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“The need for strategy and teacher activism in transnational governance”, by Tore Bernt Sorensen.

Today, the OECD launches “Teachers and School Leaders as Valued Professionals” as the second volume of the TALIS 2018 Results. Being the largest international research programme focused on teachers and school leaders, TALIS is a prime example of how transnational education governance offers opportunities as well as challenges for educators and their democratic voice.

The OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) is the largest international comparative research programme giving a voice to teachers and school leaders about their working conditions and learning environments. The TALIS programme has gained momentum in attracting participants. 48 countries and regions took part in TALIS 2018, the third round of the survey.

Recently, I analysed the strategies of Education International in engaging with TALIS. There is plenty of politics involved in such major research programmes, and the teaching profession with its large union membership has a certain leverage in the political agenda-setting associated with the programme.However, it is clear that teachers and their unions in order to stay relevant need to engage even more - in one way or another - with the OECD’s influential research programmes and policy guidance. Otherwise, they will leave the space more open for other organisations and enterprises keen to shape and profit from education policy and practice.

TALIS thereby raises democratic questions about how the voice of teachers is represented in transnational political arenas. The story about Education International and TALIS is part of the larger narrative that global issues and trends, like the climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, and privatisation in education, require global collective action from teachers. The work of teachers is both affected by and play a vital role in addressing these issues. The state of democracy globally is another fundamental concern for all educators, a fact reflected in Education International’s “On Education & Democracy - 25 Lessons from the Teaching Profession”, and more recently in the book “Reforming or Re-inventing Schools” by John MacBeath, Maurice Galton, and John Bangs, scholars and activists with close links to the union movement.

For the democratic voice of educators and their unions, the TALIS programme calls for reflection and action for at least three reasons.

First, TALIS is a major manifestation of the increasing level of international cooperation in education research and policy over recent decades. What is important to note here is that transnational governance of education is predicated on an elaborate and global data infrastructure of statistics and indicators. Without this infrastructure, transnational education governance would effectively fall apart. As I showed in my research, Education International’s efforts to secure access to the main OECD TALIS forum and its critical engagement with the TALIS survey questionnaires should be understood in the light of just how prominent the politics of knowledge is in transnational education governance.

Second, the TALIS programme reflects the strong political focus on the teaching profession internationally. There are various reasons for this attention, including the fact that teacher salaries are the main line on education budgets, and that the quality of teaching is important for the learning of students. Considering the voice of teachers, it is a positive development that new transnational social dialogue fora have been launched over the recent decade, involving negotiation and consultation between representatives of governments, employers and teachers. This includes for example the International Summits on the Teaching Profession and the European Sectoral Social Dialogue in Education.

Third, international research programmes such as TALIS help to make possible the sharing of knowledge and good practices across borders. Yet, when taken too far the quest for evidence about ‘best practices’ risks side-lining democratic debate and social dialogue from policy-formation. Another common pitfall concerns the opportunistic cherry picking of results and the fixation with league tables and rankings. In this sense, the combination of the sheer abundance of data and the media-driven and short-term horizon of governance might obscure the reasoning and democratic accountability of education policy and practice. The inroads of private edu-business in education as a public good further tease out this problem.

The double challenge of democratic professionalism

The title “Teachers and School Leaders as Valued Professionals” of the new TALIS report reflects that the OECD has come to emphasise teacher professionalisation in recent years. Professionalisation comes in many varieties. In terms of voice and representation, Judyth Sachs’ idea of democratic professionalism provides a powerful lens for understanding the promises and pitfalls of transnational education governance. Sachs observes that democratic professionalism emerges within the profession itself as educators at all levels engage actively with the politics and policies of education. Democratic professionalism strengthens the moral and intellectual leadership of the profession and leads to better ideas and practices, new forms of public and professional engagement as well as citizen participation in education reform.

In the globalised landscape of education governance, the challenge of democratic professionalism takes on a double meaning. It is all too evident that the voice of educators is critical to challenge and stimulate the global policy debate. At the same time, educators and their unions need to find new ways of having their expertise and voice recognised in transnational governance.

First, the nurture of democratic professionalism in schools and teacher education is an ongoing challenge. Being an activist teacher is not something that comes naturally for many, not least because many outside and inside education will question it. Conditions of respect, recognition and communication need to be in place. Activism is associated with being mindful of the greater whole. This requires critical awareness about the dynamics of transnational education governance and the key players. Without such critical knowledge, chances are that what remains of activist teacher identities and democratic professionalism will ultimately be hollowed out and replaced by its anaemic counterpart of teacher ‘entrepreneurs’ who might have great expertise in juggling with toolkits and standardised assessments, but no clue and no voice concerning the directions in which the profession and the education sector are heading.

Second, democratic professionalism requires collective organisation and structures sensitive to the dynamics in transnational governance. Unions play a key role in democratic mobilisation and representing the organised voice of teachers. However, it remains a challenge to involve more educators and unions in developing joint strategies and using international research findings to further their interests and improve learning and teaching. The discrepancy is related to the available resources in organisations but also varying levels of attention that such research findings generate nationally and locally.

Finally, our era is one of instability and upheaval, questioning of established paradigms, and a major geopolitical shift towards East Asia. This is also apparent in the OECD’s dissonant strategies on education, reflecting that even this highly influential organisation is currently struggling to navigate its course. In this changing landscape, we know too little about the roles and capacities of the collective organisation of educators. This impedes their capacity-building to understand and position themselves on an informed basis, locally, nationally, and globally. The new OECD TALIS report will be valuable as a snapshot of teacher and school leader professionalisation in a wide range of countries and regions, but we need more detailed research explaining developments over time.The production of research therefore provides the third challenge in the pursuit of democratic professionalism and teacher activism.

Read also:

Dzur, Albert W. (2008). Democratic Professionalism: Citizen Participation and the Reconstruction of Professional Ethics, Identity, and Practice. Pennsylvania State University Press.

Mincu, Monica, and Davies, Peter (2019). “The governance of a school network and implications for initial teacher education.” In Journal of Education Policy.

Sachs, Judyth (2001). “Teacher professional identity: competing discourses, competing outcomes.”Journal of Education Policy, 16(2), 149-161.

Sorensen, Tore B. (2020). “The space for challenge in transnational education governance: the case of Education International and the OECD TALIS programme.” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education.

Stevenson, Howard, and Gilliland, Alison (2016). The Teachers’ Voice: Teacher Unions at the Heart of A New Democratic Professionalism.“ In Flip the System, edited by Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber. Routledge.


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Tore Bernt Sorensen

Tore Bernt Sorensen is a postdoctoral researcher on the TeachersCareers Project, based at UC Louvain, Belgium. Tore’s work focuses on education governance, teachers and teaching, industrial relations and social dialogue. From April 2020, he will be working on the project “Social dialogue and industrial relations in education: the challenges of multi-level governance and of privatization in Europe”, coordinated by ETUCE.

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