This month, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released a report entitled Supporting Teacher Professionalism. Using results from the 2013 Teaching and Learning International Study (TALIS) survey, the report examines teachers’ and principals’ perceived professionalism across 34 countries. To draw international comparisons, the OECD scored countries on three measures: teachers’ professional knowledge, work autonomy, and access to peer networks.
The United States scored a 3.0 out of 5 for elevating professional knowledge, a 1.9 out of 5 for providing work autonomy, and a 3.3 out of 5 for providing access to peer networks. ((The OECD required that around 200 schools in each country respond to the TALIS survey to meet desired participation rates. As 120 U.S. schools responded, the U.S. data describes the responses of approximately 2400 U.S. teachers. However, as reported by the OECD, extreme caution should exercised if using the U.S. data for international comparisons.)) But what do these scores really mean—and can they provide any lessons for U.S. education policymakers?
The professional knowledge measure should indicate whether teachers have the requisite content and pedagogical knowledge to teach well. In order to score countries on teachers’ professional knowledge, the OECD examined teachers’ self-reported responses to whether they: completed a teacher education program with content or pedagogical training, engaged in classroom practice, and received additional time or compensation to complete professional development (PD).
The U.S. scored high in pre-service areas, with 95% of teachers responding that they completed a teacher education program. This is unsurprising, since most teacher licensing requires participation in a teacher education program. However, the survey responses convey nothing about the quantity or quality of professional knowledge provided to teachers in their initial training. Although it can be difficult to “unpack the black box of good teaching”, there is some existing research on effective teaching strategies and their inclusion in teacher prep curricula. Likewise, simply having an opportunity for classroom practice or student teaching does not mean the opportunity was sufficient or useful.
In contrast to the high pre-service scores, the U.S. scored lower in in-service areas such as professional development. While 65% of U.S. teachers receive additional time for PD, 73% are not paying for PD themselves, and 42% participate in individual or collaborative research, only 22% of teachers report receiving non-monetary support or a salary supplement for their professional learning.
Given inconclusive evidence on what kinds of professional development are effective, it is difficult to draw concrete policy implications from these data. For example, an increase in the availability of and compensation for PD will likely not lead to a stronger teacher knowledge base unless coupled with an emphasis on PD quality, along with sufficient teacher time and ongoing follow-up support in implementation.
A measure of teacher autonomy should indicate whether teachers are able to exercise a reasonable amount of control over their classroom practice. In order to examine teacher autonomy, the OECD asked principals if teachers have “significant responsibility” in five areas: choosing materials, determining course content, choosing curricula, establishing disciplinary policies, and creating student assessments. According to TALIS responses, less than 40% of principals feel their teachers have responsibility for anything except classroom materials.
It is hard to say if teachers would agree with their assessment because the TALIS survey didn’t ask them. Maureen McLaughlin, Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Education and Director of International Affairs at the Department of Education, is lobbying for this change in the 2018 TALIS survey. But it is important to note that principals may have a better birds-eye view of autonomy distribution across a system and that some policies, such as discipline policies, may be better determined by schools or LEAs.
Fortunately, a recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics does provide insight as to how U.S. teachers would respond to these questions: data from the 2003–04, 2007–08, and 2011–12 school years reveals that while most teachers report a “moderate” level of autonomy, teacher autonomy overall is on a slight decline. So it is safe to say that, regardless of who is answering the questions, further discussion around giving U.S. teachers additional autonomy in their professional lives is warranted.
The peer networks domain asked teachers eight questions to measure two aspects of teacher development and professionalism: whether teachers have access to a mentor or induction program and whether they receive feedback and guidance as a result of direct classroom observations. The U.S.’s high score in this area is primarily influenced by one response: over 95% of teachers reported that they are provided feedback based on classroom observations. The other indicators in this category are moderately positive: around 60% of teachers reported participating in induction programs, mentoring, and personalized development plans.
Again, these survey responses must be taken with a grain of salt given they do not attempt to assess the quality of these activities. For example, the TALIS survey does not inquire about the quality of supervisors’ feedback. As such, teacher respondents could be equating “feedback” with receiving ratings on specific teacher practice areas observed, rather than detailed feedback on strengths and areas for growth. And, it is possible that the 122 schools participating in TALIS encourage peer- or mentor-driven learning, which drives both participation in the TALIS survey and better responses in peer networks. But, even given these surprisingly high responses, there is still room for the U.S. to improve its professional learning systems.
In order to more accurately gauge teacher professionalism in the U.S., we will need to employ more specific measures among a more generalizable population than the TALIS provides—with a particular focus on measures of quality. Still, the TALIS survey calls attention to three key attributes of teacher professionalism—professional knowledge, autonomy, and peer collaboration—that could and should be fostered more in the U.S.