Dozens of teachers in Nova Scotia are boosting their salaries by thousands of dollars by completing questionable coaching courses offered through a distance education program at a mid-western U.S. university, CBC news has learned.

A total of 41 Nova Scotia teachers had their certification upgraded after completing courses at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa in the last three years.

Information obtained by CBC through the Freedom of Information Act shows two-thirds of them took coaching courses.

"I would describe them as bird courses that are a bit of a loophole in the current system," said Paul Bennett, a Halifax consultant with a doctorate in education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. He reviewed the syllabuses and other materials for the courses. 

"They are not legitimate courses and they don't meet the common standards for graduate work which they're being used as an equivalent to."

Financial gain 'significant'

The teachers learn through reading materials and DVDs. There are writing assignments, but no significant research papers, and no regular interaction with a professor or other students.

The financial gain for teachers can be significant.

Salary increases are between $6,000 and more than $8,000 depending on a teacher's training and years of service. The increases are the same whether you take an approved integrated program made up of undergraduate and graduate level courses or receive a Masters.

Teachers can also apply for a professional development grant to help cover the cost of enrolment or take a paid education leave. 
The government said there is no requirement that says teachers can only enrol in upgrading courses that match their area of specialty, partly because it cannot predict the future career needs or wants of those teachers. 

But Bennett said the percentage taking coaching courses is questionable.

Paul Bennett

Paul Bennett said some teachers have obviously discovered a loophole to bump up their pay significantly which in turn increases their pension when they retire. (CBC)

"I think what's happening is the teachers taking Drake courses are cherry-picking the ones that are minimally demanding and they can get the maximum benefit from them," he said.  

"One would guess from the number taking these courses that it far exceeds the actual numbers of teachers that are using it on a day-to-day basis in the schools." 

Word of the Drake courses appears to be spreading.

Statistics obtained by CBC show in 2011, 110 teachers were approved by the province's teacher certification office to take upgrading courses at Drake. Last year, it was more than double that amount — 232 teachers. 

In all, 505 teachers have been pre-approved for Drake courses over the last three years. It's not clear how many plan or are currently taking the coaching courses. Teachers have seven years to complete the curriculum once they are approved.

'Impossible to review every course we approve'

Teachers cannot upgrade their certificate unless the courses they take are approved by the Nova Scotia Department of Education. But CBC News has learned that is largely a rubber-stamping exercise.

"It would be impossible for us to review every course that we approve," says Paul Cantelo, registrar and director of teacher certification.  

"There's a significant danger in assessing the academic quality of one institution without actually looking at the other institutions that we approve and we have fallen back on our process that we've used to date and that is that it's at the graduate level from an accredited institution and as such it meets our requirements."

On Wednesday Karen Casey, Nova Scotia’s minister of education, told CBC she will review the courses teachers are taking to upgrade their licences.

“The questions that have been asked are [about] the quality of the courses — how appropriate they are and so I need to look into that. I need to make sure that the courses that teachers are taking are directly related to the curriculum or the teaching assignment they have," she said.

Of the 30 credit hours required for an upgrade, the province requires 18 of them must be at the graduate level.

Drake said some of its courses can be transferred into its Master of Science in Teacher Effectiveness and it said credits from any of its courses "may be applicable toward recertification or salary advancement," but it urges prospective students to refer to local guidelines.

Bennett said while some Drake courses — such as differentiated learning, social psychology and the future of education — are of a higher quality, the coaching courses don't pass muster. The subject area also doesn't meet the demand facing the Nova Scotia school system.

"We have a critical need for teachers in mathematics, science and French and we should be directing all of our resources to getting better qualified, more capable teachers in those areas," said Bennett.

"You could argue these real coaching courses speak to leadership but they're at a very infantile, immature level of leadership. Looking at say, the real coaching unit I did, it's not much better than an average high school course that you would take in Grade 12." 

Bennett said some teachers have obviously discovered a loophole to bump up their pay significantly which in turn increases their pension when they retire.

He's calling for an investigation into the way the province upgrades teachers' certifications.