Can education find a common global vision?
Something remarkable is taking place in New Zealand this weekend. Ministers and teacher union leaders from countries such as the US, Germany, Japan and the UK are meeting to make a unique global effort to raise the status of teaching. The event - called the International Summit on the Teaching Profession - will address education's big questions.
And what are those questions? How equity can be achieved in increasingly devolved education systems, for example, or how high-quality teachers and leaders can be attracted to schools with the greatest needs. Although teachers, parents and young people may consider such matters to be remote from the realities of school life, the summit's mix of delegates enables both policy and practice to come under the spotlight. For instance, many education systems have moved away from top-down administrative control to give schools greater autonomy, largely as a result of policy messages from the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa). However, if autonomy is to benefit schools, teachers and the quality of learning, the system should encourage a culture of collaboration.
Knowledge about effective educational practices tends to stay in the places where it is created; without effective strategies and powerful incentives to share it rarely spreads. We need to think harder about how we transmit innovation.
This year's summit host, the New Zealand government, has one of the world's most devolved school systems. Its institutions are used to autonomy but also benefit from national interventions - fully involving teachers and their unions - that focus on enhancing teaching and learning, and sharing good practice.
There is a message here. If the benefits of devolving responsibility to schools are to be realised, the education system itself has to be coherent and effective enough to support the institutions. The evidence from Pisa is that collaborative leadership and partnership between schools are key factors in improving student achievement. A systemic approach to accountability is also vital. That requires a coherent, system-wide approach to the selection and education of teachers, and to their pay structure. It also requires close attention to those who face difficulties in improving the quality of their teaching. And it demands an environment in which there are intelligent and clear routes for teachers to develop their careers and work together to improve practices.
Indeed, previous summits tell us that teacher engagement in reform is crucial and that strong, proactive teacher unions have a vital role in developing education policy. In addition to the cultivation of teachers, other measures are vital in promoting equity and inclusion. Evidence shows that grouping students by ability amplifies the impact of their socio-economic status and limits the achievement of disadvantaged young people. As a result, countries such as Poland and Germany have recently adopted more comprehensive school systems.
Evidence also suggests that school choice has to be managed if the children of parents from disadvantaged backgrounds are not to be disadvantaged themselves when it comes to education. In a system with greater school autonomy, it is crucial that equitable admissions criteria are applied.
Schools with the greatest needs require the most coherent approaches. We need to think harder about how to attract committed teachers to work in the most challenging classrooms and the most effective principals to lead the toughest schools. How education systems respond to disadvantage is a test of their overall effectiveness.
Such schools need a range of strategies. These include adequate learning resources, a teacher workforce that responds to a range of demographics, preparation for those working in disadvantaged schools, ongoing mentoring and coaching, financial incentives as part of teachers' career structures, and regular professional development that addresses diversity issues and guarantees effective employment conditions.
Above all, we need to do better in thinking about how to promote a common vision of schooling and a united school system. These are big issues for teacher unions and governments alike and we have only skimmed the surface.
Andreas Schleicher is the deputy education director of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and special adviser on education policy to the OECD's secretary general. Fred Van Leeuwen is the general secretary of Education International, the global federation for teacher unions. For more information on the summit, visit www.istp2014.org