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Excellence and Equity: Policy Lessons From Around the World

Last week, the 4th International Summit on the Teaching Profession was held in Wellington, New Zealand.  This unique gathering of ministers of education and teacher union leaders from the education systems of the world's most advanced countries is an important opportunity to share best practices and learn from other countries on critical educational challenges. Vivien Stewart reports.

 By Vivien Stewart

Recognizing the centrality of the teaching profession to the performance of every nation's education system, previous Summits have focused on how to raise the status and quality of the teaching profession. The highest performing countries take a comprehensive approach to this: recruiting high-quality entrants; raising the rigor of teacher preparation programs to equip prospective teachers with strong subject matter skills and extensive clinical experience; mentoring every new teacher; developing career paths and leadership roles for outstanding teachers; and providing effective forms of professional development tied to student achievement. The Summits have led to actions on many of these issues in countries as diverse as Australia, Belgium, Brazil, China, Estonia, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Japan, Poland, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States.

This year the Summit's theme was Excellence, Equity, and Inclusiveness. Every country agrees that poor educational achievement has disastrous effects for individuals and societies and that closing the opportunity gap is crucial. Yet in many countries, schools tend to reproduce existing patterns of socio-economic advantage rather than create a more equitable distribution of learning opportunities and outcomes. For example, across OECD countries, a more socio-economically advantaged student scores 39 points higher on the PISA assessment of mathematics—the equivalent nearly one year of schooling—than a less advantaged student. This year's Summit therefore addressed some high-priority questions for the participating countries including how can high-quality teachers be attracted to schools with the greatest needs? And what are the levers for improving equity in increasingly devolved education systems?

How can high-quality teachers be attracted into and retained in the schools with the greatest needs? Education systems use a range of strategies, often in combination, to respond to disadvantage. Most high-performing systems ensure that the resources available to disadvantaged schools are equal to or greater than resources provided to other schools. But resources alone are not enough; they need to be used well. Many systems use incentives, whether bonuses or career incentives to attract teachers to the most challenging schools.  "Grow your own" approaches that focus on developing teachers from low-income or ethnic minority communities can also work. And for schools in isolated rural areas, technology can be a useful adjunct in delivering high-quality instruction in subjects where local teachers may not be available. But for teachers to remain and be effective in challenging situations, they must be equipped with the skills that are needed to use data to identify struggling learners, understand cultural differences, diagnose student problems, and differentiate instruction based on students' needs. Many countries are now working to ensure that their teacher professional standards and teacher preparation programs prepare prospective teachers more deeply with these skills. Since schools in challenging environments are fragile institutions that tend to have high attrition rates among teachers, teachers in these schools also need ongoing support through mentoring and coaching to increase their sense of efficacy. The development of collaborative cultures among teachers and leaders in schools is one of the most powerful ways to improve the quality of teaching and the commitment of teachers to their schools.

But focusing on teacher quality alone will not produce equity. Summit participants also discussed ways to engage low-income parents in their student's educational journey and on the use of schools as hubs of social and educational services. And there was a strong consensus on the need for countries to expand and raise the quality of early learning opportunities. In Scotland, for example, by age 5, there are already major gaps in problem-solving (6-12 months) and expressive vocabulary (11-18 months).    

Since the 1980s, school reforms in many countries have emphasized giving schools greater autonomy. This happens in a variety of ways. Sometimes authority is delegated for curricula and assessment, sometimes for resources and personnel too. And sometimes decentralization takes place in the context of providing choice to parents and competition among schools.  While this has allowed schools the flexibility to tailor their programs to better meet the needs of students and has provided a greater variety of types of schools to cater to student interests, the results in terms of achievement have been mixed. Depending on the design, school choice schemes can lead to increased socio-economic stratification. And in cases where the capacities of local schools or communities to manage schools are varied, it can maintain inequality.

What then are the levers for equity in highly decentralized systems?

Summit participants agreed that there needs to be a balance of centralized and local responsibility. Key levers at the "center" include the establishment of common high academic expectations and standards for all students and the availability of high-quality teachers for all. School-level data are needed to enable identification of students who are struggling and to improve a school's response. Also, and very importantly, the more devolved the system, the greater the capacity that is needed at the school level, especially in school leadership. An increasing trend across a number of countries is towards networks, clusters or partnerships of schools to foster shared opportunities for professional learning and spreading of best practices among schools.

In recent years, a number of countries have shown that combining excellence and equity is possible. The PISA assessment of mathematics in 2012, for example, showed that Australia, Canada, Estonia, Finland, High Kong, China, Japan, Korea, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands and Macao-China have all combined high educational performance with greater equity in educational opportunities.  While there is still a long way to go in all these systems, they illustrate why more and more countries are looking beyond their borders, and to opportunities like the Summit, for evidence of the world's most promising policies and practices.

Vivien Stewart is senior advisor to Asia Society. Follow Asia Society on Twitter.

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