Research has revealed that skilled teachers are essential to student success.

Skilled teachers are essential to student success.

Improving teacher effectiveness has risen to the top of national education priorities, but the key to attracting, training, and retaining truly effective teachers might lie in the “top-third” concept, which seeks to recruit students who perform in the top third of their academic discipline into the teaching profession.

Closing the talent gap: Attracting and retaining top-third graduates to careers in teaching,” by Byron Auguste, Paul Kihn, and Matt Miller of McKinsey and Co., examines teaching programs and strategies in some of the world’s best-performing nations and seeks to outline how adapting those strategies for practice in the United States might reap enormous benefits for the U.S. economy.

While the world’s top school systems have dedicated approaches to attracting, retaining, and supporting teachers, “the U.S. does not take a strategic or systematic approach to nurturing teacher talent,” the authors state. “We have failed to attract, develop, reward, or retain outstanding professional teaching talent on a consistent basis.”

The report “shines a light on the single factor that impacts student success in schools the most, and that’s the quality of teachers,” said Louis Malfaro, vice president of the American Federation of Teachers and president of Education Austin. It also reveals the “radically different approach” to how teachers are prepared in the highest-performing countries versus how they are prepared in the U.S., he added.

There exists in the U.S. a thought that “teachers don’t need to be smart, they just need to love children. That’s not necessarily a pathway to being effective,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. “[We must] persuade districts and states that this is what is good for children.”

Walsh said there tends to be a strong measure of anti-elitism in the U.S., which might eschew highly selective teacher preparation programs on the theory that a teacher does not necessarily have to be highly trained.

“This challenges that assumption, and I think it’s a healthy challenge,” she added.

A global perspective

Top-performing nations recruit 100 percent of their new teachers from the top third of academic performers. In the U.S., only 23 percent of teachers come from the top third of their college class—and in high-poverty schools, this figure is only 14 percent.

These other countries treat education as a highly selective profession, and after recruiting from the top third, they screen those selected students for qualities they believe are indicative of teaching success, such as perseverance and communications skills.

The world’s top-performing school systems in Singapore, Finland, and South Korea recruit, develop, and retain what the report called the “top third+,” or students from the top third of their academic classes from all disciplines, not just students enrolled in teacher preparation programs.

Teacher recruitment in South Korea, Singapore, and Finland is rigorous and highly selective, the authors note, and some programs are government-funded, requiring little or no out-of-pocket expense on students’ behalf.

Singapore offers competitive salaries with retention bonuses at recurring intervals. Its teacher training program accepts roughly 1 in 8 applicants. All teachers have weekly opportunities for professional collaboration and receive 100 hours of paid professional development per year.

Finland’s extremely competitive teaching selection process requires teachers to obtain a master’s degree in a five-year program, and applicants are generally drawn from the top 20 percent of high school graduates. Only 1 in 10 applicants is accepted to become a teacher, and the government pays for teachers’ graduate-level training and a living stipend.

South Korea places deep respect in the teaching profession and offers one of the highest teaching salaries in the world; its “relatively large” class sizes of roughly 35 students on average help teachers there earn salaries equivalent to between $55,000 and $155,000 per year. Teacher turnover is just 1 percent each year.