The Test? Find More Straight-A Teachers
D. D. Guttenplan, The New York Times, April 1, 2013 – AMSTERDAM — “We know a good teacher when we see one,” said Jaak Aaviksoo, the minister for education in Estonia. Yet beyond that apparently simple recognition lurked a host of other questions: What makes a great teacher great? Can it be labeled or measured? And if we do manage to identify the ingredients, how can we create more great teachers?
Education ministers, leaders of teachers’ unions and policy makers from 25 countries gathered with 150 teachers from around the world to discuss the current state of classroom practices. The most passionate disagreements concerned the topic of using evaluation to improve teaching.
“Teachers invented assessment. Because of that we want to see it used correctly,” said David Edwards, a former German-language teacher in Ohio who is now an official at Education International, the global federation of teachers’ unions that jointly sponsored the conference. “The problem is that assessment is being used more as a weapon instead of a tool for improvement, and that drives our members back into the bunker.”
Martha J. Kanter, the U.S. under secretary of education, told delegates that the old measures used to define teaching quality, like certification or credentials, were no longer adequate. And Jet Bussemaker, the Dutch education minister, was forthright in her advocacy of teacher appraisals as part of her country’s drive for “evidence-based learning.”
Although the meetings’ sessions were closed to the news media, an International Herald Tribune reporter was given exclusive access on the condition that direct quotations were only used with permission from the speaker. Participants were also interviewed between sessions.
Andreas Schleicher, who runs the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, an O.E.C.D. study conducted every three years that compares education in different countries, distinguished between appraisal for the purposes of professional development and appraisal as a mechanism of accountability. Although all of the speakers were, at least in theory, in favor of what was also called “formative appraisal” — feedback designed to help teachers improve — Mr. Schleicher pointed out that in Italy, for example, “60 percent of new teachers” never received any feedback.
The Icelandic education minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, questioned the British and U.S. penchant for tests measuring student performance as indications of teacher competence.
Brendan O’ Sullivan, the head teacher at Leixlip Boys’ National School in County Kildare, Ireland, also criticized “a very narrow performance measure that people have in mind, where they define student performance in terms of literacy and numeracy. What about creativity? Flexible thinking? Confidence and social awareness? These things are not so easily measured,” he said.
“I don’t believe we can have a formal procedure,” said Mr. Aaviksoo, the Estonian minister for education. “Very different people can be good teachers, and bad teachers can be bad in very different ways. For the teacher, what matters most is feedback in your immediate surrounding — peer feedback, or from parents, or children themselves.”
Performance-based pay also divided the delegates. “We have performance pay,” said Bertil Ostberg, the Swedish education minister, adding that the system in Sweden was highly decentralized, so “the head teachers decide who gets a performance increase.” But he said the culture of egalitarianism in Sweden was a problem. “Too often the heads just give everyone the same. The differences are too small,” he said.
Pascal Smet, the education minister for the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium, rejected the system. “I don’t want teachers paid by performance. Every teacher should be good. If you have a bad teacher, you should fire them. That’s just management,” he said. However, he added that attracting talented people to teaching was a big problem — and one that also had an impact on quality.
“Many of our teachers do not have a university degree,” Mr. Smet said, explaining that until recently Belgian teachers were only required to complete a two-year training program, similar to the “normal schools” that trained American teachers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. “That generation of teachers is now retiring, and for the first time in history most Flemish parents are better educated or at the same level as their children’s teacher,” Mr. Smet said.
Mr. Ostberg said that in Sweden, there were only five students who wanted to become chemistry teachers in the whole country last year. One step the government has taken to address the teacher shortage has been to raise salaries sharply, he said, with experienced teachers getting 15 percent more, and lecturers — specialist subject teachers with postgraduate degrees — getting a 30 percent increase.
Jaakko Meretniemi, a social studies teacher in Finland, said he was satisfied with his pay, which is “not as much as a doctor or a banker, but a normal salary.” However, he added, money was never the prime motivation for him.
“Passion for the work is the key,” he said. “The difference between Finland and other countries is that straight-A graduates from universities see teaching as an attractive choice. And because our universities are free, you can make this lifestyle choice without worrying about paying off student loans.”
The Finnish attitude to education contrasts starkly with the situation in Hong Kong. According to Eddie Shee, the vice president of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, some teachers have gone on hunger strike to protest the government’s decision to impose layoffs rather than allow class sizes to shrink. He said there was also anger at the overly authoritarian treatment of teachers as factory workers, with an emphasis on productivity-style performance measures. “We see assessment not as a tool but as a guillotine,” Mr. Shee said.
The delegates struggled to find common ground on the question of assessment. There were clear differences described between the system in the United States, where, as Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University pointed out, “if it moves, we test it,” and the Nordic countries where, as Mr. Edwards of Education International said, “if you ask them about teacher assessment they just stare at you, or assume you must mean feedback.”
Mr. Meretniemi, the social studies teacher from Finland, said the emphasis on teacher assessment posed a threat not just to his way of life, but to his country’s record of educational achievement. Finland consistently comes out top of the PISA rankings, the O.E.C.D. study of education systems worldwide.
“Lenin said: ‘To trust is good. To control is better.’ I do not agree,” Mr. Meretniemi said. “Finnish teachers are well educated, trusted and very independent. That will change dramatically if we have Big Brother looking over our shoulder.”