Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
December 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 4

Commentary: Searching for Solutions / Teacher Quality: What's Wrong with U.S. Strategy?

author avatar
When it comes to ensuring that all students have excellent teachers, top-performing countries seem to know something the United States doesn't.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Industrialized countries are in broad agreement that if there's a key to high student achievement, the quality of teachers is that key. But that's where the agreement ends. Countries as different as China, Finland, Canada, and Singapore, all of which rank much higher than the United States in international comparisons of student achievement, hold one view about what it takes to improve teacher quality; the United States, virtually alone, holds another.
This difference undoubtedly accounts for much of the difference in national performance. Indeed, I believe that the prevailing U.S. reform agenda will lead to lower, not higher, teacher quality, whereas the strategies our most successful competitors are pursuing will enable them to pull further and further ahead. Let's take a look at these strategies.

Winning Strategies from Around the World

Raise the Standards—A Lot

Teacher quality begins with the standards for getting into schools of education. Top-performing countries have greatly raised those standards, making them comparable with the standards for getting into schools for the leading professions. In Singapore, only one applicant in eight is accepted into the nation's teacher education institution, and teachers are recruited from the top 30 percent of the high school graduating class. In Finland, only 1 in 10 applicants to teacher education institutions is accepted; Finland is therefore able to recruit from the top 20 percent of high school graduates. Japan has been recruiting its teachers from top-quality high school graduates since the Meiji Restoration in the 1800s.
Not so in the United States. The most recent data from the College Board show that college applicants planning to go to schools of education scored in the bottom one-third on their SATs. Their combined mathematics and reading scores were 57 points below the national average (College Board, 2008; Higher Education Research Institute, 2010).
Our competitors not only insist on high standards, but also require applicants to undergo rigorous admissions processes. Take Finland, which uses a two-stage process. The first stage is a review of documents. Applicants don't get beyond this stage unless they score well on the national college entrance exams and have a high grade point average and a strong record of nonacademic accomplishments in high school. In the second stage of the review, the applicant must excel on a demanding written exam on assigned books in pedagogy; pass an expert observation of their social and communication skills; and perform well in a demanding interview conducted by experienced educators who ask, among other things, why the candidate wants to become a teacher.

Move Teacher Education to Research Universities

High-performing countries, such as Finland and Singapore, are moving teacher education from relatively low-status postsecondary institutions to research universities. This move has several benefits. First, it makes teacher education more attractive to students who could get their professional preparation at high-prestige institutions if they chose other professions. Second, it makes it easier to attract outstanding scholars to teach in the education field. Third, it tends to infuse the training of teachers with cutting-edge research. In short, it leads to better students, better teachers, and a better grounding in high-quality research.

Insist That Teachers Know Their Subject

All of the United States' strongest competitors require that teachers be expert in the subjects they teach. Many countries have organized their elementary schools so that most teachers teach either mathematics and science or language arts and social studies. Then they require that their elementary teachers minor in the two subjects they will teach. Many places, like Shanghai (not a country, of course, but a city of 17 million people, larger than most U.S. states), require that their secondary teachers master the same standards in their subject as undergraduates who will pursue graduate work in the same field.
So it's no surprise that research shows U.S. elementary teachers' command of mathematics falls far short of that of their Chinese counterparts (Ma, 1999). Many U.S. elementary teachers have taken little or no math or science at all in college—unlike their peers in the top-performing countries, who at least minored in these subjects if they teach them.

Never, Never Waive Licensure Standards

Some years ago, Bill Schmidt, the renowned researcher who was head of the United States' portion of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), was in a meeting with experts from countries around the world. They were deciding what background questions the next round of TIMSS survey research should ask. One of the U.S. representatives on the team suggested that the forms should include a question about how often schools in each country waived the licensure standards in response to teacher shortages so that teachers could teach out of subject. There was shocked silence. None of the other countries ever considers waiving standards to allow teaching out of subject. Among the advanced industrial countries, only the United States, apparently, indulges in this practice.
No one would think it was acceptable to waive the standards for practicing medicine, civil engineering, the law, or other high-status professions in the face of shortages. If there is a shortage, compensation goes up, and more people therefore decide to go into that field. We have teacher shortages only because we refuse to raise teacher salaries when the salaries we're paying don't attract enough people into teaching. Apparently, we'll put up with any warm body teaching our children, whereas the top-performing countries won't. This unfortunate fact reveals both the status of teaching in the United States and the value we put on our children's education.

Make Sure Teachers Know Their Craft

The Finns require that their teachers in training earn a master's degree, including at least one year of intensive instruction in pedagogy. In Shanghai, most of a teacher's formal preparation is devoted to mastering the subjects he or she will teach; the first year of employment is devoted to apprenticeship under a master teacher who demonstrates best methods and closely mentors the novice as he or she practices teaching. Master teachers are released from their regular teaching duties to do this work, and new teachers are not expected to carry a full teaching load during their apprenticeship. The common thread here is the top-performing countries' belief that teaching is a complex craft, which takes time and first-class instruction to master.

Compensate Teachers Well

Early in 2011, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan invited education ministers and teachers' union representatives in countries that outperform the United States to a meeting in New York City to exchange information about education policies and practices. When the issue of teachers' compensation came up, the minister from Singapore appeared to express the views of many of the ministers. One key to Singapore's success in attracting high-achieving high school graduates into teaching, he said, is making sure that compensation is not an issue when these graduates select a career. To do that, the Singapore government sets beginning teachers' compensation at a level comparable to that of the other leading professions. In Japan, salaries for beginning teachers are about equal to those of beginning engineers. In China, professional education for prospective teachers is free, enabling the state to attract many able students who do not have the money to go to college.

Losing U.S. Strategies

The contrast between the policies and practices used in the United States and those used in other countries could not be more stark. Far from being difficult to get into, our teachers colleges are widely regarded as having low entrance standards. In contrast to the expectation among high-performing countries that teachers at every level will have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, our elementary school teachers are not expected to specialize in any content area. U.S. school districts routinely waive requirements for mastery of subject matter in the face of teacher shortages, assigning teachers to subjects they were never prepared to teach—something that's simply not done in the high-performing countries.
Whereas our top competitors require their prospective teachers to serve a year or more of apprenticeship under the supervision of master teachers, we think it's OK for prospective teachers to go into the classroom with only a few weeks of training in pedagogy. Our competitors make sure their beginning teachers receive wages that compare well with those of beginning engineers; we offer beginning teachers jobs that start, on average, at $30,377, compared with $43,635 for computer programmers, $44,668 for accountants, and $45,570 for registered nurses—and these are not even among the highest-status professions (National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2010).
In short, U.S. schools select teachers from a less capable pool of high school graduates than our competitors do, we settle for less mastery of the subjects they'll teach, we don't insist that they master their craft, and we pay them poorly. Our competitors do the opposite on every point. But we're shocked and disappointed to find that our students don't perform as well as our competitors' students.
There's no reason to be shocked. Top-performing nations have invested in top-quality teachers, and they are reaping the rewards of that investment. The United States has failed to make that investment, and we are reaping what we have sown.

Reform in the Wrong Direction

The United States is not without a reform strategy to improve the quality of the teaching force. It's just a different strategy from the one top-performing countries are pursuing. Its origin is research purporting to show that differences in teachers' capacity to teach well account for significant differences in student achievement. So far, so good: Many colleagues in the top-performing countries would agree with that.
The difference lies in the conclusions that other countries and the United States have drawn from that observation. The other countries conclude that they should make sure all students have excellent teachers. We conclude that we should reward the best teachers and punish the worst. Our strategy for distinguishing between the two is to measure student performance on standardized tests, and then reward the teachers whose students have scored well and get rid of the teachers whose students have scored poorly.
But that makes no sense. Getting rid of our worst teachers does nothing to improve the supply of good ones, which is where the top-performing countries have placed their bets.
The situation we now face, though, is far worse than one would guess from the circumstances described thus far. Years ago, the United States created a system in which it chose to rely mostly on college-educated women to teach its children. At the time, the deal was that these women would have to accept much lower salaries than college-educated men did, but they could be home when their children came home from school and they would get long summer vacations, great retirement benefits, and great job security. That was enough to attract many capable women to teaching when the other choices for college-educated women were limited to secretarial work or nursing.
Now, women outnumber men in our law schools and many other professional schools. And since the onset of the global financial crisis, teachers' benefits are being cut, and teaching has become one of the jobs most vulnerable to layoffs. Add to that the threat that if your students don't perform well you will promptly be fired, and it's easy to see why teaching is far less attractive to capable high school graduates than it was when many of our current teachers were choosing an occupation. We're about to get the worst new teachers we've had in more than a century. All we have to do to enjoy that outcome is to continue on the course we're currently pursuing.
Suppose that, instead, the United States reverses course and follows the lead of top-performing countries that pay their teachers salaries comparable to those of high-status professions. Some readers may feel that it's unrealistic to think the United States can afford to do what other countries have done. But consider this: Graduates of U.S. teachers colleges leave teaching, on average, after many fewer years than people trained in high-status professions. If we did what our most successful competitors are doing, we could greatly increase the average length of service of our teachers in the profession. We could save an enormous amount of money that is now wasted preparing teachers who leave the profession before they've gained enough experience to make a solid contribution—potentially, enough money to pay for educating our teachers in research universities and enough left over to give our teachers a big raise. We would have gone a long way toward implementing the strategies that the top-performing countries have used to greatly improve the quality of their teachers, without spending a dime more than we are spending now.

A Vicious Circle or a Virtuous Circle?

The top-performing countries have discovered a virtuous circle of support for teacher quality. They've embraced policies that have given them an oversupply of highly capable teachers for their schools. That's produced outstanding student performance, which has in turn increased confidence in their teaching force and enhanced the status of teachers, which has led to increased public support for high teacher salaries and greater trust in teachers, which has led to greater professional autonomy for teachers, which makes teaching a more attractive career, which makes it even easier to attract the best and brightest to teaching, which leads to even greater improvement in student performance.
Meanwhile, the United States is caught in a vicious circle on the same issue. We've embraced policies that could not have been better designed to produce poorly qualified teachers, which has led to poor student performance—which has led to a backlash against teachers, punitive accountability systems, lower teacher pay, lower status for teachers, attacks on teachers' benefits, confrontations with teachers unions, and lower teacher morale. The combination of these factors makes teaching even less attractive to young people making career decisions, which will lead to even lower-quality teachers, even poorer student performance, and even more punitive measures for teachers.
We in the United States need to break out of our vicious circle and embrace the system for improving teacher quality that the top-performing countries embraced years ago. Alternative routes, crash courses in pedagogy, waiving licensure requirements, Peace Corps– like programs to get short-termers into teaching, signing bonuses, and the like will not solve our problem. There are no shortcuts.

College Board. (2008). 2008 College-bound seniors, total group profile report. New York: Author.

Higher Education Research Institute. (2010). Findings from the 2009 administration of the college senior survey (CSS): National aggregates. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

Ma, L. (1999). Knowing and teaching elementary mathematics: Teachers' understanding of fundamental mathematics in China and the United States. London: Lawrence Erlbam.

National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2010). Salary survey. Bethlehem, PA: Author.

Marc Tucker is the founder, CEO, and president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. A leader of the standards-driven education reform movement, Tucker has been studying the strategies used by the countries with the most successful education systems for three decades. He created New Standards—a precursor to the Common Core, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, and its successor, the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce; and he was instrumental in creating the National Skill Standards Board. Tucker also created the National Institute of School Leadership.

Tucker authored the 1986 Carnegie report A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century and the report of the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages, and was the lead author of Tough Choices or Tough Times, the report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. He coauthored or edited Thinking for a Living: Education and the Wealth of Nations; Standards for Our Schools: How to Set Them, Measure Them, and Reach Them; and The Principal Challenge.


Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 112019.jpg
The Resourceful School
Go To Publication