A commitment to improve education and strengthen the teaching profession
Comments opening the last discussion at the International Summit for the Teaching Profession, New York, March 2012. By Fernando M. Reimers Ed.D., Ford Foundation Professor of International Education and Director of Global Education and of International Education Policy at Harvard University.
This has been a wonderful meeting for two reasons. First, because we are tackling one of the most important challenges of our time: how to create the conditions that give the next generation the skills to invent the future, a more humane, just and sustainable future. Second, because in spite of the enormity of the challenge there is in this room a palpable sense of possibility, a sense that ‘yes, we can’ tackle the challenge of creating conditions that give every child and young person a chance to expand their minds and their freedoms.
This is especially remarkable, that there is this sense of possibility, because we live difficult times. Times of economic recession in many countries. Of having to do more with less. Of real uncertainty about the future. It would be understandable in that context if we allowed our imagination and sense of possibility to be constrained by these circumstances, but we have not allowed this.
So what have we learned over the last two days of conversation? And what are we going to do next to tackle the challenges we have discussed?
First, we have learned the value of these annual meetings, the value of getting together to share ideas and practices about how to improve education and strengthen the teaching profession and to learn from one another. This meeting is real professional development for leaders. This conversation has been a form of action oriented learning. It would be understandable given the complexity of the challenges involved in improving education if we had adopted a contemplative attitude towards this complexity. But this conversation has been about the power of taking concrete next steps. In a moment we are going to hear what are these immediate next steps, the commitments that each of the leaders of the countries represented here are making to improve the teaching profession in their countries.
Second, we have witnessed how much interest, commitment and urgency there is around the world to strengthening the teaching profession in order to improve education. It is this urgency that has brought us together, and it is beautiful and very meaningful to see this coming together of education leaders whose mission is to do just that, to do what they can so we can support teachers to help each child achieve their full potential. In this coming together we have shared and offered for public scrutiny our ideas and actions to improve this profession, and this honest dialogue has yielded valuable learning. During the two days of our meeting, and especially comparing last year’s meeting with this, there is evidence of learning, of evolution of our thinking, our conversation has evolved in many ways. We are now talking much more about developing a broader range of skills and dispositions, we are now talking not just about basic skills and knowledge, but about the development of imagination, of critical thinking, of compassion and empathy, of civic and political engagement and efficacy, of creativity, ingenuity and inventiveness. We have talked about the conditions to attract and support great teachers, but also about education leaders and leaderships. We recognize that these changes require systems and alignment of efforts, and that those in turn require coalitions and partnerships.
Third, we have also seen how valuable and stimulating international comparisons can be. Comparisons about learning outcomes, for sure, but also about teacher practices and teacher sense of self-efficacy, and comparisons of programs and policies, as well as comparisons of institutions and of systems of teacher education. In these comparisons we have seen the value of a pluralistic approach to generating evidence to inform these conversations. It is these comparisons and this exchange, not only of the facts which are known but of much knowledge about practice which is tacit, that can stimulate thinking and innovation.
Fourth, we have learned in this conversation the importance of thinking clearly about what are the skills and outcomes that matter, and that the conversation about the future of the teaching profession needs to be anchored in this thinking clearly about the interests and needs of students. Certainly this is a conversation not just of education experts, but a broad conversation that needs to engage many stakeholders because it is about what kind of society we want to educate students for, it is ultimately a conversation about what is the good life. Several times these days we have heard references to the importance to educate for sustainability, for sustainable human interactions with the environment, for prosperity, jobs, equality, for human rights, for peace. This moral vision is a big leap from our conversation last year. In many ways we are interested in strengthening the teaching profession as a way to rebuild the commons, the institutions which are essential to the well functioning of a democratic society. Stemming from this moral vision we have also talked repeatedly about the urgency of giving priority to improving the education conditions in high poverty areas. To do more for those who have less. To ensuring that education is indeed redressing these resilient, and in some cases growing, inequalities that so threaten the legitimacy of any democracy.
Fifth, in our conversations at this meeting we have seen the importance of looking at what works, of learning from success and using this knowledge to stimulate further innovation. Given the enormity and complexity of the challenges involved in improving education we might have remained obsessed with the pathologies and disfunctions of schools and education systems, but it is not obvious how this study and contemplation of what does not work would lead us to what does work. Learning from success is more productive and inspiring to action.
In these conversations we have also agreed on the necessity to think and act systemically in order to improve education and strengthen the teaching profession. These improvements are not about one or two quick fixes, but about attending to a number of elements which all need attention and which need to be in alignment. And from this need of systemic and sustained interventions it follows that partnerships and coalitions are essential, especially in a context of declining resources and other social challenges. These coalitions need to bring together parents, teachers and students, governments at various levels, teacher unions, teacher preparation institutions, innovators and social entrepreneurs, businesses and philanthropy. And it takes a special effort to create the conditions for a productive and honest conversation among these parties, it takes trust to be able to have a sustained honest and productive conversation.
In order to build and sustain that trust we all need to re-examine the way we do business and interact with these other institutions. It is unhelpful for example to achieve this trust and effective collective action towards building a profession and improving educational conditions when teacher education institutions or programs are cash cows for the schools of education and universities which house them. It does not help the profession when politicians extract short term political gains from shaming teachers or their organizations. As Randi Weingarten mentioned this morning it is difficult to build a profession as we are tearing it apart. Teacher unions can be central to building a profession when they foster alignment between the Personal, the values that attract good candidates to teaching and that motivate them to support each of their students for success; the Professional, the skills and competencies that translate into teacher efficacy, respect and trust, and that justify increased autonomy of true professionals; and the Political, the alignment of this professional work with a moral vision that is about building a more robust democracy, a more equitable society, the commons that give every person a chance to be included and to contribute.
In our conversations we also uncovered, but did not resolve, some tensions. The tension between valuing 21st century skills on which there was wide agreement of how important they are, and the challenges of measuring student knowledge and skills. We want to measure what we value so we can really teach it, but we know this is challenging.
We recognized also in our conversations that where good things are happening for students and teachers, is because there are people who make them happen, and we should not simply expect good leadership or take it for granted, but we should cultivate it. But we did not reach agreement on how much of this leadership was about characteristics of individuals or about systems and structures. We did recognize that the innovative, visionary and entrepreneurial leadership, which supports creativity and innovation among teachers, is in good part supported by the operational leadership, by systems and structures which keep the trains running on time, so it is not just instructional leadership. We also agreed on the dangers of autocratic leadership at all levels in how it can undermine the profession and the possibilities of teaching 21st century skills. We agreed on how leaders need to empower others, and of how consequential good political leadership was to support good education leadership. But there is much more about this area of leadership, and leadership for innovation, where there are important lags in what is known.
We agreed on the importance of engaging practitioners themselves, teachers, principals and other education leaders, in defining the standards of their profession.
There was broad agreement in our conversations on the importance of attending to teacher preparation, and on the value of the kind of comprehensive review and reform of teacher education illustrated by Singapore’s experience, which started with clear goals, encompassing values, skills and knowledge.
We recognized in this discussion of teacher preparation and incentives, that the commitment to the teaching profession is embedded in a larger social commitment to equality of opportunity, and it should follow that we should not just wait or hope for that commitment, but take responsibility to produce it as it is so central to the possibility of supporting good education for all.
One of the lessons learned in this meeting is the power of an action orientation in our deliberations. The problems we are tackling are immensely complex. In spite of their complexity all of you leading education systems and organizations are taking concrete steps to address them. This has been the power of this meeting, that commitment to action. In a moment we are going to hear what are these immediate steps to which each of the country teams are commiting. I have not had an opportunity to see what these commitments are going to be, but I hope that they will be bold steps, imaginative steps, in at least the following areas:
- Bold steps to close the gap between what we measure and what we value in education, so we can assess and teach what matters.
- Steps to promote innovation and experimentation in a number of fronts, so we can provide all students the skills to invent the future.
- Significant steps to substantially revamp teacher preparation to prepare teachers to teach what matters with the kind of comprehensive reform illustrated by Singapore.
- Imaginative steps to build the multi-stakeholder coalitions necessary to achieve systemic and sustainable reforms, illustrated in the example of West Virginia mentioned at this meeting.
- Creative ways for teacher organizations and governments to give voice to teachers and principals in articulating good practice and defining the standards of professional practice.
It has been a real privilege to be part of this conversation this year, to witness the evolution of our collective thinking since last year. I am excited about the commitment of this group to carry out determined work to improve education and strengthen the teaching profession and I look forward to following these conversations and their results in practice in the years ahead.