US needs to produce better teachers

Judith Kleinfeld

A friend of mine is looking for a good school for his daughter. He has seen a lot of excellent teaching, particularly in private schools.

He observed one private school teacher who did not have the usual teaching credentials but he did have a Ph.D. in mathematics. He made mathematical concepts crystal clear, and his students were performing far above their grade level.

My friend's search for the finest education for his daughter led to his discovery of a study called "Closing the talent gap: Attracting and retaining top-third graduates to careers in education" (September, 2010) by the highly respected McKinsey and Company, which does international research for government and big corporations.

This report analyzes education in three countries which produce students who score at the top in international tests -- Finland, Singapore, and South Korea.

The high quality of teachers made the difference, everywhere. Decades of educational research has come to the same conclusion.

In real estate, the saying goes, there are three rules: Location, location, location!" You can say the same about schools. What is important is "Teachers, teachers, teachers!"

How do we find or create high quality teachers?

The McKinsey Report analyzes the way teacher preparation systems work in these three high achieving countries and tries to identify common factors:

1) Selective admission to teacher training: Take Finland, the country which comes out the highest in international tests of science, reading and mathematics. "Teachers are required to obtain a master's degree in a five-year program, and applicants are generally drawn from the top 20 percent of high school graduates." A rigorous selection process follows, based on many other factors.

"As a result, only about one in ten applicants is selected to be a teacher. Partly owing to its prestige, teaching is the most popular career choice and the most admired profession among students, outpolling law and medicine."

2) Cultural respect accorded to teaching: In each of these countries, teaching has enormous social prestige, due to pay, selectivity, and tradition. "Don't even step on the shadow of a teacher," goes a Korean proverb.

3) Competitive compensation: South Korea is the most extreme example. "Korean teachers' earnings place them between engineers and doctors with purchasing power in the local economy nearly 250 percent higher than that of American teachers."

4) Professional working environment: In Singapore, "a few senior and master teachers in each school observe and coach other teachers, prepare model lessons and materials, advise on teaching methods and best practices, organize training and support newly qualified teachers and trainees."

To create such conditions, each country has a high degree of government regulation on the national level. The United States, in contrast, has a complex, decentralized school system with educational control fragmented between national, state, and local organizations.

Rather than take this complexity as an undesirable problem, we need to take a different route, taking advantage of our decentralized system's potential for experimentation. One example is Teach for America which recruits top college graduates, often from the best prestigious colleges. In a recent year, 46,000 students applied and fewer than 10 percent were accepted. The model can not be widely applied -- these graduates teach only for two or three years -- but the program does demonstrate that approaches can be found to recruit highly selected students.

Alternative routes to teaching are also proliferating. These are quite varied, work only in certain circumstances, and effectiveness is mixed. Nonetheless some approaches show a lot of promise.

With unemployment now close to 10 percent and the retirement of the baby boom generation, teaching is an attractive profession for many very accomplished people. My father was one. The high point of his career was teaching after he retired as an engineer. He could make complex subjects clear and use his practical experience to show how students would benefit from what they were learning. Late in life, he found his calling.

There is no silver bullet to creating great teachers, no panacea. But the McKinsey Report is right about what we should do--- launch many experiments, accepting that many will fail but a few may succeed. For experimentation, our decentralized system gives America a great advantage.

Judith Kleinfeld, who holds a Ph.D from Harvard, is professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Judith Kleinfeld