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Worth Fighting For

The International Summit on the Teaching Profession, co-convened by Asia Society, was off the record. But several leading educators gathered the following day to reflect on lessons for the United States. Heather Singmaster reports.

By Heather Singmaster

The second International Summit on the Teaching Profession has come and gone. While the Summit itself is off the record, a panel featuring the Summit moderator, a rapporteur, and members of the U.S. delegation spoke to the Celebration of Teaching and Learning the next day and shared what they saw as the key lessons that emerged and their relevance to the United States. Moderator Tony Mackay, executive director of the Center for Strategic Education, identified four key points:

"Collaboration" was a word that rang through the hall constantly. The teaching profession should be a collaborative one and many delegates urged that collaboration needs to extend beyond the school. Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), said he was inspired by how other countries involve teachers in creating policy and that the United States must resolve to do the same. Marguerite Izzo, New York State Teacher of the Year 2007 and a member of the official U.S. delegation to the Summit, quoted Cicero, saying, "it's more important for the soldiers to know the battle plan than the generals." In other words, teachers must know the policies and be co-constructors of it in order to insure victory for students.

One Summit session focused on 21st century skills for all teachers, and while there seems to be a general sense of their importance, there was also a feeling that these are not the skills being measured. This is not just an American sentiment; Norway mentioned they have a curriculum that parents, teachers, and students agree is great, but they are constrained by tests that don't measure it. As Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Education, pointed out, one million new American teachers are needed to replace retiring teachers. This is a huge opportunity to train teachers to teach for the 21st century.

But the most relevant theme for the United States was that of systems. Systems can't be left to chance; they must be designed. This was recognized by the U.S. delegation as one of our weaknesses—we have a multifaceted system with many levels, making it difficult to maneuver and to change. Linda Darling Hammond, a Summit rapporteur and the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University, noted that there are some very strong systems that support teaching, such as in South Korea, Singapore, and Finland. These systems are designed and supported to ensure that teachers are well prepared and nurtured throughout their careers by mentors and coaches. In these countries, teacher preparation programs are free and some even receive a stipend. This ensures that teachers don't enter the profession in debt. Teacher salaries are competitive and they have more autonomy and flexibility. Izzo said the key is to "trust teachers." Because of the excellent teacher training and support systems in high-performing nations, teachers are trusted to innovate and help make good policies that ensure student achievement.

Overcoming these challenges won't be easy. Andreas Schleicher poignantly said that we have "21st century students, 20th century teachers, and 19th century schools." Economic and school funding challenges persist worldwide. However, as Mackay noted, smart and collaborative design of systems can free up resources from other parts of the economy. The creative use of technology in the classroom is one example.

This brings us to Mackay's fourth theme: learning is everyone's business. Improving education has to be a joint partnership with all stakeholders—and everyone is a stakeholder when it comes to the future workforce of our country: unions, parents, non-profits, businesses, philanthropy, and the community at large. Wilhoit lamented that the U.S. is complacent and its citizens generally do not understand that a good education system today means economic success for our nation tomorrow. In high-performing countries, parents sacrifice a lot to ensure their kids are successful and there is tremendous respect for teachers who ensure that success. And yet, as Randi Weingarten, president of The American Federation of Teachers, said, there is still a creative spirit in America, one that is envied by these other countries. The key is to tap into that for the welfare of all our children.

The group saw consensus on where the United States needs to go. The key, as Weingarten summarized, is to move ideas and best practices from conversation into American classrooms and school systems.

There was an important fifth lesson as well. Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association called out Finland as a point of inspiration. There, the goal was never excellence but rather equity; no matter where a student goes to school, he or she will receive a high-quality education. This, as Van Roekel says, is "something worth fighting for."

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