An International Approach To Raising the Stature of the Teaching Profession

Overshadowed somewhat by the ongoing national discussion about school reform, testing and No Child Left Behind, a first-of -a-kind event took place...

Overshadowed somewhat by the ongoing national discussion about school reform, testing and No Child Left Behind, a first-of -a-kind event took place last month at the Hilton in New York City : the first International Summit on the Teaching Profession, sponsored by the Department of Education, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and Education International, the global federation of teachers’ unions.

The U.S. delegation, headed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Chief State School Officers, joined delegations from 14 countries that the international educational assessment test PISA designated as high-performing and rapidly improving.

On the agenda: different countries’ approaches to ensuring that teachers are held to a higher standard – a very current issue in this country.

The jumping-off point for the summit was an OECD background report that recommended better teacher recruitment, increased professional development for teachers, making the teaching career more attractive, improved feedback and compensation for teachers and more cooperation between government and unions.

During the closing session of the panel, the country delegations shared their insights from the two-day session.

“We must have teacher education at master level,” said Anders Bondo Christensen, the President of the Danish Teachers Union, speaking for the Danish delegation. “Professional development must be a duty for all teachers.” He also said that teachers’ unions and the ministry had worked together to strengthen the position of the teaching professional. “The image of the teachers promoted by the media scares away young people; that has to change.”

Speaking for the Hong Kong delegation, Kenneth Chen, Under Secretary for Education, explained that Hong Kong had begun its education reform 11 years ago and made its education system work more effectively by moving from a top-town to a bottom-up system. “To attract the right people, we need to replenish the reservoir of the great teachers we already have,” he said. “We need not just soldiers, but generals, proud professionals.” He added that professional autonomy goes with accountability. Accountability should not just be built on extrinsic measures like evaluations and test scores. “We need more intrinsic levels that include our giving respect, trust, more space for teachers to exercise professional autonomy,” he said.

“What we learned here is that it’s important when you have large autonomy that there is also large accountability,” said Halbe Zijlstra, State Secretary of Education, Culture and Science of the Netherlands, representing the Dutch delegation. Zijlstra noted that many of the effective countries had instituted peer reviews for teachers, an idea they hoped to take back to the Netherlands, in addition to setting a goal for all teachers to have masters’ degrees.

From Singapore, S Israwan, Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of Education, noted that a focus on students and learning outcomes had to be key in any discussion on education systems, explaining that “it is difficult to reconcile a quality teaching workforce with suboptimal outcomes in learning.” He also warned that “the leaders in any education system have to be able to allow sufficient time for change to have its effect and then assess it – the instinct for quick gains equals bad results.”

Wilhoit summarized the takeaway for the United States. He noted that American education operated in the context of a confederated system. “That brings tremendous richness, but also responsibility for extended cooperation.” He praised the fact that 44 states had adopted the new common core set of standards. “We must be clearer about our definition of what a professional is, what it takes to enter that profession and to increase the rigor of our preparation programs, whether those individuals enter the profession through our traditional programs or through what are now alternative pathways,” Wilhoit said. “All of them must pass this gateway of what a professional is according to our agreed upon definition and we must clearly articulate that definition to our teachers, prospective teachers.”

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