Special Report

Teacher Quality, Status Entwined Among Top-Performing Nations

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 09, 2012 18 min read
Students enter the Kirkkojärvi School in Espoo, Finland. The school is among those featured in an exhibit that highlights the country's move away from factory-style schools to contemporary campuses built to meet the pedagogical and social needs of their students and teachers.
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One of the most troubling things that the 2010 National Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling, hears about her profession can be summed up in a single observation: the idea that she and other top-performing colleagues are “just” teachers.

The word “just” serves as a reminder of a subtle mindset among some in the United States that a career in K-12 teaching, while considered noble, is nevertheless somehow seen as beneath the capacity of talented young men and women.

“People go into teaching because they are committed to young people, because they are incredible communicators or experts in their field,” says Wessling, a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa. “But many people in our country see teaching as though it’s a second-choice profession.”

It is a sentiment that is virtually unheard of among countries such as Finland, Singapore, and South Korea that top the charts on high-profile international assessments.

“Teaching is a similar career to a lawyer or a medical doctor. It’s an academic profession, an independent profession,” says Jari Lavonen, the director of teacher education at the University of Helsinki, in Finland. “There is lots of decisionmaking at the local level, and teachers enjoy freedom and trust. They work as real experts.”

Similarly, in territories within other nations that have led the pack on improvements to their systems, such as Canada’s Ontario province, leaders credit investment in their teaching force as an important reason for their improvements.

“The key idea to get better student performance was to help teachers to get better, and to expect them to get better,” says Ben Levin, a former deputy minister of education in Ontario, who helped oversee reforms begun in 2004. “But we wanted an approach that was respectful of teachers as professional educators, as opposed to assuming that they needed to be slapped into line in some kind of way.”

Even nations such as Chile that still have a steep hill to climb to improve student learning have focused policy efforts on improvements to the profession and are beginning to see dividends from those undertakings.

The specific strategies deployed by these countries to raise the status of the profession have been filtered through their own political and cultural contexts, but several common themes stand out. They include a movement toward rigorous recruitment and training regimes, more competitive teacher salaries, and support systems to help teachers perfect their craft.

“The combination of better working conditions, higher pay, and higher share of pay based on effort and performance all work together to attract people who are smart, hard-working, and want to make a difference,” says Emiliana Vegas, the lead economist for education at the World Bank, in Washington.

In short, successful nations have made teaching a respected and supported profession, if perhaps not a lucrative one.

There’s little disagreement that U.S. educators deserve a similar degree of prestige, but the translation of that lofty goal into effective public policy is anything but clear—and the policy levers at hand are not easy ones to pull.

The 2010 National Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling, of the Johnston Community School District, in Iowa, is introduced by President Barack Obama at a Rose Garden ceremony. She worries that many see teaching as a second-choice career.

“The institutional structure for training, employment, and compensation in medicine [in the United States] is radically different from K-12 education,” notes Dan Goldhaber, an associate professor of economics at the University of Washington Bothell campus, who has studied the structure of the teacher labor market. "[The medical profession] has higher starting salaries, higher eventual salaries, much more rigorous selection up front, and many fewer training institutions. ... I don’t think there’s any short-term fix, bottom line.”

A Different Landscape

One of the key challenges to building on the lessons from international practices lies in the fact that the United States’ teacher-quality system differs so greatly from that of most other nations. To name just one significant difference, the sheer size of the United States, coupled with its federated structure, has produced a complex melange of 50 different licensing and preparation systems across some 1,400 training institutions. Even accounting for population differences, that’s almost three times the proportion of such institutions in Canada or Finland.

And unlike smaller, centralized nations, the United States trains nearly all interested aspirants to teaching and filters out only a small percentage. Those filters consist both of formal ones, such as the licensure, certification, and evaluation systems states have created, as well as informal ones, such as high teacher turnover, particularly at the lowest-performing schools.

Alternative-certification programs, meanwhile, have sprung up partly to meet market needs in shortage subjects or locations. Some of them, like the Teach For America program, are among the most prestigious and selective routes to teaching in the nation. Yet teachers note that the nation’s patchwork selection system carries a downside.

“When I’m driving to the airport and see a sign saying, ‘Become a teacher in six weeks,’ I don’t think that sends a message that teaching is a profession,” says Wessling, the Teacher of the Year. “I think it sends the message that we need bodies.”

Teacher-quality measures in many top-performing countries begin with a highly selective process, in which candidates are screened closely before entering classrooms, and hiring decisions are closely matched to projected demographic needs.

In its most recent admissions cycle, the University of Helsinki accepted just 7 percent of the approximately 1,700 students who applied to the teaching program, according to Mr. Lavonen. In addition, entry standards to teacher preparation include a review of high school work and a written assessment asking teachers to read and analyze 250 pages of material from academic journals, among other steps.

According to profiles of the country prepared by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, mainly a group of developed nations, teaching is the most popular career for high school graduates in Finland, and training programs typically select only one in 10 applicants from the top quarter of their classes.

By contrast, the United States’ elementary-level teachers continue to hold below-average high school grade point averages and SAT scores, despite some recent improvements in those figures. Few teacher-training schools, meanwhile, can boast the selection ratios seen in Finland, and states set generally low entry requirements, including cutoff scores on required licensure exams that frequently fall far below the 50th percentile of test-takers.

Would it be possible to move the needle if the United States’ training institutions were to recruit stronger students in the Finland mold? However common sense that proposition, it remains something of a best-guess theory. Studies linking teachers to student-achievement growth have failed to find any “silver bullet” preservice teacher characteristics that consistently predict higher student achievement. Determining who, on the front end, will prove to be an effective teacher remains an imprecise science.

Nevertheless, several clues exist within the data. Specific measures of academic competence, such as high verbal ability and college-entrance-exam scores, do appear to give those who hold them an edge in the classroom in the earlier grades. At the secondary level, math content knowledge also appears to be correlated.

Finally, there is the observation that so many of the highest-performing countries have made rigorous recruiting of teachers with strong academic qualifications one of their guiding educational principles. “It’s difficult to imagine that we wouldn’t be in a better place with the education system if we had more-capable teacher-candidates to choose from,” Goldhaber says.

Japanese teachers, such as this Kyoto high school instructor, meet frequently with one another outside the classroom to plan lessons.

A handful of teacher-training programs in the United States have embraced a similar theory of action. Two years ago, Indiana University began a system whereby those high school students with a minimum of 1100 on their SAT and a 3.7 GPA who are interested in becoming teachers can be directly admitted to its education school. (Typically, Indiana University undergraduates must have a 2.5 GPA in their lower-division courses to enter the school.)

About a third of those who enter undergraduate teacher preparation now come through the direct-admit program, said Gerardo M. Gonzalez, the dean of the school of education. And the program has had the added benefit of making the school more prestigious.

“High-quality students want to be with high-quality students,” Gonzalez says. “We’re competing for the best students with every field.”

Yet obstacles, both cultural and financial, have served to slow widespread adoption of more-rigorous recruiting endeavors in the United States.

“I think there’s a lot of validity to the argument that when you raise standards, you attract better-quality students,” Gonzalez says. “But there’s also, I think, the understanding that, in many cases, institutions are working against significant social and professional attitudes, and frankly, the reality of the marketplace. They will not always be able to recruit the kinds of students they want to because of the competition.”

The incentives built into an increasingly tuition-based higher education system also pose challenges, teacher educators acknowledge.

“It is profitable, certainly in the for-profit realm, to produce as many teachers as you can,” says Arthur E. Wise, the president emeritus of the Washington-based National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. “Frankly, [that incentive] exists even in the public sector, because training a teacher is still pretty cheap, the way it’s practiced.”

Best and Brightest

In the United States, the idea of recruiting the best and brightest is complicated by the sheer numbers of candidates needed for a professional workforce the size of public K-12 teaching, which counts about 3.2 million individuals in all.

School districts face the challenge of balancing increased selectivity with the need to recruit enough teachers to meet demand. That is especially true in higher-poverty schools and districts, where turnover is typically higher and recruiting more difficult, notes Matthew Di Carlo, a senior fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank that receives support from the American Federation of Teachers.

“You can’t quite recruit teachers the way you recruit Navy SEALS or traders at Goldman Sachs. Those fields require comparatively fewer candidates,” Di Carlo says. “We need to be careful about applying this small-scale thinking to a very large, diverse, and geographically dispersed labor market.”

One of the particular downsides to the teaching profession in the United States, economists point out, is the relatively low starting compensation relative to comparable occupations, and the many years it takes to achieve a maximum salary. And while few prospective teachers go into the profession for the salary, wages in the U.S. are generally associated with prestige.

OECD data show that U.S. salaries for teachers with 15 years of experience are, on average, just 60 percent of the full-time earnings for 24 to 64 year olds with college educations, compared with 80 percent in other OECD countries. Meanwhile, studies suggest that, in the United States, the most highly skilled college graduates who select teaching over other occupations for which they’re qualified can forfeit thousands of dollars in wages.

Here again, international practices provide stimulating food for thought. In a relatively short time frame, Chile’s performance on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, an international exam, improved enough to surpass its South American neighbors’. Though not a top-performing country, it now approaches the mean score of all countries affiliated with the OECD.

Chile’s dramatic improvements are thought to be partly related to its investments in salaries, which were gradually tied to reforms, including a new teacher-evaluation system in 1996, and later, several bonus-pay programs, the World Bank’s Vegas says.

See Also

Read more about preparing prospective teachers in this Quality Counts 2012 article: “Teacher Training a Careful Balancing Act”

Between 1990 and 2007, the country raised teacher salaries by more than 150 percent; during that period, applications to teacher education programs increased by 39 percent, and the average score of entrance exams increased by 60 percent, according to research on the country’s labor force.

As for the United States, a market-research analysis by McKinsey & Co., a New York City-headquartered consultancy, concluded that if teacher salaries here began at $65,000 and maxed out at $150,000, the number of high-performing college graduates who would consider the profession would rise from 14 percent to 68 percent. (Beginning teacher salaries in the United States average about $39,000 and rise to $67,000, the report states.)

Raises for all teachers could be prohibitively expensive in the United States, given its current fiscal state. The alternative approach—salary differentiation targeted to specifics at certain career milestones, subject taught, performance, or other criteria—has won the support of economists, who view the nation’s current compensation system as too flat and inefficient.

“You can’t repeal the laws of supply and demand, however much you think you can,” says Michael Podgursky, a professor of economics at the University of Missouri, in Columbia, who urges, for instance, higher pay for math and science educators. “The kind of skills these teachers have demands a market price.”

Such efforts have traditionally been frowned on by teachers’ unions. But several new experiments, in cities such as Pittsburgh and Baltimore, are beginning to restructure teachers’ base compensation to identify top-performers, and those plans have been approved by the local unions.

The prestige associated with the teaching profession, as many teachers volubly remind policymakers, comes from more than just higher salaries. Teachers enter the profession for its intrinsic rewards, such as influencing young people. Their reasons for leaving the profession often have to do with feeling as though factors outside their control are impinging on that goal.

Research on teacher mobility, for instance, shows that teachers’ decisions about whether to stay in a specific school are more strongly linked to working conditions, including the quality of their principal, as well as characteristics of the student body, than to their salaries.

In Wessling’s view, one of the biggest differences between teaching and high-prestige professions such as medicine is the perceived lack of trust in educators and absence of professional autonomy in schools.

Nurses and doctors are vested with the power to collaborate and are trusted to diagnose and solve problems; teachers, by contrast, often work in isolation, and the profession in general offers few opportunities for leadership or advancement, she notes.

“The culture of schools is really powerful,” Wessling says. “Amazing teachers can come into a school, but if that culture is so stifling, all their creativity can go unused.”

Many of the highest-performing systems have gradually helped schools and educators build their skills, but without a strict, top-down approach. It is the key lesson from Ontario, according to comparative case studies conducted by analysts for the OECD.

Beginning in 2003, the province’s education ministers began crafting reforms to raise students’ literacy and numeracy skills. They chose not to use an approach that, for example, required specific time allotments for certain reading activities, fearing that the best teachers would find such an approach off-putting. Instead, the province’s education leaders convened teams of expert researchers on those topics to build capacity in each school, says Levin, the former deputy education minister.

Lagging Behind

American public school teachers with 15 years of experience do worse in terms of salary than their colleagues in a broad swath of industrialized nations when compared with college-educated workers overall, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The difference is most stark at the high school level, where experienced teachers in the United States earn about a third less than the average salary for college-educated workers among some two dozen countries surveyed.
The chart shows how the salaries of high school teachers with 15 years of experience stack up against the average of all full-time, college-educated workers ages 25 to 64 among a group of nations surveyed by the OECD.

Source: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

“We emphasized consistency of practice around classrooms and did a lot of work to create teams of teachers in the schools,” he says. “You get commitment to the practices because teachers believe in it. It’s about building people’s sense of professional commitment and skills.”

The percentage of students reaching basic reading and math goals in the province has risen from 55 percent to about 70 percent since 2004. Importantly, the changes also appear to have stemmed a teacher shortage by making the profession more appealing, Mr. Levin says.

Opportunities to improve one’s craft are better integrated into the school day in several other top-performing countries, too. Teachers in OECD countries spend 700 hours a year, on average, engaged in face-to-face instruction of students; in South Korea and Finland, where much of the school day is spent planning and refining lessons with colleagues, that figure drops to 600 hours. Teachers in the United States, by contrast, average about 1,100 hours a year.

Countries such as Singapore couple professional development with a career ladder, so that teachers identified as being especially effective are given opportunities to advance to positions in which they are given formal responsibility for coaching and helping colleagues improve.

Take, for example, Japan and China’s Shanghai province. They use “lesson study” as a form of professional development. Teachers watch a colleague teach a lesson and then meet as a group to discuss ways in which it could have been strengthened. In such a system, teachers whose skills fall behind both have incentives to improve and higher-skilled role models to emulate.

The McKinsey group has identified a handful of school systems in the United States that have developed similar practices around professional development, including the Long Beach, Calif., district.

Current Efforts

Interest in teacher-quality policy in the United States has increased considerably under the Obama administration, which has put it at the front of the agenda.

The administration has emphasized changes to teacher-evaluation systems as the central component for improving teaching, its theory holding that establishing common definitions of good teaching and measuring performance will help knit together other aspects of the profession. For instance, such systems could identify top-performers for promotion or extra pay, help improve the relevancy of professional development, and identify which teachers should be counseled out of the profession. A handful of districts, including Hillsborough County, Fla.; Pittsburgh; and New Haven, Conn., are beginning to institute these systems.

Some scholars, such as Goldhaber of the University of Washington, see promise in the movement toward improved teacher evaluation. He believes that such initiatives could build constructively on the nation’s back-ended teacher-selection system. Research suggests, for instance, that teaching performance in the first few years on the job is a significant predictor of future performance.

The evaluations could be tied to other ideas to boost the profession’s prestige, such as a national teaching certificate to recognize those identified as being especially effective, he said.

“The fact that we have 50 different licensing regimes makes a teaching credential less valuable because it’s less portable,” Goldhaber says.

Yet observers say many nuanced issues remain to be worked out before evaluations can effectively be used to improve teacher performance.

“The design and implementation of new teacher evaluations—what they consist of, how they are used, and whether the results are presented to teachers in a useful manner, will determine their success or failure,” says Di Carlo of the Shanker Institute, who has blogged on a number of occasions about those issues. “I’m concerned that these details are taking a back seat, when they should be driving the process and debate.”

The move toward incorporating student test scores into evaluations has been hugely controversial in the United States, and one where there is little international precedent. Though other nations do look at student work and some, such as Singapore, review student scores, standardized tests generally receive less weight than other sources of information, including parent surveys, inspections, and peer review. Indeed, teacher evaluation is generally broader in scope and less formalized in countries where much professional accountability comes from colleagues rather than outside monitors.

For Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT, such examples offer a frustrating contrast.

“We talk about the conclusions from these international reports, but we don’t dissect and deconstruct them in a way that follows how they got to those conclusions,” she says. “Singapore has embedded professional development in evaluation so it becomes about improving practice. That’s something we should learn from.”

She contends the evaluation systems currently being created in the United States “are not about board of education responsibility, school superintendent responsibility, student responsibility, or parents’ responsibility. They’re only about teacher and principal responsibility.”

For her part, Teacher of the Year Wessling is unsure where the teacher-evaluation discussion will lead, but she believes that attempts to raise the prestige of the profession will need to be comprehensive—a point of view that reflects the conclusion of most international-comparison studies.

She adds that teachers must play a role in the transformation, both by making their voices heard by those who set policy, and by setting an example in their own schools of how teachers can reshape individual school environments to reflect the professional practices of teachers in the best-performing countries.

After all, she reasons, cultural change begins from within.

“Teachers and educators can’t subscribe to this outside perception of what we are,” she said. “The responsibility for defining the profession is ours.”

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education.

In March 2024, Education Week announced the end of the Quality Counts report after 25 years of serving as a comprehensive K-12 education scorecard. In response to new challenges and a shifting landscape, we are refocusing our efforts on research and analysis to better serve the K-12 community. For more information, please go here for the full context or learn more about the EdWeek Research Center.


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