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Road to Teacher Professional Development

published 24 August 2015 updated 24 August 2015
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The drive to Sebastian Kolowa Memorial University (SEKOMU) in Tanzania’s Usambara Mountains is not for the faint of heart. Although the views of the verdant valleys are spectacular, the 1400 meter climb is marked by hairpin turns with no guard rails and with young boys standing along the roadside serving as the sole warning system for drivers approaching blind curves. Yet SEKOMU is one of only two universities where a bachelor’s degree in education can be attained in the entire region of Tanga, home to more than two million residents. It is also the site for one of the rare professional development (PD) opportunities for Tanzanian secondary school teachers in the region, with some commuting for more than three hours from their rural schools to attend the PD workshops at SEKOMU. The road to professional development for teachers should not be this difficult.

Despite overwhelming evidence that quality education depends on quality teachers, access to PD opportunities are woefully inadequate in many countries. A recent report by Education International (2015) concludes that both infrastructure development and teacher professional development have not lived up to the goals expressed in the 2000 Dakar Framework for Action. The report notes, “In rare cases when infrastructure is receiving investment, it comes at the expense of teachers’ professional needs” (p. 18).  Although improvements in access to PD are noted in the report, teachers from Brazil to Zimbabwe decry the need for more high-quality programs.  What are the barriers to creating such opportunities for teachers? The case of Tanzania is illustrative.

Since 2007, I have been involved in the development and facilitation of a PD program for Tanzanian teachers who seek to improve both their knowledge of the subjects they teach and the learner-centered methods most appropriate to teach them. At present, aspects of this program, which is based at SEKOMU and at Mwenge Catholic University (MWECAU) in the Kilimanjaro region, are being incorporated into the national in-service program. Even though scaling up is generally considered a measure of success, the challenges of access and quality remain daunting in this case and similar ones around the world.

First, the issue of access:  There are more than 65,000 secondary school teachers in Tanzania, and the government has only 50 national training sites, which are, for the most part, simply schools that have acquired additional equipment.  With approximately 70% of the Tanzanian population living in rural areas, the challenges for teachers to get from their hilly homes to these sites are great. This country, like many others, has also built a network of teacher resource centers in an attempt to improve teachers’ access to PD, but they often lack sufficient funding from local governments to maintain them properly (Snyder, 2009).

Second, there is the issue of sustainability of education funding at the national level. In aid-dependent countries like Tanzania, it is not uncommon for 25% or more of the national budget to come from international development agencies. According to a recent report by HakiElimu (2014), the Tanzanian education rights organization, donor funding accounted for 74% - 86% of the country’s education sector budget between 2012 – 2014.  This situation not only raises concerns about accountability to the country’s citizens, but, as HakiElimu points out, it also creates a shaky basis upon which to plan an education strategy because donor funds “normally come with complicated conditions and sometimes donors fail to disburse as promised” (p. 12). When NGOs are involved in PD programs, as is the case at SEKOMU and MWECAU, funding is rarely guaranteed beyond the typical three to five year grant cycle and invariably has conditions attached to it.

Third, the quality of PD programs is limited by the professional skills of those who develop and facilitate them. Teacher training institutions frequently hire lecturers on the basis of the degrees they hold in a particular subject and not because of their pedagogical expertise.  A 2014 report on teacher education in Tanzania by the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training and UNESCO points out that even though PD programs are often best offered by universities, “these programmes are mainly academic, and lack a matching pedagogical component” (p. 54). At SEKOMU and MWECAU, many of the lecturers struggle to put their theoretical understanding of learner-centered pedagogy into practice and do not know how to match method and content because they have had little or no instruction in how this is done. Thus, PD programs designed to introduce teachers to pedagogical innovations may, in reality, do little more than reinforce conventional ways of teaching.

What can be done to address these common constraints on access and quality in PD programs?  The Tanzanian context is specific but not unique; therefore,  the following recommendations have relevance beyond East Africa:

  • Governments in heavily aid-dependent countries must create more robust domestic revenue streams to fund education, including PD programs in urban and rural areas.  The Global Campaign for Education (2013) recommends the fair taxation of multinational companies coupled with policies to ensure these revenues are used as a stable source of funding for education. This is an effort worth supporting.
  • Ministries responsible for K-12 and teacher education need to be far more closely aligned so that lecturers are knowledgeable about the K-12 curriculum and the appropriate methods to teach it. These crucial teacher educators must be experts in their subjects and models of how to use methods that promote critical inquiry among students.
  • Funders to the education sector should demonstrate their commitment to improving the quality of education by allocating more resources to strengthening pre- and in-service systems of teacher professional development. This process includes the design of a well-structured curriculum and relevant experiences for pre-service teachers, and it continues throughout a teacher’s career in the form of frequent, high-quality in-service programs.

None of these efforts will be easy or inexpensive. Yet if Tanzanian teachers are willing to make the treacherous trek to sites like SEKOMU to improve their professional skills, then it is not too much to demand the same degree of dedication to teachers and teaching by national governments and the international community.

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