Teaching: International Concerns

by Philip G. Altbach - 1987

Offering a comparative perspective, Altbach looks at the prestige accorded European secondary school teachers, the undereducated third world teaching force, the seeming lack of relation between teacher education and different levels of international achievement, and current teacher reforms in Japan and Russia.

Tomorrow’s Teachers reflects American concerns and issues of policy relating to the United States. However, some of the broader issues reflected in the Holmes Group report, and also in the more recent Report of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy’s Task Force on Teaching as a Profession, A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century, have significant international relevance. An international perspective can add to the debate on the future of the teaching profession in America. Too often, we tend to think only about our own situation—Americans are especially guilty of insularity in this respect. Yet the experiences of other countries can be useful in framing issues and raising questions. While it is seldom possible to copy innovations and practices from overseas, a comparative perspective can be a valuable exercise in consciousness-raising.

Concern about the teaching profession is worldwide. Many countries have realized that teachers are at the center of the educational process and that without good teachers, all other innovations are doomed to failure. While other educational reforms, such as educational technology and satellite-based delivery systems, remain important, teachers have again become a major concern of planners in many countries. There is also widespread dissatisfaction with the current situation of schooling in many nations—and teachers have come in for their share of criticism.

In the Third World, there is concern that a sufficient number of teachers be provided and that these teachers have appropriate training. Virtually no one advocates providing teachers with education in their subject specialties alone—all stress the importance of a distinctive training specifically for teaching. Agencies like the World Bank have spent large amounts of money on the improvement of teacher training. Significantly, few argue now that formal schooling is a bad thing and that people should be liberated through education by nonformal means. The ideas of Ivan Illich and Paulo Friere, so popular a few years ago, have much less influence today. Where they remain powerful, the stress is on “humanizing” traditional schools. For the Third World, schools have become important. Planners worry that poor countries have neither the financial nor the personnel resources to ensure an adequate supply of well-trained teachers, and some have stressed other means of ensuring a minimal standard of educational quality. For example, the provision of textbooks of a high standard and in sufficient numbers has been seen as a way of reinforcing the quality of education in a situation where teachers may be poorly trained.

Some argue that the cost of education in the Third World is too high and there are efforts to find ways of providing schooling at lower cost. While there is a recognition that teacher quality is often low—in many countries, primary teachers in rural areas have less than a secondary school education—upgrading teaching and ensuring a higher standard of quality is a very difficult problem. Planners turn to private initiative as a means of reducing governmental expenditures, to improved textbooks, and in a few instances to the use of technology. Few now argue that massive funding should be provided to upgrade the teaching profession in the Third World. World Bank efforts to improve teacher training facilities, however, are evident in a number of countries. While it is an oversimplification to claim that teachers are not part of the blueprint for educational improvement in the Third World, it is certainly true that there is considerable confusion about priorities and an implicit belief that significantly upgrading the teaching profession may be too difficult.

In many countries the gulf between primary and secondary schools is much greater than it is in the United States. In Europe, until recently, secondary schooling was not universal. The academic stream of the secondary system, limited to a minority, was seen as elitist and prestigious. Teachers in these academic secondary schools had high prestige and relatively high salaries, and were graduates of the best universities. They had little, if any, training in the field of education. In much of Europe, secondary school teachers, even in the vocational streams, have considerably higher prestige and salaries than their compeers in primary schools. They have considerably more professional autonomy as well. In some countries, primary and secondary teachers belong to different professional organizations or unions. The trend in Europe toward American-style comprehensive schooling has not broken the distinction between primary and secondary education.

It is at least possible that the lack of distinct differentiation between primary and secondary teaching in terms of teacher preparation, working conditions, and prestige in the United States may cause some problems in terms of creating a professional cadre of secondary school teachers. If secondary school teachers had the self-image and status of European teachers, it might be easier to introduce the kinds of reform proposed by the Holmes Group. Indeed, it might well be worth examining carefully the pattern of professionalization of teacher education and the working conditions of secondary school teachers in Western Europe.

If the Holmes Group proposals help to create a differentiated professional cadre of teachers in the United States, the American teaching profession may move in a European direction of different levels of prestige and remuneration, and as a result the common identity of the profession might be diminished. This is not necessarily a negative development, but it is one worth considering as patterns of teacher preparation and the articulation between training and professional work in schools are altered. The logic of the Holmes Group proposals seems increasingly to differentiate between primary and secondary teacher preparation and in this respect the Western European experience may be quite relevant.

One might well question the correlation between the quality of teacher preparation or even the innate ability of the teachers and student achievement. Because the international studies of educational achievement have not factored teacher quality or teacher preparation into their explanations of differences in student achievement in different countries, the correlation between teacher preparation and student achievement in school is not very clear. Countries with high academic achievement do not necessarily have impressive programs of teacher preparation. It is perhaps significant that few look toward Japanese teacher preparation programs as a model for other countries despite the fact that Japan has a high level of academic achievement in the international comparisons.

There is concern about the quality and funding of education in many countries. Teacher education is part of plans for reform in most of the plans for change. In the Soviet Union a major blueprint for educational reform is now being implemented that will have far-reaching implications for the educational system. The basic thrust is to vocationalize the curriculum and make education more relevant to Soviet technological development. But teacher education is a part of the overall reform. India has also promulgated a national reform plan, aimed at decreasing the weight of educational credentialism (a heritage of British colonialism) and vocationalizing secondary and higher education. Teachers are not a major focus of this effort. The Japanese are talking about “humanizing” their highly effective school system. Many worry about the intense pressure of the examination system, the high rate of teenage suicide, and the tendency of Japanese students to memorize lessons rather than evaluate what they learn. In a sense, the Japanese are moving toward an American approach to education just as the United States is adopting more of the competitive orientation of the Japanese. Teachers play a key role in Japanese educational thinking, since it is the classroom environment that is basic to a redirection of the philosophy of education.

What does this tell us about current efforts in the United States to reform teacher education, and particularly about the Holmes Group’s proposals? For one thing, the process of educational reform at any level and in any country is a difficult process. The rate of success is not impressive. Even in highly centralized nations, such as the Soviet Union, China, or Japan, educational reforms are difficult to implement and they frequently have unintended consequences. Typically, reforms are stimulated by a perceived crisis and proposed by authorities at the top. However, since implementation must take place at the bottom, it is frequently difficult to ensure that policies are put into practice. The Holmes Group has one advantage in that its proposals have emerged from those actually involved in the process of teacher education. The commitment to implementation comes from those who developed the plans. The Holmes proposals also dovetail with national concerns for the improvement of secondary education in America, and the congruence of national concern with local planning may yield some interesting results. A disadvantage of the Holmes Group, of course, is the fact that the reformers represent only a small segment of the teacher training community in the United States, and there are many interests, philosophies, and orientations at stake.

A universal problem of educational reform is that of funding. While some of the Holmes Group proposals can be implemented by teacher training institutions without a massive outlay of funds, full implementation will require considerable money as well as a significant restructuring of the teaching profession and the involvement of education decision makers at many levels. It will be extremely difficult to ensure that the efforts of both funding agencies and decision makers are coordinated. The experience of other countries is that without a massive push from the top or a major crisis, the implementation of complex educational reforms is quite difficult. What some Japanese observers have called the “big bang” theory of educational reform is needed. It is not clear that teachers, policymakers, or the public see the current state of the American teaching profession as one of crisis at the present time.

Education is in crisis in a number of countries and significant reforms have been proposed and are being implemented. In a few, the teaching profession is perceived as a major component of the reform. Overall, however, it is the case that American reforms have recently paid more attention to the teaching profession than has been the case overseas. If one looks abroad for effective models of educational change, one will be frustrated, since the process of reform is a difficult one regardless of the structure of society or the patterns of education. A look abroad can provide some insights into worldwide educational concerns and patterns of change. In some respects, the Holmes Group is charting new territory in educational reform, not only in the content of the proposals but also in terms of the process of developing the plans.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 88 Number 3, 1987, p. 326-329
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 612, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 2:59:07 PM

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