Educators and policy-makers from twenty-three nations gathered in New York this week for the second International Summit on the Teaching Profession, hosted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The purpose of the summit was to identify effective reforms for improving teacher quality. Notably, the research paper released in conjuntion with the event showed that compared to the United States, other nations put little faith in student test scores as a measure of teacher quality; the phrase "value-added," for example, never appears in the 103-page report. Instead, top-scoring nations like Finland and China have focused on improving training before teachers enter the classroom, and on making education a more attractive career choice by providing teachers with opportunities to participate in curriculum writing, group lesson planning and other professional activities alongside other adults.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten attended the summit. Here are her reflections on what the United States can learn from international education reform efforts, which she also had the opportunity to observe firsthand on a recent trip to Shanghai, Japan and Singapore. The interview has been consensed and edited for clarity.
“Cooperation” and “trust” were big buzzwords at the summit. Everyone talked about teachers working together, and with administrators, to actively improve instruction and curriculum. Do you think American reform efforts do enough to collaborate with teachers?
What is similar is the focus on how to ensure teachers are the best they can be, and how teacher evaluation has to be more than a snapshot, more than a principal coming in once a year. A lot of countries have focused on career ladders, student learning and teacher peer review, and those are elements of reform proposals that we and our managers have made [in some American schools]. Take Singapore. They have a teacher evaluation system that does include student learning measures. What is really different is that, except maybe for Chile, testing is not the centerpiece of these other nations’ accountability systems for teachers. Instead, testing is the centerpiece of an accountability system around children. In other nations, kids see tests as consequential. In the United States, teachers see student tests as consequential, but the kids don’t see it.
What do you hope Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his staff will take away from the summit, having heard that very few other nations are pursuing teacher reform strategies that are as test-driven as the kinds of reforms the Obama administration incentivized through Race to the Top?
I just hope they listen. I never doubt—and I know this will be controversial—but I never doubt their wish and hope and aspiration for transforming America’s educational system to ensure that there is both excellence and equity for all children. I don’t doubt them for a second. But it’s about the hows. The president is a very smart guy and he focuses on evidence. Here you have a lot of evidence about what works in other places.
America always pivots between collective responsibility and the idea that the individual can pull himself up by his bootstraps. What you see is that in education, you have to understand this notion of systems rather than individuals. Creating teacher capacity, teacher efficacy and climates of trust are what enable all kids, rather than just some kids, to learn. If you want equity, you have to have a system that focuses on it.
There was a real consensus at the summit. When nations were reporting their plans, you heard the buzzwords of collaboration and trust, of retain, recruit, support. You didn’t hear market solutions, competition, things like that.