International Summit Highlights Role of Teacher Voice

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Teachers union leaders and top education officials representing 16 nations with high-achieving and fast-improving school systems traveled to New York City on March 15 for a groundbreaking two-day international summit on the teaching profession—a meeting that yielded a stunning consensus on how progress in this area comes from building bridges, not walls, between government authorities and the unions that give teachers a voice in the policy arena.

Randi Weingarten at International Summit  The International Summit on the Teaching Profession was co-sponsored by the AFT, the U.S. Education Department, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Education International, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Education Association, the Asia Society and PBS-affiliate WNET. Education Secretary Arne Duncan headed the U.S. delegation, which included AFT president Randi Weingarten, NEA president Dennis Van Roekel, CCSSO executive director Gene Wilhoit, and Marguerite Izzo, the 2007 New York State Teacher of the Year. Participating delegations hailed from Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Singapore, Slovenia and the United Kingdom.

The bulk of summit proceedings were off the record in order to encourage frank discussions around the table. However, the wrap-up session and other post-summit events underscored a key theme that emerged from the event—the need for a collaborative approach for keeping and building quality in the teaching ranks, in stark contrast to the "Wisconsin-style," state-level attacks that seek to cordon off unions from any discussion of professionalism and the conditions of teaching and learning. In fact, delegations from several top-performing nations stressed that tough issues in education are typically treated as opportunities to work in closer partnership, not as open invitations to impose top-down "reforms." (A webcast of the final session is available online.)

It was these attacks, and their potential to undercut U.S. school competitiveness among top-performing nations, that commanded much of the focus in a post-summit press conference. Duncan reiterated that he was "deeply troubled" by these developments at the state level and by the lack of evidence he sees for the push to take unions out of professional discussions. The summit, he stressed, offered extensive evidence that denying teachers a voice in the process leads to an "implementation gap," where policies change but practice doesn't.

"Be it Finland, be it Singapore, be it South Korea, what you see is amazing collaboration and trust—and teachers unions being part of that," Duncan told reporters.

This theme was revisited a day after the summit, when the Celebration of Teaching and Learning in New York City held a forum on what lessons other countries could draw from Finland, consistently a top performer on international education comparisons.

Ritva Semi, a top official for the national teachers union in Finland, emphasized that much of the country's success springs from an approach that puts a premium on collaboration. "We don't always agree with the minister of education, but we're sitting at the same table" when decisions are made, she told the audience.

Weingarten, who recently observed public schools in this top-performing Scandinavian nation, contrasted the "contrived" and malicious attacks unfolding in many states with what's going on in Finland, where teacher quality is being driven by "a rigorous peer review and self-evaluation system that is not based on a top-down" approach. [Mike Rose; photo courtesy U.S. Department of Education. ]

March 22, 2011