The U.S. Makes 4 Important Education Commitments to the World

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The U.S. Delegation at ISTP 2016 via Rühmeier / Müller Witte / ISTP 2016

Every few years the education news and policy world's ears perk up and tune-in to the release of PISA results. Data is diagnosed and dissected; country performances are condemned or coronated. PISA has its place; but just like classroom and school-level data, it's only as powerful as the questions it inspires, the policies it informs, and the practices we're spurred to examine.

So our collective focus might better fall on the annual convening of education ministers and union leaders known as the International Summit on the Teaching Profession. The 2016 iteration took place in Berlin in early March, convening 23 countries around the theme of "teachers' professional learning and growth: Creating the conditions to achieve quality teaching for excellent learning outcomes."

At the conclusion of two days of cross-national discussions, informed by OECD data and local contexts, each nation made three commitments to their international colleagues. The US, rarely sheepish on international commitments, made four, shared by the American Federation of Teachers, the Council of Chief State School Offices, the National Education Association and the US Department of Education.

And for me, they're the right four. And these organizations working together on these ends is promising. If we want exceptional people to hear and heed the call to teach, if we want children to have compelling experiences in school, if we want promising opportunities for all children in this country, then we must pursue these ends. Urgently.

Create Standards of Support for Teaching Professionals

Get a dozen teachers together and you'll likely find close to a dozen different levels of support for their work, but common expectations for student outcomes. What we know, generally, is that teachers work extraordinarily long days and feel incredibly stressed, while persisting as a new teacher is perilous.

For students to get the most from our teachers, their work needs support: induction programs, mentoring, meaningful and on-going professional learning, and reasonable time to plan and collaborate with colleagues. These supports, among others, should be standard.

Encourage States to Elevate Teacher Leadership and Voice

One of the most fascinating nuggets from the international conversations is that Singapore fills 5% of their education ministry's civil servant posts with teachers-in-residence: classroom teachers, pulled into the policy world for a year to advise, who then return to the classroom. Singapore's Dr. Puthucheary noted the initial political cost to making these changes in the short term, but argued the systemic change engendered future flexibility and educational benefits well worth the cost.

Some states are all aboard the "Teacher Leadership Express." Connecticut has a Teacher-Leader in Residence program. Illinois, Michigan, and other states have blossoming teacher leader networks. And USDE has made great strides with the wildly successful Teach to Lead initiative. But, until teacher leadership pathways, which the majority of teachers desire, are readily available and leveraged to inform and improve practice and policy throughout the country, we must continue to push.

Create Opportunities to Promote Student Equity and Teacher Diversity

For many, Jonathan Kozol labeled it exactly right by titling his account of America's 'return to apartheid schooling' as "The Shame of the Nation." Ten years later, inequity and segregation in schools continues to be the problem we all live with. But, there is cause for hope on fighting inequity, as this issue has become a key focus for AFT, CCSSO, NEA, and USDE. This is promising, but true momentum will come as these organizations dovetail with more local districts and grass roots movements to work in solidarity for justice for children.

It's commonly known that America's public schools are now "majority minority" while our teaching force is nearly 83% white. The notion that we need to increase teacher diversity is generally accepted. But now comes the work. And that means deeply considering the context for teachers of color in how schools have been disrupted in communities of color. It means making the case for how white children and children of color benefit from increased teacher diversity. And it means having the will to confront our own biases and backgrounds and how they live within institutions.

Change the Narrative Around Teaching to Improve Recruitment and Retention

Changing the narrative is another challenging commitment worth the struggle, because we cannot simply create a false narrative. We have to continue to change the reality of the work, and raise that narrative. The challenge is that teaching currently has major tradeoffs.

Supporting young people to learn, believe in themselves, and find a way to contribute is an incredibly rewarding experience. The fruits of that labor are captured in budding social media campaigns like Teach Like Me and #LoveTeaching. But the conditions under which that work is done can be exhausting, defeating, and constraining. This tension led Gallup researchers analyzing data on occupational groups to note that teachers "love their lives, but struggle in the workplace."

And that paradox should cause us to step back and look at these commitments again. What if teachers didn't struggle in the workplace? What if we all received sufficient support, if teacher voice helped lead in policy and practice, and did so from within systems with equity of opportunity and faculties that reflected the diversity of our country?

Then, the new narrative on teaching would write itself. And that's worth the work.