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High-Quality Teachers and Leaders Around the World: From Rhetoric to Action

The recent 2015 International Summit on the Teaching Profession was held in Banff, Canada. This unique gathering of ministers and teacher union leaders of the world's most advanced countries is an important opportunity to share best practices and learn from other countries on critical challenges in education. Vivien Stewart, senior advisor to Asia Society, shares the highlights.

by guest blogger Vivien Stewart

The fifth International Summit on the Teaching Profession brought together 400 educators from 17 countries. Started as a one-off event in 2011 in New York City, the Summit has developed into an eagerly awaited annual gathering of ministers, teacher union leaders, and other teacher leaders brought together by their shared conviction that excellent teaching is the linchpin to improving education and the desire of participants to learn from the policies and practices of other high-performing or rapidly improving systems.   

Achieving Excellent Teaching
Around the world, education systems are establishing more ambitious goals for excellence and education in the 21st century that include critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, learning how to learn, communication, and collaboration for every student. Achieving these new goals will require a highly-effective teaching and school leadership profession, operating within significantly restructured learning environments. As participants learned at previous summits, the highest-performing countries take a comprehensive approach to the teaching profession—actively 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 learning directed at student achievement. The Summits have spurred action on many of these issues in countries and jurisdictions as diverse as Belgium, Brazil, China, Estonia, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States.

Current Status
But conditions for excellent teaching are still far from widespread as OECD's 2013 Teaching and International Learning Study (TALIS), a survey of teachers in 34 countries, showed. For example:

  • Most teachers (90%) love their jobs but feel unrecognized and unsupported in their schools.
  • Most work in professional isolation. For example, 50% never team teach, only 30% ever observe their colleagues. US teachers are more isolated than most.
  • Feedback is rare—46% say they receive no feedback on their teaching.
  • Only 30% say that excellent teaching is recognized in any way.
  • Only 30% say that teaching is valued by society. However, in the highest-performing countries the vast majority of teachers feel valued by society.
  • Only 22% of principals report having received any training in instructional leadership.

Practical Policies
The 2015 Summit focused on leadership, recognition and efficacy, and innovative learning environments. Participants were looking for practical policies informed by evidence that would develop collaborative leadership and improved student achievement in their schools.

Many examples were cited of how countries are now focused on developing effective school principals who work collaboratively with their teachers to create school cultures that improve broadly defined student outcomes. Countries and provinces as diverse as Australia, Ontario in Canada, China, Germany, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Singapore, and Scotland have all, in recent years, developed new standards for school leaders, redesigned training programs, and career-long approaches to mentoring and development of school principals.

Teacher Leadership
But most of the attention at the Summit focused on the value of teacher leadership.  In concept, teacher leadership can strengthen the instructional core of a school, bring about needed school changes, and provide meaningful opportunities for teachers' career growth without them having to leave the classroom—thus helping to retain strong teachers in the system. But how can meaningful opportunities for excellent teachers be developed on a wide scale?

Some systems such as Singapore and Shanghai have well-developed systems of teacher leadership. Teachers rise through structured career ladders with increasing compensation and responsibility to work with their colleagues to improve teaching quality in their subject or grade. The most senior or master teachers conduct action research into particular problems in their schools and pilot efforts to improve them. They also work with senior teachers in other schools to spread best practices across the system. In Finland, where schools are much smaller, teacher leadership is more informal. All teachers exercise considerable authority for curriculum development, assessment, introducing new pedagogies, leading teacher teams, and mentoring new teachers, but they do so without permanent or fixed roles or levels.

In the United States, such practices can also be found in some redesigned schools, but in most schools, old industrial forms of work organization prevail that inhibit teacher leadership and innovative learning environments for students. The participating countries, aware of the necessity for innovation, are experimenting with new approaches to time, curriculum, pedagogy, collaboration, and technology use. They are also creating innovation funds and other mechanisms to spur innovation. But in most countries, the rigid organization of teacher and student time and lack of meaningful opportunities for teachers' professional learning and collaboration mean that such learning environments are more the exception than the norm.

Next Steps for the United States
Countries use the Summit not only as a way to learn from other but as an annual check on their own progress and to galvanize commitments for the following year. Perhaps the most important outcome from this International Summit for the United States was the commitment by the US delegation to hold a US Summit later this year, bringing together education stakeholders from all fifty states to work on ways to elevate and strengthen the teaching profession. This will build on, among other things, the Teach to Lead initiative, that already involves 70 organizations and showcases leadership roles already being played by teachers.

The big question: When TALIS is next administered in 2018, will the rhetoric about the importance of teaching and leadership have led to actions, conditions, policies, and practices that promote and support a highly effective and respected profession?   

A full report on the Summit's findings will be available on Asia Society's website in late May 2015.

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