Tucker’s Lens: The 2013 International Summit on the Teaching Profession

By Marc Tucker

InternationalTeachingSummit2011Elsewhere in this newsletter, we summarize the paper prepared by the OECD for the recent International Teachers Summit in the Netherlands and the remarks made by Andreas Schleicher in his webinar on the subject.  These documents are well worth reading, as is Vivien Stewart’s account of the event.  Here, I will attempt to share some of the dynamics of the summit.

I did not attend the summit, and so have assembled this account on the basis of conversations with several people who were there.  My purpose is to describe some of the differences in views among the participants, because they are consequential, and reveal much about the direction education policy is likely to take in the coming years.

This was the third in the series of summits, the first two of which were held in New York City at the invitation of United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, invitations extended to the ministers of education and education labor leaders from the top-performing and most rapidly improving countries.  The United States acted as host country for those meetings and Education International (EI) and the OECD were the principal co-sponsors.  The aim was to provide a venue in which the top officials involved in making policy for teachers and teaching in their countries could, aided by analyses provided by the OECD and EI, compare notes on strategy and implementation, and by so doing, further improve their own education systems.  Nothing quite like this had ever happened before.

The first summit was focused on attracting and recruiting high quality secondary school candidates into the profession.  It covered initial teacher education, strengthening professional practice and retention.  There was broad agreement that no nation could have a high quality education system without high quality teachers.  One could feel a palpable sense of excitement among the participants as they reinforced each other’s conviction that a policy focus on teacher quality could yield great dividends and that the nations around the table could learn a lot from each other.  It ended with a call for a second meeting, one that would go deeper on teacher preparation, teacher supply and demand and school leadership.  Subsequent meetings, the planners thought, might similarly focus on other key aspects of policy for teachers.

The second meeting reached the objectives its planners had for it in the realm of leadership, though it came up a little short on the subject of supply and demand.  But the big difference was a difference of tone.  Key differences in policy direction among the participants emerged, differences grounded in different interpretations of the nature of the challenges facing the industrialized nations’ education systems, and the appropriate responses.  The differences in tone became obvious both in exchanges between the participants at the table and later, when the observers had a chance to ask questions of those participants.  There was, in particular, a certain chill in the exchange between U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Sing Kong Lee, the Director of the Singapore’s National Institute of Education, in their exchange on the subject of teacher evaluation and the role of teacher evaluation in the design of accountability systems.  Secretary Duncan appeared to be pressing for some support for the proposition that teacher evaluation—in particular teacher evaluation tied to measured student performance—was an important key to teacher quality.  Sing Kong Lee acknowledged that teacher evaluation was important, but expressed some reservations about the American approach.  There were echoes of this difference at other points during the discussion at the table and again, in somewhat more strident tones, when the observers joined in the discussion.  Though many in the room nodded their heads when Sing Kong Lee spoke on this topic, it was clear that Duncan was not alone in his view that countries interested in improving student outcomes needed strong accountability systems, and that teacher evaluation systems tied to student performance should be part of those systems, but it was just as clear that the labor leaders, teachers in the audience and many ministers were very wary of such systems.

Toward the end of the second summit, the ministers and labor leaders gathered for separate lunches.  Both gatherings acknowledged that the issue of teacher evaluation and appraisal had become the “elephant in the room.”  To the extent that teacher evaluation is tied to promotions, retention, incentives, rewards and so on, such discussions can easily lead to confrontations with the teachers unions.  But it was not just fear of confrontations between governments and unions that was at play here.  Many of the ministers had considered and rejected the idea of basing policy in any important way on tough accountability systems focused on teacher evaluation because they did not think such management strategies would enable them to recruit and retain the kind of high quality professionals they wanted.

Thus, this issue appeared to engage issues of policy, management and strategy central to the work of everyone.  Andreas Schleicher, realizing that the great promise of the summits could be squandered if they did not deal with this issue, pressed those present to make the “elephant in the room” the focus of the next summit.  Rather than trying to push it into a corner, he wanted to deal with it head on.  EI agreed.

Some of the experts and observers in the room argued that teacher evaluation should not be the central topic of the third summit, that it was but one component among many in a high-performing system.  But Schleicher and others agreed that this set of issues was so central that it needed to be dealt with head on and the decision was made to focus the third summit on teacher evaluation and appraisal.

That decision would put great pressure on the OECD to come up with a paper setting the stage for the meeting that all the attendees would regard as a fair point of departure for the discussion.  The planners agreed on the following lens for that paper:

  • How should teacher evaluation and appraisal be defined and who should define it?
  • What processes and techniques should be used?
  • What can research tell as about the impact of teacher evaluation and appraisal?

And thus the stage was set for the third summit.

I was not there, and could not in any case get inside the heads of those who were, but, at this distance am very much inclined to agree with what I take to be Schleicher’s strategy.  Shoving this issue under the rug would have doomed the summits.  Ministers would have drifted away if the discussions were inhibited by very important issues that could not be discussed.  The alternative was to try to frame the issues in such a way that they could be discussed.  This was the path that was chosen.  It was broadly agreed that teacher evaluation and appraisal is very important and that it could be effective only in systems also designed to:

  • Make teaching an attractive profession,
  • Provide very high-quality initial teacher education,
  • Create a school management system in which teachers could act as autonomous professionals within a collaborative culture, and
  • Engage teachers in developing the evaluation system.

And that was frame with which OECD and EI opened the third summit.

teacherThis is a very sensible approach.  It could potentially provide a roadmap leading to sound policy that would also provide an opportunity for all parties to claim victory, but it would have been too much to expect that it would relieve all the tensions with which the second summit ended.

In the eyes of several observers, no one at the table at the third summit was advocating that teacher evaluation and appraisal be used to weed out bad teachers.  And everyone agreed that teachers both needed and wanted feedback.  But, with that off the table, there was still tension between those who are most comfortable with the use of evaluation for professional growth and development, on the one hand, and those who see it as a vital tool in the design and implementation of tough-minded accountability systems on the other.  And, in the middle, were those who were naturally inclined to the position apparently so well articulated by Andreas Schleicher at the meeting, namely that teacher evaluation is best thought of as an important component of a much larger system built around a conception of teachers as highly capable professionals, not as cogs in a Tayloristic management design.

That vision assumes that the criteria against which teachers are being judged is not limited to student performance on basic skills in a narrow range of subjects but on their ability to help students succeed against the full range of outcomes now widely referred to as 21st century skills, many of which are difficult if not impossible to measure.  In Tayloristic systems, everyone assumes that management will assess the workers in any way they see fit, usually according to fairly simplistic criteria; in professional environments, the direction of accountability is at least as much to one’s colleagues as to one’s superiors in the organizational structure.  So who is to devise the criteria for judging teachers and who is to decide whether an individual teacher meets them?  In blue collar environments, all workers are regarded as equal, if not interchangeable.  But, in a professional environment, the professionals acquire increasing responsibility, authority and compensation as they demonstrate increasing competence and skill.  Perhaps, as nations move toward conceptions of teachers and teaching grounded in the idea of teacher as professional, the idea of teacher evaluation and appraisal should be inextricably connected to the development of formalized career ladders for teachers.

The third summit did indeed address these and other issues.  This made for some tough conversations.  It became very clear that it was going to be hard to resolve these issues without some real trust among the parties, both at this table, and, by implication, within the countries represented.

Nonetheless, the people I talked with about the summit came away encouraged.  The honesty of the conversation, the fact that what had at the preceding meeting been the “elephant in the room” had now been addressed and that there was substantial consensus on many points was a relief to many who had feared going into the meeting that it might end badly.

That it did not is no doubt in part the result of the good will of those who came.

But new cracks emerged.  Among the rules set by the conference organizers is one that says that a country cannot be represented at all unless it is represented by the top education official (usually the minister of education) and the top teachers union official.  But, especially for the Asian nations, there is a strict limit to the number of out-of-country trips officials can make, often no more than two a year.  If a minister more senior than the education minister calls a meeting on the date of the summit, the education minister must cancel the trip to the summit.  Under the current rules, this means that the country is not formally represented and for that reason, a number of jurisdictions that had been invited to the third summit attended in a participating observer status.

The rule could, of course, be abandoned.  But that could easily lead to the summit not being a summit of top officials with policy-making authority, but rather a meeting of functionaries.  No one wants that.

There is another problem.  It is important to the host country to be able to invite observers, people—mostly educators—who are interested in the proceedings and want to express their views on the issues being discussed by the delegates.  But this desire for what has become something of a public fishbowl can inhibit the desire of the organizers of the summits to have a frank discussion among the delegates.  The frankness of the discussion is one of the big attractions of the meetings for the delegates.  The openness of the meetings is a big draw for the host countries.  This potential conflict of goals did not loom large when the summits were first conceived, but, now that the conversation has begun to tread on sensitive issues, it has become clear that some way must be found to resolve the tension between the desire for openness and the need for some measure of privacy.

Lastly, as in so many other international organizations, there are tensions with respect to which nations are invited to sit around the table.  The original conception was to include both top performers (on the PISA rankings) and the countries whose education systems were improving the fastest.  But, if Asian top performers drop out because education ministers are not able to attend, the summit could get to be a meeting dominated by countries that are not among the top performers, and, if that happens, the top performers who remain may decide not to come, and then the summit ceases to be a summit.

These are tough challenges, but they are neither unprecedented among such international meetings nor are they, in principle, insurmountable.  The three meetings that have taken place thus far have served as a unique venue for the people on whose shoulders rest the fundamental redesign of the world’s leading education systems to exchange information, share views and challenge each other’s conception of the right policies and strategies.  That is a very worthwhile function.  I very much hope the organizers are successful as they seek a path through this thicket.