Next US education reform: Higher teacher quality

A new study shows teacher quality is the most important lesson that America can learn from top-ranked education countries such as Finland and Singapore. Teacher unions and states will need to work on this together.

Compared with more than 70 economies worldwide, America’s high school students continue to rank only average in reading and science, and below average in math. But this sorry record for a wealthy nation can be broken if the US focuses on recruiting and keeping first-rate teachers.

That’s the conclusion of a new paper that looks at the latest achievement tests of 15-year-olds in the 34 developed countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as well as many other nations.

America has been trying to raise its academic standards for more than two decades, an effort that cannot be abandoned in tough times. But it can learn more from other countries about the difficult task of teacher training, selection, and compensation – even as cash-strapped states take on teacher unions.

The government-union wrangling would be less if both sides focused on quality investments in better teachers. The goal is not debatable. Studies show that matching quality teachers with disadvantaged students is an effective way to close the black-white achievement gap. Good teachers are more effective than small class sizes, for instance.

For starters, the United States needs to increase its pool of quality teachers. Almost half of its K-12 teachers come from the bottom third of college classes. Classroom leaders such as Singapore, South Korea, and Finland select from the top ranks. In Finland, only 1 in 10 applicants is accepted into teacher training.

Part of the hurdle in the US is compensation. Teaching offers job security but not great pay compared with other professions that top college graduates might choose. As states tussle over budgets, one solution might be to lower teacher benefits and end tenure while bulking up salaries.

And yet pay isn’t the only consideration. Last year, 11 percent of graduates from US elite colleges applied to the federally funded Teach for America program. Participants teach in low-achieving rural and urban districts for two years.

In Finland, teachers earn only about what their American counterparts do (US teacher pay starts, on average, at $39,000). The difference is that in Finland, teaching is a high-status, well-respected job, right up there with doctoring and lawyering.

Another US hurdle is teacher training. Many states require a master’s degree in education in order to be certified to teach. This automatically locks out a talented population such as second-career experts in a field who don’t want to invest the time or money in a graduate degree that’s often short on classroom skills and long on pedagogy.

President Obama’s “Race to the Top” fund encourages states through competitive grants to open up alternative, effective routes to teacher certification. Hopefully, that fund will survive budget cutting (same for Teach for America).

Public schools won’t be able to attract and keep high quality teachers if they don’t reward and develop them once they get into the classroom.

That’s next to impossible given the standard operating procedure of teacher unions. As the nation is witnessing, a rigid rule such as last-hired, first-fired lops off enthusiastic newcomers in favor of those with seniority. Experience is important in education, but it does not always add up to quality. Performance must be the determiner.

Unions need to accept that the main goal is high teacher performance and student outcomes, not job preservation. That’s what the teacher union did in Ontario, Canada, according to the paper based on the OECD findings.

Teachers in Ontario are heavily organized. Yet, in 2003, the union and the premier of Ontario reached a grand bargain based on the need to elevate student achievement.

“The educators, through their union, agreed to accept responsibility for their own learning and the learning of their students; the government agreed to supply all of the necessary support,” according to the report.

The paper, called “What the U.S. Can Learn from the World’s Most Successful Education Reform Efforts,” says that Ontario students subsequently shot up from the bottom to the top of test scores.

Investing in high quality teaching is necessary to boost US economic competitiveness. The study argues that the US also needs to elevate the teaching profession to one of high status and respect. But respect doesn’t come overnight. Government and educators will have to earn it by working together to improve teacher quality.

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