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Reflections on the International Summit on the Teaching Profession 2013

published 3 April 2013 updated 3 April 2013
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The first two Summits in New York were always going to be a tough act to follow. They were the brainchild of the two US teacher unions, the NEA and the AFT and the US Education Secretary. The third ISTP hosted by the Netherlands with its EI affiliates had to demonstrate that the initial Summits were not just events unique to the US but could be part of a continuing commitment by OECD member countries. Did it achieve this goal? The answer must be yes.

The ingredients for success were promising. Within the Summit Planning Group, both Education International and the OECD were and are experienced partners. The third partner, the Netherlands Ministry placed a priority on seeking solutions by consensus. All three Summit co-signatories put their political weight behind the Summit’s success.

This was manifest in the consensus on the Summit theme- the evaluation of teachers. EI published both a policy summary and research on teacher appraisal in OECD countries. The survey forms which informed the OECD’s own background document were agreed with EI and the results of the form were used in both organisations’ studies.

Last minute crises meant that some Ministers were unable to attend at the last minute but 16 full delegations of Ministers and teacher unions chose to open up new areas of discussion on teacher appraisal instead of those which have dominated previous Summit debates such as merit pay. As a result a number of broad themes emerged.

EI’s arguments that if appraisal schemes teachers had to trust them were accepted. Countries also recognised that teacher appraisal could only be part of a comprehensive teacher policy which involved focussing on all aspects of developing the profession. There was a consensus that there had to be a shared vision of what the learning outcomes of education should be and how they should be measured.

There was intense debate about the role of the teaching profession in setting its own course on how it is evaluated. Many argued that the profession itself should lead in setting its own standards.

Big questions such as whether formal system wide appraisal schemes were actually needed given the fact that some successful jurisdictions do not have them were not resolved. Instead there was an emerging recognition that where such schemes existed appraisal should use multiple sources of evidence.

The need for proper implementation of any scheme was consistently emphasised. At the heart of any successful scheme should be the understanding that teachers’ professional development in its widest sense must be the objective.

EI affiliates made presentations alongside Ministers in a number of delegations including such as the US, New Zealand and the Netherlands. Crucially, this year’s Summit was the first time that EI, the OECD and the host government shared the framing of the Summit theme as well as the introductory speeches. Central to EI General Secretary Fred Van Leeuwen’s presentation was the argument that education had to keep its triple A status in both funding and quality if each country wanted social stability and economic progress.

Framing the Summit John Bangs for EI stressed the importance of teacher agency and leadership, arguing that teachers confident that they could make a difference were the key to outstanding education systems. EI warned against teacher evaluation which made teachers feel powerless saying that innovation, creativity and, above all, children’s learning suffered if this happened.

The open nature of the debate was reflected in each country’s commitments for work on developing teacher policy. One of the most engaging presentations came from Switzerland which set out its ‘Swiss rules’ for developing a national monitoring system which did not ‘name and shame’.

The US in particular committed itself to a system which focussed on multiple indicators of teacher quality rather than the disastrous value-added measures which concentrate solely on test scores which some States have adopted. The Japanese delegation agreed that it should reshape its appraisal in order to focus on strengthening teachers’ motivation, develop the appraisal skills of school leaders and provide the conditions for enhancing teacher autonomy. The Netherlands agreed to focus on increasing active support for beginning teachers and for teachers’ professional learning communities.

It is worth remembering that these are just some examples of the agreements which teacher unions made with their governments as a result of this year’s Summit. And it is highly unlikely that without the Summit such agreements would have been made.

Of course the Summits are not perfect. There is a real question to be asked about whether some Ministries make promises that they do not keep. Denmark is one such example. Last year its delegation committed itself to developing teachers. This year the Danish Government has unilaterally driven through unacceptable reforms taking all limits off teachers’ working hours and imposing a lock-out on all its teachers for objecting. The English Government having agreed to concentrate on policies which enhance teachers’ self-confidence last year, refused to attend this year.

Having said that the vast majority of Summit participants committed themselves to positive proposals which can only help children’s education and the teaching profession. Even if only some of what was agreed by country delegations  materialises, the Summit will have made a positive contribution to public education globally- a very strong argument for maintaining the Summits in future years.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.