Making education reform happen

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Indicators and Analysis Division, Directorate for Education

This is the time of year when a lot of us resolve to commit ourselves to self-improvement plans of greater or lesser magnitude. Spend more time reading? On the list. Eat better? Ditto. Reform the education system? Whoa—nice idea; but isn’t that a bit too ambitious? 

What is it about education reform that all-too-often turns resolve into sighs and resignation? If countries really want to keep that resolution, here’s a suggestion: invite teachers to get involved.

On the face of it, it seems elementary: The best—meaning the most sustainable and effective—reforms happen when those who are directly affected support them. You don’t have to take our word for it; just look at how some of the best-performing and rapidly improving school systems got that way. Take Finland,  for example–one of the consistently best-performing OECD countries in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) since the assessments were first conducted in 2000. While teachers there have long enjoyed high professional status (which should be one of the goals of reform in countries where teachers are poorly trained, poorly paid and not recognised as the professionals they are—or should be), their views on improving student performance are actively solicited and, to the extent possible, used to spur and support change.

Ontario, Canada, initiated a comprehensive reform of its education system in 2003 to improve graduation rates and standards in literacy and numeracy. Those who led the reform effort acknowledge that it couldn’t have been as successful as it has been without the involvement of teachers’ unions and superintendents’ and principals’ organisations. For example, a collective bargaining agreement with the main teachers’ unions there eased the way for a reduction in class size and more preparation time for teachers—changes that, in turn, led to the creation of some 7,000 new jobs.

When teachers, union leaders and education ministers meet again in New York this March for the second OECD co-sponsored International Summit of the Teaching Profession, they will no doubt take as a starting point their conclusion from last year’s Summit: that high-quality teaching forces are created through deliberate policy choices, and by engaging strong teachers as active agents in school reform, not just using them to implement plans designed by others. In other words, the resolve to reform education can only be turned into real reform if teachers are at the forefront of change.

So in these first few days of the new year, be ambitious in your resolutions—and wise in keeping them.

For a full summary of the evidence that underpinned the first International Summit on the Teaching Profession held in New York in March 2011 see the report:
Building a High-Quality Teaching Profession: Lessons from around the World
Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)
OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS)
Video Series: Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education

Picture credit: Mark Rogers,

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