Nations that outpace the United States in education use many strategies to help their students excel. They do, however, share one: They set high requirements to become a teacher, hold those who become one in high esteem and offer the instructors plenty of support.
On Wednesday and today, education leaders - including U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the nation's largest teacher unions and officials from the highest-scoring countries - are meeting in New York to identify the best teaching practices.
The meeting comes after the recently released results of the Programme for International Student Assessment exam of 15-year-olds alarmed educators in the United States. Out of 34 countries, it ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math.
"On the one hand, the United States has a very expensive education system in international standards," said Andreas Schleicher, who directs the exam. "On the other hand, it's one of the systems where teachers get the lowest salaries.
"Then you ask yourself, how do you square those things?"
How indeed? We've all heard stories about the respect given to teachers in other nations. In India, for instance, a teacher is as respected as a physician, and more respected than attorneys.
Schleicher co-authored a report, released Wednesday during the conference, that concluded that for the U.S. to remain competitive, it must raise the status of the teaching profession. An additional report released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development identified several effective practices observed in the top-performing regions and countries:
-- They draw teachers from the same pool of applicants as those from other selective professional careers.
-- Higher teacher salaries - rather than smaller class sizes - were a better indicator of student performance.
-- Teachers are continually being trained and developing their skills as instructors.
-- Instructors are held accountable for student performance, but test results would be just one measure to determine student outcomes.
It's the same meeting covered yesterday by the New York Times, which quoted President Barack Obama saying, “In South Korea, teachers are known as ‘nation builders,’ and I think it’s time we treated our teachers with the same level of respect.”
But Schleicher, mentioned in the AP article, gave a dour view of America's regard for educators: “Teaching in the U.S. is unfortunately no longer a high-status occupation. Despite the characterization of some that teaching is an easy job, with short hours and summers off, the fact is that successful, dedicated teachers in the U.S. work long hours for little pay and, in many cases, insufficient support from their leadership.”
Ain't that the truth. Do you think Schleicher spent time writing his report in South Carolina?
On the most recent Pisa, the top-scoring countries were Finland and Singapore in science, Korea and Finland in reading and Singapore and Korea in math. On average, American teenagers came in 15th in reading and 19th in science. American students placed 27th in math. Only 2 percent of American students scored at the highest proficiency level, compared with 8 percent in Korea and 5 percent in Finland.
The “five things U.S. education reformers could learn” from the high-performing countries, the report says, include adopting common academic standards — an effort well under way here, led by state governors — developing better tests for use by teachers in diagnosing students’ day-to-day learning needs and training more effective school leaders.
“Make a concerted effort to raise the status of the teaching profession” was the top recommendation.
University teaching programs in the high-scoring countries admit only the best students, and “teaching education programs in the U.S. must become more selective and more rigorous,” the report says.
Raising teachers’ status is not mainly about raising salaries, the report says, but pay is a factor.
According to O.E.C.D. data, the average salary of a veteran elementary teacher here was $44,172 in 2008, higher than the average of $39,426 across all O.E.C.D countries (the figures were converted to compare the purchasing power of each currency).
But that salary level was 40 percent below the average salary of other American college graduates. In Finland, by comparison, the veteran teacher’s salary was 13 percent less than that of the average college graduate’s.
So in the world's top-scoring nations, teachers earn salaries close to those of doctors and lawyers, while in America they're paid like small-town preachers -- begrudgingly. And we wonder...