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Teaching Profession Opinion

Teaching in a Flat World

By Robert Rothman — March 18, 2015 3 min read
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By now, many American educators must be tired of hearing about other countries and their education systems. Ever since the release of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results in 2013, millions of pixels have been spilled on the wonders of Finland, Canada, Singapore, and other countries that routinely outperform the United States.

True, those countries do tend to do well on the assessment, and their results tend to be equitable--there is a smaller gap between high performers and low performers. But the purpose of looking at other countries is not to beat up on the United States or to suggest that this country should simply adopt their policies wholesale. Rather, the aim is to learn from them so that educators and policy makers here can move ahead more smartly. International examples broaden the view of what’s possible and can expand the policy toolbox. And these examples show how ideas work in practice.

A forthcoming book, Teaching in a Flat World, edited by Linda Darling-Hammond and myself, takes a close look at teacher policies in Finland, Ontario, and Singapore. We also examine some successful policies in the United States, such as those adopted by Connecticut and North Carolina in the 1990s (which have since been curtailed). The goal is to draw lessons from these examples for ways that American policies can strengthen the quality of teachers and teaching and make it possible for all students to have access to high-quality instruction.

These systems are worth examining because their high performance was hard-won--they all made a concerted effort to strengthen their education systems. And they did so by focusing on improving the quality of teachers and teaching. In Finland’s case, this meant strengthening teacher preparation; in Ontario’s, supporting teachers’ continued learning; and in Singapore’s, providing opportunities for teachers to develop and grow professionally.

What do these systems show? We draw six lessons:


  • It takes a system. In all of these systems, teacher development is systemic. They do not try a single policy, like teacher evaluation, as a way of addressing instructional quality. Although they started with different emphases, they all recognized that supporting teachers from recruitment and preparation through induction, professional learning, and retention are all necessary for a strong profession.
  • Get it right from the start. Strong initial preparation is key. These systems recruit top performers into teaching and provide rigorous preparation, to ensure that teachers are ready to teach on day one.
  • Make teaching an attractive profession. Teachers are highly regarded in these systems, and they show it in a number of ways--from statements by national leaders to the inclusion of teachers on policymaking bodies. Pay helps, but is not the deciding factor.
  • Invest in continual learning. The systems provide considerable resources to ensure that teachers hone their skills and learn new approaches. One key resource is time--in these systems, teachers have time to work together and learn collaboratively.
  • Putting sufficient resources where they are most needed. Unlike in the United States, one of four countries that spends more on high-income students than on low-income students, these systems recognize that students with the greatest challenges deserve greater resources.
  • Recruit and develop high-quality leadership. School leaders in these systems are true instructional leaders and have the experience and skills to lead a high-quality teaching force.

While these systems get good results, they are not resting on their laurels. They are continually evaluating their policies and making changes. But these lessons can apply to any state that is serious about strengthening instructional quality. Educators and policy makers might want to look beyond the U.S. borders for ideas.

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