Protecting and growing the profession: The Professional Standards Conundrum, by Jelmer Evers

Not too long ago I had a formal lesson observation as part of my yearly performance review. It’s meant as a basis for professional growth and as such it succeeded. I enjoyed the reflection. In my view it should be a regular part of a teacher’s job, not just a yearly one-off which has no impact. Reflection and growth are ongoing and long-term processes. Therefore as part of our daily routine in school we have many informal peer-observations in the classroom and we start and end each day together in agile 15-minute whiteboard sessions where we reflect on the day and our practice. It helps us grow as teachers.

What is missing from this is that we don’t have an overarching scheme, a professional language in the Netherlands. As a profession, we don’t have national standards that are commonly used. In short the Dutch system is very disjointed and fractured, and that is a part of the reason why inequity is rising in Dutch education. And as a professional that bothers me very much. 

More and more countries and jurisdictions are developing and implementing teaching standards and there is renewed interest worldwide, including from international organisations like the OECD and UNESCO which are taking the lead on this process, in professionalising the teaching profession through the development of professional standards (UNESCO 2017). However, it is crucial that this is done by the profession and not imposed on the profession. Education International has started developing work in this direction.

To that end, we conducted a survey amongst all EI affiliates, looking at union views on how professional standards for teachers have been developed and are being implemented worldwide. The findings of this report will be used to inform the development of global guidelines for the implementation of professional standards for the teaching profession.

Professionalism

According to the OECD, professionalism “is the level of autonomy and internal regulation exercised by members of an occupation in providing services to society“ (Schleicher 2016). The problem is that professional standards are often seen as problematic by many teachers. However standards themselves aren’t the problem - in its simplest definition, standards are “a level of quality or attainment” (Pearsal n.d.), it is how they are used. During the 20th and early 21st Centuries, standards were used as a reform approach, standardising curricula, but also enforcing practice through externally imposed accountability, a ‘prescribed professionalism’. As I myself have experienced, this has wreaked havoc on our professional collective autonomy in schools.

Standards can also support professionalism. The word professions and professional have their etymological roots in Latin: profiteri  ‘to declare publicly, to profess’. In its most basic interpretation, it is about being in service to the public. It is about the sense of duty to do good work. Furthermore teaching is not an evidence based profession, but an evidence informed profession. “What works” in education is not an easy question to answer. The idea of education as a treatment or intervention that is a causal  (that is to bring about particular, preestablished ends) is not appropriate for the field of education, as Gert Biesta has clearly laid out in ‘Why what works won’t work’ (Biesta 2007). The role of the educational professional in this process is therefore not to translate general rules into particular lines of action. It is rather to use research findings to make one’s problem solving more intelligent. Additionally evidence is increasingly showing that ownership, practice and networking are key to developing teachers’ practice. And this requires a system based on a high level of trust and the collective autonomy of teachers (Evers & Kneyber 2015). Standards that are developed with this in mind can strengthen ‘enacted professionalism’ in the teaching profession.

John MacBeath (MacBeath 2012) defined professional standards as “theoretical knowledge and concomitant skills, code of professional conduct or ethics”. Most national standards are described generally and we can distinguish the following three areas which they cover.

  • Certification or Minimum Requirements needed to finish your teacher education
  • Licensing or Professional Development as part of your teaching career
  • Code of conduct or ethics to guide teacher values in and outside of the classroom

To ensure that standards contribute to quality improvement, standards need to be owned and overseen by the profession itself and shouldn’t promote a particular view of teaching. Secondly, developing standards takes time and the uniqueness of the teaching profession should be acknowledged (Sachs 2010).

It is important to note that there is a renewed pressure on the profession through a combination of privatisation and the push to use educational technology to replace teachers. To counter these deliberate policies, it isn’t enough to resist and cry foul. We need to offer a positive vision of the teaching profession and teachers as professionals, crucial for good public education for all our children. As we have found there are countries that are working on many diverse solutions, and unions can play a pro-active role in this. 

We identified six important findings from the survey.

1.      Create a common understanding of what we mean by professional standards.

There is a clear need for this as standards are often misunderstood. Many unions interpreted the word standards differently. A professional teaching standard generally seems to be consisting of several domains: teacher knowledge, competencies and skills on the one hand and a code of ethics or conduct on the other.

  • Qualification is meant for describing standards for initial teacher education. Most of the countries who answered the survey have some form of these standards.
  • Licensing can be used for standards of ongoing teacher professional development and learning, whether they are mandatory or not.
  • Code of Ethics or Code of Conduct describe a set of values which guide teachers daily practice inside and outside of the classroom

2.      Take into account the many different successful arrangements that have been implemented worldwide

Once we create a common understanding of the scope of professional standards, unions and policy makers need to take into account that there are many different arrangements in creating a standards framework. From high functioning systems with just initial teacher education combined with a more informal professional framework that doesn’t include licensing, but does have a code of ethics, to systems that have a comprehensive framework of qualification and licensing and a teacher council to create coherence in the system.

3.      Ensure that the standards are fit for purpose, not too general and not too detailed

The more specific the standards, the more we can speak of a “prescribed” professionalism, especially if this is strongly linked to external accountability. This differs from the “enacted” professionalism that exists in teachers’ practices. Unions should focus on the latter.

Professional Standards can support enacted professionalism by ensuring lifelong learning and a career infrastructure for teachers, covering the whole range of a teacher’s professional careers. With the help of these standards the profession protects itself from external forces that threaten to deregulate and deprofessionalise teachers.

4.      Ensure a real teacher voice in developing and implementing professional standards

Teacher autonomy means amongst other things that teachers have discretionary powers within schools. This also works on a system level. A profession that doesn’t have a say in setting its own standards is not a profession and doesn’t have professional autonomy. Having a real teacher voice in implementing and maintaining professional standards is crucial to their success.

5.      Involve unions in developing and implementing professional standards

In many jurisdictions unions are the only democratically organised teacher organisations. Too often a shallow consultation has been the extent of their involvement. It sometimes seems that there is a voice of teachers, but it should be embedded in a democratic structure where teachers can express their individual and collective voice.

6.      Ensure proper funding and support to implement and maintain professional standards

To promote enacted professionalism teachers need time to engage with professional standards in their daily practice. Workload amongst teachers is seen as an impediment for successful implementation so non-classroom time devoted to teachers for professional development is key. Proper funding is crucial to ensure that this happens. In this sense standards can be used as an advocacy tool for better working conditions.

When we talk about professional standards for the teaching profession, ultimately what matters is that students receive a quality education and that teachers become better at what they do. This is not a simple matter of developing standards and then enforcing them through top-down and punitive measures. Education and teaching are too complex and multidimensional for that. One thing is certain though, worldwide either regulation is coming, or big corporations want to deregulate us, whether you like it or not. We need to make sure teachers and their unions are at the centre of the process when it does. My own experience in my school strengthens me in my resolve that me and my colleagues worldwide know what works and that we increasingly discern what is good practice. We need to foster what is inherent in good education, and the practice that we would like to see in the classroom and expect from our students: high standards, trust, collaboration and aspiration for a better world.

Listen to our EdVoices podcast on “The importance of Professional Standards in education”, with Tom Alegounarias, chair of the NSW Education Standards Authority.

References

Biesta, G., 2007. Why “what works” won't work: Evidence-based practice and the democratic deficit in educational research. Educational Theory, 57(1), pp.1–22.

Evers, J. & Kneyber, R., 2015. Flip the System: changing education from the ground up, Routledge.

MacBeath, J., 2012. Future of Teaching Profession. Brussels: Education International pp.1–112.

Pearsal, J., Concise Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sachs, J., 2010. Teacher Professional Standards: Controlling or developing teaching? Teachers and Teaching, 9(2), pp.175–186.

Schleicher, A., 2016. International Summit on the Teaching Profession: framing the issues. In International Summit on the Teaching Profession. Berlin, pp. 1–48.

UNESCO, 2017.  Global education monitoring report, 2017/8 Accountability in education: meeting our commitments:, Paris: UNESCO Publishing.


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Jelmer Evers

He is teacher in UniC, an innovative school in Utrecht, Netherlands. He is also a well known blogger and speaker on innovation in education. http://www.jelmerevers.nl/

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