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Lessons from High-Performing Countries: Great Teachers are Vital

Learning from Nations that Out-Educate U.S.

By Dennis Van Roekel
March 15, 2012

    “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

When it comes to education reform and supporting teachers, the stark contrast between the United States and high-performing countries could be lifted straight from a Dickens’ novel.

In Canada, Finland, Singapore and other top-performing nations, collaboration with teachers unions is a keystone in their successful efforts to improve student achievement, along with vigorous policies to recruit, retain and support teachers, and engage them in the reform process.

Here at home, right-wing politicians have launched an all-out assault on public workers, targeting educators with particular ferocity. Legislation gutting collective bargaining and slashing education funding has been introduced in statehouses across the country. This extreme agenda has nothing to do with improving public education – in fact, teacher-bashing and ill-conceived economic policies are having devastating effects on teachers and students.

According to the 2012 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher ( PDF, 4.8 MB, 130 pgs.), teacher morale now stands at the lowest point in 20 years. Shocking, but not surprising. Essential staff cut. Important programs axed. The very joy of teaching and standing in front of a classroom of eager minds – stolen. Slash-and-burn policies – whether directed at teachers or their schools – breed disaffection.

In contrast, teachers in Canada enjoy a high professional status and level of trust. In Finland, teaching is a prestigious and much sought-after profession. And in Singapore, collaboration is a prized commodity.

This dynamic – upgrading teaching to improve schools – is in the spotlight this week as NEA co-hosts the second International Summit on the Teaching Profession in New York, with education ministers, leaders of national teachers’ organizations and teacher leaders from 24 countries – all top performers and fast improvers.

The international evidence is clear. High-performing school systems depend on input and buy-in from teachers and their unions. The Summit also coincides with a new report, “Preparing Teachers and Developing School Leaders for the 21st Century” ( PDF, 4.1 MB, 108 pgs.), which makes the strong case that teachers need to be given "status, pay and professional autonomy.”

NEA members have made it clear that they want a voice in improving their professions ( PDF, 249 KB, 16 pgs.), so that they can do their very best at meeting student needs. The unprecedented attacks on teachers in the United States have been a polarizing force. Teachers and their unions deserve a stronger voice at the table so that they can become even stronger partners in education transformation.


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