Recently I attended the third Biennial National Education Forum, convened jointly every two years by all state and territory Australian governments to track and share progress in education from around Australia against the 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians – an agreement between state, territory and commonwealth Education Ministers on a shared set of goals to work towards to improve education.
A key part of the 2012 program was a Ministerial Round Table featuring Federal Minister for Education Peter Garrett and each state and territory Minister for Education. Each of the Education Ministers highlighted ways in which they have been working to achieve equity and excellence in education in their respective state such as the ‘Strong Start Bright Future’ program in the Northern Territory and the ‘Launching into Learning’ program in Tasmania for 0-4 year olds.
What struck me was the coherence and alignment of the Ministers’ understanding of how to improve students’ learning. Sadly in my experience this has not always been the case. For the last several decades, each state has pursued its own, often unique, educational policy agenda aimed at their understanding of how to improve learning. This has led to a veritable smorgasbord of approaches, often reflecting the latest fad internationally. Ultimately none of these short term fixes survive in the current policy mix – for that we should be glad.
What has changed is that while the Ministers have locally based policy frameworks, all of them start from a common and simple premise: firstly, that every child matters and every child can learn; secondly, that the key to ensuring that every child is learning is having good teachers who continue to commit to build their own capacity; and thirdly, that we need to support those teachers in the schools by good school leaders who bring data to bear on that process.
We now have a global consensus that to improve students’ learning, we have to improve the quality of the teacher. The McKinsey and Company (2007) report states that the available evidence suggests that ‘the main driver of the variation in student learning at school is the quality of the teacher.’ Top-performing systems –as defined by the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) plus those systems which McKinsey and Co recognise as having ‘strong improvement trajectory’ – manage who enters the profession by choosing candidates from the top 5-30 per cent, as well as through a rigorous selection process. Attracting the right people is also closely linked to the status of the profession, the report said. To sustain the quality of the teaching, top performing systems deliver interventions across the system to improve learning, which occurs in the interaction between student and teacher such as ‘coaching classroom practice, developing stronger school leaders, and enabling teachers to learn from each other’.
From their quantitative and qualitative research, the McKinsey and Co (2007) report concluded the following:
‘To improve instruction, these high-performing school systems consistently do three things well:
– They get the right people to become teachers (the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers)
– They develop these people into effective instructors (the only way to improve outcomes is to improve instruction)
– They put in place systems and targeted support to ensure that every child is able to benefit from excellent instruction (the only way for the system to reach the highest performance is to raise the standard of every student)’ (McKinsey and Co, 2007, p.13)
We need to take heed of this analysis, because we also now have a global understanding that improving teacher quality needs to happen at a national scale, not on a school by school basis. And countries are starting to do this. In Leading System Transformation (2010) Alma Harris outlines how Wales, for example, is breaking the mould and leading the way in implementing a ‘tri-level approach to the systemic reform of the education and training system in Wales’, where ‘tri-level’ means that ‘all schools must be involved in the change process and that the district or local level must act together along with the state to align itself to the reform process’ (Fullan, 2009, in Harris, 2010).
It’s an ‘all-in’ approach that’s needed. In Wales, ‘the recognition that large scale change can only occur is if all professionals work collaboratively and in partnership’ (Harris, 2010), which means that collaboration within the profession, across government and school sectors is a make-or-break ingredient. But professional learning communities alone are not the solution, Harris says. They need to be supported by leadership ‘in every school, in every local education authority and in every classroom’ (Harris, 2010). ‘The central idea here is that to achieve system wide reform will require a particular type of leadership; one that brokers, resources, supports, challenges and makes connections across the system,’ (Harris, 2010). And system level change, as Harris says, can only be achieved by ‘changing the way people connect, communicate and collaborate’.
In ‘The Flat World and Education’ (2010) Linda Darling Hammond noted that high-achieving countries realise that ‘a comprehensive framework for developing strong teaching and new resources in the system’ is the most effective way to maintain professional learning and in turn sustain strong teaching practice.
“Creating a strong profession in education is not a task that can be tackled school by school or district by district. And creating uniformly strong schools cannot be accomplished without a strong profession. Ultimately, a well-designed state and national infrastructure that ensures that schools have access to well-prepared teachers and knowledge about the best practices is absolutely essential,” (Darling Hammond, 2010 p 197).
In a very short time we’ve come to a general understanding that what is needed to improve students’ learning, is to improve the quality of the teacher. We need to think local, act national and global. We don’t need a one-size-fits-all model – we need innovative and creative ways forward. What we need now is a coherent policy framework based on sound theory and practice and most importantly an intelligent implementation and reporting process. And this is urgent. We cannot keep delaying action. We need to start yesterday.