Education

Targeting Top Graduates for Education Careers

By Liana Loewus — November 18, 2010 6 min read

Countries with the best-performing school systems largely recruit teachers from the top third of high school and college graduates, while the United States has difficulty attracting its top students to the profession, a new report finds.

With more than half of all American teachers today becoming eligible for retirement in the next 10 years, however, the country has a “rare window of opportunity to shape the next generation of teachers,” Byron Auguste, Paul Kihn, and Matt Miller write in the report for the Washington-based management-consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

Singapore, Finland, and South Korea draw 100 percent of their teachers from the top third of the academic pool, but in the United States, only 23 percent of teachers come from the top third of college graduates—and in high-poverty schools, that rate drops to 14 percent, the authors write.

One reason top graduates are staying away is salary, the authors say. A starting teacher in New York City makes about $45,000, while a starting lawyer makes $160,000. Nationally, starting teacher salaries average $39,000, and go up to an average maximum of $67,000.

In contrast, starting salaries in Singapore are more competitive, and teachers can receive retention bonuses of $10,000 to $36,000 every three to five years, the report says. Teachers also receive merit-based bonuses and increases, ranging from 10 percent to 30 percent of their base salaries. In South Korea, teachers receive salaries that would translate to between $55,000 and $155,000 in the United States, it says.

Lack of Prestige

Teaching as a career also lacks academic prestige in the United States, the authors maintain. “More than half of teachers are trained in schools with low admission standards; many accept virtually any high school graduate who applies,” they write.

In response to the findings, Kate Walsh, the president of the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality, emphasized the purported low academic barrier of entry into teaching. “The fact that we view teaching as a profession that anyone can enter without regard for how they performed as a student” is a major impediment to improving American schools, she said. “It’s easier to get into ed. school in the U.S. than it is to qualify to play college football,” she added, noting that most college sports programs require a minimum grade point average and SAT score, while some teacher-preparation programs do not.

Ms. Walsh also highlighted what the report refers to as teaching’s lack of “peer-group appeal” for top graduates. “Smart, capable people have to feel confident they will work with other smart, capable people,” she said.

By contrast, in Finland, the process for becoming a teacher is “extremely competitive,” and “only about one in 10 applicants is accepted to become a teacher,” according to the McKinsey report. Applicants to education schools are drawn from the top 20 percent of high school classes and must pass several exams and interviews. In Finland, “teaching is the most admired profession among top students, outpolling law and medicine,” it says.

The report notes that teacher retention is a struggle in the United States as well. The yearly attrition rate in U.S. schools is 14 percent overall and 20 percent in high-poverty schools. Attrition in Singapore is 3 percent annually, and in South Korea it is 1 percent, the report says.

Luring Top Grads

The McKinsey report lays out some “cost-effective,” though “not necessarily inexpensive,” ways that U.S. schools could attract more top-ranked college graduates to teaching. The authors believe the United States could increase the proportion of top-third graduates who go into the field from 14 percent to 34 percent without even raising pay. That scenario, which would cost an estimated $66 million per state each year, would entail subsidizing teacher-preparation tuition costs; ensuring more effective administration and training opportunities in high-need schools; improving teachers’ working conditions; and providing performance bonuses of up to 20 percent.

Alternatively, the country could raise top-third new hires from 14 percent to 68 percent by paying new teachers at least $65,000 and offering a maximum salary of $150,000, says the report.

Some teaching experts stressed that, even apart from increasing salaries, the profession in the United States could be made more attractive if teachers had more opportunities to learn from colleagues and grow professionally. “In Singapore and Finland, teachers have more time to collaborate,” said Linda Davin, a senior policy analyst for the National Education Association. “In this country, compared to other industrialized countries,” she said, “teachers have much more time on instruction with students,” which can cause them to feel isolated.

“I think it’s a complicated issue that’s not just about getting the top-level people,” said Kathleen Fulton, a director at the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. “I think we’re still going to lose them if we don’t have the right kinds of conditions to support continuing learning.” She suggested giving teachers flexible options for moving up the ladder, such as becoming a mentor or curriculum coordinator while teaching part time.

Ms. Davin agreed. “A lot of students in the top third see teaching as a very flat career, lacking professional growth.”

Apples and Oranges?

Kevin Huffman, a spokesman for Teach For America, stressed the potential of making entry into teaching at once more competitive and less arduous. “The U.S. tends to shift where the barriers to entry are,” he said. “They tend to make it easy to get into education programs, but then make people jump through hoops to actually become teachers.” TFA, on the other hand, has a rigorous application process that accepts fewer than 10 percent of applicants. Once accepted, corps members enter the classroom quickly. The model is closer in similarity to those in some other countries, Mr. Huffman said.

One major caveat in comparing the United States and the other countries cited in the report is “the incredible diversity of the U.S.,” Mr. Huffman cautioned. Resources and demographics vary greatly from school to school. “We know in the U.S. that figuring out solutions in a middle-class neighborhood is different than [finding] solutions in high-poverty areas,” he said.

Yong Zhao, a professor at Michigan State University’s college of education and an international education expert, questioned the McKinsey report’s methodology. The authors make too many cross-cultural assumptions and fail to attribute much of their data, he charged.

The authors were unavailable to respond to his assertions.

For instance, Mr. Zhao said, the entry requirements for education school in Singapore are “all criteria-based, not norm-based,” though the report implies they are norm-based by stating that only the top third of students are accepted. “It’s misleading,” he said. “There are more questions than answers.”

Even with reliable data, Mr. Zhao said, it’s tough to make the types of international comparisons the report uses. Singapore only has 23,000 teachers and one school of education, he pointed out, while the report notes that there are currently 3.3 million teachers in the United States. Singapore has “a much more manageable system,” he said. “How can you compare it to a system like this?”

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