Teaching: Restoring its class

Education Directorate

©David Rooney

Has teaching lost its appeal as a career choice? There are many indications that it has. But governments can take action.

Teaching is now having to compete more vigorously for talented new recruits than perhaps at any time in the past 20 or so years. During the 1980s and much of the 1990s most OECD countries had relatively stable school enrolments and a young teaching force. But the situation has changed markedly as the workforce has aged. Many countries now experience, or will shortly face, teacher shortages.

In a number of countries the teacher workforce is ageing – on average, 30% of secondary teachers are over 50 years old – retirements and resignations are increasing, and vacancies are proving hard to fill, especially in areas like IT, mathematics, languages and science. There are indications that teachers’ salaries have fallen relative to many other professions. Between 1996 and 2001, the salary of an experienced lower secondary teacher grew more slowly than GDP per capita in 16 of the 21 OECD countries with relevant data. As societies have grown wealthier and better educated, teachers have lost some of their “scarcity value”. Moreover, most teachers are state employees, and in many countries wages have grown more slowly for public sector workers than for those in the private sector.

A shortage in the number of teachers raises quality difficulties as well. An OECD study, the 2000 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), showed that in half of the OECD countries, a majority of 15- year-olds were attending schools where principals believe that student learning is hindered by a teacher shortage or inadequacy. Policymakers, schools and the wider community are right to be concerned.

But all is not gloom. Teachers’ social standing still appears high in some countries, and there are more qualified applicants than vacant posts in countries such as Austria, Japan, Korea and Spain. Elsewhere, there are signs of an upturn in interest in teaching. In 10 of the 14 OECD countries with relevant data, the proportion of secondary teachers aged less than 30 increased between 1998 and 2001.

Encouraging trends indeed, and they can be built on by tackling the issue on two levels: on the one hand, there is the nature of the teaching profession itself, and on the other, there is a targeted response to particular shortages. The first aims to ensure that society values teachers’ work, that teaching is seen as exciting and worthwhile, and that teachers’ preparation and work environments are improved. The second recognizes that there is not a single, uniform labour market for teachers, but a set of them, distinguished by type of school – primary, secondary, vocational and so on – and personal characteristics like gender, age, experience and subject specialisation. Looking at teaching as a problem of markets helps policy-makers and schools to attract particular types of people into teaching and to retain them. It also entices teachers to work in particular schools.

Pay problem

The sheer size of the teaching workforce means that to lift salaries by even a few percentage points for all teachers is very costly, not to mention the possible flow-on effects to other public sector workers. As small salary rises across the profession would have little impact on recruitment problems, a number of countries that have been experiencing shortages have concentrated salary rises on those in the early stages of their careers. This has been done in Australia, Denmark, England and Norway, for example. Each of these countries has reported an increase in teacher training numbers and, in Australia and England at least, there is some evidence of an increase in the academic quality of those studying teacher education. On the other hand, the main concern in some countries, like Greece and Hungary, has been retaining teachers in schools, and pay rises have been targeted to more experienced teachers.

The market is a diverse place, and although a single salary scale is still the predominant approach in most OECD countries, it is being increasingly differentiated to reflect market conditions. Sweden probably provides one of the most marked examples of change, having moved from a uniform national salary scale to individualised pay negotiations between teachers and their employers in schools and local municipalities, the aim being to improve school flexibility and involve teachers more in decision-making (see article by Anna Söderberg, page 17).

There is now also generally greater use of extra incentives in order to compensate teachers for working under particularly trying conditions. Incentives such as salary allowances for teaching in difficult areas, transportation assistance for teachers in remote areas, or bonuses for working in challenging schools are now more common. At least two thirds of OECD countries offer salary increases for taking on management responsibilities in addition to teaching, teaching more classes or hours than a standard load, and teaching in a disadvantaged, remote or high-cost area.

Although attractive salaries can improve teaching’s appeal, policy needs to address more than pay. Teachers place a lot of importance on the quality of their relations with students and colleagues, on feeling valued and supported by school leaders, on good working conditions and opportunities to develop their skills. Such factors go to the heart of the way that schools and teaching are organised.

Broader appeal

Introducing special programmes and incentives to attract more teachers for subjects such as mathematics, science and technology is one approach being tried in some countries facing particular shortages. Fee waivers, scholarships and forgivable loans are some of the financial incentives being offered. In France, for instance, scholarships may provide a decent salary to trainee teachers, so long as they commit to teach for a minimum period after graduation.

Attracting new sorts of people into teaching helps not only to tackle shortages, but improve the skill mix in schools as well. Reforms are making teacher education programmes more open to a wider range of people, and enabling academically qualified people to start teaching (and earning a salary) without necessarily having first completed teacher training.

Both the Flemish and French-speaking communities in Belgium make it possible to train as a teacher in adult education institutions that offer very flexible terms. There are no fixed entry qualifications to these courses and many of those taking these routes are mature students, often in the process of changing careers, who fit the training around other jobs or around employment as an unqualified teacher. In the United States, “alternative certification” programmes allow academically wellqualified individuals to start working in schools and to reduce some of the requirements of formal teacher preparation and state certification.

The results have been positive. One large Australian university reports that not only have enrolments in its graduate diploma course for secondary mathematics teachers doubled in three years, but the average age is 31, and a quarter have had previous full-time employment, the majority in engineering. Data from the United States indicate that the average age of new entrants to the teaching profession has increased, suggesting that people are pursuing other careers before they enter teaching. In 1993-94, 65% of newly hired teachers were over the age of 25, compared with 52% in 1987-88.

In fact, the problems some countries face with teacher supply are more to do with the high turnover experienced in the early years of a career than with a shortage of qualified new entrants. So, whatever the teacher’s background, making a good start in the job is vital. Policies to attract more people to start in teaching clearly must address the factors that cause new teachers to leave. Some countries, including Ireland and Italy, are acting on this, for instance by providing special induction programmes with trained mentors, and making formal induction a recognised stage in the career.

Over-supply

Not all countries currently face teacher shortages – Japan reports that they currently have around 10 applicants for each vacant teaching position. Korea and Spain are other countries with many more applicants than teaching vacancies. But they face policy challenges nonetheless, since all countries report concerns about ensuring that their existing teacher workforce has the skills and knowledge needed to meet the demands of modern schooling and more diverse student populations. It is also important to ensure that able and motivated people can find positions and are not lost to the profession. This is not easy to achieve in a situation of teacher over-supply, but it is vital.

One approach is to use selection procedures that ensure that the most suitable people obtain the posts. In Japan, many boards of education have broadened their selection criteria beyond reliance on exam results. Candidates are interviewed and are required to undergo aptitude tests, prepare lesson plans and demonstrate their teaching skills. The job interview has become a more important element in the selection process.

As another country with a relatively centralised system of teacher selection, France has reduced the weight accorded to seniority in determining which candidates are appointed to teaching vacancies. This is intended to address the concern that beginning teachers are assigned to the more difficult and unpopular schools, with risks for both student learning and their own career development. The new approach promises to make teaching more popular among young people too.

But over-supply is not the norm, and many countries will face shortages in the future, unless they can make teaching a more attractive option in a labour market that provides so many other opportunities for well-qualified people. This raises some difficult policy tradeoffs. Most school systems have reduced average class sizes in recent years and are under pressure to reduce them further. Yet, while targeted class size reductions can be beneficial for some students, across-the-board reductions in class size are expensive and unlikely to lead to substantial gains in terms of learning. Scarce resources should be used in other ways to boost the attractiveness of teaching and the effectiveness of those in the profession.

References

OECD (2003), Education at a Glance, Paris. 

See country reports, prepared for the OECD, called “Attracting, Developing and Retaining Effective Teachers” at www.oecd.org/edu/teacherpolicy. 

©OECD Observer No 242, March 2004




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