Teaching Profession Opinion

What American Education Can Learn from Top Performers on Teacher Quality

By Marc Tucker — April 27, 2017 9 min read
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About a year ago, I gave my blog readers an interim report on a very large international comparative study of teacher quality that our Center on International Education Benchmarking had funded a global team of scholars headed by Linda Darling-Hammond to do. The case studies were released this week as was Darling-Hammond’s cross-case analysis. Both are available from Jossey-Bass/Wiley. The cross-case analysis, summing up the whole study as well as all the other products is called Empowered Educators: How High-Performing Systems Shape Teaching Quality Around the World.

On June 6, NCEE is hosting a national meeting at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. at which leading figures in American education will present and discuss the report. The agenda for that meeting as well as the information you need to sign up to observe and participate via the web will shortly be posted here. In addition, the Empowered Educators study produced a cornucopia of videos, policy documents and detailed descriptions of policies, procedures, criteria, standards and so on from the countries studied that will enable both policy makers and practitioners to adapt and implement policies and practices described in the primary reports. That material will soon be available on the NCEE website along with links to the publishers of the major report.

I do not want to steal Darling-Hammond’s thunder or allow you to think that if you read this blog, you don’t need to read the study’s books and briefs or attend or watch the event we have planned. You owe it to yourself to do those things. My aim here is to share some observations made on the basis of both this massive research project and our own research on the same topic over the years that might whet your appetite for Empowered Educators.

Last year, we took a team from our organization to Shanghai to help them understand how that giant province of China could have done so well on the PISA league tables of student achievement. Among the people we introduced them to was Minxuan Zhang, who played a leading role in designing and managing Shanghai’s education system. Zhang, a former teacher and recently the president of one of the most important universities in Shanghai, had been carefully groomed for a succession of ever-more-responsible leadership positions over a period of decades. One of his early professional development assignments was a posting to England, at government expense, to a leading British university. While there, he told us, he noted that there was a career ladder for university teachers, starting at instructor and going all the way up to full professorships with endowed chairs, step-by-step. It was clear to him that this structure provided powerful incentives for aspiring faculty to work hard to climb the ladder of status, opportunity and pay, not just for the money but no less in order to earn the recognition and acclaim that came with the ascent. “If,” he said, “this is good for university faculty why should it not be just as good for school faculty?”

Years later, when he got the chance as deputy chair of the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission, he developed just such a system for Shanghai He looked at us with a twinkle in his eye and said something like, “You know, isn’t it odd that you are a capitalist country and you treat your teachers in a Communist way, as if all teachers are alike and interchangeable, and here we are, organizing our schools so that teachers have real careers, rewarding the most capable teachers with more responsibility, authority, compensation and status!”

The twinkle did not disappear from his eye when he went on to observe that they had designed their teacher career ladder so that, as teachers moved toward the top, they would be expected to lead teams of teachers doing serious instructional development work in the schools, researching the effects of their development projects on student achievement, writing research papers on those projects that get reviewed in university-run, refereed journals and then going on the road to talk about their research with teachers all over greater Shanghai and sometimes all over China. He told us that the they had decided to call the position at the very top of the teacher career ladder Professor-Master Teacher and to accord all the privileges of full professorship in the university to the teachers who attained that rare status, although they continued to teach in their school as their primary assignment. “After all,” he said, “if they have done everything that a university professor is expected to do, why shouldn’t they have the title and the privileges?”

Very few teachers get that far in the system, but Zhang had made his point. Teachers in Shanghai were not going to be treated like blue-collar workers, interchangeable cogs in an industrial system of teaching, holding the same job at the end of their teaching career as they did on their first day on the job. The most prestigious roles in improving teaching were not going to be assigned solely to university professors who may never have taught, or for that matter, ever set foot in a school classroom. Teachers in Shanghai were going to be treated like real professionals in high-status professional fields and they were going to be given the tools, the career opportunities, the compensation, the recognition and the status that come with a professionally structured occupation.

There may have been a twinkle in Minxuan Zhang’s eye, but he was deadly serious as he told us this story. Creating a fully professional role for teachers in the Shanghai system was at the very heart of the strategy that Shanghai used to create one of the world’s most successful education systems.

Which brings me to another story. Years earlier, we had spent a day in the company of the then-provost of the National War College and two senior officials who had held that position earlier. We told them we wanted their help in thinking through how the military experience could inform a better approach to the training of school principals in the United States. They began by sharing the military’s basic approach to leadership training. It is an up-or-out system structured as a career ladder shaped as a pyramid. As one goes up the ranks, the numbers of officers at each rank thin out. The decisions about who goes up the ladder are made by promotion boards of senior officers. They take two things into account: how well the candidate has done in his or her current job and how well he or she has done in the training being taken for the next job. It can be structured that way because the training is neatly matched to the career ladder. One knows what the next step is and training for that step is prescribed, though it is often supplemented by other experiences. But, they explained, the whole system rests on a foundation of a strong pool from which the candidates are selected at each stage. Officers at every level are expected to be constantly on the alert, to pick out people at the level below them who they think might be strong candidates for leadership at higher levels and then to groom them for leadership by giving them a succession of assignments, coupled with the appropriate training, that will enable them to grow, the very thing that had happened to Minxuan Zhang. Officers at every level, when considered for promotion, are judged in part on their skill and effectiveness at identifying promising leaders and grooming them for more responsibility.

When they explained all this, the officers asked us to tell them how we did the analogous functions in the public elementary and secondary education system. We explained that, to become a principal in the United States, one typically had to get a certificate based on attending a graduate-level program in school administration in a university. Those who got the certificate could volunteer for an opening when one came up for a principalship. The school district did not nominate people for graduate training, did not identify promising teacher leaders and groom them for leadership positions, nor did the school of education make any effort to determine whether the applicant for admission to graduate programs in school administration had any of the attributes of a leader or any leadership experience. There was, we realized, no pool, just people who volunteered irrespective of promise, experience or aptitude.

And so it went. We realized that we were describing a system that is not a system, at least in the sense that the military has a system. There is no approved career ladder, with an ordered succession of jobs and responsibilities, arranged in a thoughtful progression. There is no array of successive training requirements, matched to the next job in the succession. There are no written standards for promotion in the system. There is no standard expectation that candidates for promotions among leaders in the public school system demonstrate a strong record of success in identifying and grooming future leaders.

The three provosts looked at one another and then at us and said, a bit mournfully, that they were sorry that they could not help us. We did not have a structure that would enable them to help us.

Early on in our visits to Singapore under the careful tutelage of Sing Kong Lee, then the head of Singapore’s famed National Institute of Education, we examined the way Singapore had gone about training their school leaders. It struck us as one of the most thoughtful and powerful conceptions of school leadership training we had seen anywhere in the world. Parts of it reminded us of what we had seen in Shanghai. Yes, Lee told us, they had looked at Shanghai as they designed their system and found some very valuable things there. But their main inspiration had come from a careful study of the system used by the American military! Sure enough, they had focused very carefully on what they had to do to create a very strong pool from which to select their future principals. They strongly emphasized the responsibility of managers at every level to identify talent and groom it over the years. They had created a very well-developed and defined career ladder and had also developed a matching set of courses that candidates had to take as they went up that ladder. Like the U.S. military, they made sure that the curriculum matched the design of the system the principals and other leaders were expected to run, and in particular provided the kinds of skills these leaders would need to manage teachers in the same way high-status professionals are managed in the high-status professions.

And that, of course, provoked our team to ask what we might be able to do to bring to the United States an approach to training and development of school leaders that had actually been developed in the United States, but never implemented in our schools.

These stories were intended to convey at least a little of the power of international comparative research and to stimulate your interest in learning more in particular about what the top-performing countries in the world are doing about improving the quality of their teachers and school leaders. I hope I have had at least some measure of success. Go take a look at Empowered Educators.

The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.