An analysis of the differences between education in the US and elsewhere

I share with you an analysis of an international comparison of education and teaching in the US, Singapore, South Korea, Finland, and elsewhere. Very interesting. Written by Michael Martin.

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I just analyzed the new McKinsey report and found it a classic example of “I’ve made up my mind, don’t confuse me with the facts.” Ironically that includes the facts cited in their own report. Here is my analysis [writes Michael Martin]:

The McKinsey & Company report “Closing the talent gap: Attracting and retaining top-third graduates to careers in teaching” claims that the three top countries in international testing – Singapore, Finland and South Korea – “recruit, develop and retain” all of their teachers from the top third of college graduates, compared to the U.S. where “23 percent of new teachers come from the top third, and just 14 percent in high poverty schools.” Despite contrary evidence in their report, they claim this accounts for their top performing status.

Indeed, in the next paragraph the report notes “Paradoxically, U.S. research on whether teachers’ academic backgrounds significantly predict classroom effectiveness is very mixed, and it suggests that merely sprinkling teachers with top-third academic credentials into our existing system will not by itself produce dramatic gains in student achievement.” Plus they note that “our market research suggests that raising the share of top-third+ new hires in high-needs schools from 14 percent to 68 percent would mean paying new teachers around $65,000 with a maximum career compensation of $150,000 per year.” In other words, to achieve the 100 percent teacher recruitment from top third college graduates in the U.S. would be prohibitively expensive and might not accomplish much anyway.

The McKinsey report conceded that the success of Singapore, Finland, and South Korea was not strictly from hiring top-third college graduates. The report stated “These countries recognize that coming from the top third of graduates does not automatically translate into classroom effectiveness, and they invest systematically in developing the skills of those they select to teach.” But the report seems oblivious to this and does not focus on what that “systematically” process entails, although in describing Singapore the report did note:

“Singapore also provides teachers with time for collaboration and professional development. A few senior and master teachers in each school observe and coach other teachers, prepare model lessons and materials, advise on teaching methods and best practices, organize training, and support newly qualified teachers and trainees, in addition to their regular course-load. All teachers have time each week for professional collaboration and receive 100 hours of paid professional development each year.”

In describing Finland they note: “Teachers have wide decision-making authority in school policy and management, textbooks, course content, student assessment policies,course offerings, and budget allocations within the school.” They note that teacher pay is “modest, starting at around 81 percent of GDP per capita, slightly above the US at 79 percent.” However they fail to translate that into actual dollars. The UNdata website shows that in 2008 dollars this corresponds to $41,641 in Finland versus $35,732 in the United States, but with national healthcare provided in Finland this difference is substantially larger in disposable income.

When describing South Korea the report notes “South Korea places great emphasis on selectivity in entering the profession for elementary” teachers and “providing the highest teacher salaries in the world” which the report states for beginning teachers is about $55,000 with maximum salaries for teachers at about $155,000 in U.S. equivalent salaries. The report also notes that South Korea’s teachers “are guaranteed a teaching position for life.” The report suggests that “the country is piloting a program for advancement to ‘master teacher’ designation, and it has introduced new annual teacher evaluations aimed at promoting professional growth after five years of piloting. Teachers will be evaluated by peer teachers, administrators, students and parents at least once a year, and will participate in professional in-service education based on the feedback.” Thus their teacher evaluations are supportive rather than punitive.

The report explains why it would be difficult to duplicate the success of top performing countries in the United States: “Top-performing countries have a deep history of prestige attached to teaching, the U.S. does not.” Noting, for example, the South Korean proverb “Don’t even step on the shadow of a teacher.” It continues “Other countries fund schools for the poor and the affluent roughly equally; in the U.S., a tradition of locally-based school finance leads to wide disparities in per pupil funding – a relevant factor when the chief component of school budgets is teacher salaries.” Thus these top performing countries do not unjustly blame teachers for the inequitable funding of schools.

The McKinsey report found 6 “common practices that offer lessons for the U.S.” that they attributed to the success of the education systems in Singapore, Finland, and South Korea. The first, they identified as the highly selective admissions to teacher training but they equivocated by acknowledging that “They thus create a selectivity ‘gate’ early in the pipeline of teachers’ development, and then spend several years ensuring that university students whom they know will enter teaching are well prepared, with rigorous, extensive and practical training.” They then note in contrast that in the U.S. “more than half of newly certified teachers – about 100,000 each year – do not enter the profession.”

Their second “common practice” is that in Singapore and Finland, students in teacher training have their education paid for and even “receive salaries or stipends while they train.” Their third “common practice” was that these countries focused on elementary teachers. Their fourth was that “top-performing nations foster a professional working environment for teachers” and they contrasted this with the U.S. where “opportunities for advancement or recognition are few; ongoing training and apprenticeship are often seen as mediocre; and working conditions, especially in high-poverty schools, are frequently a disgrace.”

Their fifth “common practice” was the higher compensation in top-performing countries and their sixth was the higher respect accorded to teachers in those countries. These “common practices” were accompanied by “a final difference is the view of teaching as a career.” In contrast to the U.S. where senior teachers are often discarded for younger inexperienced teachers, such as the Teach For America program, the top-performing countries view teacher experience as, to quote a Singapore education official, “We believe that the experience of a teacher is a valuable asset.” Indeed, “When asked if Finland seeks to recruit top talent to teaching for a full career, as opposed to five or seven years, Pasi Sahlberg found the question almost unintelligible. ‘Yes, of course we recruit for a career,’ he said.”

The report did note that the primary problem with getting teachers to work in high-needs schools was not money related, but rather because of working conditions. The study asked teachers who had already been in the top third of their college class what would influence them to “take a job in a high needs school” and 23 percent replied “Working environment” with “School leadership” at 10 percent the second choice which they valued even more than “double the salary.”

This led to a “Keyfinding” that “the U.S. could more than double the portion of top-thirds+ new hires in high-needs districts from 14 percent to 34 percent without raising salaries.” However, the report noted that “would still leave high-needs schools in the U.S. with just one in three new hires coming from the top third compared to 100 percent in Singapore, Finland and South Korea. Our research suggests that achieving additional gains would require higher compensation in some form.”

But the report’s almost laser focus on attracting top-third college graduates seems to have blinded the authors to the real findings of their study. First, they noted early that “research on whether teachers’ academic backgrounds significantly predict classroom effectiveness is very mixed” but still proceeded on the assumption that attracting top third graduates was their best strategy. When they actually asked teachers who were already in the top third of college graduates the teachers revealed that the “working environment” was their dominant concern and that school leadership was their second biggest concern.

The authors made almost no reference to improving school leadership even though it is highly likely that principals are the primary source of the “working environment” that U.S. teachers find so problematic and even the report noted “working conditions, especially in high-poverty schools, are frequently a disgrace.” The report seemingly has a fundamental “blame the teachers” view that teachers are the only important factor in operating public schools. They begin with a premise and then ignore the contrary evidence that their own report cites. It is almost an archtypical example of “I’ve made up my mind, don’t confuse me with the facts.” Facts that they even cite in their report.

More importantly, their study found over and over that top performing countries “invest systematically in developing the skills of those they select to teach” and “top-performing nations foster a professional working environment for teachers” plus all three top performing countries focus on giving teachers greater influence over their professional lives. From Singapore where “senior and master teachers in each school observe and coach other teachers” to Finland where “Teachers have wide decision-making authority in school policy and management, textbooks, course content, student assessment policies, course offerings, and budget allocations within the school” to South Korea where teachers are to be “evaluated by peer teachers, administrators, students and parents at least once a year, and will participate in professional in-service education based on the feedback” as a supportive rather than punitive process.

An objective reading of the McKinsey report would find that their “top third” premise is not warranted since even they admit that having top-third college graduates has not been found by research to be crucial. Yet they cite over and over that the top performing countries pay teachers a lot more money and spend a lot of money and effort to provide training and professional development for those teachers. More importantly, these professionals are then trusted with far more influence and authority over how education is conducted. It is highly likely that these conditions attract the top third college graduates.

Michael T. Martin
Research Analyst
Arizona School Boards Association
2100 N. Central Ave, Suite 200
Phoenix, Az 85004
602-254-1100 1-800-238-4701
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Published in: on September 30, 2010 at 5:33 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Notice that South Korean teachers are, in fact, guaranteed a job for life!
    Take that, Michelle-Rhee-from-South-Korea!

    Like

  2. it suggests that merely sprinkling teachers with top-third academic credentials into our existing system will not by itself produce dramatic gains in student achievement.”

    Don’t tell Michelle Rhee!

    Like

  3. Teach for America and Teach for Australia both work on the principal of placing high achieving graduates in front of classes. It doesn’t work. What is being forgotten in looking at the issue of the quality of graduates in Finland and the USA for example, is that the selection in Finland starts BEFORE they enter university, not after. In some colleges in Finland it is harder to get into a primary teacher training position than it is to get into medicine. They will tell you that they have hardly any failing teachers because they are so careful in the initial selection process and in monitoring during training. They do not cherry pick high achieves and then turn them into teachers. It’s a completely different approach from ours.

    Like


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