In conversations about Finland’s stunning success over the past decade, many education leaders look at what makes the system work so well – the high bar for entry into the teaching profession, the absence of standardized tests, the embedded professional development and support systems, to name just a few – and ask “Why can’t we do this in my country?” But what makes Finland even more unique is that education policy is largely free of politics. Whether it’s the status and prestige of teachers or the problem of educational inequity, these are matters on which politicians on the right and left agree.
But that’s Finland. Where does that leave so many other countries, including the United States, whose national conversation over education is tarnished by divisive, partisan politics and competing interests? How can public education advocates cut through the noise of grandstanding politicians and bad research and lead in transforming the teaching profession?
It’s time for the public to stop listening to those who have never been in front of a classroom and who espouse ideas that undermine public education, says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.
“You have to remember that many people who are talking about reform are not really talking about education, as in what’s really works for teachers and their students. Their interest is something else – privatization, for example. We know what works and we need to be out front.”
“The status quo is not acceptable,” Van Roekel said. “And we can change it. But the idea now is for educators to stop asking for permission.”
Van Roekel made these remarks on a panel of international teacher leaders at the Celebration of Teaching and Learning in New York City on Friday. The topic was how unions around the world are taking the initiative in defining the teacher profession as it faces serious challenges inside and outside the classroom. Joining Van Roekel was Mike Thiruman, president of the Singapore Teachers’ Union, Eva-Lis Sirén, president of the Swedish Teachers’ Union and Angelo Gavrielatos, president of the Australian Education Union. Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University, moderated the panel, which followed the completion of the second annual International Summit on the Teaching Profession.
Each panelist brought a different perspective based on the position and status of their county’s public schools. In the United States, the schools have been bogged down by budget cuts, rising inequality, and a harsh, ill-conceived “high-stakes” culture that has scapegoated educators. Australia faces similar issues – a situation Angelo Gravrielatos blames partly on his country’s importing America’s bad education ideas. (“Why are we emulating the nations we outperform, and not those who outperform us?” he asked.)
Sweden is a system in transition, following a decade of decline. Singapore, on the other hand, is, like Finland, a country thriving – thanks to robust funding and rigorous teaching standards and professional development programs.
The overwhelming consensus of the panelists was that educators have to take on strong leadership roles inside and outside the classroom – to step up and own the profession and be more aggressive in changing the direction of the public dialogue.
“We need to reclaim the language,” Gravielatos said. “We can’t wait around for a paradigm shift in the politics.”
Van Roekel said that while a game of defense is essential – particularly in fending off ongoing attacks on workers rights – he said that unions have gone on the offense. Last December, NEA announced a plan called “Leading the Profession” to transform the teaching profession and accelerate student learning.
In Sweden, the teachers union is undertaking similar strategies. A new public campaign called “It All Starts with a Good Teacher” aims to raise the status of teachers and steer the debate toward how empowering teachers can improve achievement.
“Sweden has high ambitions for education,” Eva-Lis Sirén said. “But we’ve lost our place over the past ten years. To get it back, we’re making the case that teachers are the ones to lead. Developing strategies to improve teaching is not something others should do. That is our responsibility. We are in charge.”
Teachers in Singapore, on the other hand, have less political and public battles to wage. Education funding, for example, is not an issue.
“We devote between 17-20 percent of our national budget to education,” Mike Thiruman told the audience. “Even in recession, we actually increase funding. Everyone agrees it is common sense – both educationally and economically.” Thiurman also spoke about how teachers in Singapore are entitled to 1000 hours of professional development every year.
It is this climate that allows Singapore’s union to focus on supporting teachers at the school level and take ownership of what happens in the classroom.
“We are creating a strong community of practice so that we have evidence about what really works in the classroom – evidence that we can showcase. It is not for others to dictate.”
But in countries such as the United States and Australia, where educators have a steeper hill to climb in regaining the advantage in the public debate, Van Roekel and Gavrielatos said playing a strong political role is a responsibility for all teachers.
“We all have personal and professional reasons to be educators,” Gavrielatos commented, “ but we all have to embrace the third ‘p’ – the political. We do have a political role to play – even just to be rigorous in pointing out the absurdities of the ideas about teaching coming out of the so-called reform movement. We must not shy away.”