To Improve Schools, Raise Standards for Teachers

November 22, 2010

For release noon Nov. 23 and thereafter (673 words

The way to improve schools is to improve teachers. On that point, the data are clear. But how do we do it? And can we do it fast enough to affect the next generation?

Answers may be found in nations where students outperform the United States on literacy, math and science tests.

McKinsey & Co. studied 25 of the world’s school systems, including the top 10 performers, and identified common traits that existed in successful ones regardless of cultural differences. The countries were chosen based on rankings in the Programme for International Student Assessment. The chief finding:

“Top-performing school systems consistently attract more able people into the teaching profession, leading to better student outcomes. They do this by making entry to teacher training highly selective, developing effective processes for selecting the right applicants to become teachers and paying good (but not great) starting compensation. Getting these essentials right drives up the status of the profession, enabling it to attract even better candidates.”

The best systems recruit teachers from the elite of their graduating class: the top 5 percent in South Korea, 10 percent in Finland and 30 percent in Singapore. In contrast, says the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, the United States disproportionately gets teachers from the bottom third.

Also, while almost every school system in the world delays selection of teachers until after they have graduated from education schools, the top 10 conduct a winnowing process before they enroll.

In Singapore, only one of five applicants for teacher education is accepted. Finland requires prospective teachers to go through a national first-round selection process, which consists of a multiple-choice exam on numeracy, literacy and problem solving skills. The top scorers move on to a second round run by individual universities, then a third round run by the schools to which they apply.

In contrast, Indiana University, which calls itself “one of the world’s premier programs for preparing tomorrow’s teachers” accepts into its teacher ed program students with cumulative GPAs as low as 2.5 on a 4-point scale.

In countries where education schools set low standards, there’s an oversupply of graduates and a perception of teaching as a low-status job, the McKinsey study said. This makes the training “less appealing to the more able students.” In other words, to attract the best and brightest into teaching, education schools would have to become more like medical schools.

The systemic problem, however, is in the pipeline. If we want to improve dramatically the quality of teachers, we need to become more like Finland. The legislature would have to mandate that public schools of education set higher admission standards. This, along with Bennett’s push to increase content knowledge requirements for teachers, would change the playing field overnight.

“Only applicants with the highest credentials should be admitted to teacher preparation programs,” says Kevin Adams, who teaches German at Eastern Hancock High School. Adams advocates higher pay along with higher admissions standards.

Tenured teachers in the United States are paid comparably to their international peers, but theMcKinsey study points out that the United States lags in starting pay, which exacerbates the view of teaching as low-status. In South Korea, starting salary is 141 percent of GDP per capita. In Finland it is 95 percent. In the United States it is 81.

“Imagine,” says Adams, “if we could really tell our students, ‘If you want to be a teacher, you have to work harder than to become a lawyer!’ ”

That’s what South Korea did and it reaped rewards. In 1945, South Korea’s literacy rate was 22 percent. By the late 1980s, it was 93 percent. In the most recent global rankings, South Korean students were sixth in reading and second in math. The United States was 15^th and 24^th respectively.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at


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