Reimagining teacher careers for the 21st century

21 December 2018


New York City Department of Education
Sergio De Mesa, a Model Teacher, in his class at P.S. K225, The Eileen E. Zaglin School in New York City, New York.

By Barbara Tournier, Project Coordinator, IIEP-UNESCO

Are teacher career reforms the key to improved teacher motivation, attraction, and retention? IIEP is on a global quest to learn about new practices.

A major question for governments is how to reshape and elevate teaching as an attractive career choice for today’s youth. Countries in all corners of the world are also grappling with the interlinked challenges of poor working conditions and dwindling retention rates. In this context, teacher career reforms have been identified as a potentially powerful lever. To better understand what models are being implemented, the related challenges, as well as their effects, IIEP looked into the organization and management of teacher careers in Colombia, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Lithuania, Mexico, Peru, Scotland, South Africa, Thailand, and New York City.

The research has shown that countries are moving away from the traditional single salary schedule, which corresponded to the rise of the Welfare State and offered teachers job security, basic wage structures, and salary increases or promotions based on seniority and certifications rather than performance. Countries are now implementing second-generation teacher careers (a concept developed by Ricardo Cuenca, a specialist in Teacher Professional Development) based on meritocracy. In Peru, for example, a series of laws since 1984 have geared the country away from a system of seniority to one of performance. The salary spine — accompanied by mandatory evaluations — has also increased from five to eight levels.

However, the shift towards second-generation teacher careers does not imply a panacea to the demise of the teaching profession. Both generational models have advantages and disadvantages related to teacher motivation, financing, and teacher management.

What we have observed is that countries tend to mix and match between both models. In our sample, half have kept the single salary schedule, combined with at least one other model, such as a career ladder or salary progression based on appraisal, albeit with varying weight attached. Countries are trying to keep aspects of first-generation career structures (such as respect for degrees and years in the career), but are complimenting them with second-generation features that recognize strong performance. This can help teachers feel more appreciated for the work they do while also motivate them to improve.

For example, one senior official with the Department of Education in New York City, in the United States said: 'In an age of accountability, we need peer support for teachers who are getting all this feedback about how they’re doing in their classroom…and we need options for those who have been made aware that they are doing well in their practice and want more career opportunities.'

Second generation teacher careers encompass a diversity of reform options. Some, like career ladders — which was the focus of IIEP’s research — are positively associated with teacher professional autonomy and growth, while others, such as bonus pay systems, are more controversial. Teacher career ladders also make the profession more dynamic. Teachers can progress, gradually taking on additional responsibilities (e.g. by becoming master teachers or education specialists) or even change career tracks (e.g. management positions). This can change the public’s perception of the profession from one that is stagnant to one that gives teachers the chance to advance just like in any other reputable field.

A representative from the Ministry of Education in Peru noted that there has been a historical mistreatment of teachers, but that the devaluation is reversing. 'I think there is a consensus on the need to revalue the profession and there are growing policy measures that are advancing in this sense.'

IIEP’s research has also shown that well designed and implemented reforms can have a positive impact on regulating entry into the profession, tackling corruption, diversifying career tracks to help improve retention, and encouraging teacher support roles that help promote greater collaboration. For example, in Colombia, the new teacher career structure has helped improve the caliber of professionals recruited thanks to the public competitive examination required to enter the profession. However, these reforms are complex and resource-intensive. The mass teacher evaluations implemented in some Latin American countries may be unprecedented in reach, but to be operational, governments need to mobilize immense human, technical, and financial resources.

In some contexts, the reforms have been mired by implementation challenges to such an extent that it is difficult to be conclusive. Common challenges include striking a balance between support and accountability structures, defining clear roles and professional standards at each level of the career ladder, and setting fair and attainable minimum standards of evaluation.

The debate between first and second-generation teacher careers is not clear-cut. A number of countries have deliberately not implemented second-generation teacher careers. In countries, such as Finland, which have continuously invested in teachers and where the profession has not lost its status, education systems have been able to be selective about who becomes a teacher and have sustained a virtuous cycle of quality. But in other settings, where massive expansion of education and/or financial constraints and worsening conditions have tarnished the profession, providing career perspectives and more attractive remuneration packages to prospective teachers can be a part of the answer.

A key takeaway for governments is thus to carefully evaluate their administrative capacity before launching into major reforms. Failure to deliver on reform promises due to technical, financial or human resources constraints will result in lost trust and risk, jeopardizing the process. Moreover, attempts at improving the status of the profession will be pointless unless wages increase. As mentioned in the case study on Ecuador, 'As long as teachers and society perceive that remuneration is lower than for health workers or security forces (socially undervalued in Ecuador), any effort to reposition this profession will be futile.'

Whatever governments decide to do, their efforts will need to be incremental and sustained over several decades to be successful. The issue of cost is critical, yet investing in teachers is investing in our future.

Look out for the case studies and the upcoming synthesis ‘Reforming teacher careers: learning from experience,' available soon on the IIEP website.