Research has shown that, to be most effective, professional learning for teachers “needs to [be] conducted in the ways that it is in many high-achieving countries–continuously, collaboratively, and with a focus on teaching specific content to particular learners.”

High-performing developing countries have caught on, offering teacher training and curricula revolving around creating the most effective teachers. These countries tend to rise above the rest of the field by first focusing on recruiting the right people to enter the profession; second, prioritizing teacher development; and third, making sure that the infrastructure is in place to most effectively translate the first two objectives into an ideal learning environment.

In comparison, the U.S. seems to be lagging a bit in these areas.

Cogs and factory lines

The former U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, put it bluntly in a speech given at the National Center on Education and the Economy National Symposium: “The overwhelming sentiment at the [International Summit on the Teaching Profession] was that teachers today need to be treated more as professionals and knowledge workers, and less as interchangeable cogs in an educational factory line out of the last century.”

So what can the U.S. learn from its high-performing counterparts? Improvements can be made on several fronts: in the areas of recruitment and preparation, a push for equitable salaries, an emphasis on professional development, more opportunities for teacher collaboration, more mentorship relationships between new and experienced teachers, and involving teachers more fully in policy changes and decision-making.

Recruitment and preparation

According to Duncan, “a country’s teachers can only be as good as the system that recruits, prepares, provides professional development, and compensates teachers”—and in several of these areas, the U.S. lags behind. The cost to Americans to enter the teaching profession tends to be much higher than in other high-performing nations.

For example, teaching candidates in Nordic countries like Finland and Sweden receive two to three years of graduate-level preparation for teaching, covered by the government. What’s more, teachers-in-training in these programs also receive a living stipend.

Subsidizing the costs of preparation ensures that all teachers-in-training can afford to be well prepared, and ensures that those suited to the profession aren’t barred entry for economic reasons.  

Equitable salaries

Another problem is a lack of equitable, competitive salaries for teachers, particularly those in underserved communities. Paradoxically, the communities that need well-trained teachers can’t afford to keep them, since the hours tend to be longer and the resources thinner.

As a report from the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) argues, teachers in the U.S. enter the profession with “sharply disparate and often inadequate salaries—with those teaching in the poorest communities earning the least, stimulating a revolving door of underprepared teachers.”

To keep up with high-performing peers in other countries, the U.S. must invest in more competitive salaries that are comparable to those of other professions, like engineering, and help staff underserved or hard-to-staff areas by providing additional stipends and other perks.

An emphasis on professional development…

European and Asian nations tend to excel at providing teachers with more professional learning opportunities. In Sweden, for example, teachers receive 104 hours (roughly 15 days) per year of in-service training. That time accounts for approximately 6 percent of teachers’ total working time. And in Singapore, every teacher receives 100 hours of professional development each year—fully paid.

But in the U.S., in 2008, teachers received the majority of their professional development in so-called “one-shot” workshops of just eight or fewer hours, spread out over the course of a year. The difference in professional-development time between countries is staggering.

…and collaborative time spent outside the classroom

U.S. teachers spend roughly three to five hours a week on lesson planning, whereas in most other high-performing countries, teachers spend up to five times that amount on out-of-class tasks relating to teaching, often collaborating with other teachers and mentors.

In South Korea, just 35 percent of teachers’ working time is spent in front of students. And teachers work in a shared office space during out-of-class time; students remain in the room while the teachers rotate from room to room.

SCOPE recommends out-of-class work time of “at least 10 hours per week—in which teachers can engage in collective curriculum planning, analysis of student work, and sustained, job-embedded professional development.”

Increased mentorship opportunities

High-performing countries recognize the benefits of mentorship opportunities—for both beginner and senior teachers—and make them a priority.

A reduced teaching load and shared planning time for newer teachers helps them adjust to the demands of the job more smoothly, while the opportunity to mentor can give senior teachers more opportunities for professional developmental, supplemental income, and growth in the field.

In Singapore, for example, established teachers who receive training from the Institute of Education can transition into expanded coaching and development roles. This certification leads to additional compensation according to their salary schedule.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, the Ministry of Education “funds 20 percent release time for new teachers and 10 percent release time for second-year teachers to observe other teachers, attend professional development activities, work on curriculum, and attend courses.”

Teacher involvement in policy

When it comes to understanding the practical challenges of the educational system, teachers often have the most insight on where money should be spent and how policy should be enacted. Yet in the U.S., they’re often left out of the policymaking process altogether.

As former Education Secretary Duncan put it, “Teachers need and deserve more autonomy and respect—and they must become real participants and partners in reform if outcomes for children are to dramatically improve.”

More teacher input in policy has proven to be a boon for high-performing countries. In Finland, for instance, inclusion of teachers and staff in policy and decision-making is the norm: teachers and administrative teams work side by side to develop syllabi and assessments, choose course materials, and decide what courses to offer.

Obstacles to reform

According to Duncan, there are a number of obstacles unique to the U.S. that make it difficult to adopt some of the policies of their peers. One roadblock is a lack of national standards when it comes to the development of a unified federal curriculum.

The tradition of local control and local financing is much stronger here than in most top-performing countries and provinces,” he notes. “The federal government does not set national standards. We have not and will not prescribe a national curriculum—and in fact we are barred by law from doing so.”

Moreover, according to SCOPE, many of the high-performing countries have been developing their infrastructure for the last two decades. Conditions for larger-scale policy changes could be cultivated in America, provided policymakers have clarity about how to effectively adapt strategies from global counterparts to our unique geopolitical and economic infrastructure.

One thing is clear: funds need to be more effectively allocated. “We spend at least $4 billion every year in federal funds on professional development—and don’t have good results to show for it,” Duncan argues. “When I talk to great teachers across the country, they are stunned by this number—and by how little this investment has benefitted them or their colleagues.”