Can a $1 million global teacher competition (backed by Bill Clinton) boost the profession?

(Bloomberg)
(Bloomberg News)

There’s no question that many teachers feel demoralized amid a punitive school “reform” movement and that their profession could use a boost, but is a $1 million global competition for a single “exceptional” teacher really the way to go about doing that?

The $1 million Varkey GEMS Foundation Global Teacher Prize contest is underway, with Oct. 5 the deadline to apply. The foundation, whose honorary chair is former president Bill Clinton, is the philanthropic arm of GEMS Education, which is the K-12 education company that owns and operates its own GEMS schools in a handful of countries, including Egypt, Abu Dhabi and Uganda, with others set to open this year.

A news release about the competition says it is seeking “an exceptional teacher who has made an outstanding contribution to the profession” and calls the award “the equivalent of the ‘Nobel Prize.’ “It further says:

The Global Teacher Prize follows a long-standing commitment to improve the status of and celebrate teachers by the Varkey GEMS Foundation (VGF), so that children will dream of becoming the best teacher in the world.

Does anybody really think there is a “best teacher in the world?” Or is that, and the competition, a gimmick?

For those interested, the competition is open to teachers around the globe who work in “compulsory schooling” in “every kind of school.” Anybody can nominate a teacher, and a teacher can nominate himself/herself, with specific application requirements, which can be found at globalteacherprize.org. The winner will be announced in Dubai in March 2015 at an education and skills forum.

The criteria, according to the release:

Innovative and effective instructional practices and student learning outcomes in the classroom and school.

Accomplishments beyond the classroom that provide role models for the teaching profession – whether through charitable or community work, or through sporting, academic or cultural achievement.

Contributions to public debates on raising the bar of the teaching profession, whether through writing articles, blogs, take part in media and social media campaigns, events or conferences.

Sharing inspirational education practices with other teachers

Preparing children to be global citizens in a world where they will encounter people from many different religions, cultures and nationalities.

Improving access to a quality education for children of all backgrounds.

Third party recognition of a teacher’s achievements in the classroom and beyond.  This can include pupils, colleagues, head-teacher as well as members of the wider community – including government, faith organisations and business.  Supporting written and/or video testimonials should be provided.

Encouraging others to join the teaching profession

Who will choose the winning teacher, who will receive $100,000 a year over 10 years?

A committee including foundation founder Sunny Varkey and Karen Giles, head teacher of the Barham Primary School in London, will choose finalists from all of the applicants. The winner will be tapped by what is called the Global Teacher Prize Academy, composed of teachers, journalists, public officials, technology entrepreneurs, business people and scientists from more than 20 countries. Among the members of the academy are Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp,  Harlem Children’s Zone founder Jeff Canada, Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean James E. Ryan, Lonor Munira Mirza and University of Oxford philosopher David Rodin. (There’s a bigger list below; note that few are actual teachers.)

Teachers are wildly underpaid, so who would begrudge any teacher from getting a cash windfall? That isn’t the question here, though. What does a $1 million prize to a single teacher do to boost the profession? It’s hard to find a way that it does.

There are, of course, legitimate reasons to hold competitions, in, for example, the field of science. But in teaching?

For one thing, teaching is not competitive and people don’t go into the profession to best their colleagues. Teachers prefer time to collaborate with their colleagues to accomplish things for students they couldn’t do on their own (something that has been ignored by modern education reformers).

It also seems impossible to figure out how the judges can actually compare the efforts and successes of teachers who come from radically different countries and education systems.

As Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the nonprofit FairTest, said, “Is there any credible way to evaluate people working with very different populations in a huge range of settings?” How is it possible to objectively compare a Head Start teacher in Anacostia with an Advanced Placement course leader in Scarsdale, let alone the lone school staffer in a rural African village?”  The answers: No and it isn’t.

The call for applicants notes that “teachers who are applying will have to provide references from their current supervisor and up to two additional references.” Just so the teachers don’t cheat. And the release notes that any teachers with a criminal conviction need not apply. (Really it does.)

Is there anything that will elevate the teaching profession short of policy that elevates teacher training and provides educators with the resources they need in school to do their jobs well? Not a $1 million contest.

The release says:

Initial applications will be judged by a prize committee, who will meet this November to choose a shortlist of ten candidates. The prize committee will include Sunny Varkey, Founder, Varkey GEMS Foundation; Vikas Pota, Chairman of the Varkey GEMS Foundation; Sir Michael Tomlinson, former Chief Inspector of Schools; Ann Mroz, Editor, Times Education Supplement; and Karen Giles, Headteacher, Barham Primary School, London.

A winner will be chosen from these ten finalists in December 2014 by the Global Teacher Prize Academy made up of head-teachers, educational experts, commentators, journalists, public officials, tech entrepreneurs, company directors and scientists from the UK, the US, Indonesia, China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Austria, Pakistan, Philippines, Netherlands, Thailand, Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Japan, Nigeria, Uganda, Singapore, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, India and Turkey. All ten finalists will be invited to Dubai for the Award ceremony at the Global Education and Skills Forum in March 2015….

The judging academy will include Munira Mirza, Deputy Mayor of London; John Riady, Executive Director, LIPPO Group, Indonesia; Jiang Xueqin, Vice-Principal, Tsinghua International School, China; Le Thu Thu Thuy, Vice-Chairwoman and Chief Executive Officer, Vingroup Joint Stock Company, Vietnam; Thura Ko Ko, Managing Director, YGA Capital, Myanmar; Eva Dichand, Editor, Heute, Austria; Kasim Kasuri, CEO Beaconhouse School System, Pakistan; Karen Davila, News Anchor and Correspondent, ABS-CBN Television Network, Philippines; Timothy Chen, Vice-President, Business Development and Strategy, VIA Technologies, HTC-VIA, China; Jeremy Balkin, Founder, Give While You Live, Australia;  Soulaima Gourani, Author, Denmark; Rex A. Barnardo, Director of Research, Mabini Colleges, Philippines; Claire Boonstra, Founder, Operation Education, Netherlands;  Nitsara Karoonuthaisiri, Head, Microarray Laboratory, National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, Thailand; Avril Halstead, Chief Director, National Treasury, South Africa;  Ory Okolloh, Director of Investments, Omidyar Network, South Africa; Esperanza Spalding, Grammy winning music artist, USA Ayla Goksel, CEO, ACEV, Turkey; Merieme Chadid, Explorer and Astronomer, Antarctica Research Station; Brett Wigdortz, CEO, Teach First, UK; Loulwa Bakr, Investment Banker, Saudi Arabia;  Ana Gabriela Pessoa, Chief Executive Officer and Founder, Ezlearn, Brazil; Areena Loo, Founder & Chief Executive, Bridge Learning, Singapore; Vandana Goyal, CEO, The Akanksha Foundation, India; Moís Cherem Arana, Managing Director & CEO, Enova, Mexico; Wendy Kopp, Founder, Teach for America, USA; Baroness Martha Lane Fox, UK;  David Rodin, Philosopher, UK; Arif Rachmat, Director, Triputra Investindo Arya (Triputra Group), Indonesia; Gemma Mortensen, Executive Director, Crisis Action, UK; Analisa Balares, CEO & Founder, Womensphere; Chair, Womensphere Foundation, USA; Yanovskiy, Founder and Managing Partner, First Nation Société Bancaire, Russia;  Lopa Patel, Editor, redhotcurry.com, UK; Dave Hanley, Principal, Deloitte Digital, USA; Herman Kasekende, CEO & MD, Standard Chartered Bank, Uganda;  Shalini Mahtani, Founder, The Zubin Foundation, Hong Kong; Claire Hsu, Co-Founder & Executive Director, Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong; Lin Kobayashi, Co-Founder and Chair of the Board, Foundation for International School of Asia, Karuizawa, Japan; Hadeel Ibrahim, Executive Director, Mo Ibrahim Foundation, USA; Jubril Adewale Tinubu, Group CEO, Oando, Nigeria; Strive Masiyiwa, Founder & Executive Chairman, Econet Wireless, South Africa;  Christopher Khaemba, Governor, Centre for Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education in Africa, Kenya; Chris Pope, Co-Director, The Prince’s Teaching Institute, UK; Gina Badenoch, Professional Photographer & Social Entrepreneur, Mexico; Tariq Al Gurg, CEO, Dubai Cares, UAE;  Futhi Mtoba, Chairperson, Deloitte South Africa; Jeff Canada, CEO, Harlem Children’s Zone, USA; Angela A. Sun, Chief-of-Staff to the President and CEO of Bloomberg, L.P. USA; Lutfey Siddiqi, Adjunct Professor & Banker, UBS; Eli Pariser, Co-Founder, Upworthy; Dean and Professor, James E Ryan, Harvard Graduate School of Education; Jane McAdams, Professor and Director, Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law; Jordan Shapiro, Philosophy Professor, Temple University, Philadephia; John Osborn, President and CEO, BBDO; Stephanie Marshall, Founding President and President Emerita, Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy; Vicki Davis, IT Director, Westwood Schools.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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