who receive a licence to teach in Ontario have the language skills they need to function well in the classroom. At the moment, we don't have that authority. If a teacher has the paper qualifications, we have to give them permission to look for employment in Ontario."

The College asked the government last year for the authority to ensure applicants are competent in English or French. At the same time, the College proposed to remove a step from the licensing process for foreign-trained teachers to simplify and speed up the issuing of their Ontario credentials.

A letter the College received from a school principal in 1998 highlighted the problem. The principal had received an application from a teacher trained outside of Canada. The teacher had the requisite document from the College to seek employment - a Letter of Eligibility, which the College was obliged to issue based on the teacher's qualifications.

In the cover letter for a position teaching English, the teacher had written "...I harness my aspirations to be an assiduous teacher who will concentrate on preening the career path so as to procure the Ontario Teacher's Certification specifically to my liking..." and continued "In not circumscribing the interests in my teaching career, I am making credentially advantageous progress as effectual self-improvement schemes."

The principal, Richard Evans of I. E. Weldon Secondary School in Lindsay, wrote to the College, surprised that this teacher would be issued a Letter of Eligibility. He explained that he was concerned at what the consequences might be if this teacher had been hired. "Had this teacher been clever enough to realize she was not proficient in writing, she could have had someone else write a cover letter for her. That would have been a pretty alarming situation," he says.

Others agree. Trudy Griffiths of the Ontario Parent Council says that with literacy as a mandatory component of the new curriculum, "It stands to reason that proficiency in English or French should apply to teacher certification."

The Ontario Public Supervisory Officials' Association (OPSOA) supports the idea of a language proficiency test for teachers not trained in English or French. OPSOA's Frank Kelly says that there are always a few teachers whose language skills could be better. "I sympathize with them. I think they do a marvellous job." But like other education stakeholders, he says, the ability to be able to teach proficiently in the language of instruction is a priority in hiring.

For two years, the College has been developing a regulatory change to ensure that teachers educated in a language other than English or French be required to offer some evidence of their language skills.

Currently, the College issues a Letter of Eligibility to foreign-trained teachers if their qualifications are deemed equivalent to Ontario qualifications. With the Letter of Eligibility, the teacher can seek employment in Ontario schools.

A supervisory officer of the school board that offers the teacher a job must attest to their language proficiency in a signed statement on the Letter of Eligibility. The methods used to assess proficiency varies from school board to school board, but sometimes the statement is based on little more than a short conversation.

Evans thinks the system has worked for him. "I've never had to hire a teacher without being able to interview them first," he says. "And the interview is a pretty effective weeding out process."

But that's not true of all principals - or school boards, if they do the hiring. And as the teacher supply tightens in Ontario and just about every other jurisdiction, the problem is likely to grow.

The College has proposed changes to Regulation 184/97, Teachers' Qualifications which defines the requirements a teacher must fulfill to receive a teaching credential in Ontario. The changes proposed by the College would require new applicants for a teaching licence in Ontario, who did not complete their studies in English or French, to pass a test demonstrating their proficiency in one of the two languages before receiving a teaching credential.

The College developed the requirement for a language proficiency test in consultation with 18 education stakeholder groups who, along with Ministry of Education staff, were asked to comment on a draft of the proposed changes. Reaction to the proposal was very positive.

Some of the stakeholders raised issues of implementation, such as concerns that the test did not become a financial burden to teachers, that it did not effectively discriminate against any group and that there were sufficient means for teachers who fail the test to upgrade their skills and retake the test at a later date.

Liz Sandals of the Ontario Public School Boards Association says that the interview process does tend to identify people whose oral communication skills are lacking, but that is not the only language skill that needs to be tested.

"It's also important not to confine testing to the ability to read English, which is what a lot of the literacy scans tend to focus on. That's only part of the issue. A teacher needs to know how to communicate both in writing and verbally, with the students and their parents."

As the expected teacher retirements materialize and the teacher supply tightens, the number of teachers applying from other jurisdictions is likely to grow.

Susan Langley, Secretary-Treasurer of the Ontario Teachers' Federation, another of the education stakeholders involved in the consultation, says that it is an important issue. "Applications to faculties last year rose significantly, but I know there are areas where there will be more serious shortages than others - mathematics and sciences, for example - that may require we go outside Ontario to hire for those positions. Then I think it may become a greater concern."

The College Registrar also met with a number of groups representing minority communities. They, too, supported the initiative but also raised issues of fairness to the candidates, of the need to accommodate those who are in the process of improving their language skills and stressing the need for teachers to be able to access ESL and FSL training programs.

There was widespread support for the College's proposal to remove the Letter of Eligibility step from the licensing process for foreign-trained teachers. Currently the College evaluates the qualifications of 1,300 to 1,500 foreign-trained teachers each year. Under the regulatory changes it is proposing, it is estimated that 200 to 300 applicants will need to take a language proficiency test. The level of proficiency teachers will be expected to meet will be public. Those who do not meet the standard will have a clear idea of what skills need to be improved to be certified to teach in Ontario.

Teachers who trained in specified English-speaking or French-speaking countries or who can provide evidence that they studied at the primary, secondary and post-secondary levels in English or French would be exempted from the test.

Under the proposed revised regulation, instead of a Letter of Eligibility, qualified teachers will be issued an Interim Certificate of Qualification which they will be able to convert to a permanent Certificate of Qualification after successfully completing one year of teaching experience in Ontario and any other conditions stipulated by the College.

The College Council forwarded a formal request to the Ministry of Education to change the regulation in June of last year. Discussions between the College and ministry officials indicated a favourable response to the College's request. At a speech to the College Council in November 1999, Minister of Education Janet Ecker promised action on this and a number of other outstanding issues. But the College is still waiting.

"Given the emphasis that the government is putting on ensuring that Ontario teachers have the skills necessary to be effective in the classroom, it is surprising that we have not been able to move forward on ensuring all teachers have what is a very important and a very basic skill," says Wilson.