Tucker’s Lens: Report from the 2014 International Summit on the Teaching Profession

ISTPReflectionsVivien Stewart recently returned from the latest in a series of international summits on the teaching profession, this one hosted by New Zealand.  Once again, Stewart was asked by the sponsors to write a summary of the proceedings, a report she is now working on.  In the pages that follow, I ask Stewart to trace the history of these meetings and paint a brief portrait of the latest one.

Marc Tucker: Can you give us a retrospective on the International Summit on the Teaching Profession – how it started, and the trajectory traced by the meetings?

Vivien Stewart: The first summit was held in New York City in 2011.  It was the result of a conversation a few months earlier between John Wilson, then executive director of the National Education Association, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  Wilson was telling Duncan about his participation in a recent Asia Society panel that involved teachers from around the world discussing how their education systems work.  Duncan agreed that it would be useful to examine the policies that other countries have adopted to raise the status and quality of the teaching profession and he agreed to host an international meeting of education ministers and teachers union heads on this topic.  Other stakeholders started to get involved including the AFT, OECD, Education International, Asia Society, and Ron Thorpe of WNET.

The first meeting looked at the status of the teaching profession worldwide.  To be invited, a country had to be among the top 30 performers according to the OECD league tables.  And the minister and the head of the teachers unions from each country both had to agree to participate.

The first meeting focused on the following questions: What is the status of the teaching profession?  Where is it getting stronger or weaker?  What approaches are needed in order to develop high quality professionals who can get all students to high levels of achievement?  The first meeting was an eye-opener to many countries working on one or more parts of their system.  The top-performers take a comprehensive approach.  Two key features of that approach include recruiting high quality entrants into the profession, and making sure the teacher preparation programs are rigorous by developing strong subject matter skills for all teachers and providing more extensive clinical experience early on.  Once teachers are in school, every new teacher has a mentor and there are career paths to enable teachers to grow in their professional roles.  As they gain experience, they can take on leadership roles in the school focused on curriculum, mentoring, leading professional development to address the school’s problems and more.

The message was clear: A country can’t just do one thing to professionalize teaching; it has to think about and provide for the entire 40-year career path of a teacher.  The first summit stimulated action among many of the participating countries that saw what they were doing in the context of a much larger framework than they had before.

The second summit also took place in New York and was focused on the knowledge and skills that teachers should have.  There was consensus among all the participating countries that all students will need what the United States calls 21st century skills – critical thinking, problem-solving, ability to apply what you know to real-world problems as well as non-cognitive outcomes like learning to learn, cross-cultural knowledge and working in teams.  Students need to acquire these skills not instead of knowledge but in addition to it.  These 21st century skills were always taught at the schools that taught the elite but now they have to be taught to all students.  The participants agreed that, if the students now needed these skills and abilities, their teachers surely did.  That would mean that the bar for entry into the profession would have to be raised and prospective teachers would have to have much more rigorous preparation.

School leadership was the second focus of this summit.  The kinds of leaders that are needed to raise achievement and improve equity are not the traditional principals who were simply good teachers, good coaches or good administrators.  Systems need to identify people with leadership potential and give them the right experiences.  This is already happening in a number of places around the world, for example, in Singapore’s leadership program.

The third summit was in Amsterdam and focused on the issue of teacher evaluation, an issue around which there is often a lot of conflict between government and unions.   Most countries agreed that teacher evaluation systems are necessary, but there was much less agreement on how they should be designed or the roles they should play.  Most did, however, believe that appraisals should be used to guide professional development since feedback and evaluation without opportunities to develop and practice new skills does not lead to improvement.  Most countries also felt strongly that teacher evaluations should be based on many sources of data, not just one or two.  Many countries include student and parent surveys, not just principal assessment and student test scores.  The evaluation system needs to do justice to the complex role of a teacher and has to be designed in partnership with the teaching profession.  Areas where there was strong disagreement at the Summit included focusing appraisal primarily on student test scores or value-added measures and tying bonuses or merit pay directly to appraisals.

ISTPCeremonyWhen the summits began, no one thought they would still be going on four years later or that countries would be lining up to host them.  But they are.  So they are clearly serving a need.  Increasingly, countries realize there are lessons to be learned from looking at the practices of other countries, particularly those at similar economic levels.  Over time, the summit participants are not always the same people because ministers change but there always seems to be a willingness to discuss real problems, not just give official statements.

MT: What was the focus of this year’s summit?

VS: The focus of this summit was the importance of increasing equity in education.  That is something that all countries need to double down on because in many countries schools simply reproduce the patterns of advantage and disadvantage.  Across OECD countries, more socioeconomically advantaged students score 39 points higher on the PISA math assessment than less advantaged students, which is equal to one year of schooling.  The 2012 PISA math assessment shows that equity and excellence are not mutually exclusive.  Some countries such as Canada, Australia, Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and the Netherlands have both high performance and high equity.  These countries still have a long way to go, but the crucial point is that it is possible to reduce the correlation between socioeconomic background and educational outcomes.

It turns out that recent OECD studies are helping many countries focus on the way child poverty affects their ability to produce both high achievement and high equity in their education systems.  The Japanese presentation was startling.  A 2008 OECD report, called Growing Unequal? Income Distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries, found that Japan had a 15 percent poverty rate, the 4th highest poverty rate among OECD countries.  This shocked the Japanese.  So Japan enacted a law, in January 2014, that is intended to reduce child poverty by providing for a range of employment and financial assistance in addition to after-school support and working more closely with parents.

The summit really focused on three questions.  First, how can systems get high quality teachers into schools with the greatest needs?  There seems to be a range of strategies that are in common use.  First, the resources available to schools with many disadvantaged students need to be equal to if not greater than those available to advantaged schools, but resources aren’t enough, they have to be used efficiently. Lots of systems use incentives to get teachers into hard-to-serve schools such as bonuses or career incentives, as in Shanghai.  Countries with large rural areas, like Scotland or China, focus on “grow your own” approaches, meaning developing teachers from low-income or ethnic minority communities.  In rural schools, technology can be helpful when there are not local teachers available in specific subjects.  For teachers to be effective, the skills they receive in their initial preparation need to deal deeply with issues of diagnosis, differentiation of instruction and using data to identify struggling learners.  A number of countries were working on this, including Germany and New Zealand.

There was agreement that teachers, especially those in high need schools, need ongoing support.  Michael Fullan talked about collaborative cultures in schools.  Others pointed out that focusing on teacher quality alone will not lead to equity; there is a need to support parents and students outside of school.  Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand talked about engaging parents outside of school while others talked about schools as hubs of social services.

There was also a consensus on the importance of countries having universal access to early learning opportunities.  By age five in Scotland, there are already gaps in problem solving of 6-10 months and in vocabulary of 11-18 months between advantaged and disadvantaged students.  This is not unusual.  PISA data shows that students with at least a year of preschool score higher than those students who don’t attend preschool.  Countries need more high-quality teachers for early childhood education.

ISTPParliamentThe second theme – how to achieve high equity in an age of decentralization – was chosen in part because of its relevance to New Zealand, one of the most decentralized systems in the world.  Many countries are devolving responsibilities to the school level to give schools more professional autonomy and because they believe they will get better results if schools are freer to meet the unique needs and diverse interest of their students.  But just driving responsibility to the school level can also lead to inequity.  In New Zealand, schools are self-governing and that works well in schools with parents that bring a lot to the table but it does not work so well in low-income areas.  So the question is, if you care about equity, what needs to be centralized and what needs to be decentralized?

To get high equity, the state needs to establish high academic standards that apply to all students.  And to reach these standards, all schools need to have access to high quality teachers and school leaders so teacher policies have to be more centralized. Transparent public accountability mechanisms so that students’ progress can be understood are also necessary.  As a practical matter, school quality and capacity typically vary widely among schools so many systems are developing clusters or networks of schools to achieve greater consistency across schools.  For example, Scotland has an online network of principals.  Shanghai has its most experienced teachers working across schools.  And in Singapore, master teachers work with teachers in their own and other schools.

The discussion of the third theme – learning environments to suit all students – focused, among other things, on evidence from PISA that shows that early stratification and early selection reduces the achievement of less-developed students.  As a result, a number of countries are trying to increase the age when students are separated into different tracks.  Poland, for example, increased the age at which students are split into two different streams to age 16 and saw a substantial increase in PISA scores that Polish officials attributed to this policy.  In Germany, a country that scored low in PISA in 2000 and had one of the most inequitable systems in the OECD, some of the states have been trying to reduce the number of separate streams and schools as one step toward greater equity.  However they have realized that just getting rid of tracks is not enough.  And they have done a number of things to get beyond a traditionally, highly stratified education system including establishing national standards, school monitoring and evaluation systems, and making changes to their teacher preparation systems in order to better equip teachers to deal with immigrant and low-income students.

MT: What’s next for the summit on teachers and teaching?
VS: The next summit will take place a year from now in Alberta, Canada.  Germany has offered to host in Berlin in 2016 and Hong Kong in 2017.