The scene is a televised debate, and the question is how to improve the quality of the nation’s teaching force.
On one side of the argument, a university scholar argues for raising the professional requirements for entry into the classroom. On the other, a top government education official, waving a thick report from a national teaching commission, contends that raising new barriers to entry will keep qualified candidates out of the classroom.
Although the argument may have a familiar ring for Americans, it actually took place thousands of miles away in Hong Kong, according to Kwok Chan Lai, the academic who was at the center of that discussion.
Mr. Lai is part of a study comparing the licensing and training processes that elementary and secondary teachers undergo in the United States and five Asian nations—China, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Thailand—as well as Hong Kong. As a “special administrative region” of China, Hong Kong has an education system that is autonomous under a policy known as “one country, two systems.”
Three years into the collaboration, the researchers are discovering that there may be as many similarities as differences in how educators and policymakers in the United States and the Asian nations involved think about improving teaching.
“At this point, we’re kind of making the assumption that qualifications matter, and we’re just testing it out,” said Richard M. Ingersoll, the University of Pennsylvania researcher who coordinates the project. Though still a year away from wrapping up their work, four members of the study team presented some of their findings here earlier this month during the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.
In all seven places, the international scholars noted, experts are worried about inequitable distributions of qualified teachers—even in nations where students score high on international mathematics and science exams or where teachers are in plentiful supply.
“Our question is: Are teachers professionals?” said Ee-gyeong Kim, the director of the office of teacher-policy research at the Korean Educational Development Institute, a government-funded research center in Seoul, South Korea. Even though South Korean students tend to score high on multinational exams, she said, “the public says it’s not because of the education system. It’s because of parents. People believe our education system is the worst in the world.”
To keep potentially ineffective teachers from setting foot in a classroom, all seven education systems require would-be teachers to pass licensing exams and obtain certificates. Only two of the systems studied—those of the United States and Hong Kong—have alternative-certification processes by which unlicensed teachers can teach while still in training.
But the nations differ in the educational requirements they set for the job. And, ironically, some of the lowest minimum educational levels for the profession were in some of those high-scoring Asian systems.
For instance, in Hong Kong and Singapore, an elementary-level teacher can gain entry into the profession with the equivalent of an associate’s degree, according to the researchers. In China, a high school diploma is the minimum requirement for teaching at the elementary level. In comparison, prospective elementary teachers in Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and the United States need a bachelor’s degree or better to qualify for the job.
But the researchers also pointed out that there can be a difference between job requirements on paper and common practice. Hong Kong teachers, for example, typically exceed the required educational levels for the job in that part of the world. Sixty-six percent of elementary teachers and 90 percent of secondary teachers in Hong Kong have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
“I think it’s because they get a salary bump after five years of teaching, but they can’t get it without additional training,” said Mr. Lai, who is head of strategic and academic planning for the Hong Kong Institute of Education, a government-funded research center that operates autonomously. “Also, we generally have more university graduates now, and there is more peer pressure.”
Countries vary, too, in how choosy they are about who is permitted to enter the teacher-training pipeline—sometimes even within the same country. In South Korea, for example, competition for a spot in one of the 13 state-run institutes that train elementary teachers is intense, Ms. Kim said.
Yet students hoping to pursue a career in secondary education can choose from among 368 different state-run teaching institutes or apply to a teacher-training program in an independent university. Ms. Kim said civil-service job protections in Korea also make teaching a sought-after profession, especially in times of economic uncertainty.
Singapore’s teacher education students are among that nation’s top third academically. They attend a single, government-run teacher-training institute and earn a salary while they study, according to Mr. Ingersoll.
The researchers also found that all six nations and Hong Kong struggle, in varying degrees, with the problem of teachers teaching out of field—taking on, in other words, subjects for which they have no specialized training.
But the problem of out-of-field teaching seems most acute in the United States, said Mr. Ingersoll, a professor of sociology and education at his Philadelphia-based university’s graduate school of education. At the secondary level, he said, 38 percent of U.S. math teachers, 35 percent of English teachers, 30 percent of social studies teachers, and 29 percent of science teachers teach a subject in which they neither majored nor minored in college.
Thailand’s problem on that front is second in severity only to the United States’. In Thailand, the percentages of secondary teachers teaching subjects for which they have no special college-level training range from 15 percent in science to 26 percent in both math and social studies.
In Japan, on the other hand, no more than 1 percent of teachers teach outside their fields.
“The idea of misassigning teachers is very frowned upon in Japan,” said Mr. Ingersoll.
‘A Management Problem’
The percentages of teachers teaching out of field in South Korea are also negligible, except in science. A quarter of all science teachers in that country have neither majored nor minored in a scientific discipline, according to study data.
If the study can help policymakers in each of the participating nations pinpoint the sources of unqualified teachers in their classrooms, the solutions might suggest themselves, Mr. Ingersoll said.
If, for example, licensing or educational requirements are too low, he said, policymakers can raise them. If the entry requirements are adequate, but too few teachers can meet them, better training opportunities may be needed. Assigning teachers to subjects that don’t match their qualifications is yet another matter, Mr. Ingersoll added.
“That’s not a requirement problem,” he said. “That’s not a training problem. That’s a management problem.”