How High-Performing Nations Treat Educators as Professionals

high-performing nationsCountries with top-performing education systems in the world all share a key component – high-quality professional development, which is largely missing in the U.S., according to two reports released last week. The studies found that high-perfoming nations include professional learning in the daily work of teachers, where it’s considered a primary practice for school improvement. They also offer career ladders for educators, which has led to higher teacher quality.

The reports were released by the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) Center on International Education Benchmarking at a forum in Washington, D.C. on January 14. The authors were joined by leading voices in education, including NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, to discuss how the U.S. could learn from the top nations.

“When teachers have strong incentives to get better and better at their work, and they are given the opportunity to work together every day in teams to improve student achievement, they never stop seeking and finding information that can help them do a better job,” said NCEE President and CEO Marc Tucker.

In Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems, Ben Jensen, an Australian researcher, analyzed the professional learning systems in four high-performing systems: Shanghai, British Columbia, Singapore, and Hong Kong, all of which score near the top of all jurisdictions tested in mathematics, reading and science on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

All of these systems free up time during the school day for collaborative professional learning, create leadership roles for expert teachers to mentor and develop other teachers and lead school improvement teams, and recognize and reward the development of teacher expertise.

“Accountability is also different,” Jensen said at the forum last week. “They have three measures of focus: school performance, quality of instruction, and quality of professional learning. You’re held accountable for how well you collaborate.”

High-performing nations also develop specialist expertise among their teachers and provide pathways to leadership, or “career ladders,” which are integral to Shanghai’s education system, according to Minxuan Zhang, former president of Shanghai Normal University and deputy director of the Shanghai Education Commission. The report, Developing Shanghai’s Teachers, offers an insider’s perspective into that Chinese city’s education system.

The main reason for Shanghai’s success has been its highly-organized and articulated teacher development system. Zhang describes teacher development in Shanghai as a triangle, with the teacher career ladder, in-service training and development, and performance appraisal as the three sides. Each side of the triangle is connected to and reinforces the other sides. The career ladder provides financial motivation and advancement for teachers, the in-service training enables teachers to move along the ladder, and performance appraisal evaluates and recognizes teacher performance at each step of the ladder.

At the NCEE forum, panelists discussed if similar approaches, specifically one including career ladders, could work in the U.S.

Eskelsen García said that NEA has looked at different career ladders put into practice in districts around the U.S. and has identified what arrangements work and what arrangements fail. Merit pay systems fail, for example, because the way they’ve been proposed is pay by test scores. Systems that call for paying good teachers “X “and bad teachers “Y” are also failures.

“You should pay bad teachers nothing because you shouldn’t hire a bad teacher,” Eskelsen García said. “Before you become a teacher of record you must be a highly competent, proven professional.”

But there is clearly a role for career advancement. Teachers who are specially trained to be mentor teachers should be justly compensated, as well as those who are proven and effective curriculum developers, and those who take on leadership roles.

Creating pathways for educators to build their expertise and practice and become leaders should be institutionalized in the U.S., Eskelsen García said, but with proper training and sound evaluations, so educators can get feedback on how to improve in their expanded roles.