Sometimes you just have to write…

E is for Education (or, how to improve the quality of any educational system in the world in three easy steps)


a classroom in Kirundo, Burundi

Here is another “modest proposal” to add to the one about teenage boys that I wrote a while back.

Everyone, in just about every country in the world, thinks their educational system could be better. Some blame problems on the government, some on the teachers, a few on the students or parents.

It’s the teachers, though, who are generally the ones dealing with the problems of education on a day-to-day basis. They make do with insufficient materials. They handle poorly-fed or poorly-brought-up children. They cope with poorly-thought-out, misguided and/or underfunded government mandates, muddling through as best they can.

They don’t do it for money. They don’t do it for respect. They don’t do it for an easy lifestyle. They do it because they care.

Teachers are amazed at the ease with which so many problems are blamed on them, and even more amazed at the generally-held belief that their job is so easy: “but you’re done at 3:00 every day and you have such long vacations!” Let me just clear that one up right now: teachers work into the evenings, they work weekends, they work over Christmas vacation. They might not work the whole summer vacation, but they certainly work some of it, and/or they take a second job over the summer to supplement their income. Frankly, many need the longer summer vacation just to have time to work up enough enthusiasm to return to school for the new school year!

Teachers take criticism from parents, children, school administrators and governments, yet they continue to make the effort every day. Even when they are excellent teachers, they seldom hear positive remarks. The negative gets repeated and reported; only rarely do we hear about successes.


a Kirundo, Burundi classroom block

Some get burnt out and leave teaching, which leads to more criticism about the quality of education, and leaves the remaining teachers even more overworked. Or, worse yet, they get burnt out but continue teaching, which means the quality goes down.

I have a simple, elegant solution that would work just about anywhere in the world, if only policy-makers would have the guts to make education a priority in reality, rather than just in sound bites.

Here’s my three-step plan: 

Step 1: Double the salary of each and every teacher. No matter where in the would you are, doubling the salary from whatever it is now would immediately make teaching a more desirable career, and that high salary would very quickly transform disrespect to respect. Over a number of years, enrolment at teacher-training colleges would increase, leading to a flood of newly-trained, young, enthusiastic teachers clamoring to be hired. That means schools could be choosier and hire the best, rather than accepting whoever has a pulse and a teaching credential. Yes, in the first few years, some bad teachers would be earning more than they deserve, but step 2 would take care of that eventually.

Step 2: School heads should have the power to fire. Yes, there is the danger that they could abuse this power, but a simple review process by some independent group would be enough to guard against that. Any teacher who is burnt out and waiting for retirement? Out! Any teacher who clings to ineffective teaching methods and doesn’t make the effort to improve? Out!

 I doubt either of these would happen much. The fact that it would be easier to get fired, combined with the fact that the pay had gone up so much, would be ample incentive for teachers to do whatever was needed to keep their jobs. If that means improving the quality of education, that’s what they’d do. A year or two of encouragement and support to improve would certainly make this step less draconian, and possibly unnecessary, but the mere possibility of being fired from such a well-paying job would be clear motivation to improve.

In addition, if a school head was performing poorly, or not performing at all, the next level of authority – school boards or local governments or whatever it is in a particular system that serves as the school head’s boss – would be able to fire him or her.

Step 3: Give individual schools autonomy. Except for big, general requirements from governments, such as language requirements, education should be left in the hands of professionals: teachers. And, remember, because of steps 1 and 2 above, they would, over time, be the best of the best. Let them work together as school-based teams to decide what to teach, how to structure their curriculum, and, yes, even how and when to assess. Trust them. They’re the professionals. Let them do what they are trained to do.

I recognize that in this time of economic recession, this won’t happen. Be honest, though: even in boom times it wouldn’t have happened, would it? It would have been dismissed as extreme and ridiculous and unaffordable – with the subtext that teachers don’t really deserve that much money. But why do we dismiss it? Is it really unaffordable, or do governments just have other priorities: things that they feel are much more important to spend money on? And why are we so unwilling to value teachers when we trust them with what we value most: our children and their futures, and the future of the world as a whole?




5 comments on “E is for Education (or, how to improve the quality of any educational system in the world in three easy steps)

  1. Anne
    April 5, 2013

    Interesting comments. While I agree with 1 and 3, I’m less sure that 2 is workable as stated. Seems to suggest that a teacher of some experience who doesn’t want to follow the latest education ‘fad’ might get kicked out, even if they have valid objections. And suggesting that teachers who are burnt out should be discarded, seems a harsh approach for a profession that should aim to bring out the best in others…
    I look forward to reading your next views : )

  2. Susan Evans
    April 5, 2013

    I used to be a classroom teacher before becoming a public speaker/homeschool teacher, and I agree with your assessments. Many other countries pay teachers more, and the teachers are treated with respect. You’re right; they do care or they wouldn’t be in the teaching profession.

  3. Rinelle Grey
    April 6, 2013

    Great suggestions! The only one I’d add would be to double the number of teachers (or halve the number of students per class). I think it’s hard to improve our education system while one teacher is trying to teach 25-30 kids at a time. (That’s the acceptable numbers per class here in Australia, though in reality, classes often end up bigger).

    I’ve been a teacher, so I’m well aware of the effort it takes. I always thought the ‘finish at 3 and have such long holidays’ was insulting! I remember planning lessons until 8 or 9 at night!

    Rinelle Grey

  4. rachela
    April 6, 2013

    Anne, I agree that would be a danger. There would have to be safeguards built in to allow uninspired teachers time to get with the program, and there certainly would be that danger of “fads,” but if we trust the teachers to be professionals, they should be able to work together as a team to put quality curriculum in place.

    Rinelle, that’s a good point!

    Thank you all for reading!

  5. Anne
    April 30, 2013

    This comes to mind, I think you might have seen it already but I thought it was fitting.

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This entry was posted on April 5, 2013 by in Being a Teacher and tagged , , .
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