The Best Teachers in the World

Friday, January 25, 2013

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 past 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 past 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 1,200 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 1,021 overall. 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.

Today’s teachers don’t even meet the academic standards set for their own students.

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, 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 1,000—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. White House efforts to encourage states to use student achievement as part of teacher evaluations 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. I propose a new strategy for raising teacher quality to the highest levels in the world—a strategy based on scientific research and also on prominent examples of schools, colleges, and other educational organizations actually doing things very differently.


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—training that is already tailored to the United States. If education schools need ideas about how to improve teacher quality, Peabody would seem the most likely place to find them.

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 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 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.

There is a lot of research about what affects student achievement and what does not.

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.


My strategy for raising teacher quality 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.

First, 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 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.

Second, 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.

Third, 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 that 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, that is precisely what U.S. policy makers 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.

Teaching in U.S. schools today can be drudgery, only partly occupied with instruction, often filled with repetition, and compensated with no regard to merit.

This is not to say that there are not promising models of teacher preparation and in-service training. 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, policy makers 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. Policy makers need not mandate them. Policy makers 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.


The strategy recommended here is meant to change the incentives and opportunities for educators themselves to re-create their profession. The strategy does not look to policy makers to strengthen the profession. It looks to policy makers to give educators the freedom and reason to do so.

So policy makers are not asked to tell educators whom they can and cannot hire. Policy makers are instead asked to provide educators with information about who has been well trained and who has not. Similarly, educators are not to be told whom to retain or promote or let go. Policy makers will provide value-added estimates of teacher effectiveness and rigorous qualitative assessments of instruction, but the judgments are in the hands of the professionals. Much the same with technology: policy makers should not tell schools how to use technology, how to reap savings, or how to use the savings to improve teacher compensation. Policy makers should ensure that schools have powerful incentives to experiment and adopt.

There’s no evidence that licensing or certification creates better teachers or even sets a floor for quality.

In exchange for the freedom, schools and especially school leaders must be held strictly to account for student progress. That is the bargain that professionals should want: autonomy to control their work fully, to be compensated for it fairly, and to accept responsibility for its results. This is a very different arrangement from the one that has long governed education—and that now impedes the improvement of teacher quality.

Given strong incentives to perform and the information to do so, the American educational system will improve teacher training. It will select, develop, and retain teachers who perform best for students. It will incorporate technology to boost productivity and teacher compensation. And it will promote and reward school leaders who make decisions in the best interests of students and teachers.

In exchange for freedom, schools and their leaders must be held strictly to account for student progress.

There is no material reason why the United States cannot have the best teachers in the world. More than anything, it requires a willingness to let go of an approach, rooted in prescription and regulation, that has outlived its usefulness. This will not be easy politically. But nothing fundamental ever is. In the final analysis, if the nation wants an educational profession that is home to the best and the brightest, it will need to trust the profession and hold the profession strictly accountable for doing the right things.