Why we've all got it wrong on teaching

US education secretary Arne Duncan, who hosted a landmark New York summit last week attended by Michael Gove, wants a re-evaluation of basic assumptions.

Much of the conventional wisdom today about the difficulty of elevating the teaching profession is mistaken or exaggerated. Many people believe that the challenges facing the teaching profession are largely unique to each nation.

Others contend that the status of the profession in the US and other countries is largely immutable, fixed by economic and social tradition. Or they believe that teachers' unions are inevitable roadblocks to reform, rather than potential sources of knowledge and expertise.

We disagree with all three of these popular assumptions - which is one reason why we convened the summit in New York City last week (see box).

The stakes for strengthening the teaching profession could not be higher: the quality of the classroom teacher is the single biggest in-school influence on student learning. And in the knowledge economy, the quality of student learning is one of the biggest drivers of national growth, economic competitiveness and social responsibility.

It is true that every nation has unique characteristics of its teaching profession. Few countries can simply adopt wholesale another nation's system for recruiting, training and compensating teachers. Yet many high-performing nations share a surprising number of common challenges to securing a high-quality teaching force.

Many top-performing education systems face looming teacher shortages - and similar stumbling blocks to preparing, rewarding and retaining top-notch teachers.

For example, the US is not alone in seeking to update its policies on the teaching profession to better prepare students for the 21st century. For most of the past century, schools and the teaching profession in the US have been organised like an assembly line, with teachers largely treated as interchangeable widgets.

Children were expected to learn routine cognitive skills and content that would last a lifetime, rather than learning higher-order thinking, problem-solving and decision-making skills that would help them to be lifelong learners.

Teachers in the US have typically been compensated based solely on their longevity in the job and their educational credentials - not for their impact on student learning, or for teaching in high-poverty and high-needs schools.

In contrast to the US and some other countries, top-performing education systems encourage excellent teachers to teach the students who most need their help. And they provide teachers with more autonomy to help students' master higher-order skills, such as adaptability, communication and critical thinking, all of which are keys to success in the information age.

In every nation, the nature of the teaching profession inevitably reflects local economic and cultural tradition. Yet that does not mean that the teaching profession can only undergo glacial change. Government policy can significantly strengthen the teaching profession if it is based on an understanding of teachers and teaching and takes account of lessons learnt in high-performing countries.

Singapore now has one of the world's highest-performing education systems - but it was not always so. In the early 1970s, less than half of Singapore's students reached the fourth grade (Year 5). Teachers were hired en masse, with little attention to quality.

Singapore soon identified teacher quality as key to improving educational outcomes - and government policy has been instrumental in identifying and nurturing teaching talent.

Today, Singapore offers teaching internships and a monthly stipend for top-performing high students while still in school.

In exchange, these teacher candidates must commit to teaching for at least three years and serving diverse students. After these bright, committed students undergo a rigorous teacher education program and become teachers, they receive 100 hours of professional development per year to keep up with changes in classroom instruction and to improve their practice.

Some believe that teachers' unions are immovable stumbling blocks to reform, but the international picture tells a different story.

Many of the world's top-performing nations have strong teacher unions that work in tandem with local and national authorities to boost student achievement.

In top-performing education systems such as Finland, Singapore and Ontario, Canada, teacher unions engage in reforms as partners in a joint quest to advance and accelerate learning.

These high-performing nations illustrate how tough-minded collaboration more often leads to educational progress than tough-minded confrontation. Education leaders can better accelerate achievement by working together and sharing best practices than by working alone.

Across the globe, education is the great equaliser, the one force that can consistently overcome differences in background, culture and privilege.

Increasing teacher autonomy and participation in reform is vital not just to improving student outcomes but to elevating the teaching profession. We reject the prevailing wisdom that it can't be done.

In addition to Arne Duncan, the authors of this piece are Angel Gurria, secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and Fred van Leeuwen, general secretary of Education International, which represents 30 million teachers worldwide

In the Big Apple

Core concerns

The international summit on the teaching profession, the first of its kind, was for high-performing and rapidly improving nations. In addition to English education secretary, British attendees included leaders of the NUT, NASUWT and ATL unions.

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