Charting the way towards excellence and equity in education

by Andreas Schleicher
Deputy Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary General

Something remarkable is taking place in New Zealand right now: ministers and teacher union leaders from the best-performing and most rapidly improving education systems are making a unique global effort to raise the status of the teaching profession. The agenda of this year’s International Summit on the Teaching Profession focuses on three policy goals: excellence, equity and inclusion. Vital questions are being addressed, such as how can equity be achieved in increasingly devolved education systems, and how can high-quality teachers and leaders be attracted to schools with the greatest needs?

Why are these questions so important? To teachers, parents and young people, these questions may appear remote from the realities of school life; but the Summit’s unique mix of delegates enables both policy and practice to come under the spotlight. Largely as a result of PISA’s policy messages, many school systems have moved away from top-down administrative control towards giving schools greater autonomy. However, if autonomy is to benefit schools, teacher self-efficacy and the quality of learning, education systems should enable schools to enhance their capacity and encourage a culture of collaboration.

Knowledge about effective education practices tends to stay in the places where it is created, and rarely spreads without effective strategies and powerful incentives to share it. We need to think harder about how to spread good practice and innovation.

This year’s Summit host, the New Zealand Government, has one of the most devolved school systems in the world. Its schools are used to autonomy, but they also benefit from national interventions that focus on enhancing teaching and learning and sharing good practice, and that fully involve their teachers and their unions.

There is a message here. If the benefits of devolving responsibility to schools are to be realised, then the education system itself has to be coherent and effective enough to support schools. The evidence from PISA is that collaborative school management and co-operation among schools are factors in improving student achievement, as is a systemic approach to accountability. That requires a coherent, system-wide approach to the selection and education of teachers and to their pay structure. It also requires close attention to helping teachers who face difficulties in improving the quality of their teaching. And it requires an environment in which there are intelligent pathways for teachers to grow in their careers and in which they can work together to develop new knowledge and practice.

Indeed, everything that previous Summits tell us is that teachers’ engagement in reform is crucial, and that strong, proactive teacher unions have a vital role in developing education policy as well as in supporting teachers professionally.

Essential as the development of teachers is, equity and inclusion are also promoted by other measures being in place. Evidence shows that early tracking, or grouping students by ability, amplifies the impact of students’ socio economic status and limits the achievement of disadvantaged pupils. As a result, countries and regions, such as Poland and a number of Lander in Germany, have recently adopted more comprehensive school systems.

Evidence also shows that school choice has to be managed if the children of parents from disadvantaged backgrounds are not to be disadvantaged, themselves, when it comes to school admissions. In a system with greater school autonomy, it is crucial that equitable admissions criteria apply to all schools.

Nowhere is a coherent, system-wide approach more necessary than for schools with the greatest needs. Again we need to think harder about how to attract dedicated and committed teachers to work in the most challenging classrooms and the most effective principals into the toughest schools.

How education systems respond to disadvantage is a test of their overall effectiveness. Such schools need a range of strategies. They include: providing adequate learning resources; creating a teacher workforce that is responsive to students’ backgrounds; preparing teachers for working in disadvantaged schools; offering mentoring and coaching for such teachers on an ongoing basis; improving working conditions; introducing financial incentives as part of teachers’ career structures; providing regular professional development that addresses diversity issues; and guaranteeing effective employment conditions.

Above all, we need to do better in thinking about how to promote a common vision of schooling and a united school system. These are big issues for teacher unions and governments alike and we have only skimmed the surface. Watch the Summit’s Youtube channel for video footage of the event.

International Summit on the Teaching Profession 2014
OECD Summit Background Paper: Equity, Excellence and Inclusiveness in Education, by Andreas Schleicher
OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey
PISA 2012 Results: Excellence Through Equity: Giving Every Student the Chance to Succeed (Volume II)
Follow the summit on twitter @OECD_Edu  #ISTP2014
Photography courtesy of: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

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