November 9, 2012

The Best Teachers in the World

Why we don’t have them and how we could get them.

“My manicurist requires a license to do my nails, but our nation isn’t sure we should license teachers.” Camilla Benbow, Peabody College

Camilla Benbow is the dean of the top-ranked school of education in the United States, Peabody College at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Under her leadership, which began in 1999, Peabody has risen in stature—passing Harvard, Stanford, and other elite institutions—to reach the top spot in the U.S. News & World Report rating system, which it has occupied since 2009. Peabody is the only school of education in an elite national university that trains undergraduates to become licensed K–12 teachers.

Because Vanderbilt is a very selective institution overall (ranked in the top twenty of national universities), and because the brightest high school students in the United States have few choices if they wish to become teachers upon graduation from a four-year institution, Peabody enrolls extremely high-achieving students. Their average SAT combined math and critical reading score in 2011 was 1438.3

  john chubb best teachers in the world  
  Photo credit: NeenahHistory

Benbow and Peabody have been doing precisely what many experts have argued in recent years must be done if U.S. schools are to produce students who can achieve with the very best in the world. They are attracting the top students from America’s high schools to become teachers. They are putting them through a clinical model of preparation requiring 800 hours of school-based experience, in addition to the rigorous academic requirements of a Vanderbilt bachelor’s degree. It is well documented that high-achieving nations such as Finland, Singapore, and South Korea, among others, have selective teacher education programs that channel top-performing high school graduates into teacher preparation that balances demanding academic instruction with pedagogical training in schools.

But Benbow and Peabody are also part of an enterprise under siege. Schools of education have been the subject of withering criticism going back to the 1980s, when the United States first became alarmed about student achievement. This criticism has been intensifying in the last decade. In 2006, Arthur Levine, then president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, led a comprehensive study of U.S. schools of education that documented their failings in excruciating detail.

As a group, schools of education are non-selective. Their students post SAT scores at or below the average of all college graduates. Education school faculty members are weak in research and are dated in practical experience. The vast majority of U.S. teachers are produced in lower quality colleges and universities. The list goes on. In the last year, the National Council on Teacher Quality has begun publishing its findings on the attributes of teacher education programs, beginning with student teaching. The results of exhaustive research show teacher education programs failing to meet literally all standards—as Levine concluded five years before.

Making matters worse for schools of education, sophisticated statistical analyses have been unable to find any benefit in teacher education for student achievement. Licensed or certified teachers appear to perform no better than teachers without certification or those certified through alternative routes.8 The time required for traditional certification through a bachelor’s or master’s degree in education also deters many bright students from even considering teaching.

Teach for America (TFA) has become the number one employment choice of Ivy League graduates—over one in ten apply—because it provides a route into teaching that requires only five weeks of summer training and no degree in education. Smart young people want to teach; they just don’t want to jump through needless hoops to do so. Research shows that TFA recruits perform at least as well as traditionally certified teachers. Taking all of this into consideration, reformers are asking if teacher licensing is necessary at all.

But when Benbow asks if the nation is now ready to give up on licensing a profession that is infinitely more important and demanding than manicuring, she is raising a question that should concern us all—not just deans of schools of education. Of those elements that are within the control of schools, teachers are the most important determinant of how much students achieve. Family and personal attributes of students have the greatest effect on achievement. But among the elements of schooling that promote performance, teachers have the most impact by far. Research offers varying estimates of the impact, but it is safe to say that several consecutive years with highly effective teachers—the best 20–25 percent—can move students quite a way in the national achievement distribution.

Since the 1980s the United States has aimed to become the highest achieving nation in the world. Through Republican and Democratic presidential administrations, the nation has aspired to produce the kinds of students who can compete with any on the planet. In the internationally competitive knowledge economy, education is vital to productivity, growth, and standards of living. Teachers are mission-critical. If the United States is going to raise student achievement to the highest levels in the world, it will need to have the best teachers in the world. A recent and renowned analysis by the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company put it this way: “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.” Within school walls, nothing comes close to the importance of teachers.

So, if the United States is not to select, develop—and license—teachers through traditional means, how should it proceed? How shall the United States build the strongest teaching force in the world? Should the nation try to attract and keep significantly higher-aptitude students in teaching, as Peabody is doing? Should our best colleges and universities develop teacher preparation programs for undergraduates as well as graduates, as international leaders have done and, again, as Peabody is doing?

The United States has the best system of higher education in the world. In the most recent Times of London rankings, seven of the top ten, eighteen of the top twenty-five, and fifty-three of the top one hundred universities were American. Is it not possible that this great resource—especially the best institutions and the best students—might be used to enhance a profession as important as teaching? Or, given the success of alternate routes to teaching, such as TFA, should the United States abandon university-based certification and open teaching to anyone with a bachelor’s degree who can prove himself or herself on the job?

Being Serious About Being Best

For all the talk among political leaders about being first in the world in math and science or otherwise having the best schools and highest achievement in the world, there is little talk about having the best teachers. Yet, research is increasingly clear that that is exactly what the aim of top achievement requires. If the United States wants the best achievement in the world, it will need to seek out, train, and retain the best teachers in the world. The United States is not currently serious about that aim.

Consider: the United States is now in the process of trying to establish high common academic standards for public school students. Over the last decade the states have set proficiency standards that vary widely in their expectations of students and that frequently fall short of standards set in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the “nation’s report card” for the last forty years.

Through the Common Core project most states are now working together to establish voluntary national standards with proficiency expectations closer to those set in NAEP. Today’s teachers, however, do not come close to meeting the academic standards being set for students. A proficient score on NAEP reading or math translates into at least a 600 on the SAT, or about a 1200 overall. The most generous estimate of the aptitude of new U.S. teachers recently estimated SAT scores of 515 in critical reading (formerly verbal) and 506 in math, or 1021 overall. But this estimate looked only at twenty states where the SAT is the dominant college entrance exam, and these states are higher achieving on average than other (ACT-dominant) states. It may be possible for teachers to educate students to levels above their own accomplishments. But a 200-point gap between teacher performance and student expectations amounts to a world of difference.

U.S. education policy shows no serious intent to reduce this gap. The federal government’s most important education policy, Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), otherwise known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), requires that states ensure all teachers are “highly qualified”—meaning state-certified and subject-matter competent. Most states have implemented these requirements by requiring new teachers to take Praxis I and II assessments (unless they have a relevant college major). But states frequently set Praxis passing scores at levels that translate into SAT reading-math scores of about 1000—well below current expectations for students.

Once on the job, teachers are rarely held accountable for student achievement, even though their schools have been held to account since NCLB was adopted in 2002. The Obama administration is encouraging states to use student achievement as part of teacher evaluations, but the efforts are just beginning and achievement remains a relatively small part of the new systems. By international standards teachers are not highly compensated in the United States—at least one factor that determines the quality of individuals attracted to a profession and willing to stick with it. The list goes on. U.S. education policy is not serious about high-quality teachers.

Attracting, developing, and retaining the best teachers in the world will require radically different policies and practices from what the United States currently follows. The United States is simply too far off course for anything else. Fortunately, there are lessons from school systems abroad and in the United States to provide guidance. There is substantial research about what affects student achievement, and what does not. There is also solid evidence of what helps teachers, and what does not. In my new book, I offer a new strategy for raising teacher quality to the highest levels in the world. It is based on scientific research. It is also based on prominent examples of schools, colleges, and other educational organizations actually doing things very differently.

Cases in Point

Peabody College at Vanderbilt University merits a close look. It is rated number one at what it does by its peers, excels by all objective measures, attracts the highest achieving undergraduate and graduate education students in the nation, employs some of the most distinguished figures in education research, and provides training along the lines of the most respected training institutions internationally—but already tailored to the United States. If education schools need ideas of how to improve teacher quality, Peabody would seem the most likely place to find them. Dean Benbow, her senior faculty and administrators, and numerous students were good enough to participate in interviews for this book, supplementing the public record.

Another obvious source of ideas is schools where students are achieving, especially with students who do not achieve easily themselves. The choice here is the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP). Since 1994, KIPP has slowly built a network of charter schools in disadvantaged communities with documented success in raising student achievement. Its approach is simple: each school is built by an extraordinary principal whose job it is to recruit, develop, and retain high-quality teachers.

For reasons now reinforced by research, this approach holds much promise for improving teacher quality. The CEO of the KIPP Foundation, Richard Barth, and key staff helped explain how KIPP prepares leaders and leaders prepare teachers. The U.S. Department of Education awarded a $50 million grant to KIPP this year to support replication of this approach in KIPP schools and select traditional public schools.

Efficient schools may prove as important as effective schools for boosting teacher quality. If teaching is to become an esteemed profession able to attract and retain the best and brightest, it will need to provide better compensation, recognition of performance, intellectual stimulation, opportunities for growth, and more. Teaching in U.S. schools today can be drudgery, only partly occupied with instruction, often filled with repetition, and compensated without regard to merit.

In other industries, this sort of wage labor has been replaced by highly skilled and more professional roles, created through technological innovation. U.S. schools are beginning to experiment with new mixes of teachers and technology, to benefit students and improve the job of teaching. Some schools are getting far more from a smaller number of teachers. Leaders at three such schools—one elementary, one K–8, and one high school, all in the Los Angeles area—were kind enough to share their stories and achievements with me.

A Different Strategy

These case studies enrich the research and bring to life a strategy for raising teacher quality that is very different from the approach this country has historically followed. It takes seriously the aim of raising student achievement to levels comparable to those of the best nations in the world. It therefore largely rejects the approach to teacher quality that has been this country’s hallmark—but which has not given us the best teachers in the world. The new strategy has three major elements:

1. The United States will never have a world-class teaching force unless teaching attracts and retains higher caliber individuals. Teachers drawn on average from the lower ranks of high school graduates simply will not do. To attract higher potential teaching candidates and to retain the most successful of them, the teaching profession must become more attractive relative to alternative lines of employment.

This means work that is less menial and more expert, less prescribed and more responsible. It means less wage labor and more pay for performance. It means substantially better compensation. It does not, however, need to mean more education spending. The United States already spends more on education per capita than most any nation in the world. It should not need to spend more. The teaching profession can be improved by helping teachers be more productive. As in every industry before it, education can improve productivity by turning to technology. Reconfiguring schools to use teachers and technology to the best of their respective abilities could transform teaching. The profession would become more selective, requiring perhaps 20 percent fewer teachers overall. The work would become more differentiated and more highly skilled. Pay could be raised materially. These changes could reverse the brain-drain that has plagued teaching since women gained other opportunities more than a generation ago. Teaching could once again be a destination for top talent.

2. Teaching is not an art, to which some are born and others are not. It is an intellectually demanding endeavor that can and should be guided by research-based practice. Teachers should be trained, both before they take charge of a classroom and thereafter. They should not be trained, however, in the schools of education that predominate today. They should be trained in institutions and programs able to demonstrate their efficacy in producing teachers who raise student achievement.

The last point is critical, as teacher quality has no meaning apart from student achievement. This training might well take place in universities and schools of education like Vanderbilt and Peabody, strong in research and practice. But it could also be provided by entities such as Teach for America, The New Teacher Project, or programs yet unknown—as long as they can demonstrate their efficacy in producing teachers who can help students learn.

3. School leadership is critical to quality teaching. Principals have major influences on teacher development on the job, coaching teachers directly and helping teachers learn from one another or receive the external training they require. Principals play a lead role in creating the school culture that shapes student achievement. Principals create the working conditions that help determine whether great teachers remain. Principals evaluate teachers on all of the practices that go into student achievement, and should help schools keep the best teachers and improve or shed the weaker ones.

Principals specifically must retain top quartile teachers, replace bottom quartile teachers, and hire new teachers with higher probabilities of success. High-quality teaching therefore requires a different approach to the hiring and training of school principals, one that focuses, in a word, on achievement. Candidates for the post of principal should offer hard evidence that they have helped students learn, and subsequent training should emphasize the same.

These three elements comprise an approach to teacher quality which is fundamentally different from the U.S. norm, which is grounded in licensing and credentialing. As odd as it may seem to license manicurists and not teachers, as Benbow points out, that is precisely what U.S. policymakers should do—or at least the not-licensing-teachers part of the comparison. The United States needs to attract as many high-caliber people into teaching as possible, and licensing requirements today serve largely as an impediment to attracting high quality.

There is no evidence that licensing or certification creates better teachers or even sets a floor beneath which quality cannot fall. Teacher quality is much more likely to be driven by changes in the workplace—productivity enhancements, compensation improvements, more professional leadership and management—than by requirements for how teachers are trained before or during their careers.

This is not to say that there are not promising models of teacher preparation and in-service training—including Peabody, as we shall see. But we know far too little to mandate any single approach to teacher preparation and credentialing. Instead of trying to provide quality assurance through licensure, policymakers should provide quality assurance by measuring performance directly. Policy should provide for the direct measurement of teacher effectiveness and the direct measurement of training effectiveness. Training programs might be university-based or not, pre-service or in-service. The effectiveness of each should be gauged by the ability of participants subsequently to raise student achievement.

Once the effectiveness of programs is objectively determined and made public, prospective teachers and employers will patronize those programs that work and eschew those that do not. In time, successful training programs will replicate and replace unsuccessful ones. Policymakers need not mandate them. Policymakers should focus instead on providing districts, schools, and principals with strong incentives to select, develop, and retain well-trained and high-performing teachers.

Moving beyond licensing and other regulatory approaches to teacher quality will not be easy. The status quo does not change readily in education. Over the years it has resisted innovation in countless ways, including technology, training, accountability, compensation, and more. The strategy advanced here is surely a threat to influential interests in the educational system, from teachers’ unions to schools of education.

It promises to cut teaching positions and put ineffective education schools out of business. It also offers benefits. Teaching can become more professional and better compensated. University-based training can play a serious role in teacher development. In the past, the cost-benefit calculation has always come down on the side of resistance. And U.S. students have paid the price in achievement. Today, there is growing consensus that teachers are the key to achievement.

The next step is recognizing that achieving with the best in the world requires teaching with the best. We have a long way to go in achievement—and so too a long way to go in teaching. A very different strategy is clearly necessary, whatever the politics.


John E. Chubb, a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of Hoover’s Koret Task Force on K–12 Education, is the president of the National Association of Independent Schools. He served as the interim CEO of Education Sector, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization. He was previously a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a faculty member at Stanford University, and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University and Princeton University. His books include The Best Teachers in the World: Why We Don’t Have Them and How We Could (Hoover Institution Press 2012), Liberating Learning (Jossey-Bass, 2009), and Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools (Brookings, 1990), the last two with Terry M. Moe. Chubb earned an AB summa cum laude from Washington University in St. Louis and a PhD from the University of Minnesota, both in political science.


This essay is excerpted from the book The Best Teachers in the World by John Chubb (Hoover Press, 2012). 


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