Education International
Teacher Policy and High Quality Education
Towards Achievement with Integrity

25 Mar 2014 - Worlds of Education 43 - Apr 2014

Keywords: High Quality Education - Millennial Development Goals - teacher policies

Image by World Bank Photo Collection via Flickr
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These are extraordinary times. On the one hand, astonishing progress is occurring around the world. One billion people have been lifted out of poverty in the last twenty years. Ninety-five percent of all children around the world are now in primary school. We’ve cut the number of children out of school from 102 to 57 million in the last 12 years. We’ve made real progress towards achieving the Millennial Development Goals and are set to define ambitious new goals for the upcoming years.

On the other hand, cheek by jowl with these impressive achievements, age-old problems persist and sometimes are even exacerbated.  Over one billion people suffer lives of grinding poverty.  Climate change continues unabated.   We have not been able to combine the prosperity of some with equality for all; income inequality has risen dramatically in recent years.  While technology has brought many of us together, with over one billion users now on Facebook alone, seventeen percent of all adults alive today are illiterate and thus are entirely shut out of a dazzling global revolution of instant information.

These paradoxes of poverty amidst plenty, academic excellence combined with educational exclusion, and technological transformation side by side with the most plodding and inefficient means of production frame the agenda for professional associations of educators around the world today.  The overall trend lines are clear and hopeful.  It is within our reach to eliminate extreme poverty altogether by 2030.  Having come close to establishing universal primary schooling we can and should push on to obtain universal secondary education free of charge and open to all.  Education International is at the forefront of these agendas, networking fast and furiously with civil society associations, governments, and entrepreneurs from the private sector to assure that the ambitious goal of rights-based education for all is achieved within our lifetimes.

To achieve these goals, however, we will need much greater clarity about the best way ahead both theoretically and practically.  We will have to reinvent teacher policies and redefine what it means to receive a high quality education.  Within our professional associations we will have to be tougher on our governments and more demanding of ourselves as well.  We are looking at a dual revolution that those of us within the profession must lead with courage and perseverance in order to achieve the lofty goal of educational achievement with integrity.

The first part of this revolution involves a radical reframing of teacher policies around the world.  Too often governments have told teachers that they want them to be real professionals and then have tangled them up in such a thicket of conflicting demands that educators have lacked the necessary time and space for any sustained critical and creative thinking.  Governments have told principals that they want them to be risk-takers and bold instructional leaders, and then have ranked their schools so insistently and pervasively that our school leaders have found themselves pushing their teachers into a labyrinthine world of competitive data-mongering and policy-induced one-upmanship.  Governments are right to insist that there is real urgency in improving teacher policies, but wrong to flood teachers with so many initiatives and sanctions that they are perpetually overwhelmed.  What started out as a good thing--a healthy and praiseworthy drive to improve teacher policies--has turned into a bad thing--an anti-educational forced march to goals that overrides the curiosity and natural love of learning that we should seek to inflame among our teachers and students.

So the first part of our educational revolution has to be to take the creation of capacity among our teachers and our students far more seriously.  We need to measure learning, to be sure, but we should widen the lens to make sure that high attainment does not go hand in hand with students’ resistance to, and alienation from, formal public schooling.  We have to reinvigorate our discussions and understanding about the purposes of education, accepting and acknowledging their economic ramifications, but never reducing our teacher policies to little more than voluminous check-lists that ultimately rob teachers of their innate sense of dignity and self-worth. 

What is the alternative?  We already know what good teacher policies are from a number of high-achieving educational systems around the world.  Along with my colleague Andy Hargreaves, I’ve been fortunate to study these and to document their features in two books:  The Fourth Way (2009) and The Global Fourth Way (2012).  High-achieving systems support teachers in their professional associations.  They give them time and space to learn from one another and to move laterally and vertically within and around their educational systems.  They provide standards but these are not so detailed or mechanistic that educators do not have opportunities to devise creative and age-appropriate ways of attaining them.  They saturate their schools with real moral pressure and purpose, avoiding simplistic shock and awe strategies that distort the nature of learning and lead educators to game the system in search of a quick lift here and a possible bonus stipend there.

The second part of the dual revolution is much harder and more demanding than the first part.  The first part is easy because it involves professional self-assertion, and who doesn’t enjoy telling the government off from time to time?  Yet we have years of experience revealing that just getting government to back off rarely translates into improved student learning.  It’s too easy for us to go back to old and familiar patterns in which we retreat to our own classrooms, never give each other critical feedback to improve our teaching, and never ever innovate.  We have to avoid this comforting but ultimately dysfunctional path at all costs.  Instead, we need to take brave and bold steps to reinvent our everyday work lives.  This is our new professional imperative and we cannot and must not back down or away from it.

Why must we change?  We now have decades of outstanding educational research indicating that we can’t reach high achievement when educators never venture beyond the confines of their own classroom to learn from colleagues.  We can’t improve learning when our schools are disconnected from access to new, high-quality research.  We can’t reach all of our culturally and linguistically diverse learners when we never get a chance to try out new teaching practices or curricula.  And when we do get opportunities to innovate, we need sympathetic and steadfast coaching in order to overcome the inevitable bumps and setbacks that come along the way whenever we undertake real change.

Hence, the second part of our new educational revolution is that we need to stop talking about the individual autonomy of the isolated educator and instead must begin in earnest to promote the collective autonomy of a united, constantly networking and learning profession.  We have to throw open our classroom doors and our schools, develop our own protocols for defining excellence in teaching, and learn, learn, learn!  Our students should see us not as Chief Executive Officers (CEOs), Chief Financial Officers (CFOs), or Chief Technology Officers (CTOs), but as Chief Learning Officers (CLOs)! 

Who can help us with this second part of our dual revolution?  It certainly can’t succeed if we ask governments to play the lead role, because governments are too remote from the real nucleus of education, which resides in the intensive interaction between educators and students.  Nor can we ask civil society organizations, or the business community, or any other group to step up to drive this second part of the new educational revolution forward.  Nor can we leave this up to individual teachers, or school principals, or system-level leaders.  Rather, it is only our professional associations that can and must take on the lead for this kind of professional learning and advancement. 

Do we have any evidence that professional associations can and should step up to take on new roles in pursuit of improved student learning?  Absolutely! We’ve seen this in Alberta, Canada, where the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) upended a conservative government plan to pay teachers for improving tests scores and instead turned that proposal into a province-wide network that accompanied Alberta’s unlikely rise to the top of international results on the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) tests of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  We’ve seen it in the way that the California Teachers’ Association (CTA) in the United States sued the governor of California to release $2.3 billion dollars of funding that then was allocated to a union-led effort that raised results in the state’s most impoverished schools.  Educators from around the world have traveled to Finland and seen how educators’ professional associations play pervasive and inspiring leadership roles in designing new curricula, circulating them among the profession, and collaborating with an open-minded and supportive government.

So we have some excellent, solid evidence that when they are fully activated, and when the moral purposes of educators come front and center before political and administrative considerations, our professional associations can open up wide and promising new vistas for lasting, sustainable educational change.

These union-led breakthroughs of educational change point us to the right path that lies ahead.  It’s time now to get past too many stalled reforms.  We have to move beyond all of the political brokering and administrative wrangling that for too many years have led governments to focus on testing, accountability, and markets as reform levers.  It’s time now to get past endless tinkering at the margins of our systems and to move front and center into the heart of the enterprise.

Step one:  it’s time to reassert our professional knowledge by become self-activating dynamos of change rather than compliant implementers of the latest government mandate.  Governments have a legitimate role to play in providing supports and broad goals, but when they get into the intricacies of teaching and learning, they overstep their boundaries.  Step two:  Let’s advance our collective autonomy to drive forward student academic achievement not by gaming the system and compromising our morals, but rather with real integrity based on the best interests of our students from beginning to end.  Let’s work hard with our students and our parents from our communities to make sure that all students have full and unrestricted opportunities to realize their full potential.

This is a dual revolution that’s time has come.  Let’s advance change both inside and outside of our profession.  Let’s see what can all accomplish together to catapult the next great global educational revolution forward. 

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About the author

Dennis Shirley

Professor Dennis Shirley teaches at Boston College and is one of the world’s leading researchers on educational change. As well as recently co-authoring the ‘Global Fourth Way-the quest for Educational Excellence’ with Andy Hargreaves he is the Editor in Chief of the ‘Journal of Educational Change. He is also a leading campaigner for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

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