High-level political delegates are meeting this summer in the head-quarters of the United Nations to follow-up progress towards the recently launched 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 related Goals (the so-called SDG’s). The driving ambition: a substantial improvement in the living conditions across the globe to be bequeathed to future generations; notably, a world with inclusive and quality education.
Seven specific targets for the goal on global education were enthusiastically adopted last year in Korea. In short, member states are (at least in the paper) determined to provide equal access to practically all education levels (yes, from early childhood to higher education) and ensure real learning gains from such opportunities in the next 15 years.
But –as the reader may guess-, the pathway towards effective lifelong learning is not free from threats and challenges. Indeed, projections indicate that world population shall increase by two billions in 2030, so one might ask how a global system that nowadays can’t afford such ambition will achieve it under such scenario. The school-age population shall accordingly increase, and just to maintain the current quality levels (e.g. pupil-teacher ratio), proportional investments in new school resources will follow.
What is more important, a considerable number of newly qualified teachers will have to be supplied. Fortunately, according to the Institute of Statistics of UNESCO, the majority of countries could fill their current shortage by 2030. However, the question remains on how to organise the demand and development of teachers in order to achieve such goal while at least maintaining good quality teaching. Good performing countries do not necessarily converge in this regard. I studied the cases of the US, England, Finland and Japan in my PhD thesis, and learnt the crucial impact of policy decisions in this area.
English-speaking countries have permanently suffered from teachers’ shortage, particularly in STEM subjects, and the main policy response has been leveling down the requirements to become a teacher and opening the market for alternative certification programmes. In contrast, the state steered Finnish and Japanese systems enjoy surplus of applicants, hence teacher education institutions and public schools are highly selective to ensure that students are taught by the smartest teachers worldwide. Then, it might be not too surprising that Finnish and Japanese students regularly perform at the top rank in international large-scale assessments (while scores in the US an England are usually close to the average, and nuanced with greater national inequalities).
Teacher policies are complex and interdependent. Not only having sufficient number of staff is relevant, but ensuring that teachers are equivalently distributed across the territory and that their workloads are efficiently used in order to enhance students’ opportunities to learn are also key aspects to control. Monitoring teachers’ deployment and utilisation is important because they moderate the impact of policies oriented to enhance the support they receive. As the teachers’ target for the 2030 agenda also includes indicators related to improve this element, I advocate for more sensitive measures to capture the actual support experienced by teachers in the light of the circumstances under they have to teach their students.
So far, policy makers, experts and stakeholders have discussed on using the percentage of annual participation in activities of professional development. However, research has shown that not all in-service training is effective, whereas current access to such experiences is practically universal. I have suggested instead that global monitoring on the support given to teachers should follow a model where the participation in high-quality teacher professional development and co-operation among teachers shall be deemed as key indicators of progress.
In a working paper that I am preparing for the OECD, I estimated that these two indicators are positively associated with the strategies carried by teachers to improve students’ learning in practically all the countries with available data. Furthermore, these dimensions are cross-culturally comparable, which is a relevant aspect to bear in mind when it comes to contrast countries with such diverse historic and social development. Furthermore, there is a dramatic variation in the exposure of teachers to such aspects either between or within countries, which sets out a more ambitious scope to improve for policy makers.
Global education agenda is very ambitious and teachers are the most important partner to fulfill such inspiration for the benefit of societies worldwide. Now it is right time to embrace ambitious indicators too to realise the support of societies to their critical role.