Better Teachers Plus Higher Pay Equals Educational Success

(Bloomberg) -- Teaching may be more art than science, but the long-term benefits of doing it well aren’t up for debate: Good teachers boost their students’ performance on standardized tests, their chances of going to college and even their lifetime earnings. Whether countries prosper and grow depends on the quality of their teachers — which is why governments need to invest in raising standards.

Partly, this means paying teachers more. The public-school teachers striking for better pay in some Republican-controlled states have a good case. But improving teacher quality requires more than that.   

The overriding priority should be to attract and develop greater talent. In the U.S., there’s no national minimum standard for admission to teacher-preparation programs. Compare that to Singapore and Finland, whose students consistently score near the top of international assessments. Their prospective teachers are drawn from the top 30 percent of university students and must pass a series of exams, demonstrate math and language proficiency, and sit for interviews with teaching professionals.

In Finland, where teaching ranks as the most admired profession, only 10 percent of applicants for primary-school teaching positions make it through this process. Once admitted, they’re required to earn a master’s degree and complete coursework in their chosen academic subject, as well as drama, music and physical education.

This is where higher pay comes in — as a way to recruit better candidates. Teachers in high-performing countries earn salaries comparable to those of their academic peers. In the U.S., secondary-school teachers make a lot less than other college graduates. Linking pay to performance pushes the same way. U.S. school districts with merit-pay policies attract candidates with higher SAT scores.

Next comes training on the job. Teachers in Shanghai — which produces some of the world’s highest-achieving students — spend their first year supervised by a more experienced colleague, who provides guidance on teaching techniques, lesson plans and student interaction. Matching young teachers with mentors sharpens their skills and makes them more likely to stick with the profession. In Toronto’s schools, where new educators receive up to two years of mentoring, about 1 percent of teachers leave their jobs after their first year; average attrition rates in U.S. districts are 10 times higher.

Governments should encourage teachers to keep getting better, promote or give bonuses to teachers who pursue advanced degrees, and give teachers time to study and share best practices. Elementary-school teachers in the U.S. spend more than half the workweek teaching by themselves; their counterparts in Shanghai and Singapore spend most of their time working with other teachers. One U.S. study found that teacher collaboration boosts student achievement substantially.

There’s no great mystery about what works: competitive selection and competitive salaries, plus incentives and opportunities for professional development. But the formula isn’t cheap and it can’t be done overnight. How best to make a start?

Spend more on teachers and less on administrators. Expand teacher “residency” programs, which provide a different way to qualify as a teacher through working as an apprentice to an expert professional. In the U.S., the federal government should push states to increase bonuses for teachers in low-income areas and let certified teachers take their credentials across state lines. This would ease local teacher shortages and lessen the need to use unqualified instructors.

The walkouts in Oklahoma, Arizona and beyond have focused overdue attention to the damage wrought by years of underfunding and neglect. Meeting teachers’ demands for better pay will help — so long as it’s combined with a consistent effort to improve both the quality of teachers and the quality of the teaching experience.

—Editors: Romesh Ratnesar, Clive Crook

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