Educators Meet in Berlin: There are Still Walls to Tear Down

Here in a city known for its impenetrable walls, there came educators and politicians intent on tearing a barrier down.  The International Summit on Teaching Professionals (ISTP) brought in teams from the world’s most developed countries.  It was arranged by the OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) and Education International, an organization representing 396 education unions across the globe.  To be seated, it was agreed that a country had to include its minister of education and presidents of the unions representing teachers and support educators as a team.  That’s a paradigm shift in many cases.  The ministers and the unions are used to being opposing teams that sit across from each other and negotiate (on good days) and call each other names on other days.

I sat with Acting Secretary of Education John King and Chris Minnich who represents the Chief State School Officers.  We came as a team to make plans for our public schools in this post-No Child Left Untested World.

I went to the first ISTP in New York five years ago.  I remember the presentations and discussion full of words like “accountability” and “measurable output” and “market choice” and “college and career ready” and “standards.”

In Berlin I heard words like “cultural competency” and “equity” and “public good.” It wasn’t all roses.  One minister flatly stated that class size didn’t affect student achievement.  Those like me who’ve had 39 students in a room knew better.  We know that it takes a serious toll on the personal relationship that teachers and support professionals try to build with each student; it affects class management and limits how often a student can get into a discussion or give an opinion or ask a question.  There were other places where those representing the teaching professionals and those representing the administration of schools differed.

But the conversation was sincere, I believe.  The concerns about immigrant populations fleeing war and poverty were real.  One of my teacher colleagues came a day early to visit schools that serve a large population of immigrant children. The parents of these children had sent them on a dangerous journey to Europe to escape an even more dangerous war.  She told me, “They were so young, Lily.  Maybe 15 or 16 years old and so bright and articulate, but they were so alone.  There were no foster homes to take them in, so they live in dormitories and only have each other.”

One of my colleagues from the German education union said that she posted a short message on a website in support of the educational rights of migrant children, and within hours of the posting, the death threats against her started pouring in.  But the ministers spoke up as well, saying that we needed to ensure that teacher training included skills in cultural competency so that we better understood and appreciated the traditions and cultures represented by the students we served. 

And there were strong sentiments on both sides regarding the need to empower the classroom professionals with authority to create and design and analyze and collaborate.  There were voices from both sides about the importance of the support staff, with nods of agreement when one teacher pointed out, “Along with instruction, teachers are being asked to do the work that other professionals had been doing, and should be doing.”

We talked about the coming teacher shortage.  There are fewer and fewer applicants in our teacher colleges.  No wonder.  During the 14 years of No Child Left Untested, schools were designed in the service of hitting testing cut scores instead of in the service of the whole child.  Teachers have been blamed and shamed for factors beyond their control while politicians walked away from growing inequities in school resources, services and programs, which left our most vulnerable students at the mercy of Test and Punish policies.

For me, the International Summit was hopeful.  Not because it painted a rosy picture – everything but.  It gave me hope because there was a decided lack of silver-bullet solutions.  Privatize, charterize, voucherize, standardize, de-professionalize… all the corporate market-based solutions were little more than smoke that was blown away by the reality that after more than a decade, the only countries making good progress in student success were the countries that resisted factory models of reform.  And without the ideology-based corporate reforms, the only thing left to do was to listen to research.  And to listen to the evidence.  And to listen to each other.

It was a conversation.  Talking and questioning and listening and learning.  The U.S. delegation made commitments to find ways to make teaching a respected profession again – so respected that top university students would seek a career in teaching; we would find ways to empower educators on the building level to be creative and collaborative in reaching and teaching the whole child; we would build a system state by state and local district by local district that measured many pathways to success and engaged parents and communities in defining success. 

Some will say it was just a conversation.  But I saw something real there.  I saw the beginning of something better than we have.  And our final commitment was to each other – not to hope, but to act. 

In Berlin we began to tear down a wall.  It’s in our hands now to plant a garden where children can grow.  We don’t intend to let them down.

 

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