By Amin Kef Sesay
Poor quality teachers have held back Sierra Leone’s educational advancement, many say, since the 1980s when untrained, unqualified so-called teachers looking for fast easy money started to fill our classrooms.
This time of year is filled with reflection for the tens of thousands of learners who have completed WASSCE and woefully failed the exams – this year 96% of them that took the Government sponsored exams.
We have a “vicious” rather than “virtuous” schooling cycle. From analysis of the WASSCE, it is time to properly professionalize the teaching industry, just as it is with lawyers, doctors, engineers, accountants, nurses, etc.
Look at it this way. 90% and more that took the WASSCE did not pass math or English.
The cause – more than half of the teachers in unregulated schools do not attend school regularly and do not teach the students well when they do because their knowledge levels are far below the level they are supposed to teach.
Given that teacher quality is one of the biggest factors determining the learning outcomes of students, what will it take to improve teacher quality and professionalism in the country?
Numerous suggestions have been floated. But one idea has recently generated particular interest among education departments, statutory bodies, and academia – the introduction of “teacher professional standards”.
These can be broadly defined as a set of common standards that include the professional knowledge, skills and conduct that characterize good teaching.
This is based on the fact that higher expectations for student learning could be accomplished only by higher expectations of teaching quality.
Poor teacher standards are a response to a lack of teacher accountability. This has been identified as a cause of the poor quality of our education.
The basic premise of teacher standards is that if you expect more from teachers, don’t allow them into the classroom until they’ve met a basic set of criteria, and hold them to account if they fall short, then the quality of teachers will improve.
There are standards that professionalize teaching and standards that manage teachers, while standards which professionalize create cultures of collegiality, expertise and pride among teachers.
Yet management standards are often mistaken for professional standards. When this happens, teacher morale drops.
The quality of a nation’s teachers cannot be divorced from the quality of its learners exiting schools.
This is because successive cohorts of learners’ progress through school, enter university as student teachers, and graduate as teachers where they nurture the next cohort through the cycle. The end of school is therefore the beginning of higher education.
In a virtuous schooling cycle, such as Finland, education is a desirable career choice for top graduates. This allows for competitive entry requirements for teacher education programs, which in turn allows for rigorous and challenging courses. This, in turn, produces high quality teachers who improve learner outcomes. The quality and professionalism of the teachers nurtures the next generation of high-quality teacher trainees.
In a virtuous cycle the system can afford to set standards that reflect the best professional knowledge internationally. Initial teacher education is intensive and teachers exit the programs with high levels of subject and pedagogical knowledge. As a result, their learners perform well and the school system enjoys a high level of public esteem.
Consequently teaching is a prestigious and attractive profession which recruits the brightest and most motivated school graduates, who don’t require continual monitoring and oversight. Teachers instead enjoy professional autonomy; they are trusted in key decisions about their teaching and professional development.
On the part of the teachers, they maintain that inferior salary, late payment of salaries, no allowances, very few incentives and motivation to stay loyal to the profession, many unpaid, untrained, unqualified community teachers, unprofessional school heads that are only interested in the monies they receive or collect are some of the key reasons why teachers fail to deliver quality education.