October 5 was World Teachers Day. On that day, the world typically turns its attention to teachers. We place the UNESCO World Teachers Day poster on our Facebook pages. We hold symposia on the importance of teachers and teaching. We #ThankATeacher.
All good. But then the calendar flips to October 6… (more on that in a moment).
We ask a lot of teachers—particularly in some of the world’s poorest and most fragile places. We ask them to teach literacy and numeracy. We ask them to teach children of different ages —in the same classroom. We ask them to integrate social emotional learning, design activities that are conflict sensitive, provide protective environments, foster resilience, help children heal from trauma, create child-friendly learning spaces, be gender sensitive, and teach all learners regardless of disability, or emotional and behavioral issues. In many cases and many places, we ask teachers to do all of these things.
In short, we ask teachers to advance an enormous part of the education development agenda of donors, of ministries of education and of implementing agencies.
You would think that given the enormity of this responsibility and the stakes involved, that as an education community, we would do everything in our power to recruit and prepare the very best people to advance this agenda, that we would establish structures and supports to ensure that these teachers succeed in advancing this agenda.
You would be wrong.
The days after World Teachers Day
In fact, in many countries, and in many donor-funded projects, the same teachers we praise on October 5 often receive no initial training, no professional development, no monitoring or assessment, and little or no public policy attention.
Not surprisingly, in some of the poorest places where education quality matters most, many teachers are not helping children to learn to read or do basic arithmetic. They are not helping students heal from trauma. They are not teaching well; they are teaching badly—because they don’t know how to do otherwise.
Poor teaching quality undermines the very raison d’être of sending children to school in the first place.
We have more children than ever completing primary school (92%, according to the World Bank, 2015), yet in places where we trumpet most the increases in enrollment, many or even most children leave primary school essentially illiterate and innumerate (Spaull & Taylor, 2015). That is not success. That is failure.
Fixing the problem of teaching by leaving teachers behind
Henry Ford once said, “We shall fix the problem of (failing) cities by leaving the cities behind.” It sometimes appears that we in the international education community have applied that maxim to the pervasive problem of poor teaching.
Many have given up on teachers, instead preferring enthusiastic, uncredentialed and untrained young people, volunteers or contract teachers (inconvenient truth alert—they need training and support, too). There’s a lot of fatigue (understandably) with (often poor) teacher professional development.
Additionally, as we often do with vexing issues, we’ve turned to technology—tablets for kids, computer-aided instruction, online instruction—as a way to compensate for poor teaching (and in some cases an absence of teachers). While such interventions have some value, there’s no app for good teaching.
As studies consistently show, technology is no match for a well-trained, caring teacher—and that doesn’t happen without investments of time and resources.
The U.N’s Sustainable Development Goal 4—focused on educational quality—represents an opportunity to get quality education right—to ensure that all children, especially in the world’s poorest places, have access to a “qualified” teacher—not just an adult who happens to know how to read and write.
But the reforms promoted by the ambitious SDGs are only likely to be successful if we as a community collectively get serious about improving teaching quality and support those who are on the ground working in tough conditions trying to make this happen. They are only likely to be successful if key stakeholders—ministries of education, donors, teachers, implementing partners, among them—realize that together we must actively focus on the importance of teachers and teaching for 365 days a year—not just on October 5—and commit to the long term work and investment this involves. The work is complex and far more involved than can be discussed here, but I’d propose that we can at least begin by coming to three realizations.
1.Good teachers matter
First, we have to really, really understand that if we want educational quality good teachers matter. They matter for kids in higher income countries—in the United States, measures of teacher preparation and certification are by far the strongest correlates of student achievement in reading and mathematics.
But good teachers really matter for poor kids. At-risk children—poor children, children at risk of school failure because of behavioral, emotional or academic issues—benefit more from effective teachers and effective teaching than children who are not at risk (Hanushek et al. 2005).
There simply are no other interventions that show the impact in student learning as do "expert, inspired and passionate teachers” (Hattie, 2015: 2).
But it’s not simply enough to have one or two good teachers in a school. Research points to a teacher quality “tipping point” in which student achievement can only improve when the proportion of quality teachers rises to 80% or above of all teachers in a school (Shields et al. 1999).
2. If we don’t know where we’re going, we might not get there
Next, we need to develop a shared vision of the kind of quality teaching we hope to see in poor or emergency or fragile contexts. This vision has to be developed in consultation with teachers, school directors and students, not just bureaucrats.
This vision could drive creation of thoughtful standards for quality teaching. In addition to codifying what “quality teaching” looks like in practice, such standards could create the foundation for several subsequent actions. They could:
- guide how future teachers are prepared at the pre-service level
- determine how existing teachers (especially untrained and/or poorly-performing ones) can be helped to reach some acceptable level of instruction (or be moved out of the classroom)
- define how both pre- and in-service teacher education programs should be structured
- govern the selection and qualifications of those teaching teachers both at the pre- and in-service levels.
3.Focus on teachers by focusing on the system as a whole
While improving teaching quality can’t happen without teachers; it won’t work if we focus exclusively on teachers. Teachers often occupy the lowest stratum of complex organizational systems and the absence of or variation in teaching quality is often the result of issues that have little to do with teachers themselves.
Poor teaching is often a symptom, not a cause of a failed education system and failed policies.
We need to move beyond the current practice of blaming teachers to a system of shared accountability so that donors, ministries of education, local education agencies, implementing agencies, directors and teachers are all responsible for producing measurable improvements in teaching quality.
And if we truly want to improve teaching, we have to improve schools and the larger educational system.
Quality teaching matters
Enrollment is not enough. Attainment is not enough. Technology alone won’t do it. If we want all children really reading, all children truly learning, and all children developing the knowledge, skills and dispositions that will lead to more education and meaningful employment, we need to develop quality teachers and quality teaching—one school at a time, one teacher at a time, not one day a year, but every day of the year.
- Hanushek, E.A., Kain, J.F., O’Brien, D.M., Rivkin, S.G. (2005). The market for teacher quality. Working Paper 11154. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.
- Hattie, J. (2015, June). What works best in education: The politics of collaborative expertise. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/1K1ahmV
- Shields, P. M., Esch, C.E., Humphrey, D.C., Young, V.M., Gaston, M. & Hunt, H. (1999). The status of the teaching profession: Research findings and policy recommendations. Santa Cruz, CA: The Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning
- Spaull, N. & Taylor, S. (2015, February) Access to what? Creating a composite measure of educational quantity and educational quality for 11 African countries. Comparative Education Review, 59 (1): 133-165.