Steven Paine had an aha moment while visiting Singapore last spring. The superintendent of West Virginia's schools was there with other education leaders to see what makes schooling in the city-state so successful, particularly in math and science.
When he asked a Singapore official about the basis of their math curriculum, she cited a standards framework put out by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics – in the United States. West Virginia's curriculum takes guidance from the same source, Mr. Paine says. "So the question remains, why is it that they lead the world in student achievement? I think it's because of their teacher quality," he says.
Only the top third of secondary-school graduates in Singapore can apply for teacher training. The National Institute of Education winnows that field down more and pays a living stipend while they learn to teach. Each year, teachers take an additional 100 hours of paid professional development. And they spend substantial time outside the classroom to plan with colleagues.
Not only is teaching an honored profession in Singapore, but it's also paid as well as science and engineering careers, according to a report by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and Pearson, the groups that organized the Singapore conference for representatives from 13 nations.
"What I really came away with was that we need to invest in a structure to support high-quality teaching," Paine says. "In West Virginia, we're calling that 'building the back porch' – that place where teachers can come together and discuss innovative ideas ... [and] engage in research-based professional development." He's seen a number of low-performing schools improve after a concerted effort along these lines.
A similar gathering will bring state school officers to Finland this fall, to "triangulate ... [and ask,] What can we learn that's similar from these two high-performing countries?" says Scott Montgomery, deputy executive director of CCSSO in Washington. "We can't control every aspect of the system the way they can in Singapore.... [But] at the state level, a lot of our members were saying, we can control university preparation programs [and] some licensure systems."
Leaders at the school-district level have also brought home insights from Singapore. Linda Mariotti, an assistant superintendent at the Granite School District in Salt Lake City, was particularly impressed with the career paths for educators there. One path is for teachers who want to advance but stay in the classroom, which Ms. Mariotti sees a need for in her district. So she's in discussions with a local university about how to create a master's degree (which leads to higher pay) for teacher-leaders.
Mariotti traveled to Singapore as part of the board of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, a nonprofit in Alexandria, Va. She wishes the US would shift more toward a recognition she saw in Singapore that teaching is a profession – "You develop this craft, this art, this expertise over time and in an ongoing way."
In the US, especially when districts face teacher shortages, Mariotti says, there's a tendency to try to bring people into the profession from business or other areas "with perhaps a few weeks of professional development." She adds, "That's based on the philosophy ... that anybody can teach as long as you have some [subject] expertise."