New Challenges for the Teaching Profession

02/06/2014 03:24 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2014

There is no denying that the profession of teaching is evolving faster than ever. While the core purpose -- transmitting knowledge to the next generation -- remains extremely important, the realms of teacher selection, accreditation and assessment are changing very swiftly. Moreover, increasing demand for human capital, due to the rise of the knowledge-based society and the expansion of new technologies, are also impacting the profession.

Driving these changes are the shifting channels for information transmission and the expanding circle of actors involved in education. Online education is allowing teachers to export their knowledge across borders, and homeschooling is allowing personally tailored education curricula. At the same time, changes in teacher training are opening education up to new players and actors that constantly push, and are being pushed, to reform.

As Bill Keller, former executive director of the New York Times, explains in a recent article:

Governors are raising admission standards for state education colleges. Philanthropies like the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation have been pouring money into reform. And academic entrepreneurs like Harlem Village Academies Deborah Kenny are arising to compete with established schools.

However, all the focus on structural change must not make us overlook the only truly indispensable element of teaching -- teachers themselves. While many pay lip service to the importance of teachers, in practice the rhetoric does not match the reality.

Sunny Varkey, founder of the education non-profit Varkey GEMS Foundation, paints an accurate picture of what will happen if this trend endures:

If teachers aren't respected in society, children won't listen to them in class, parents won't reinforce the messages that are coming from school and the most talented graduates will continue to disregard teaching as a profession... Over time, this declining respect for teachers will weaken teaching, weaken learning, damage the learning opportunities for millions and ultimately weaken societies around the world.

At the same time, such respect has to be earned. In its recent survey conducted across 21 countries, the Varkey GEMS Foundation analyzed the popular perception of teachers. Interestingly, even while 95 percent believe that teachers should be paid more, they also think that those wages should be performance-based. In fact, across all countries surveyed, more than 59 percent stated that teachers ought to be paid according to the performance of their pupils. Simply put, for most people, putting more value on teaching as a profession means that teachers must also assume greater responsibility over the results.

In Latin America, the need for better education through better teaching is clearer than ever. The most recent comparative PISA results show that the region, despite its well-intended efforts, is not improving in terms of quality. Yet some policymakers seem to believe that the same formulas of the past will somehow produce better results.

Real improvement can only come when we address the big picture: It's not only a matter of improving teacher training, but also of attracting more innovation into the sector, through the engagement of new players and new providers. This requires drafting new rules and new regulations that boost competitiveness via openness, particularly through easier accreditation processes.

Alejandro Ganimian, a doctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, argues that the best performing education systems usually do include the best teacher training systems. However, those systems also place special emphasis on attracting the best people, setting clear expectations for them, and periodically evaluating them to track progress. Ganimian is hopeful that: "People are beginning to understand that teachers need to acquire new skills in order to instill in their students the knowledge, skills and tools that success in the 21st century will demand."

As our societies move toward rewarding teachers for the quality of their teaching, the new challenge will be getting better at assessing teacher performance. In particular, Ganimian criticizes: "The idea that what happens in the classroom cannot be observed, evaluated, or commented on by any outsider of the teaching profession. That does not happen in any other field."

Indeed, this arrangement is untenable in the long run. In the words of Andreas Schleicher, Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD: "Success will go to those individuals, institutions and countries that are swift to adapt, slow to complain, and open to change."