This blog is part of a series of last minute reflections before the new education agenda is set in stone at the UN General Assembly this week. It is written by Juan Carlos Tedesco, academic and previous Minister for Education in Argentina.
The starting point for the following reflections must be to acknowledge both the limitations and the achievements of the educational policies that have been implemented during the last decade, specifically in Argentina, but also in many other countries in the region. There is at present a new legal framework that guarantees the right of education and the provision of financial resources. However, the experience of the last decade leaves two fundamental lessons: (i) dedicating 6% of the Gross Domestic Product to education is not enough for accomplishing the accelerated goals this legal framework established; and (ii) the increase in the financial resources allocated to education does not translate automatically in improvements in quality and equality in the practice.
In order to generate any progress in quality and equality through an increase in financial funding, changes are needed in the institutional and cultural patterns that regulate the educational system. Both dimensions (cultural and institutional) are tightly related, and they focus the discussion on the challenges of introducing higher levels of accountability for results in the educational administration.
Many public officials believe that this responsibility for results grows with better evaluation systems. As such, the usual advice is to measure student results and promote teacher assessments. Nevertheless, both national and international experience shows us that measuring per se does not necessarily improve quality. Increased quality as well as increased accountability involves, besides financial funding and measuring instruments, a debate on what, who and how teaching is done. In other words, it means putting teaching and learning processes at the centre of the agenda.
What is taught?
I don’t intend to cover the complexity of the debate on the contents of the different levels of education in this short space. I will just stress the importance of prioritizing the teaching and learning of basic alphabetization and literacy in our society. It is indispensable for students to finish compulsory schooling and to master reading and writing codes. This implies understanding texts and writing. This should not be limited to our first language (Spanish); all our students should be able to speak a second language fluently, as the law indicates.
One can talk about reading and writing alphabetization, but nowadays that is not enough. It is also essential to gain digital and scientific literacy skills. The former involves learning not only the mechanical aspects of computing but also the criteria on which each search engine is based, their possibilities and risks. The latter supposes the ability to handle information and use scientific reasoning, which allows one to practice a reflexive citizenship.
In order for these elements to receive the priority they require, modifying curriculum designs is not sufficient. The Argentinian experience over the last few decades shows us that curriculum designs go only “as far as the school´s door”. Inside the schools, nothing has changed. Comparing student’s notebooks from twenty or thirty years ago with current ones is enough to realize that changes in curriculum designs were not followed by noticeable changes in teaching and pedagogy. If we want to affect change inside schools, we need to act on the fundamental actor in education: the teacher.
‘No education system is better than its teachers’ is already a commonplace term. Defining a comprehensive policy for the teaching sector is without a doubt the main challenge in educational policies. Some of the components to include in those policies: improved working conditions, a substantial reform in initial and in service training, and deeper understanding of the definition of a teaching career.
Regarding working conditions, one key point is salary. In this sense, it is indispensable to reach a mid to long term agreement with teachers’ unions. That way, strikes wouldn’t be the usual mean for solving conflicts.
The training of teachers needs deep changes, including: policies that attract the young and talented to it, getting Teachers Training Institutes accredited, ensuring that the first few years on duty are part of the training process, diversifying in-service training, and developing an active policy in training teacher trainers.
It’s urgent to make a progress in the definition of a teaching career in primary school and high school, one that allows a teacher to keep practicing while moving upwards in his/ her career, instead of the current situation, in which the only option for improvement is entrance into a managerial role.
How they teach?
Lastly, it is crucial to modify teaching and learning methods so as to train people for a very demanding world, both from the perspective of performance in the labor market and from the perspective of civil and personal development. Preparing people for constant learning throughout life calls for innovation in pedagogical strategies, like promoting principles that adhere to the construction of fairer societies. These strategies should not only replace traditional methods but also the trivialization of allegedly modern approaches to pedagogy that don’t achieve satisfactory learning results, and particularly for the most vulnerable social sectors.
All the challenges listed here should concern all social and political leaders. All spheres should take responsibility: government, family, companies, media and non-governmental organizations. If we don’t agree on what kind of education we want for our children, we can hardly expect to build a society in which we can live together.