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Kindergarten teacher sits in front of group of young students who are raising their hands
Access to qualified teachers is a major source of educational inequality around the world. Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

How education reforms can support teachers around the world instead of undermining them

World Teachers’ Day, held on October 5 each year since 1994, is an annual event to reflect on the progress teachers have made.

But in many countries, including the United States, the professional status of teachers has declined in the last decade.

For example, studies in Britain, Japan and Hong Kong show an erosion of teacher autonomy and public confidence in teachers, which leads to teachers feeling disempowered and demoralized. Job satisfaction has also deteriorated among teachers in the U.S., where teacher education itself has become a target of policymakers who think it requires higher standards and greater state control.

As a researcher who studies teacher reform initiatives around the world, I have seen very few reforms do what they were designed to do, which is to improve the quality of teachers’ work and their professional standing.

With colleagues in the U.S., Sweden and South Korea, I researched teacher-focused policies in four Nordic countries (Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark) and four East Asian countries (Taiwan, Singapore, Japan and South Korea) from 1995 to 2020.

All eight countries are stable, wealthy democracies whose school systems are generally regarded as having solid – even exemplary – educational systems. In other words, one might not expect them to be that worried about their teachers. Yet over the 25-year period that we studied, these countries collectively passed 56 national policies that were specifically aimed at reforming some part of teacher career development, education or training.

Sweden was the most active with 12 reforms, while Finland passed only two.

Sometimes these reforms didn’t really help teachers. In fact, some reforms actually undermined the quality of the national teaching force.

Here is what we found is mostly likely to work when it comes to new teacher policies.

Make policies comprehensive

Comprehensive teacher policies address at least three key areas: recruitment and training, hiring and placement, and professional development. This is crucial in addressing significant problems like teacher shortages, where focusing on recruiting and training alone has not worked, at least in the U.S.

However, most of the eight countries in our study passed polices that target only one of these stages. Some nations addressed more than one, but the reforms were often uncoordinated. And, these nations were also influenced by international organizations like the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, resulting in contradictory reforms that undermined the effectiveness of national systems.

Denmark was the only nation that specifically targeted recruitment by trying to recruit teachers from the best college graduates. Sweden was the only country to pass a policy vaguely related to teacher placement. They started “fast track” programs that prepare immigrants with teacher qualifications to teach in Swedish schools. These programs were spread around the country in six universities that would encourage placing the graduates outside the Stockholm area.

Instead, countries concentrated on policies that set standards for teacher certification, improved work conditions and extended opportunities for professional development. While these are important areas, they don’t address crucial bottlenecks in recruitment and distribution. Simply setting standards does not guarantee that qualified teachers will be available where they are needed. For example, due to shortages in certain subjects, teachers are often assigned to teach courses that they are not qualified to teach – something called “out-of-field” teaching.

Despite all the teacher-focused reforms that have occurred, access to qualified teachers remains a major source of educational inequality in the world today.

Focus on teachers’ actual needs

There is international consensus that effective teacher education and development involves offering teachers multiple opportunities to practice and reflect on actual teaching practices. This means professional development should be integrated into local schools where local practitioners can identify the problems they face while working with experts to identify solutions. Yet few of the policies we analyzed indicated this as a goal.

One example that did engage teachers was the OSAAVA program in Finland, which supported projects where teachers and schools could identify what expertise they already had available, areas that needed more professional development and how to sustain this professional development over time.

In addition to being focused on actual problems, good professional development supports collaboration between teachers, universities and the communities where they work. In most industries, professional development is created by expert practitioners in the field. Teacher professional development, however, is mostly created by academics in universities. To achieve effective professional development often requires reforming the relationship between universities and schools.

Include teachers in the process

In both Nordic and East Asian countries, governments often passed reforms related to teacher professional development by setting standards, but few governments involved teachers in the process. This undermines teachers’ professional status and autonomy. It also means that the professional development is less likely to meet teachers’ needs.

In Japan, in the early 2000s, the government took what was once a teacher-led form of professional development, Lesson Study, and integrated it into required professional development. This weakened the collaboration which research had shown to be essential for effective teacher learning. In 2017, I conducted interviews with teacher educators who complained about the long-term decline in Lesson Study quality. Indeed, the Lesson Study sessions I observed in 2017 were less well attended and lacked the collaborative support that I had witnessed while researching Japanese schools in the 1980s and 1990s.

In contrast, the “Teach Less, Learn More” reform passed in Singapore in 2005 allowed schools to hire more staff so that teachers had more time to study how to better present lessons or to review and redesign the curriculum.

Why it matters

Decades of scientific research confirm that quality teachers improve student achievement. At the same time we see the rise of authoritarian regimes and anti-democratic movements across the globe. Education has a democratizing effect, particularly in poor countries. I believe that, now more than ever, every nation must support teachers as they provide the education and critical thinking skills that children will need to confront antidemocratic sentiment and resolve the significant problems of the future.

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