Growing teacher workloads, inadequate salaries, student-discipline problems, increasing government mandates, and efforts to privatize education are setting up obstacles to high-quality public schooling throughout much of the industrialized world, contended educators from the United States and abroad at a symposium here last week sponsored by the National Education Association.
Officials of teachers’ unions from 11 industrialized countries gathered for in- depth discussions on the promise of and challenges to teacher-driven school improvement initiatives.
The four-day symposium was convened by the 2.7 million-member NEA to encourage a sharing of ideas and strategies among nations facing related education issues, according to Joanne E. Eide, the manager of the NEA office of international relations.
“We’re all looking at the same [issues],” she said. “Our governments are talking, our ministers of education are meeting with each other, [international organizations] are making comparisons between countries, as well as the media.”
Until now, Ms. Eide said, unions have not had ongoing discussions with their counterparts in other nations on key topics.
“We wanted to start a dialogue about our shared experiences and what each union is doing on school quality and other issues,” she said.
Many of the participants spoke of frustration among their members over government policies that guide curriculum and require widespread testing of students, but that don’t provide the resources and salary increases they believe should accompany the mandates.
In the United Kingdom, for example, many teachers are under enormous pressure to raise student achievement while facing greater strictures over what and how they teach, said Martin Reed, a teacher in a secondary school in northern England.
“The workload is growing, and people are being burned out within their first few years of teaching,” he said.
Mr. Reed, a union representative in his region, said an effort is under way to pool resources among neighboring schools to allow more course offerings without piling greater work on individual teachers. An audit by local union representatives is also in the works to determine how much time teachers are spending on administrative tasks teachers consider unnecessary.
Government leaders and most teachers’ unions in England and Wales agreed in principle earlier this year to lighten teachers’ workloads by using teaching assistants to help with instruction. (“Historic Pact Expected to Lighten British Teachers’ Workload,” Feb. 12, 2003.)
In several countries, unions are increasing their roles in providing professional development to help teachers deal with academic and classroom-management issues.
In sparsely populated Western Australia, for example, the teachers’ union designed a training program to address widespread student-discipline problems that had caused many parents to send their children to private schools. State education officials, recognizing the subsequent declines in discipline problems, then provided funding to expand the program, according to Pat Byrne, the president of the State School Teachers’ Union of Western Australia, in Victoria.
While such programs help improve morale among teachers, which can then attract more to the field, educators are often asked to sacrifice salaries in exchange for more classroom and professional resources, some participants lamented.
“We have to always fight for a higher-quality education system,” said Gabrielle Fleischauer-Niemann, a teachers’ union official from Germany. “But in times of economic problems, we are given the choice by the government: ‘Do you want to raise teachers’ salaries or improve education?’”
Such a trade-off, other participants said, can undermine school quality.
Teachers should not be criticized for expecting both adequate resources and adequate pay, said P.J. Sheehy, the president of the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland.
“Teachers have a right to expect a decent wage,” he argued. “This is a profession. To treat teaching as a vocation implies that our reward will be in [heaven].”
Union officials from Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the Republic of Ireland, Netherlands, and Sweden also attended the conference.
The union officials will continue the discussion through a listserv that is being set up by the NEA, according to Ms. Eide. Other symposiums on topics of international interest may also be planned.