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16 Nations Meet to Discuss Improving Teaching

By guest blogger Liana Heitin

Here in New York at the International Summit on the Teaching Profession, education leaders from 16 nations came to the roundtable (literally, it was a large one) to share ideas and experiences on how to improve teaching. But while participants spoke in broad terms about improving the profession, they offered few concrete policy ideas for doing so.

The event included representatives from the usual players when it comes to international comparisons, including Finland, Singapore, and Canada. Several countries that have not commonly been part of the conversation also participated, including Estonia, Slovenia, Poland, and China. Even Japan, ravaged by the recent earthquake and tsunami, was in attendance. (An inside source said the ministers slept in their offices to make sure they didn't miss their flights.)

As expected from a series of reports released concurrent with the meeting, the mantra among participants was to "raise the status of the profession." When asked what this meant in practical terms during a press conference, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan responded that in many other countries "teachers are revered. Only the top talent is alowed to enter the profession. And the entire communities rally around teachers."

Secretary General of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Angel Gurria, said "not only is it possible" to improve the profession's status, "but it's being done in other countries." He pointed to China as one of the countries with the most rapidly improving PISA scores, saying the U.S. can learn from that turnaround model.

In all, much of the rhetoric served as a reproach to those U.S. governors who are working to pass legislation stripping unions of their collective bargaining rights. Duncan, flanked by American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten and National Education Association president Dennis Van Roekel, said he is "deeply troubled by that movement," and that "teacher voice" is a necessary part of transforming an education system.

"In Finland, Singapore, and South Korea, what you see is amazing collaboration, amazing trust...and that unions can be a part of that," he said.

In an interview, Van Roekel said, "It's obvious to the people here that high-performing countries without exception have strong unions. You have to have strong collaboration with whoever is implementing the policies."

When asked if lower performing countries have collective bargaining, he said he didn't know. "I think we have good unions in America, but we're not in the top," he said.

The discussions themselves were not open to the media, but the rapporteurs and country representatives offered summit takeaways at an open-press wrap-up session.

Several countries echoed the need to improve leadership, make the profession more attractive, collaborate with unions, and further strengthen professional development.

Ben Levin, Professor and Canada Reseach Chair in Education Leadership and Policy at the University of Toronto said the "big takeaway is that heightening teachers' professional skill and knowledge is the central challenge we have." He also said that teaching must be an occupation that "ordinary people can do well."

There was also a bit of self-congratulation about this being the the first such international summit. Susan Hopgood, president of Education International, an international network of teachers' unions, said the summit should serve as a "springboard for a global forum," and evidence that education should be a priority at the G-20.

Duncan said he might host the summit again next year, and that the Netherlands was considering hosting in 2013.

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