Here’s What the U.S. Can Learn About Teaching Quality From Top Countries

By Madeline Will — April 24, 2017 4 min read
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States and districts, plagued with recurring waves of teacher shortages in certain subject areas (namely science, math, and special education), have come up with short-term solutions like hiring teachers with emergency or temporary credentials or using substitutes. Teacher-preparation enrollment numbers have dropped in recent years, and surveys of U.S. teachers show a growing discontentment with the profession.

Is there a better way?

Education researcher Linda Darling-Hammond’s new book, Empowered Educators: How High-Performing Systems Shape Teaching Quality Around the World, is a three-year study into how seven high-performing jurisdictions recruit, develop, and support high-quality teachers. These countries and provinces—Finland; Singapore; the states of New South Wales and Victoria in Australia; the provinces of Alberta and Ontario in Canada; and the province of Shanghai in China—have all focused on building effective teaching systems, instead of short-term fixes, and professionalizing teaching as an occupation.

The study was supported by the National Center on Education and the Economy’s Center on International Benchmarking. Darling-Hammond, who is the president and CEO of a California-based think tank, the Learning Policy Institute, led a global team of education researchers to do this work.

These jurisdictions were chosen for their work developing teaching and learning systems. They all rank highly on international indictors of educational quality, like the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), and have high rates of educational attainment. Most of the education systems, the book says, include linguistic, cultural, and racial and ethnic diversity, and focus on equity.

The researchers identified 10 key themes that the highlighted jurisdictions share, and that the United States could learn from:

  1. There is a high social regard for teaching. In all of these areas, teaching is held in high esteem, and compensation is competitive with other professions that require comparable education. In these jurisdications, starting salaries for teachers are above international averages, and teachers receive significant increases in pay within their first 10 years on the job.
  2. The profession is selective. As Finland’s education minister told Education Week, teachers are so respected in that society that schools of education receive plenty of applications, and thus, are able to have a low selection rate. Some of the jurisdictions in the book have a high bar of entry into teacher-preparation programs, while others have selective graduation and hiring policies, or a mixture of both. That means schools can focus on developing high-quality teachers throughout their careers, rather than focusing on weeding out bad teachers already in the workforce.
  3. There is financial support for teacher preparation and professional learning. Teacher preparation is free or substantially subsidized for prospective teachers. Some governments also pay for teachers to undergo ongoing professional development, so teachers are expected to develop substantial expertise throughout their careers.
  4. There are professional standards that outline teaching expectations. There are common expectations for teachers’ knowledge, skills, and dispositions—that value the whole child’s physical, social, emotional, and moral development—that undergird preparation, professional licensure, PD, and career development.
  5. Preparation and induction that is grounded in curriculum content and clinical training. In these jurisdications, “teachers receive strong content preparation for the areas they will teach and increasingly strong preparation for teaching diverse learners—including students with special needs and new immigrants,” Darling-Hammond writes. Also, these countries are developing or expanding school-university partnerships so that prospective teachers can bridge the gap between theory and practice while receiving intensive support and mentoring from veteran teachers.
  6. Teaching is a profession informed by and engaged by research. Teachers receive training so that they can both use research and become researchers about classroom practice. This makes teaching more reflective and informed by evidence.
  7. Teaching is a collaborative, not isolated, occupation. “Teaching in the countries we studied is viewed as a team sport, not an indivdual act of courage,” Darling-Hammond writes. Teachers are not only expected to collaborate, but they receive time to do so, and they have opportunties to observe others’ classes, be observed, and mentor others. There are also typically school networks for professional learning where teachers and principals come together to share expertise.
  8. Teacher development is a continuum. Teacher evaluations are connected to growth and development rather than being punitive. Since teachers are so respected and well-trained, “eliminating incompetence” is not a goal of evaluation—rather, teaching is regarded as a learning profession.
  9. Teachers have formal opportunities for leadership. In Singapore and Shanghai, for example, there are formal career ladders, with opportunities to become a senior, master, or mentor teacher, a principal or administrator, or a curriculum or research specialist. Teachers in all jurisdications have opportunities to engage in research, mentoring, or school decision-making.
  10. Systems are organized to support quality teaching and equity. Teachers are supported through funding, mentoring, professional development, a teacher-designed national or state curriculum.

More components of the study, including an online resource library, policy briefs, and country briefs, will be released on June 6 in tandem with a national meeting of education leaders.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.