Reflections on the Education at a Glance 2012 Report
Usually, when I hear that international comparisons of education systems are about to be released, I get a little gloomy. What troubles me isn’t only the “horserace” reporting style; I guess that’s fine if you’re just an observer. But knowing where your nation ranks on very broad performance criteria generally isn’t very helpful if your goal is to enrich student learning daily.
Still, there are aspects of the just-released Education at a Glance 2012 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that I find intriguing. As the National Center for Literacy Education reaches out to support educator teams in their pursuit of goals for improving the conditions that advance literacy learning, information about where educational decisions are made and how teaching time is used in societies around the world bears consideration.
Decision-making in Lower Secondary Schools (middle and junior high, typically)
Compared to other nations in the OECD/G20 sector, in the US relatively few key decisions about education are made at the school level–about 22 percent in the US versus 41percent across all OECD/G20 countries. But considerably more key decisions are made at the district or local/regional level in the US.
Looking closer, even the kinds of decisions that are almost always made at the school level in other industrialized nations (e.g., on matters regarding teaching methods and the organization of instruction) are made significantly less frequently at the school level in the US–56 percent in the US versus 75 percent on average across the OECD nations.
Linda Darling-Hammond commented on similar findings from her own research at the 2011 NCTE Annual Convention.
What might trends like these mean for initiatives to improve literacy learning in US schools?
For one thing, they suggest that since changes in teaching and learning practices are bound up with district-level decision-making, it is imperative to support collaboration and transparency across multiple school sites, not just within a single building or teacher community.
Practically speaking, it may mean that even highly dedicated, collaborative school-based teams can only take their agreements about teaching and assessment practices so far unless there is a broader framework of support across a district. Conversely, it also suggests that if a district does have a coherent, well-conceived approach to supporting literacy teachers, there is strong potential for changing the culture of learning across school sites.
The US gets a high ranking in terms of the number of working hours teachers devote to their professional duties. Perhaps more significantly, US teachers spend a much higher percentage of their working hours actively teaching, leaving a very small percentage of their time for professional development, assessment or curriculum design, or other related activities. In fact, the reported number of hours that US lower secondary level teachers devoted to teaching annually was more than 1,000–nearly 50 percent higher than the 704-hour average for lower secondary teachers across all OECD nations. And across all countries, there was relatively little variation in the number of teaching hours by seniority of years in the profession.
These figures suggest that we have a long way to go in creating conditions that support the pursuit of teaching as a true profession. While organizations like Learning Forward have proposed innovative ways to create time and space for the kind of professional learning that makes every instructional moment yield more for learners, these changes won’t happen without concerted effort. As NCLE expands its ongoing inquiry about the conditions that advance literacy learning, the amount of time available for purposeful professional learning is sure to be a focus.
Our Need to Know More
During the fall months, NCLE will be surveying thousands of educators and school/school system leaders at all levels to look closely at the status of professional learning, inquiry, and collaboration in US schools. The OECD Education at a Glance study, to its credit, raises more questions than it answers. Our goal is to go deeper to learn more about what happens in schools, districts, and communities where both professional learning and student learning thrives—and what’s missing where it doesn’t.
What You Can Do
Making collaborative decisions about how to improve literacy learning across the content areas is difficult work, especially in secondary schools where communication is often confined within traditional subject-matter silos.
Through the Literacy in Learning Exchange, NCLE offers teams a host of resources and tools to facilitate collaboration and re-orient faculty work around the real needs of learners in every content area. If you haven’t yet done so, I encourage you to register your team and spend some time with the revealing team assessment tool, the asset inventory. This is one of the first, critical steps in getting educator expertise and student needs back to the center of the school change process.
Ultimately, policy leaders will need to make choices about whether and how they choose to invest in the next generation. As a professional community, we need to provide compelling evidence about the power of educator teams, properly supported, to transform student learning. It is unacceptable that in so many societies, and especially the US, parents’ educational attainment is a reliable predictor of their child’s educational attainment. If we’re going to do better, we have to build the capacity for change in the classroom, at the school, and in the communities where learning happens.