School & District Management

Raise Teachers’ Status, International Leaders Urge

By Liana Loewus — March 29, 2011 3 min read
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Education leaders from 16 nations that have or aspire to have top-performing education systems gathered here recently to share ideas on improving teaching.

Participants spoke repeatedly of the need to “raise the status of the teaching profession”—a task that is complicated, some said, by moves in several American states to curtail unions’ collective bargaining rights.

The International Summit on the Teaching Profession was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education in conjunction with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Education International, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Asia Society, and public broadcaster WNET.

Representatives from Finland, Singapore, and Canada—among the usual players when it comes to international comparisons—attended the March 16-17 gathering. Participants also came from countries that have not commonly been part of the conversation, including China, Estonia, and Slovenia.

Only the last three hours of the event were open to reporters, including a short press conference and a wrap-up session. Elizabeth Utrup, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said that the closed sessions “were organized to encourage deep and frank conversations,” and that the host groups would elaborate on the key themes in an upcoming summary document.

Top Talent

At the open sessions, participants spoke broadly about the kinds of changes that have improved education systems. Several countries echoed the need to improve leadership, make the teaching profession more attractive, and strengthen professional development.

While international comparisons have found that high-performing countries recruit their top talent to become teachers, Ben Levin, a professor at the University of Toronto, said that teaching has to be an occupation “that large numbers of people with ordinary levels of skill, talent, and commitment can do well.” He said “heightening teachers’ professional skill and knowledge is the central challenge we have.”

The Netherlands’ secretary of education for culture and science, Halbe Zijlstra, said that “every teacher should be a master, and every teacher should have a master’s degree”—a sentiment that counters efforts in the United States to stop paying teachers based on credentials, giving them less incentive to pursue graduate degrees.

Reports released prior to the meeting highlighted lessons the United States can learn from other countries.

In “What the U.S. Can Learn From the World’s Most Successful Education Reform Efforts,” Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director of education, and Steven L. Paine, a vice president of CTB/McGraw-Hill, say the United States should emulate top achievers by investing in the preparation of high-quality teachers, setting common standards, and developing effective leaders.

“Teacher and Leader Effectiveness: Lessons Learned From High-Performing Education Systems,” edited by Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond and Robert Rothman, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education, says Finland, Singapore, and Ontario, Canada, get “the right people” into teaching and prepare them well, provide ongoing teacher support, and develop high-quality leadership.

Union Worries

At the press conference, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan reiterated the need to elevate teachers’ status. Asked what that means in practical terms, he said that in many other countries, “teachers are revered. Only the top talent is allowed to enter the profession. And entire communities rally around teachers.”

OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria said “not only is it possible” to raise the profession’s status, “but it’s being done in other countries.” He pointed to China’s rapidly improving international test scores and said the United States can learn from that turnaround model.

Overall, the summit was characterized by accord, providing a foil to familiar contentious debates about tenure, evaluations, and pay. Even so, U.S. leaders took several opportunities to condemn measures aimed at curbing unions’ collective bargaining rights, such as those in Wisconsin and Idaho.

Mr. Duncan, flanked by NEA President Dennis Van Roekel and aft President Randi Weingarten, said that he is “deeply troubled by that movement,” and that “teacher voice” is a necessary part of transforming an education system.

“In Finland, Singapore, and South Korea, what you see is amazing collaboration, amazing trust, ... and that unions can be a part of that,” he said.

In an interview, Mr. Van Roekel said: “It’s obvious to the people here that high-performing countries without exception have strong unions. You have to have strong collaboration with whomever is implementing the policies.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2011 edition of Education Week as International Leaders Urge Nations to Raise Status of Teachers

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