Happy Teachers’ Day: do teachers have reasons to celebrate?

classroom-finlandMontserrat Gomendio, Deputy Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Today we celebrate World Teachers’ Day. Who cares? According to most opinion polls, it matters to most people in most of our societies, since teachers consistently rank as high as doctors as the most trusted and valued occupations. They are regarded as altruistic and devoted to performing tasks which are very important for society.  It is also true that most of us still marvel at the huge impact that some of our teachers had on us: the journey of discovery that they invited us to join; the questions that we did not even imagine could be posed; the expectations that they had about what we were capable of doing even before we knew; the support they gave us when we felt lost; the craving for learning that we would never forget.

Given this widespread consensus on the impact that teachers have on our lives and those of our children, and on the huge influence that what and how we learn can have on the future of our societies, it is important to ask: How does it feel to be held in such high regard?

The OECD has asked teachers and has uncovered a sad reality: in most countries less than 50% of teachers feel valued by society, and in some the proportion is smaller than 10%. Not surprisingly, the exceptions are countries like Finland, Singapore or Korea, where the education systems place great emphasis on teacher quality, and teachers seem to be aware of the impact that they have on children’s future.

So why do teachers tend to feel that they are not valued by society, if they are? Let’s have a look at the evidence collected by the OECD. The first issue that is commonly raised is salaries, but this seems to be only part of the story. It is true that in countries with very low salaries, teachers do not feel valued and it is difficult to attract the best candidates to the profession. However, it is also the case that teachers in Finland earn less than teachers in Spain or the United States where few teachers feel valued.

Teaching careers, like many others, may be attractive not only because of the financial benefits, but also because of the intellectual stimulation that they provide. Thus, teachers that have high levels of self-efficacy (in other words, are proud about how they perform), tend to feel valued by society. What seems to matter most is whether teachers can engage in collaboration with other teachers, by providing feed-back to each other, can observe each other’s classes, and can exchange good practices. Feeling part of a team which thrives makes teachers feel more valued and more satisfied with their careers, than working in isolation and following a routine year after year.

These forms of collaborative professional development are important not only for the self-esteem of teachers. Today’s teachers need to remain learners throughout their careers, and become experts in the science of learning. Their success depends on their ability to discover new ways to improve students’ performance and to equip them with 21st Century skills.

Teachers have many reasons to celebrate: people trust them, they have the power to transform people’s lives, and new ways to support them in their professional development are being developed. Last but not least, the OECD has given them a voice so that we can understand better their concerns and what matters for the success of their work.

Useful links

Empowering teachers with high-quality professional development Fabian Barrera-Pedemonte, UCL Institute of Education and Thomas J. Alexander Fellow, on the OECD Educationtoday blog

TALIS -The OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey

The education revolution

1914 2014To mark the centenary of The First World War, we will be publishing a series of articles looking at what has changed over the last century in a number of domains. Today’s post is by Eric Charbonnier of the OECD Education Directorate

If there’s one thing that’s changed rapidly over the past 100 years, it’s education. University for example used to be reserved for a small elite, whereas now around 40% of 25-34 year olds in OECD countries graduate from the education system with a higher diploma. Qualifications still play a major role in career development. The higher the diploma, the more its holder is likely to contribute to economic growth and, especially in the recent economic downturn, be protected from the worst impacts of the crisis. This is particularly true in France and other European countries where those with no qualifications find themselves in an extremely precarious position in the job market.

Mass expansion of higher education has other consequences too. A high school diploma used to open the door to many professions, but now that it has become the norm in most OECD countries, it no longer sets the graduate apart as it used to. It could even be argued that the main impact of such a diploma is now negative in a sense, since not having one has a bigger impact on a young person’s prospects than having one. Diplomas awarded for a general course are affected most. They are now seen as a stepping stone on the way to further education, rather than a milestone marking the transition to adult life and entry into the workforce.

Even France’s famous baccalaureate is coming under increasing criticism as being too expensive, too easy to obtain, and offering few prospects as such, despite its status as an irreproachable “national treasure”. Despite strong historical links dating from its support by Napoleon in 1808, there’s no doubt that the “bac” will evolve in the coming years to become more like what is found in other OECD countries – a diploma based on continuous assessment and a final exam that is limited to the fundamentals.

Access to education has become more democratic, even if social disparities still remain too important. But the gap is nothing like it was before. To return to the baccalaureate for a minute, the first woman wasn’t allowed to sit the exam until 1861, and even then, it was another half a century (1924) before men and women answered the same questions.

As well as becoming more democratic, education has become more globalised, with countries competing to attract the best students. The number of students studying in a foreign country was multiplied by 5 over 1975-2012, rising from 800,000 to 4.5 million. This trend looks set to strengthen in the coming years, and countries will develop multiple strategies not just to attract students, but to keep them in their workforce after graduation, as Australia and New Zealand do already.

The sudden transformations brought about by mass education and globalised education were not foreseen, but access to education and knowledge now condition success and personal fulfilment in modern society. Despite all the changes since 1914 though, one thing remains the same: the role of teachers is as central is transmitting knowledge nowadays as it has been since the dawn of time, despite the constant changes to their profession. When you read about schools a hundred years ago, or look at the early class photos, it’s striking how similar all the pupils are. Today, many teachers are used to having children from a wide range of backgrounds in their class. Teaching methods have changed significantly too, as has the level of knowledge and professionalism demanded of staff. But in 2014 as in 1914, teachers are still the key to students’ success, which is why a growing number of OECD countries are placing teachers’ initial training and professional development at the heart of education reforms.

Even if there has been a revolution in schooling over the past century, the quality of an education system will never be greater than the quality of its teachers. It was true in 1914, remains true in 2014, and will no doubt still be true in 2114.

Useful links

Education GPS, the OECD source for internationally comparable data and analysis on education

What teachers – and the rest of us – can learn from the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey – TALIS

TALIS 2013Today’s post is by Andreas Schleicher, Director of the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

We entrust our children – and our countries’ future – to teachers; but do we really know how they feel about teaching, or what teaching practices they consider effective, or what makes them successful in their work? Today we reveal the results from our Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), which asked more than 100,000 teachers in 34 participating countries about how their daily work is recognised, appraised and rewarded, about their attitudes towards teaching, and about their own experiences as lifelong learners. The results are important.

For example, if a teacher is convinced that students learn better when they are encouraged to think through and solve problems on their own, then they are likely to use more active, student-centred approaches to teaching and learning, such as having students work in small groups or doing project work. Indeed, TALIS shows that over 90% of teachers believe that students should be allowed to think of solutions to a problem themselves before teachers show them the solution. But in Italy, Norway and Sweden, only between 45% and 59% of teachers agree that students learn best by trying to solve problems on their own.

No matter how good teachers’ initial teacher education was, it won’t have prepared them for all the challenges they face in the classroom. TALIS shows that induction and mentoring programmes can provide teachers new to a school or new to teaching with invaluable assistance; and participating in professional development activities throughout a career hones teachers’ skills even further. These activities do not have to be costly or involve external experts. For example, TALIS shows that mentoring systems can be based on collaboration with other teachers in school. Teachers can also form, or join already established, collaborative research groups and teacher networks, and/or simply observe their colleagues as they teach.

TALIS also shows that constructive and fair teacher appraisals and feedback have a positive effect on teachers’ job satisfaction and on their confidence in their abilities as teachers. Some 88% of teachers, on average, said that they receive feedback in their school. But in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Italy, Spain and Sweden between 22% and 45% of teachers said that they have never received feedback in their current school. That’s very disappointing, because feedback makes such a difference. On average across countries, 62% of teachers said that the feedback they receive in their school led to moderate or large positive changes in their teaching practices: more than one in two teachers said moderate to large improvements in their use of student assessments (59%) and in classroom management practices (56%), and 45% of teachers said that feedback led to moderate or large improvements in the methods they use for teaching students with special needs. What this tells us is that teachers can use appraisals and feedback as tools to improve teaching practices that will, in turn, improve student learning. They should also work with other teachers to develop a system of peer feedback on all aspects of teaching, from lesson planning and classroom practice to student evaluation.

While in many countries there is a lot of debate about the ideal class size, TALIS finds that class size has no measurable impact on teaching efficacy. But teachers who reported that they teach classes where more than one in ten students are low academic achievers or have behavioural problems also reported significantly lower levels of confidence in their abilities to teach, or what is known as self-efficacy. Yet TALIS also finds that having good relations with students and with other teachers in school can at least partly offset the negative impact of teaching these kinds of classes.

Most encouragingly, nine out of ten teachers across countries said that, overall, they are satisfied with their jobs, and nearly eight in ten said they would still choose to become teachers if they had to make the decision all over again…even though fewer than one in three teachers believes that teaching is a valued profession in society.

So what can teachers learn from these findings? Since TALIS finds that teachers who participate more in decision making in their school are also more likely to believe that society values teachers, they should be open to work together with colleagues and school leaders. If formal collaborative activities aren’t already established, they should take the initiative to create them. They should also take advantage of professional development opportunities, especially if they are provided in the school and involve colleagues.

And what can the rest of us learn? That we need to value our teachers more and treat them like the professionals they are.

Useful links

Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS)

Lessons in culture

Well done! Now go and overthrow the Qing dynasty
Well done! Now go and overthrow the Qing dynasty

Stroll through most cities and you’ll see memorials to all sorts of human achievement – from victory in war to brilliance in the lab. But how about success in an exam? Yes, even that has been commemorated. Tucked away in obscure corners of China, you can still sometimes find archways and stone tablets celebrating the fact that a local man once, a long time ago, passed the fiercely competitive Imperial Examination.

The reward for success was an appointment to the civil service, bringing with it prestige and, for many, great power. In theory, the exam – which endured, on and off, for 1,300 years – was open to almost any man in China. In practice, most of those who sat it came from well-off families. Generally, they were the only ones who could afford to subsidise a son until he was ready to sit the exam, by which time he was usually in his 30s.

Flash forward in time to 2009, more than a century after the last Imperial Examination: students in Shanghai face another test – the OECD’s PISA international student assessment. Just as with their predecessors’, their results are closely watched and – when they show the city’s students ranked first in the world – widely celebrated (although we haven’t heard of any statues being erected).

Is there a link between these stories of ancient and modern achievement? A report from the Economist Intelligence Unit offers grounds for thinking that there might be. The Learning Curve draws on research from PISA, and other international student assessments, to try to take the lid off “the black box” of education. To explain, we know what goes into education – funding, class size, teacher salaries, and so on – and we also have a pretty good idea of what comes out, in terms of student performance. But we still struggle to explain what happens between these “inputs” and “outputs”.

This is not a minor issue. Take spending: You might assume that countries that spend proportionally more get better results, but that’s not the case. Finland devotes 6.4% of its GDP to education, and its students regularly come first among OECD countries in PISA; France spends pretty much the same (6.3%), yet its students only hover around the OECD average. And this is not a rare example: As the EIU report states, in education “inputs are turned into outputs in ways that are difficult to predict or quantify exactly.”

So, clearly, other factors are at work, but what? Research in recent years has given us a much better sense of the importance of factors like how well schools deal with students’ from different social backgrounds. But, as the EIU report points out, there are other factors that we understand less well, including teacher quality, the role of school choice and autonomy and the ability of educational systems to identify the skills of the future. And, it says, there’s something else we need to think about – culture.

Which brings us back to China. The Imperial Examination can be criticised on many grounds, not least that it ignored science and experimentation. But it can surely be said to have underpinned a key idea in the culture of China and much of East Asia – one that can be traced back even further to Confucius: namely, if you want to succeed, you need to study.

The EIU report argues that the influence of the surrounding culture can’t be underestimated in determining how well education systems perform, and suggests it may be even more important than national wealth. In particular, it identifies culture as being key to the success of two PISA frontrunners – Finland and Korea. These two take very different approaches to education, but their cultures have at least one thing in common: a profound respect for teachers.

Indeed, the role of teachers has come to be increasingly recognised in recent years and, as The Learning Curve notes, several governments have sought to shift or buttress cultural attitudes to the profession by raising its prestige. This has included concrete action, such as setting starting salaries at the same level as other professions, and symbolic steps, such as Singapore’s creation of a National Teachers Day.

The issue is also receiving growing recognition on the international stage. For example, this week sees Amsterdam hosting the third annual Teacher Summit, with the involvement of the OECD. The conference will look at ways of raising the quality of teaching and evaluating how well teachers are doing. You can find out more at the conference website and follow the discussion on Twitter at #ISTP2013

Useful links

2013 International Summit on the Teaching Profession, 13-14 March 2013

OECD educationtoday blog

OECD Insights: Human Capital

Teachers matter

It’s hard to overstate the importance of teachers. Strip away the other things that determine how well students do – such as social background and individual capacity – and you’re pretty much left with teaching as the major factor that can be shaped by education policy.

Unfortunately, in the past teachers were often thought of in terms of quantity not quality – it didn’t matter what they were like so long as you had enough of them. That attitude is changing. In part that’s a response to student assessments like the OECD’s PISA . It has shown that differences in how well students do are often greater within schools than between schools. In the U.S., research suggests students with the strongest teachers can be a full year ahead of those learning under the weakest teachers.

But what makes a teacher good? Two recent articles offer some interesting ideas. In The New York Times, Elizabeth Green reports on a couple of interesting approaches, including the Lemov Taxonomy. This emphasises the need for teachers to capture students’ attention and then get them to follow instructions. That may sound like a call for a return to old-style classroom discipline, but in fact it mostly comes down to better classroom management and simple techniques.

An example: When Doug Lemov, creator of the taxonomy, was carrying out his research, “he noticed something about most successful teachers that he hadn’t expected to find: what looked like natural-born genius was often deliberate technique in disguise. ‘Stand still when you’re giving directions,’ a teacher at a Boston school told him. In other words, don’t do two things at once. Lemov tried it, and suddenly, he had to ask students to take out their homework only once.”

In The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley reports on Teach for America , a non-profit organisation that hires college graduates for two years to teach in poorer neighbourhoods. With more than 7,000 teachers on its books, the group has a large pool of research to work from. It has come up with a number of findings on what makes teachers effective. Firstly, it found they were ambitious – they set big goals for their students and constantly reexamined their own approaches to try to make them better.

Strong teachers shared four other tendencies, adds Ripley: “They avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully – for the next day or the year ahead – by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.”

Useful links

OECD Insights: Human Capital

OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS)

OECD work on attracting, developing and retaining effective teachers

OECD work on evaluating and rewarding teachers

educationtoday – including the OECD education blog