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An International Perspective on Teacher Quality

Issues of teacher quality are very much front and center on the American education reform agenda.  In fact, there is broad agreement among the leading industrial nations that teacher quality is a primary determinant of student achievement.  

But that is where the agreement ends.  Finland, Canada, Singapore and Shanghai, all of which significantly outperform the United States, appear to share one view of teacher quality, and the United States embraces another.  It is very likely that this difference in strategy accounts for a significant portion of the difference in student performance between our countries and those just mentioned.

In a nutshell, these other countries have decided that their goal of improving student performance across the board cannot be accomplished without improving teacher quality across the board.  Though there are important variations across these countries, the consensus strategy is to greatly raise the standards for entering teacher education institutions, making sure that all teachers have a firm command of the subject or subjects they will teach, assuring that they have an equally firm grasp of the craft of teaching, moving the preparation of their teachers from the third-tier, low status institutions into their first tier universities, paying their teachers at levels comparable to the compensation for the high status professions, and providing their teachers with the kind of professional autonomy characteristic of those professions.

The ratio of applicants to acceptances in the teachers colleges in these countries is on the order of anywhere between 6 to 1 to 10 to 1.  They do not have teacher shortages because they have a surplus of highly qualified teachers. They have organized their elementary schools so that most teachers teach either mathematics and science or language arts and social studies. Then they require that their elementary teachers minor in the two subjects they will teach. They typically devote a full year to teaching their prospective teachers their craft, either in the university they train in or during a mandated initial year of service with light teaching duties under the close supervision of a master teacher.  Many make sure that their teachers have strong research skills before they join the teaching force.  Most make sure that initial teaching pay is comparable at least to the initial pay of engineers.

Not all of these countries do all of these things, but that is the trajectory along which they are moving.  These countries are moving teaching from a semi-professional status to being one of the high status professions.  That is why it has become such a desirable occupation in these countries, why there is a surplus of highly qualified candidates, and, ultimately, a large part of the reason that student performance is so high.

In this country, however, the imperative to improve teacher quality has taken a different turn.  Starting from the proposition that the quality of one's teacher greatly influences a student's performance, we concluded that the appropriate response is to identify which teachers add a lot of value to student's education and which teachers add little or none, and, having done so, to reward the former and get rid of the latter.  Where other countries put their emphasis on doing everything necessary to recruit their teachers from among their most able young people, the United States has put its faith in its accountability systems.  We appear to focus on getting rid of the worst, while they are focusing on increasing the supply of the best.  We routinely waive our very low standards in the face of recurrent teacher shortages while they don't have to waive their high standards because they have an ample supply of highly qualified teachers.

The top-performing countries have discovered a virtuous circle.  Because they pay their teachers well, insist on high standards for entry into teachers colleges, and also insist that their teachers know their subject and master the craft of teaching, they get very good teachers.  Because they have very good teachers, their students perform at the top of the world's league tables.  Because the students perform so well, the public is willing to pay their teachers even more and trust them to do a great job.  That raises the status of teachers even further and enables these countries to recruit even better teachers and so student performance improves even more, and so on.

But, in the United States, we pay our teachers poorly, content ourselves with very low standards for getting into teachers colleges, prepare them mostly in third tier higher education institutions, don't insist that our teachers really master the subjects they will teach, and take pride in permitting people to teach after only a few weeks or months of crash training in their craft.  So we are alarmed when our students fail to compete with their international peers and decide to get tough on our teachers and their unions.  Young people who can go into the high status professions see teachers' already low salaries being frozen, punitive accountability systems being implemented and teacher status plummeting so they choose another career with better pay and higher status.  All of which combine to produce lower student performance, so the accountability system ratchets up another notch, increasing the demand for teachers even as the supply of the most capable teachers declines, ensuring that standards for teachers declines further, further depressing student performance.  That is a vicious circle of teacher quality and it is the one on which we are embarked.  

It is not too late to adopt the policies of our more successful competitors. 
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