Preparing teachers for change – in and outside of the profession

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Every year in March, education ministers and union leaders of the highest-performing and most rapidly improving education systems (according to PISA) meet to seek ways to improve the status of the teaching profession. Many countries could use such guidance. While in Finland teaching has become the most prestigious profession – those who don’t compete successfully for a place in teacher education can still become lawyers and doctors – in other countries, the situation is very different. In the Slovak Republic, France and Sweden, for example, just 5 in 100 teachers agree that teaching is a valued profession in society; in Croatia and Spain, fewer than 10 in 100 teachers agree.

Ministers and union leaders concur that success hinges on ownership by the profession. Real change won’t happen without teachers being active agents for change. When governments don’t succeed in engaging teachers in the design of reforms, teachers can’t and won’t help much in implementing those reforms. That has to do with public confidence in professionals and the profession; with decisions made according to the body of knowledge of the profession; and with acceptance of responsibility and accountability in the name of the profession.

This year’s summit, held in Edinburgh, Scotland, focused on how education can become more responsive to changes in social demands and, at the same time, resilient to political change. One thing is clear: the weaker the profession, the more vulnerable education will be to political decisions, and the less trust education practitioners will have in the notion that the problems they face can actually be solved by evidence and science.

But ministers shared good examples of how governments can help make great ideas real, how to strengthen professional autonomy and a collaborative culture where great ideas are shared, refined and borrowed, and where access to funding and non-financial support lifts those ideas into action.

Estonia reminded participants of the importance of celebrating successes and finding better ways to recognise, reward and give exposure to success to convey the expectations for the system. Governments can build incentives to strengthen the visibility of and demand for what works. Indeed, many ministers spoke about the importance of evidence-based policy in education, and that it is best served when the profession plays a part in developing policy. Indeed, we heard from union leaders in Sweden that teachers want – and need – to be part of designing research and conducting it. As its name implies, evidence-based policy starts with evidence.

Singapore shared its experience in establishing a middle layer through the profession that is not government but governance. It recounted how allowing a free exchange of ideas among the teaching profession, policy makers and researchers can build the trust that then works as a glue for professional partnerships. Trust is needed in all directions: between policy and practice, between practice and research, and between research and policy.

The Netherlands tries out policy initiatives through a new Teacher Innovation Fund, where teachers apply for funding for innovation. Results are not assessed by the government but by peers, who decide which projects get funded and which don’t.

These are all valuable lessons. But the summit concluded with several unresolved issues too.

As New Zealand put it, to secure excellent outcomes for all children, we need a much more granular approach: an approach that identifies which kids and where, which resources for what, and how to give these children the education that all good systems should be delivering. While it is easy to accept that principle for children, we also need to extend it to the teaching profession itself. We need to think much more creatively about how we can capitalise on the diverse interests, skills and aspirations of individual teachers and see that they work where they can make the greatest contribution with more differentiated careers.

Inevitably, that will be difficult. But we can’t have teachers pursue a social and personal mission if our approach to delivery remains industrial. Singapore showed us that professional differentiation isn’t necessarily about pay, but can also be about the opportunity for professional development.

The summit also discussed how to reconcile the growing public push for greater flexibility and choice in education with the imperative of inclusiveness and public responsibility that governments have for all their citizens. Excellence and equity are inseparable; yet excellence does not automatically follow from equity, nor the other way around.

Countries will also need to find better ways to reconcile the imperative of innovation with the need for stability, coherence and equity. Everyone needs to develop realistic expectations about the pace and nature of reform – even if that is difficult in the heat of debate. Scotland reminded us that time and patience are needed to understand the impact of reform measures, to build trust and develop the capacity needed to move on to the next stage of policy development.

Many countries are also trying to address severe recruitment challenges. They will succeed only if they can make teaching both financially and intellectually more attractive and if they can address issues around workload and teacher well-being. Union leaders from Sweden, England and New Zealand told us how teachers need time above everything else: more time to prepare, more time to collaborate with colleagues and do the things they want to do to improve the lives of the children. But I don’t think we can continue to afford equating the need for more time with the need for more people. No other profession can afford that either. Given the constraints on public budgets, we need to find more innovative ways to use the people, spaces, time and technology we already have to respond to new challenges.

The 2017 International Summit on the Teaching Profession (ISTP 2017)
ISTP Summit Background report: Empowering and Enabling Teachers to Improve Equity and Outcomes for All by Montserrat Gomiendo, Deputy Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills
29-31 March in Edinburgh, Scotland
Archived webinar – Empowering and Enabling Teachers to Improve Equity and Outcomes for All (with Andreas Schleicher, Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills, OECD)
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Photo source: Welcome posters by St Albert’s Primary School and Ayton Primary School students, Scottish Government

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