Next US Education Reform: Higher Teacher Quality

Article excerpt

A new study shows teacher quality is the most important lesson that America can learn from top-ranked education countries such as Finland and Singapore. Teacher unions and states will need to work on this together.

Compared with more than 70 economies worldwide, America's high school students continue to rank only average in reading and science, and below average in math. But this sorry record for a wealthy nation can be broken if the US focuses on recruiting and keeping first-rate teachers.

That's the conclusion of a new paper that looks at the latest achievement tests of 15-year-olds in the 34 developed countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as well as many other nations.

America has been trying to raise its academic standards for more than two decades, an effort that cannot be abandoned in tough times. But it can learn more from other countries about the difficult task of teacher training, selection, and compensation - even as cash- strapped states take on teacher unions.

The government-union wrangling would be less if both sides focused on quality investments in better teachers. The goal is not debatable. Studies show that matching quality teachers with disadvantaged students is an effective way to close the black-white achievement gap. Good teachers are more effective than small class sizes, for instance.

For starters, the United States needs to increase its pool of quality teachers. Almost half of its K-12 teachers come from the bottom third of college classes. Classroom leaders such as Singapore, South Korea, and Finland select from the top ranks. In Finland, only 1 in 10 applicants is accepted into teacher training.

Part of the hurdle in the US is compensation. Teaching offers job security but not great pay compared with other professions that top college graduates might choose. As states tussle over budgets, one solution might be to lower teacher benefits and end tenure while bulking up salaries.

And yet pay isn't the only consideration. Last year, 11 percent of graduates from US elite colleges applied to the federally funded Teach for America program. Participants teach in low-achieving rural and urban districts for two years.

In Finland, teachers earn only about what their American counterparts do (US teacher pay starts, on average, at $39,000). …