Better Teachers, Better Schools

Every three years, more than half a million students from 72 nations around the world participate in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests the students in science, mathematics, reading, collaborative problem solving, and financial literacy. In her 2013 book, “The Smartest Kids in the World”, author Amanda Ripley profiles the education systems of three countries whose test scores improved rapidly in a short period of time sets out to understand how they did it.

Ripley follows the course of three American exchange students in Finland, South Korea, and Poland, and finds that some educational practices, while successful, come at a cost. South Korean students, for example, attend high-pressure cram schools at night and sleep through their public school classes during the day.  There is little about their system that we would want to emulate in the United States. In Finland, however, Ripley zeroes in on one practice that has no negatives: recruiting well-trained and highly-respected teachers.

Teaching in Finland is not a fallback career. Candidates for the country’s training programs are top-notch, and the curriculum for those accepted is rigorous. It’s a far cry from the United States, where teaching isn’t considered an aspirational profession, nor is it compensated as one. Teachers here labor under the crushing weight of federal and state mandates that leave them with a litany of boxes to check, and very little autonomy to serve their students as they see fit.

By slighting the teaching profession, Americans are losing a real opportunity to improve education. According to the Rand Corporation, teaching matters more than anything else schools do to improve student performance. Students face all kinds of barriers to obtaining a first-rate education — poverty chief among them — but that doesn’t mean our school system should give up on students until those barriers fall.

How do we go about recruiting good teachers? To start, we must select people with strong academic skills, then train them rigorously in their subject matter areas. States that are serious about improving their public education systems might begin by limiting the number of teachers trained and licensed each year to more closely match hiring requirements, making the profession more selective. Just as importantly, we must offer competitive compensation, supportive working conditions, and opportunities for professional growth.

Minting high-quality teachers is good for our education system in the long term. The Rand study notes that high-performing teachers tend to remain high-performers even when they go to other schools. Investing in a new generation of excellent teachers is an obvious way to benefit the system for years to come.

None of this means that teachers can solve every problem; numerous studies have found that individual and family characteristics have a significant impact on student achievement. But teacher quality is an area where our public policy can do a lot. Investing in excellent teachers is an evidence-based approach to improving schools, and a basic obligation to our children.

Published: June 15, 2017

To Learn More

The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley (2013)

Teachers Matter: Understanding Teachers’ Impact on Student Achievement (Rand Corporation, 2012)