Sunday, December 02, 2007

Wanted: Teachers Who Can Make a Difference

Educational reports vary widely in the steps they recommend to improve or overhaul a nation’s school system. One common thread that runs through them, however, is the need for quality teachers in classrooms. While everyone recognizes the central role of teachers in raising the level of K-12 education in America, how to train, attract and retain teachers who can teach, motivate and inspire remain elusive.

A recent report by McKinsey & Co offers evidence that simply by increasing teacher salary and reducing class sizes will not improve student performance. Yet in the United States, Britain and several other Western countries, these are often the only “remedies” applied, with predictably depressing results year after year.

The McKinsey report was based on a study of twenty-five of the world’s school systems, including ten of the top performers. The data came from Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) directed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an organization of thirty countries that accept the principles of representative democracy and free market economy.

“We examined what these high-performing school systems have in common and what tools they use to improve student outcome,” states the report. “The experience of the top schools suggests that three things matter most: 1) getting the right people to become teachers, 2) developing them into effective instructors and, 3) ensuring that the system is able to deliver the best possible instruction for every child.”

These are not exactly breakthrough insights but where the report turns conventional wisdom on its head is the “how” part. How do you get the best teachers? How do you get the best out of teachers? And how do you take corrective actions when students fall behind?

As the Economist pointed out in a commentary on the report, you get the best teachers by hiring the best. In Finland (one of the top performing countries), teachers must have a master’s degree. South Korea recruits primary-school teachers from the top 5% of graduates, and Singapore and Hong Kong from the top 30% (also top performing countries). Do they do it with more money? No, these countries do not pay teachers more than average salaries. What’s the secret, then? Toughen the selection process for teacher training and only hire numbers to match vacancies. Once employed, as in Singapore and Finland where teaching is regarded as a high-status profession, teachers are more or less guaranteed a job for life if they continue to perform well.

Teaching is a high-status profession in these countries because it is competitive and training is well-funded because there are relatively few qualified candidates. In Singapore, new teachers get 100 hours of training a year. Seniors teachers monitor their progress and help them with their professional development. In Finland and Japan, groups of teachers visit each others’ classrooms to offer constructive criticism and plan lessons together. Every week, Finnish teachers get an afternoon off for this purpose.

The result is that there is a continuity of best practices and enlightened, self-correcting teaching methodologies that nourish the school systems in countries like Canada, Finland, Japan, Singapore and South Korea. As one educator put it, “when a brilliant American teacher retires, almost all of the lesson plans and practices that she has developed also retire. When a Japanese teacher retires, she leaves a legacy.”

Yet all the best practices and institutional support cannot guarantee that things will not go wrong. Inevitably they do, and this is again where top performers differentiate themselves from the bottom dwellers. When students and schools show symptoms of failing (defined not by results of standardized tests but deeper and more meaningful educational needs and aspirations), these countries intervene early and often. They have more special-education teachers per student than in lagging countries. In any given year in Finland, for instance, 30% of students get one-on-one remedial lessons. In Singapore, there are extra classes for the bottom 20% of students and teachers are expected to stay after hours to help them come up to speed and excel.

“The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers,” states the McKinsey report. Educators and concerned Americans have echoed the sentiment again and again. Educational spending in America, by way of school funding, school administration, teacher salary, standardized testing, federal policies such as the No Child Left Behind, and an endless array of other panaceas, has almost doubled since 1980. Class sizes have never been smaller. Everything has been tried and retried, yet the only constant in the equation, as the Economist wryly notes, is the poor outcome.

That is not to say there aren’t success stories. Some private organizations in the United States are flourishing and point the way toward progress. One such is Teach for America (TFA). Founded in 1990, TFA has stringent requirements for recruiting young teachers (the rejection rate of applicants is over 80 percent!) from the nation’s top schools to teach in inner-city schools and low income areas. Applicants are driven by a fierce sense of service and a desire to end the nation’s educational inequity. It is telling that for rejected TFA applicants, second career choices include top law and business schools and high-paying Wall Street jobs. Currently TFA has over 4,400 teachers working with almost 400,000 students. By any definition, TFA’s success continues to be astounding.

Another is the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP). Brainchild of two TFA alumni, KIPP began in 1994 and now has about 60 charter schools nationwide serving 14,000 kids. More than 80% of KIPP students are low income and 95% are black or Latino, yet they regularly outperform their public school counterparts in math and reading tests. Like TFA, KIPP selects its teachers carefully and trains them rigorously before allowing them to practice their profession.

Both TFA and KIPP are transforming not just students but entire communities by promoting the values of hard work, good behavior, discipline, transparency and accountability. The McKinsey report states that “Across the globe – whether it is Canada in North America, Finland in Europe or Japan and Korea in Asia – some education systems demonstrate that excellence in education is an attainable goal and at reasonable cost. They also show that the challenge of achieving a high and socially equitable distribution of learning outcomes can be successfully addressed and that excellence can be achieved throughout the education systems, with very few students and schools left behind.”

If TFA and KIPP can achieve the kind of excellence that the report lauds, there is no reason why such schools cannot be replicated on a mass scale and why America’s public school system cannot also be among the top-performing school systems in the world.

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