At the end of last week I had the privilege of attending (as an observer) an international summit on the teaching profession in New York City. The summit, hosted by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, invited delegations of 15 countries that are either high performers or fast improvers on the international PISA exam. PISA tests 15-year-olds on broad measures of literacy in reading, science, and mathematics. US performance on PISA, as on other international exams, is mediocre.
The purpose of the summit was to discuss strategies for building a high quality teaching force. All the countries agreed that the quality of teachers has the biggest in-school impact on student learning. Virtually all of them agreed that one important way to build quality in the teaching force is to build the prestige of the teaching profession.
Building the esteem in which teachers are held creates a virtuous circle. Top-performing countries such as Finland and Singapore draw their teaching candidates from the top third of their high school classes. In Finland, there are ten applicants for every available space in national teaching colleges. Both countries work to make sure that teaching salaries are competitive with salaries of other college graduates. In Singapore, teachers are paid a competitive stipend while in training, along with regular bonuses and performance bonuses while they teach. In both countries, teachers are given a lot of autonomy. They mentor and evaluate one another to maintain high quality within their schools.
So the cycle becomes: stipends while in school and competitive salaries afterward ---> highly selective entry criteria ---> highly qualified, ambitious teachers ---> training and opportunities for advancement ---> teaching becomes a sought-after and respected profession, leading to stipends, high salaries, good working conditions, rigorous peer standards, and top applicants.
Singapore and Finland are small countries with centralized decision making and only one (Singapore) or eight (Finland) teacher training institutions, so common decisions about standards and compensation are possible. In the US we have hundreds of teacher training institutions along with alternate pathways; teacher training is often regarded as a low-cost "profit center" for universities, which motivates them to keep entrance requirements low and enrollments high. We train more elementary teachers and gym teachers than we need while we have systemic shortages of qualified math, science, and foreign language teachers.
The public knows that many US teachers come from the lower half of the class. Because the public lacks faith in these teachers' knowledge and professional skills, we often ask them to adhere to a lock-step curriculum. We spend lots of time trying to figure out how to weed out bad teachers, we imagine that they don't work hard, and we resent their benefits. Who would want to become a teacher?
How can we change this picture, especially in a time of constrained funding? One thing I think experience shows is that raising the bar to entry makes a course of action more attractive to high performers. Being chosen for Teach for America, which accepts only about ten percent of applicants, has become a mark of prestige for high-achieving college graduates. The same applies to the rigorous Boston Teacher Residency, a year-long, stipend-paying master's degree program in teaching that accepts only 13% of applicants.
After the conference, my family took the subway to Brooklyn to see a play. We got talking with a young African-American woman who sat near us. It turned out she was a math major who worked in industry doing statistical analysis for a couple of years before deciding to go into teaching. She was recruited by Math for America, a non-profit that is working to build a corps of excellent math teachers in cities around the country. This young woman is receiving a full scholarship along with a stipend during her training year. Then she'll receive mentoring, professional development, and a supplemental stipend during her first four years of teaching in New York City.
This young woman, who is going to be a middle school math teacher, was bright, bubbly, and enthusiastic. She bonded quickly with my seventh grade son. He would love to have her as a teacher. Coming out of Math for America she should have no trouble being hired, and she has a good chance of becoming a leader in her profession. I already hold her in esteem.
I used to think programs like Math for America were an expensive, piecemeal approach to improving teaching and learning in the US. Now I'm beginning to think that these programs may be the pilot lights showing what we can accomplish if we focus on recruiting, supporting, and rewarding teachers of the highest quality.
[For more on this topic, check here.]