At night, a man stands under a lamppost trying to find a key that he has lost. A passerby notices his endeavor and offers to help. After searching for a while it becomes clear that there is nothing there, so the helper asks the man whether he is sure that he lost the key at that very place. No, responds the man, I have not lost it here, but this is the only place with light and that's why I am searching for it here.
Sometimes, education policy decisions in Georgia are not taken according to a problem, but rather in consideration of what is most feasible for a decision maker in a given situation. In contrast to the above anecdote, however, the result of adopting such an incorrect attitude in terms of education policy is more than just time being wasted on a futile activity. According to an expression commonly used in the public policy sphere, today's problems are essentially a result of yesterday's decisions.
A new scheme of professional development and career promotion for teachers is something which may also contribute to the creation of tomorrow's problems in the education sector. More than a month ago, the Ministry of Education and Science of Georgia approved a renewed Teachers' Professional Standard. In parallel, a new government scheme of teacher training and development is being discussed with representatives of higher educational institutions and the civil sector.
The standard and corresponding scheme both rest on unsuccessful models. In the best case scenario, these have the potential to create an illusion of symbolic advancement in the education system, whereas in the worst case scenario, they might swell bureaucracy, strengthen the centralization of education system management, worsen university education principles, and decrease the level of interest in and trust towards the profession of a teacher.
The newly approved standard distinguishes four different categories of teachers: practicing, successful, researchers and mentors. According to the plan of the authors, by establishing these categories and outlining the requirements to move into each category – alongside developing a corresponding system of encouragement – teachers will develop an interest towards career promotion and professional growth.
In reality, however, career advancement must not only imply symbolic or financial encouragement and a change in job description, but also a change in functions backed by a change in position. Let's observe what we are dealing with. The standard assigns various functions to different categories of teachers. For example, the description of a mentor, i.e. the highest category of teacher, says that such a teacher will spearhead various school initiatives. Whereas the description of a practicing teacher does not mention any such activity.
However, if a mentor lacks the institutional and structural support to think about new school initiatives, the description of this title will probably have no effect on the development of either a school or on the initiatives of such teachers themselves. The description of teacher categories may itself become a problem because, according to the descriptions given in the standard, one should not expect any initiatives to come from practicing teachers (for example, from a beginner teacher).
The proposed approach significantly reduces the chance of the system being applied for career advancement. An example of career development would be, for instance, enabling higher category teachers to hold various positions within a school, such as being the head of a particular academic discipline.
One of systemic problems characteristic of many schools, not only those in Georgia, is that career ladders tend to be short. Consequently, systems of promotion or demotion for managing the motivation of employees, as are successfully applied in many organizations, are less effective in schools. The establishment of teacher categories not only fails to help solve this problem, but may even deepen it.
The issue is that in the proposed system, the state is assigned the key role of awarding categories and promoting teachers. Centralizing this process may diminish the role of organizations, namely, schools, in the management of their own personnel. It is strange that decision makers have not noticed shortcomings with the new system in which schools hire teachers, but the state promotes them.
Let's look at one possible outcome of this system. Under the new scheme, a teacher who perfectly meets the standards established by the state, but neglects those of a school, may become more privileged than a teacher who dedicates all of his/her time and energy to a school, but cares less about meeting the state requirements.
This approach rests on wrong attitudes towards schools. It implies that schools lack sufficient knowledge and the desire to establish effective mechanisms for motivating and promoting teachers. When describing the inefficiency of school administrations, bureaucrats often forget that they themselves are the architects of those barriers that impede schools from obtaining experience in administration.
Examples of such barriers include setting the salaries of teachers and administrative staff as well as approving the number of school personnel in a centralized manner, informally impeding the dismissal of undesired teachers, et cetera.
The newly introduced scheme enhances the existing list of impediments. Before this scheme was approved, schools often gave preference to those teachers who were certified – those teachers who had proved their competencies, not only in terms of their formal education and experience, but also by passing a theoretical examination in line with modern requirements.
Under the new scheme, however, even those teachers who repeatedly failed the certification examination will be regarded as so-called "practicing teachers." However, at the certification examinations, apart from just showing their knowledge of pedagogical theories and legislation, the teachers have to prove a minimal level of knowledge in their corresponding school subjects.
The new scheme will thus help teachers with low levels of competence maintain jobs at schools for a longer term. This will lead to a decrease in demand for the teaching profession. In the event of a lack of vacancies at schools, new generations will be less interested in choosing teaching as a profession.
With regard to new teachers entering the profession, the scheme offered by the National Center for Teacher Professional Development contains other problematic elements. Here too, just like in the case of schools, unjustified interference from the state in the administration of specific organizations is planned. The state intends to set up special examination commissions at universities, which will be involved in granting teacher qualifications to university graduates.
This approach will restrict the autonomy of universities and subject education specialists to the interests of an entity pursuing state policy. This approach is conceptually wrong because it views higher educational institutions as executors of state orders. However, higher education does not mean providing training for only a single specific position and diplomas issued by universities must not be evaluated from this perspective.
Secondly, the interference of the state into the activities of universities also means transmitting political problems into the university sphere. In pre-election periods, in order to win the hearts of teachers, politicians are often ready to even take steps that harm students. Given that with this most recent step the state has allowed absolutely unsuccessful teachers to stay in schools, why should we thus not expect the state to also try to lower university standards whenever it deems it to be politically advantageous?
Third, any new state function implies both new expenditures and a corresponding increase in bureaucracy. The planned changes will cause the enhancement of bureaucracy for a number of new functions. In addition to the new university commissions mentioned above, the scheme will also require the creation of numerous other state commissions to study the individual advancement of several tens of thousands of teachers in order to determine their suitability for moving up from one category to another.
What, then, should the approach of the state be to increase the attractiveness of the teaching profession, to help people involved in professional development of teachers, and to enhance the efficiency of this system?
Naturally, this calls for a complex approach. The state must give maximum possibility to schools to determine for themselves the nature of teacher career advancement. This implies not only giving freedom to schools, but also assisting school administrations in developing the respective competencies.
The state must support the establishment of professional teacher associations, which will be interested in the enactment of mechanisms for the profession's self-regulation.
The state must support an increase in demand and, consequently, in supply for the teaching profession. To this end, it must facilitate, to the maximum extent, rotations in the profession and, to attract future teachers, it must regularly publish statistics on those rotations.
The state must also assist in decreasing costs related to entering the teaching profession, namely, the cost of higher education, by introducing stipends and university or student grants.
These are, of course, only some of those steps that the state can or needs to undertake in order to improve the situation. However, these propositions all point to the place where looking for a lost key makes the most sense.