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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
February 1, 2009
Vol. 66
No. 5

How Nations Invest in Teachers

High-achieving nations treat their teachers as professionals.

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All around the world, nations seeking to improve their education systems are investing in teacher learning as a major engine for academic success. The highest-achieving countries on international measures such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) have been particularly intent on developing teachers' expertise both before they enter the profession and throughout their careers.
  • Time for professional learning and collaboration built into teachers' work hours.
  • Ongoing professional development activities that are embedded in teachers' contexts and focused on the content to be taught.
  • Extensive opportunities for both formal and informal inservice development.
  • Supportive induction programs for new teachers.
  • School governance structures that involve teachers in decisions about curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development.
Unfortunately, although U.S. schools are gradually offering more such opportunities, most U.S. teachers do not receive this kind of well-designed professional development (Birman et al., 2007; Blank, de las Alas, & Smith, 2007). In addition to the fact that most are still one-shot one- or two-day activities, relatively few learning opportunities for U.S. teachers feature either the intense emphasis on content or the collegial work that has been found to predict greater effects (Garet, Birman, Porter, Desimone, & Herman, 1999). In part, this is because most schools still lack structures for collective work on problems of practice.
A review of the approaches common in high-achieving nations suggests directions that U.S. policy could take to improve teacher learning and thus student achievement.

Time for Professional Learning and Collaboration

One of the key structural supports for teachers engaging in professional learning is the allocation of time in the work day and week to participate in such activities. More than 85 percent of schools in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland provide time for professional development in their teachers' workday or week (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD], 2004), whereas this built-in time is typically absent in the United States.
Further, in most European and Asian countries, less than half of a teacher's working time is spent instructing students (National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, 1996; OECD, 2007). The rest—generally about 15 to 20 hours per week—is spent on tasks related to teaching, such as working with colleagues on preparing and analyzing lessons, developing and evaluating assessments, observing other classrooms, and meeting with students and parents. Teachers do most of their planning in collegial settings, in the context of subject-matter departments, grade-level teams, or large teacher rooms where their desks are located to facilitate collective work.
In South Korea—much like in Japan and Singapore—only about 35 percent of teachers' working time is spent teaching students. Teachers work in a shared office space during out-of-class time; the students stay in a fixed classroom while the teachers rotate to teach them different subjects. The common office space facilitates sharing of instructional resources and ideas, which is especially helpful for new teachers (Kang & Hong, 2008). These practices are also found in European nations. In Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, and the Flemish Community of Belgium, schools provide substantial time for regular collaboration among teachers on issues of instruction (OECD, 2004). Teachers in Finnish schools, for example, meet one afternoon each week to jointly plan and develop curriculum, and schools in the same municipality are encouraged to work together to share materials.
By contrast, U.S. teachers generally have 3–5 hours each week for lesson planning, usually scheduled independently rather than jointly with colleagues (National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, 1996). Teachers in the United States also teach more hours per year (1,080) than those in any other OECD nation, and far more than the OECD average of 803 hours per year for primary schools and 664 hours for upper secondary schools (OECD, 2007). U.S. teachers are with students about 80 percent of their total working time, compared with about 60 percent on average for teachers in these other nations. Thus, U.S. teachers have much less time to plan and learn together.

Job-Embedded Professional Development

When time for professional development is built into teachers' working time, their learning activities can be ongoing and sustained and can focus on particular issues over time. Job-embedded professional learning time also supports the kind of context-specific professional learning and action research that is effective in catalyzing change. Action research on a topic related to practice is fairly common in western European and Asian schools. In Denmark, Finland, Italy, and Norway, as well as Singapore, Australia, and Hong Kong, teachers often participate in collaborative research and study on topics related to education (new methods of teaching, curriculum development, integration of technology into the curriculum, and so on) in both their preservice preparation and their ongoing work (OECD, 2004).
For example, a team of teachers in a Singaporean school collected and analyzed data about students' argumentative essays before and after the introduction of a debate strategy designed to help them work through and articulate their arguments. The team's analysis informed their ongoing efforts to refine the curriculum.
Similarly, England, Hungary, and Ontario, Canada, have created opportunities for teachers to engage in school-focused research and development. Schools in these places provide teachers with time and support for studying and evaluating their own teaching strategies and school programs and for sharing their findings, both with their colleagues and through conferences and publications (OECD, 2005).
A highly developed practice in Japan and China—one that is now spreading to other nations—is theresearch lesson (or lesson study), in which groups of 4–6 teachers observe one another's classrooms and work together to refine individual lessons, expediting the spread of best practices throughout the school (Barber & Mourshed, 2007). Every teacher periodically prepares a "best" lesson that demonstrates strategies to achieve a specific goal—for example, students becoming active problem solvers. A group of teachers observes while the lesson is taught, usually documenting the lesson in a number of ways, including videotape, audiotape, and narrative or checklist observations that focus on areas of interest to the instructing teacher (for example, how many students volunteered their own ideas). Afterward, the teachers—sometimes with outside educators—discuss the lesson's strengths and limitations, ask questions, and make suggestions for improvement. Sometimes the revised lesson is given by another teacher a few days later and observed.
The research lessons enable teachers to refine individual lessons, consult with other teachers and receive feedback based on colleagues' observations of their classroom practice, reflect on their own practice, learn new content and approaches, and build a culture that emphasizes continual improvement and collaboration (Barber & Mourshed, 2007; Fernandez, 2002; Pang, 2006).

Formal Professional Development

Many high-achieving nations also organize extensive professional development that draws on expertise beyond the school. Some mandate the number of formal professional development hours that teachers must participate in beyond the many hours spent in collegial planning and inquiry (Barber & Mourshed, 2007).
In Sweden, for example, 104 hours or 15 days a year (approximately 6 percent of teachers' total working time) are allocated for teachers' inservice training (OECD, 2005). In 2007, the Swedish government invested in a professional development program called "lifting the teachers." The grant pays the tuition for one university course for all compulsory school and preschool teachers. It also supports 80 percent of a teacher's salary while the teacher works in a school for 20 percent of his or her time and studies in a university postgraduate program for the remaining time (K. Rönnerman, personal communication, June 23, 2008).
South Korean teachers are required to take 90 hours of professional development courses every three years after their fourth year of teaching. Also, after three years of teaching, teachers are eligible to enroll in a five-week (180-hour) government-approved professional development program to obtain an advanced certificate, which provides an increase in salary and eligibility for promotion (Kang & Hong, 2008).
Among Singapore's many investments in teacher professional learning is the Teacher's Network, established in 1998 by the Singapore Ministry of Education. The mission of the Teacher's Network is to serve as a catalyst and support for teacher-initiated professional development through sharing, collaboration, and reflection. The Teacher's Network includes learning circles, teacher-led workshops, conferences, and a well-being program, as well as a Web site (http://sam11.moe.gov.sg/tn) and a publications series for sharing knowledge (Salleh, 2006; Tripp, 2004).
As part of this initiative, the government pays for 100 hours of required professional development each year for all teachers, in addition to the 20 hours each week they have to work with other teachers and visit colleagues' classrooms to study teaching. Teachers are trained to undertake action research projects in the classroom so that they can examine teaching and learning problems and find solutions that they can disseminate to others. With government funding, teachers can take courses at the National Institute of Education toward a master's degree aimed at any of three career ladders that help them become curriculum specialists, mentors for other teachers, or school principals. These opportunities build teachers' expertise and that of the profession as a whole.
A few countries have established national training programs. For example, since 2000, the Australian government has been sponsoring the Quality Teacher Programme, a large-scale effort that provides funding to update and improve teachers' skills and understandings in such priority areas as literacy and numeracy and to enhance the status of teaching in both government and nongovernment schools (Skilbeck & Connell, 2003).
England instituted a national professional development program as part of its National Literacy Strategy and National Numeracy Strategy. The program provides training in professional development best practices accompanied by resources to support implementation of the national curriculum frameworks, including high-quality teaching materials, resource documents, and videos depicting good practice. A cascade model of training—similar to a trainer-of-trainers model—is structured around these resources to help teachers learn and use productive practices: National Literacy and National Numeracy centers provide leadership and training for teacher training institutions and consultants, who train school heads, coordinators, lead math teachers, and expert literacy teachers; these people in turn support and train other teachers (Earl, Watson, & Torrance, 2002).
In 2004, England began funding and supporting 1,500 groups of six schools each in an effort to enable schools and local education agencies to learn best practices from one another (Fullan, 2007). The percentage of students meeting the target literacy standards has risen from 63 percent to 75 percent in just three years (Barber & Mourshed, 2007).

Teacher Induction

Induction programs for new teachers are mandatory in many countries, such as Australia, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, and Switzerland. Most of these programs include release time for new teachers, mentor teachers who participate in the induction activities, and training for the mentor teachers.
The model in New Zealand is typical of those in a number of Asian nations. The New Zealand Ministry of Education funds 20 percent release time for new teachers and 10 percent release time for second-year teachers, and it requires schools to have locally created programs to develop new teachers' skills (Britton, 2006). New teachers use most of the release time to attend professional development activities, meet with mentor teachers, and perform such teacher duties as writing lesson plans. Induction programs support such activities as observing other teachers in their own school and at other schools, working in a classroom with a mentor teacher, attending meetings for beginning teachers, and taking courses (Clement, 2000).
A number of countries (including Israel, Switzerland, France, Norway, and England) require formal training for mentor teachers (OECD, 2005). In Singapore, master teachers are appointed to lead the coaching and development of the teachers in each school (Barber & Mourshed, 2007). Principals in Norway assign an experienced, highly qualified mentor to each new teacher; the teacher education institution then trains the mentor and takes part in the induction process (OECD, 2005). In some Swiss states, the new teachers in each district meet in reflective practice groups twice a month with an experienced teacher who is trained to facilitate their discussions of common problems (Stansbury & Zimmerman, 2000).

Teacher Involvement in Decision Making

One of the policy conditions associated with increased teacher collaboration in many high-achieving nations is greater decentralization of many education decisions to the school level. For example, in the 1970s and 1980s, Finland, Sweden, and Switzerland were among countries that replaced highly detailed national curriculum documents and external tests with much broader goal statements that were designed to guide teachers' development of local curriculum and instruction. Teachers in these and many other nations are responsible for designing curriculum and key school-based assessments to evaluate student learning in relation to the national standards. The content of professional learning is determined according to local needs and is often embedded in the work of school-based teacher teams that are empowered to make decisions around curriculum and evaluation (Ahlstrand, 1994).
In Finland, teachers and other staff members are routinely involved in decision making; teacher and administrator teams work together to develop syllabi, select textbooks, develop curriculum and assessments, decide on course offerings and budgets, and plan and schedule professional development (Hargreaves, Halász, & Pont, 2007; Välijärvi et al., 2007). These deliberations are themselves a form of professional development, as teachers study issues and share their ideas.
Similarly, in Sweden, the decentralization of the curriculum and inservice training led to a shift in the focus of the development work at each school from implementing prescribed teaching methods to solving problems in teachers' own classrooms. Teachers now work in teams that meet during regular working hours to discuss and make decisions on common matters, including lesson planning, student support, curriculum development, and evaluation (Alhstrand, 1994).

Achievable Goals

Professional development policies and practices in high-achieving nations reflect many of the principles of effective professional learning outlined by research. These nations provide sustained and extensive opportunities to develop practice that go well beyond the limited one-shot workshop approaches still commonly found in the United States. They treat teachers as professionals and make teachers' professional learning a high priority.
Many of the countries that have established strong systems for high-quality teaching have built these infrastructures in the last two decades through purposeful policy. This suggests that education policymakers in the United States could also develop such conditions, with purposeful effort and clarity about what matters and what works to support professional learning and practice.

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Birman, B., LeFloch, K. C., Klekotka, A., Ludwig, M., Taylor, J., Walters, K., et al. (2007). State and local implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, volume II: Teacher quality under NCLB: Interim report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development.

Blank, R. K., de las Alas, N., & Smith, C. (2007). Analysis of the quality of professional development programs for mathematics and science teachers: Findings from a cross-state study. Washington DC: Council of Chief State School Officers.

Britton, T. (2006). Mentoring in the induction system of five countries: A sum is greater than its parts. In C. Cullingford (Ed.), Mentoring in education: An international perspective (pp. 107–120). Aldershot, England: Ashgate.

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Earl, L., Watson, N., & Torrance, N. (2002). Front row seats: What we've learned from the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies in England. Journal of Educational Change, 3, 35–53.

Fernandez, C. (2002). Learning from Japanese approaches to professional development: The case of lesson study.Journal of Teacher Education, 53(5), 393–405.

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Kang, N., & Hong, M. (2008). Achieving excellence in teacher workforce and equity in learning opportunities in South Korea. Educational Researcher, 37(4), 200–207.

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Pang, M. (2006). The use of learning study to enhance teacher professional learning in Hong Kong. Teaching Education, 17(1), 27–42.

Salleh, H. (2006). Action research in Singapore education: Constraints and sustainability.Educational Action Research, 14(4), 513–523.

Skilbeck, M., & Connell, H. (2003).Attracting, developing, and retaining effective teachers: Australian country background report. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Education, Science, and Training.

Stansbury, K., & Zimmerman, J. (2000).Lifelines to the classroom: Designing support for beginning teachers. San Francisco: WestEd.

Tripp, D. (2004). Teachers' networks: A new approach to the professional development of teachers in Singapore. In C. Day & J. Sachsm (Eds.), International handbook on the continuing professional development of teachers (pp. 191–214). Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.

Välijärvi, J., Kupari, P., Linnakylä, P., Reinikainen, P., Sulkunen, S., Törnroos, J., & Arffman, I. (2007). The Finnish success in PISA—and some reasons behind it 2: PISA 2003. Jyväskylä, Finland: Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä.

Ruth Chung Wei is Associate Director for Assessment Research, Development, and Policy at Stanford University.

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