We can do better on education reform

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

A generation ago, teachers could expect that what they taught would equip their students with the skills needed for the rest of their lives. Today, teachers need to prepare students for more change than ever before, for jobs that have not yet been created, to use technologies that have not yet been invented, and to solve social problems that we just can’t imagine. And many of the world’s social and economic difficulties end up on the doorsteps of schools too.
So expectations for teachers are high. We expect them to have a deep understanding of what they teach; to be passionate, compassionate and thoughtful; to make learning central and encourage students’ engagement and responsibility; to respond effectively to students of different needs, backgrounds and mother tongues, and to promote tolerance and social cohesion; to provide continual assessments of students and feedback; and to ensure that students feel valued and included and that learning is collaborative. And we expect teachers themselves to collaborate and work in teams, and with other schools and parents, to set common goals, and plan and monitor the attainment of goals collaboratively.
That’s a long list. But it reflects the transition from an industrial work organisation towards a professional work organisation that many sectors of our economies went through a long time ago. People typically define professionalism as the level of autonomy and internal regulation that members of an occupation exercise. So they look to see whether people work mainly through external forces exerting pressure and influence on them, or whether the work is the outcome of advanced skills, internal motivation and the efforts of the members of the profession itself.
As OECD data show, when rated on their knowledge base for teaching, their decision-making power over their work and their opportunities for exchange and support, teachers still have significant challenges ahead of them. Rarely do teachers own their professional standards, and rarely do they work with the level of professional autonomy and in the collaborative work culture that we, in other knowledge-based professions, take for granted.
But our data also show that where teachers teach a class jointly, where they regularly observe other teachers’ classes, and where they take part in collaborative professional learning, they are more satisfied with their careers and feel more effective in their teaching.
It’s time for governments, teachers’ unions and professional bodies to redefine the role of teachers, and to create the support and collaborative work organisation that will help teachers grow in their careers and meet the needs of 21st-century students. And that’s precisely why ministers and union leaders from the world’s most advanced education systems are gathering in Berlin this week at the sixth International Summit on the Teaching Profession.They are well aware that education reform will always be difficult.
Everyone supports education reform – except when it may affect their own children. Everyone has participated in education and has an opinion about it. Reform is difficult to co-ordinate across an education system, and across multiple regional and local jurisdictions. And the fear of loss of privilege is particularly pervasive around education reform, simply because of the extent of vested interests in maintaining the status quo.
The summit will examine plenty of examples of successful reforms around the world that have already improved student learning outcomes. But education systems can and should be doing better. Both the lack of coherence in reform efforts across successive governments and the fact that just one in ten reforms is subject to any kind of evaluation of its impact or efficacy is inexcusable. It shows a lack of respect for both taxpayers and educators at the frontline. At the OECD, we’ve identified six crucial actions needed to make education reform happen.
The first is to strive for consensus about the aims of reform without compromising the drive for improvement. That means acknowledging divergent views and interests. Involving stakeholders cultivates a sense of joint ownership over policies, and helps build consensus on both the need for and the relevance of reform. Regular consultations help to develop trust among all parties, which, in turn, helps to build consensus.
The second lesson is to engage teachers not just in implementing reform but in designing it too. Policy can encourage that through leadership-development strategies that create and sustain learning communities, linking evidence of teachers’ commitment to professional learning to pay, providing seed money for self-learning in and among schools, or through professional self-regulation through processes and organisations that include teachers.
Third, experimenting with policies on a smaller scale first can help build consensus on implementation and, because of their limited scope, can help overcome fears and resistance to change.
Fourth, backing reforms with sustainable financing will always be central. This is not only about money; it’s first and foremost about building professional capacity and support.
Fifth, timing and sequencing are always critical. We need to acknowledge that it is rarely possible to predict clear, identifiable links between policies and outcomes, especially given the lag involved between the time at which the initial cost of reform is incurred, and the time when it is evident whether the intended benefits of reforms actually materialise. Everyone needs to develop realistic expectations about the pace and nature of reform – even in the heat of debate. Time is also needed to learn about and understand the impact of reform measures, build trust and develop the necessary capacity to move on to the next stage of policy development.
Last but not least, success is about building partnerships with education unions. Putting the teaching profession at the heart of education reform requires a fruitful dialogue between governments and unions. At the end of the day, different perspectives and positions are best addressed by strong social partnerships.

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