Teachers as standard bearers: professional norms and NEP 2020

Indira Subramanian

The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 proposes the introduction of professional teacher standards as one of the ways to improve the status of teaching and thereby raise the quality of learning in the classroom. The National Professional Standards for Teachers (NPST) is envisaged as an instrument to forge accountability among teachers to raise teacher performance, and alongside it, learning outcomes; it also charts career progression and aims to incentivize performance among teachers.

This article provides a broad overview of professional standards in teaching, including their merits and demerits. It argues that while professional standards in India may not be wished away, their efficacy lies in their interpretation by teachers, as well as in including teachers in the standards development process. It also points out that research evidence highlights the significance of subject-based rather than generic standards, as the former helps teachers build a stronger knowledge base, which contributes to their professional practice.

Professional standards in teaching
Standards may be described as technical specifications applied to given criteria, widely used as benchmarks or yardsticks to guide a profession. In the case of teaching, they help to lay down the minimum acceptable level of practice among the various functions associated with teaching, namely curriculum planning, delivery, assessment, classroom interactions and parental and community relationships.

Professional standards in teaching have been used widely in developed countries such as Australia, the US and the United Kingdom, and across a variety of functions beyond just career management. For example, the Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (InTASC) standards in the United States are drawn upon by teacher education institutions, teacher educators and schools for teacher certification, staff evaluation, assessment of student teachers and accreditation purposes. In this sense, teacher standards are seen to provide a credible benchmark and a set of standardized measures for the teaching profession, which for long has been regarded as a semi-vocation at best.

Over the last two decades, teaching standards have evolved and expanded rapidly to include subject specific standards developed by professional associations such as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) used in science education and curriculum based standards, such as the Cambridge Teacher Standards. These point to the growing popularity of standards as a way to calibrate, manage and measure educational variables.

Differing perceptions of standards
Standards in teaching have received their fair share of accolades and brickbats. Those who favour standards argue that such validated frameworks help to regulate entry into the profession and infuse rigour into it, much like fields such as medicine, architecture and engineering. Standards are seen to offer a systematic and established form of career management, enabling teachers to review their growth and progress over a period of time. Furthermore, standards are seen to align with the overall reform focus on learning outcomes by creating an environment of accountability and responsibility among those directly responsible for learning in the classroom.

On the other hand, critics of the standards movement point to the considerable reduction of teacher autonomy and status, as the act of teaching gets reduced to a set of checklists and rubrics. Far from empowering, the teacher sets out to ‘perform’ in front of inspectors, supervisors and academic managers, in the fragile hope that these meet the laid-out criteria, which are then converted into a set of quantitative measures and judgments. The highly personalized and sacred act of teaching becomes a ritualized canon of techniques which must conform to predetermined criteria, thus sacrificing spontaneity and serendipitous moments in teaching-learning.

Implications in the Indian context
The neoliberal shift in educational policy reform across the world, including in India, points to the prioritization of efficiency markers in education, with the establishment of quasi markets, public private partnerships and calls for greater accountability among schools and teachers. In such a scenario, the onset of professional standards is yet another checkpoint that aims to bring in more clarity on measurable expectations of teachers.

So, while perhaps teaching standards cannot not be wished away, their mixed success and reception across the world offers a cautionary tale for Indian policy makers. One middle ground is to make teachers an integral part of the standards development process, in order to build trust and foster a sense of buy in. While this has been recommended in the NEP, it is not yet clear as to how and to what extent teachers will participate in the process. Perhaps, a close scrutiny of the methodological process from examples around the world, will offer insights into how this may be facilitated.

Another question raised is in terms of how prescriptive and detailed the proposed teacher standards are expected to be. Given the highly diverse educational landscape of India, detailed and exhaustive standards may have an adverse impact, as the contextualized nature of teaching in India assumes greater significance in the current pandemic-driven environment. At the same time, highly generic standards could also be counterproductive, as educational research reveals that subject and domain specific standards are far more useful for teachers, to help them negotiate the realities of their work. Such a framework may also help to positively impact student learning outcomes in a far more useful manner by aligning it with curricular needs.

At the end of the day, there seem to be no easy answers on a roll out of standards. But given that standards seem here to stay, at best one can hope for closer dialogues with the teaching community to enable a sense of ownership, buy in and sense making, all of which may offer pathways to personal and professional growth. Let teachers be the standard bearers of their profession.

The author is an educational researcher and teacher educator. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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