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What the U.S. can learn about improving teacher effectiveness

International school systems can help the U.S. improve its teacher recruitment methods, a new report suggests.

U.S. policy makers and educators should look to high-performing global education systems for valuable lessons as they seek to develop systems that improve teacher and school leader effectiveness, according to a new report from the Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE) and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE).

The report comes in advance of the International Summit on the Teaching Profession, hosted by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and designed to engage countries around the globe in an intensive discussion about promising practices for recruiting, preparing, developing, supporting, retaining, evaluating, and compensating world-class teachers.

“Teacher and Leader Effectiveness in High-Performing Education Systems,” edited by Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University professor and co-director of SCOPE, and Robert Rothman, a senior AEE fellow, examines highly effective lessons from global education systems that develop and support teachers and leaders in Finland, Ontario, and Singapore.

“While there might be disagreement about the most effective ways to measure and develop effectiveness, educators and policy makers generally agree that ensuring that teachers are capable of improving student learning—and that school leaders are able to help them do so—is perhaps the most significant step they can take to raise student achievement,” Darling-Hammond and Rothman wrote.

These jurisdictions were chosen because they have attained among the highest and most equitable performance in the world on international assessments and because they attribute their success to their efforts to recruit, prepare, develop, and retain highly effective educators. They are comparable in population to mid-sized U.S. states.

“Nations that take student learning seriously do not leave teacher quality to chance,” said Darling-Hammond. “They ensure that all teachers get access to the knowledge and skills they need to be successful, and they support their improvement throughout their careers.”

The report outlines five lessons learned from these three jurisdictions’ systems:

  • It takes a system. Finland, Ontario, and Singapore differ in significant in terms of educator-development systems, “but what they have in common is that they are just that—systems for teacher and leader development. They include multiple components, not just a single policy, and these components are intended to be coherent and complementary, to support the overall goal of ensuring that each school in each jurisdiction is filled with highly effective teachers and is led by a highly effective principal.”
  • Get it right from the start. In each jurisdiction, entry into teacher education programs is extremely selective. Finland selects just one out of every 10 individuals who apply to become primary school teachers; Singapore traditionally selects those from the top third of high school classes (the nation is now moving rapidly toward graduate-level preparation); and in Ontario, where graduate-level preparation is the norm, the process is highly competitive, the report’s authors note.
  • Make teaching an attractive profession. While the top U.S. high school graduates often pursue careers in medicine, law, or business, teaching is a draw for academically talented youth in Finland, Ontario, and Singapore. Those educators stay in the profession instead of leaving for higher-paying jobs in other sectors. In Finland, for example, teaching was the top-rated job by college students surveyed in 2008.
  • Invest in continuous learning. “All three jurisdictions provide considerable time for teachers to work collaboratively and learn together during the regular school schedule—as much as five times what U.S. teachers receive,” according to the report.
  • Proactively recruit and develop high-quality leadership. The authors note that “in all three jurisdictions, school leaders are expected to be instructional leaders. They are expected to know curriculum and teaching intimately and be able to provide guidance and support to teachers. While management and budgeting are important aspects of leaders’ jobs, their instructional leadership role is paramount.”

“Teacher effectiveness is one of the most important factors in student learning, and we want to be sure we have the best people in classrooms, prepare them well, and keep them there,” said Bob Wise, AEE president and former governor of West Virginia. “These systems have a lot to teach us about how to do those things, and they get results.”

The policies of these nations are not expected to be imported wholesale into the United States, the report notes. Rather, these policies can expand U.S. policy makers’ views of what is possible as they seek to give students the all-important global education. The examples also show how these policies can be implemented in different contexts.

The report includes promising news about U.S. education programs, such as the Race to the Top program and ED’s efforts to raise awareness about the teaching profession and attract and retain more teachers.

“However, as promising as they are, these efforts do not yet add up to a comprehensive system in most communities. While some states view teacher development systemically, others do not, and many of the initiatives tackle the issue in a piecemeal fashion,” the authors said. “Few states or districts have created a seamless, well-supported pipeline to school leadership positions. As the examples from high-performing nations show, only a systemic approach will ensure that all schools and classrooms are staffed by highly effective leaders and teachers.”

In addition to an overview chapter that summarizes these lessons and shows how each system carries them out, the report also includes detailed descriptions of teacher- and leader-effectiveness policies from the education systems in Finland, Ontario, and Singapore. Those descriptions were written by leading researchers in each of the jurisdictions.

In tandem with the report, the Alliance for Excellent Education also released an issue brief that includes a version of the report’s overview chapter.

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