Teacher career reforms: learning from country experiences

06 September 2017

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GPE/ Carolina Valenzuela
GPE/ Carolina Valenzuela
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GPE/ Carolina Valenzuela
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GPE/ Carolina Valenzuela

This blog was first published by UKFIET, the Education and Development Forum, during the 2017 conference in at Oxford University. Find out more about IIEP's involvement here and follow @IIEP_UNESCO and #UKFIETconf for more updates!  


Teacher career reforms are high on the agenda of many governments. Yet little is known about what these reforms entail, nor of the specific challenges countries face in the process of their implementation. To make this information more readily available to policy-makers, in 2016, IIEP undertook a mapping of eight countries (Colombia, Ethiopia, Lithuania, Mexico, Peru, Scotland, South Africa and Thailand) which had undertaken or were in the process of introducing career reforms. Three ongoing case-studies in Ecuador, New York City (USA) and the Western Cape (South Africa) will, in the coming months, further enrich the research.

What’s promising? 

The eight countries that participated in the mapping chose to introduce structures which widen the career progression opportunities available to teachers, while at the same time supporting their professional growth. This represents a departure from traditional systems, in which all teachers progress at the same pace along the salary scale. Additionally, few options exist to promote teachers while maintaining them in the classroom and opportunities to participate in continued professional development (CPD) are rare. In all eight countries, the intention of rewarding teachers’ work through the diversification of career opportunities, including while maintaining teaching activities, was welcome by teachers. The career structures adopted all sought to increase mobility and partly relied on a career ladder model, whereby teachers can progress from beginner teacher to higher status levels. 

This is promising because, according to motivation theories, greater recognition and perspectives for growth is likely to increase motivation and job satisfaction. In addition, only one country opted for one-off financial rewards in combination with other strategies. Research suggests that the latter undermines autonomous motivation, whereas career ladders, which link pay to performance only indirectly, encourage teachers to improve, to gain responsibility and autonomy over the direction of their careers.

However, moving away from systems in which there is relatively little distinction made between teachers and where progression is automatic involves the complex task of differentiating fairly between teachers, as well as the administrative capacity to operate such systems and to conduct large scale evaluations or appraisals. Moreover the career structure must be designed in such a way that it does not introduce elements that demotivate, such as putting teachers into competition with one another, rather than encouraging collaboration, and must ensure that appraisal is perceived as just and transparent, not controlling but encouraging autonomy. 

Striking the right balance is not easy. Consequently, what is less promising is that while most people would agree that giving greater recognition and access to higher-status positions to high-performing teachers is desirable, there is no consensus on how this could be achieved. On the contrary, most would concur that this is a tricky endeavour. 

As with any reforms, there are pitfalls to avoid, which are important to have in mind before embarking on what are technically complex and resource-intensive reforms. IIEP’s research thus sought to learn from a diversity of countries what to pay attention to in terms of career design options and pitfalls to avoid during implementation. 

What lessons for career design?

A number of specific aspects need to be carefully thought through in the actual design of career structures:

  • It is important to ensure a clear differentiation of teachers’ roles and responsibilities in the career ladder, supported by guidelines and competency frameworks. Higher positions in the ladder should mean greater teacher autonomy and responsibilities. The duration of stay in each salary grade before moving to a higher level is also critical: it should not be so long as not to discourage, nor so short as to defeat the purpose.
  • The level of difficulty of minimum standards that teachers need to comply with to receive a salary increase or be promoted to a new position should allow differentiation among teachers without closing the door to career progression for the majority of them. 
  • Methods and tools used to assess teachers’ skills to progress through their career should look at teacher work in the classroom. Although standardized appraisal instruments do facilitate massive evaluation processes, they have been criticized for their inability to grasp the complexity of teaching. 
  • Pay attention to the early stages of the career. Entry into the teaching career is a key moment to ensure attraction and retention of young teachers. The starting salary as well as a decent increment rate in the early years of the profession are considered to be key. Well-organized and supportive induction and probation periods also contribute to retention of young teachers. 
  • Effective performance management systems require a balance between performance evaluation and professional development appraisal. Most systems tend to favor the former over the latter, yet effective career systems require a coherent and well-designed system of continued professional development (CPD). 
  • Avoid closeness between teachers and appraisers, to limit subjectivity in evaluation. The research reveals that when evaluation agents (e.g. principals, peers) are too close to a teacher, subjectivity concerns often arise: this can lead to tensions within the school or to appraisers not giving objective evaluations to avoid conflicts.
  • Progression from the old to the new career scheme must be envisaged carefully. Here again questions arise: should only new teachers be automatically integrated into the new scheme, with in-service teachers being given the option to opt in? Is it feasible to keep two systems running alongside concurrently?  In some countries, the new career structure was perceived by teachers as a deterioration of their position. 


When all these elements have been thought through, many things can still go wrong in the implementation, jeopardizing the reform. The research identified four key prerequisites for a successful implementation:

What prerequisites need to be in place?

  1. Effective implementation requires strong political will and mutual trust amongst actors. In particular, any career reform must secure support of teachers and their representatives, as their buy-in and commitment are key to the design and sustainability of such schemes.

  2. Implementing reform is resource-intensive in terms of financial, technical, and organizational capacity. In particular, a lack of technical capacity of evaluators, operational staff, and regional administrators to properly implement the reform was reported in a majority of the countries studied. 
  3. Teachers, as well as managers, need to clearly understand the goals and means of the reform. In some instances, the lack of comprehensive guidelines led to a situation where most teachers could not obtain relevant information. 
  4. It is critical to generate quick wins and momentum at the beginning of the implementation process to increase actors’ support. Early implementation challenges can damage the reputation of the reform.