Attracting the Best To Teaching
M. Bakri Musa
Early this year the US Department of Education, together with OECD and the Asia Society, convened a summit of education ministers, master teachers, and union leaders from 15 countries. The theme was on attracting, training and retaining the best teachers. Those were no ordinary countries participating; their students had consistently excelled in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).
America has some of the finest private and public schools, while its colleges and universities regularly dominate anybody’s list of the best. Yet there was US Education Secretary Duncan sponsoring this symposium and its opening speaker. That reflects the seriousness with which American leaders and policymakers consider education. It also shows their humility and commitment to learn from the best. I long for such traits in our leaders and educators.
The core assumption of the summit is that you cannot have excellent schools without excellent teachers. “Great teachers are not just born that way,” Secretary Duncan noted in his opening remarks. “It takes a high-quality system for recruiting, training, retaining, and supporting teachers over the course of their careers to develop an effective teaching force,” he continued.
This emphasis on schools and education is well placed. As OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria put it, “The prosperity of our nations depends on whether we succeed to attract the brightest minds into the teaching profession, and the most talented teachers into the most challenging classrooms.”
Pivotal Role of Teachers
You cannot have good schools without good teachers. Good teachers in turn come from good students, and good students need good schools in order to shine. This is not an extended version of the old chicken-and-egg riddle. Rather what these countries with exemplary schools and outstanding teachers have demonstrated is the pivotal position of the teacher. Finland and Singapore in particular have shown that you can indeed intervene to make teaching an attractive profession, the first-choice career of the talented.
In Finland teaching is a much-sought occupation, with ten applicants for every position! The teaching profession there attracts the best applicants in part because teachers get competitive pay. Singapore aggressively recruits from among the top third of its students, and those interested in and committed to teaching are paid while still in school.
Keen competition in itself is no indicator of quality. In Malaysia, there is a glut of applicants for religious teachers but no one dares claim that the applicant pool is made up of top-tier students. There is similar stiff competition to be teachers in Egypt, but its schools and students rank at the bottom in international comparisons. The reason is that the Egyptian economy is in such a rut that teaching is the only job available. The same dynamics apply to our religious teachers.
Recruiting top talent is only the beginning. Rookies’ enthusiasm will get you only so far. Teachers must also be given superior initial training; then there must be a mechanism for continuing professional education and training.
Finland has an exceptionally superior system; hence it is attracting the best talents. Teachers there get training to the level of a master’s degree, even for primary school teachers. They are rightly treated as professionals because they are rigorously trained and more importantly, behave as such. They are also trained to be diagnosticians to recognize not only the different learning styles but also learning problems.
A unique feature of the Finnish system is that each teacher is also a researcher, participating in research in collaboration with the local university. The best way to keep abreast in your field is to be involved in research even if only tangentially.
Being true professionals, Finnish teachers have considerable autonomy, as are their schools. The Finnish Ministry of Education is more a resource center than a command-and-control one. Its bureaucrats are not control freaks.
Those countries are also actively widening the pool talent for recruitment to include those from underrepresented minorities and those seeking mid-career change. This has particular relevance for Malaysia; it too must aggressively recruit from among Orang Asli and other minority groups especially of East Malaysia. It is important for minority students to have role models from among the teachers.
No professional would be satisfied unless he or she is assured of career advancement as well as appropriate reward and recognition for a job well done. In Singapore teachers are career tracked to be master teachers, school leaders, or specialist in curriculum or research. The government regularly tracks what competing sectors are paying their workers in order that teachers remain competitively paid.
The other significant lesson from the summit is that school reforms when effectively executed can bear positive results quickly. Poland is an example. It initiated reform only in the late 1990s but within a decade it has dramatically reduced the number of its poorly performing students and cut in half the variations in performance among its schools. Previously Polish students regularly perform at below average level of OECD countries; after reform they were on par with Americans.
Reforming school is the rage everywhere, Malaysia included. The consensus at this conference is that teachers must both be the active agents for and effective implementers of reform.
This creates a dilemma for Malaysia. Where teachers are well trained, thoroughly professional and highly effective as they are in the Scandinavian countries, they should be actively involved with the reform process. In Malaysia however, our teaching profession is far from that. It has been significantly degraded with respect to standards and professionalism, as reflected in the quality of their products – the students.
Having been brought up under the current system it would be unrealistic to expect these teachers to be agents or advocates for change. Their position is essentially that the system was good enough for them; it should be good enough for the present and future generations. Stated differently, current teachers are part of the problem, not of the solution. This does not mean that they cannot be trained or persuaded to be part of the solution, but we should not underestimate the difficulties and challenges.
The reform in Poland was, as expected of a former communist country, a top-down affair. Yet it was highly successful. Likewise in Singapore; no surprise there either, but it was also effective. A generation ago Singapore faced problems similar to what Malaysia faces today where teaching was not the first choice career for its top students.
Thailand too has its “Malaysian problem;” the Thais solved it in their own unique patient way. Recognizing the futility of persuading these teachers to agree for reform, the government simply bypassed them by liberalizing the school sector to foreign players. Consequently, international schools blossomed in Thailand. Yes, they are an option only for the elite and rich. These schools are educating the children of the influential. These students are destined to hold key positions in their country, their superior education and social standing assured them of that. They would be the ones to lead successful reforms in the future.
In reforming Malaysian schools, we could pursue either the top-down approach of Poland and Singapore, or use the slower and surer Thai way. However, I do not see the necessary enlightened and intelligent leadership to effect meaningful top-down reform, nor do I see a farsighted leadership to initiate the slow Thai way.
Quality of Schools and Fertility Rates
On perusing the list of countries whose students excelled in PISA, one fact stands out: Those countries also have low fertility rates. The latest addition to the list of top performers is China, specifically Shanghai. China’s almost inhuman “one-child” policy has many critics but there is no questioning its benefits. For the past few decades China was spared the burden of feeding and housing over 300 million potential Chinese. Imagine the savings in not having another Bangladesh within your borders! Spared of those huge expenses, the Chinese could now divert resources to improving their schools.
The reverse however is not true; low fertility rates alone do not guarantee good schools. Sri Lanka is proof of that.
In Malaysia, the fertility rate for Malays, while declining, is still nearly doubled that of non-Malays. The wide discrepancy in academic achievement and other social indices between Malays and non-Malays is ultimately attributed in part to this difference in fertility rates.
If today the authorities were to implement an effective and acceptable family planning program that is enthusiastically endorsed by the religious authorities, the positive impact would be felt almost immediately. First, there will be the drop in the number of pregnancies, and nine months later the decline in the number of births. With that the savings in expenses related to medical care. That would only be the beginning. Six years later when those potential babies would be ready for school, the savings would be even greater as there would be no need for new schools and teachers.
Even more remarkable, those savings would be cumulative; they would continue to add up. With those savings we could then expend resources towards improving the quality of life of our people, and that would include providing them with good schools and superior teachers.
Those OECD and other advanced countries can focus on making their schools superior because they have the resources to do so; they have been spared the expenses that would have been incurred had they had high fertility rates. This basic link was not discussed at the summit as it was taken for granted. For Malaysia however, it is a reality that is not yet even been acknowledged, much less addressed.
The wisdom of those eminent educators from OECD displayed at the summit is still valid, and Malaysia could usefully adopt some of it provided our leaders and policymakers bear in mind that we have a more basic problem outside the realm of education but related to it. We have to tame our fertility rates first; then with the savings we would have the resources to address the challenges of education.