IN September 2010, the global management consultancy firm, McKinsey & Company, released its education report Closing the Talent Gap: Attracting and Retaining Top-Third Graduates to Careers in Teaching , a follow-up to its 2007 study on How the World’s Best School Systems Stay on Top .
Resoundingly, through in-depth research and a series of consultations with education leaders, the reports demonstrate that of all the factors that can be controlled in an education system, the most important, by far, is the effectiveness of the classroom teacher.
Improving teacher effectiveness to shift student achievement has become a major theme in education improvement initiatives globally.
In Finland, a country recognised as having one of the world’s best school systems, an extremely competitive process is used to select school-leavers for teacher training cour ses.
Those successful are typically from the top 20 per cent of the national graduating cohort. Teaching is the most popular profession among top graduates in Finland, surpassing law, medicine, finance or engineering in rankings.
In a 2008 survey, Finnish men gleefully shared that teaching is the most desirable position for a spouse (in contrast, women ranked male teachers third, behind medical doctors and veterinarians).
Apart from a rigorous teacher selection process, Finland does something else differently. They give teachers a notable level of autonomy in school policy, curriculum application, student assessment and school management.
The national curriculum prescribes a guiding framework of what students must learn, but teachers and schools h ave autonomy in meeting these goals.
Providing autonomy requires high levels of trust, responsibility and accountability from teachers and schools.
For Finnish schools and teachers, this autonomy has worked. Statistically, there are no low-performing schools in Finland; the bottom 10 per cent of their schools outperforms the median scores of schools in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries.
In Malaysia, a cluster of High-Performing Schools (HPS) currently enjoy increased autonomy, and are provided the discretion to inform decisions pertaining to curriculum adaptation, instruction methods as well as the selection and redeployment of teachers.
The HPS is a key initiative in the Education National Key Results Areas under the Government Transformation Prog ramme.
Since the start of this initiative, 52 HPS have been selected by the Education Ministry, with the overall goal of enlisting 100 schools by next year.
The process of being selected as an HPS is rigorous, with schools required to meet stringent criteria in academic performance and alumni strength, while demonstrating international recognition and a strong network of external relationships.
After visiting one of these selected schools recently, I found its achievements to be outstanding in almost every category based on the principal’s report — be it in academia, sports or other leadership activities.
The few students that I observed here were very engaged in their activities — most of them had been selected to join the school after doing exceptionally well in their national examinations. In this school, the chances are strong that even without heavy investment or extraordinary motivation, the default and likely path is that the majority will finish university and end up with a long list of professional options.
Reflecting on the schools that Teach For Malaysia will partner with next year, it was easy for me to see the glaring differences.
Students from our school partners predominantly come from low-income households, and face significant barriers in attaining access to a quality education, that at times are compounded by the social problems that poverty presents.
Unless the majority of students and their parents in these schools demonstrate extraordinary and sustained effort, chances are strong that they will not gain a good university education, and will not enjoy the breadth of educational, economic and life opportunities that they deser ve.
In these schools, the effectiveness of the classroom teacher is of much higher importance. For teachers here, the challenge is greater.
None of the schools that Teach For Malaysia fellows (participants) will serve are high-performing, nor have they been granted autonomy.
However, fellows can exercise a different kind of autonomy, one that allows them to redefine the role of an effective teacher.
Our fellows know that they themselves have the means to shift the achievement of their students, many of whom are far from receiving the education opportunities that they deserve.
In choosing to go above and beyond, and refusing to accept their students’ circumstances as their destiny, fellows will become effective teachers in their challenging contexts, leading their classrooms to transformational outcomes.
The writer is co-founder and executive director of Teach For Malaysia. Email him at keeran.sivarajah@ teachformalaysia.org
Source: The NST Home Learning Curve 2011/09/17