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Fred van Leeuwen Headshot

Uncommon Wisdom on Teaching

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Much of the conventional wisdom today about the difficulty of elevating the teaching profession is mistaken or exaggerated. Many people believe that the challenges facing the teaching profession are largely unique to each nation. Others contend that the status of the teaching profession in America and other countries is largely immutable, fixed by economic and social tradition. Or they believe that teachers unions are inevitable roadblocks to reform, rather than potential sources of knowledge and expertise.

We disagree with all three of these popular assumptions -- which is one reason why we have convened the first-ever international summit on the teaching profession for high-performing nations and rapidly-improving countries on March 16 and 17 in New York City. The stakes for strengthening the teaching profession could not be higher: The quality of the teacher in the classroom is the single biggest in-school influence on student learning. And in the knowledge economy, the quality of student learning is one of the biggest drivers of national growth, economic competitiveness, and social responsibility.

It's true that every nation has unique characteristics of its teaching profession. Few countries can simply adopt wholesale another nation's system for recruiting, training, and compensating teachers. Yet many high-performing nations share a surprising number of common challenges to securing a high-quality teaching force. Many top-performing education systems face looming teacher shortages -- and similar stumbling blocks to preparing, rewarding, and retaining top-notch teachers.

For example, the United States is not alone in seeking to update its policies on the teaching profession to better prepare students for the twenty-first century. For most of the last century, schools and the teaching profession in the U.S. have been organized like an assembly line, with teachers largely treated as interchangeable widgets. Children were expected to learn routine cognitive skills and content that would last a lifetime, rather than learning higher-order thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making skills that would help them be lifelong learners.

Teachers in the U.S. have typically been compensated based solely on their longevity in the job and their educational credentials -- not for their impact on student learning, or for teaching in high-poverty and high-needs schools. In contrast to the U.S. and some other countries, top-performing education systems encourage excellent teachers to teach the students who most need their help. And they provide teachers with more autonomy to help students' master higher-order skills, like adaptability, communication, and critical thinking, all of which are keys to success in the information age.

In every nation, the nature of the teaching profession inevitably reflects local economic and cultural tradition. Yet that does not mean that the teaching profession can only undergo glacial change. Government policy can significantly strengthen the teaching profession if that policy is based on an understanding of teachers and teaching and takes account of lessons learned in high-performing countries.

Singapore now has one of the world's highest-performing education systems -- but it was not always so. In the early 1970s, less than half of Singapore's students reached fourth grade. Teachers were hired en masse, with little attention to quality.

Singapore soon identified teacher quality as key to improving educational outcomes -- and government policy has been instrumental in identifying and nurturing teaching talent. Today, Singapore offers teaching internships for top-performing students starting in high school. It carefully selects promising adolescents from the top third of high school seniors and offers them a competitive monthly stipend while still in school.

In exchange, these teacher candidates must commit to teaching for at least three years and serving diverse students. After these bright, committed students undergo a rigorous teacher education program and become teachers, they receive 100 hours of professional development per year to keep up with changes in classroom instruction and to improve their practice.

Some believe that teachers unions are immovable stumbling blocks to reform, but the international picture tells a different story. Many of the world's top-performing nations have strong teacher unions that work in tandem with local and national authorities to boost student achievement. In top-performing education systems like Finland, Singapore, and Ontario, Canada, teachers unions engage in reforms as partners in a joint quest to advance and accelerate learning.

These high-performing nations illustrate how tough-minded collaboration more often leads to educational progress than tough-minded confrontation. Education leaders can better accelerate achievement by working together and sharing best practices than by working alone.

Across the globe, education is the great equalizer, the one force that can consistently overcome differences in background, culture, and privilege. Increasing teacher autonomy and participation in reform is vital not just to improving student outcomes but to elevating the teaching profession. We reject the prevailing wisdom that it can't be done.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education; Angel Gurría is the Secretary-General of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development; Fred van Leeuwen is General Secretary of Education International, which represents 30 million teachers in 171 countries and territories.