Why aren't our teachers the best and the brightest?

The Post editorial board's Jo-Ann Armao speaks with Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the D.C. Public School system, about the future of her position, her greatest regret and accomplishment and what she thinks of her portrayal as a "superwoman" in the documentary "Waiting for Superman." (October 4, 2010)
By Paul Kihn and Matt Miller
Sunday, October 10, 2010

Why don't more of our smartest, most accomplished college graduates want to become teachers?

People trying to improve education in this country have been talking a lot lately about boosting "teacher effectiveness." But nearly all such efforts focus on the teachers who are already in the classroom, instead of seeking to change the caliber of the people who enter teaching in the first place.

Three of the top-performing school systems in the world -- those in Finland, Singapore and South Korea -- take a different approach, recruiting 100 percent of their teachers from the top third of their high school and college students. Simply put, they don't take middling students and make them teachers. They tap their best people for the job.

Of course, academic achievement isn't the whole story in these countries. They screen would-be teachers for other important qualities, and they invest heavily in training teachers and in retaining them for their entire careers. But scholastic prowess comes first: You don't get through the classroom door in Finland, Singapore or South Korea without having distinguished yourself academically. In the United States, by contrast, only 23 percent of new teachers scored among the top third of SAT and ACT test-takers back in high school. In high-poverty schools, that figure is just 14 percent.

This shouldn't come as news. The late Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1997 to 2004, was open about the problem as far back as 2003. "You have in the schools right now, among the teachers who are going to be retiring, very smart people," she said in an interview. "We're not getting in now the same kinds of people. It's disastrous. We've been saying for years now that we're attracting from the bottom third."

Feldman was right to point out that we are entering a period of enormous turnover in our classrooms: With about half of America's 3.5 million teachers eligible to retire in the next decade, the question of who should teach looms especially large.

So why do top U.S. college students have so little interest in teaching careers compared with their counterparts in the world's best-performing nations?

Partly, it's because we are stuck in a time warp. Up through the mid-1970s, the academic quality of the teacher corps in the United States was effectively subsidized by discrimination: Talented women and members of minorities became teachers at high rates in large part because they didn't have many opportunities outside the classroom.

When that changed, teaching lost its longtime labor supply and suddenly had to compete with more lucrative professions, even as educators' salaries were falling behind. In New York City in 1970, for example, a starting lawyer at a prestigious firm earned about $2,000 per year more than a starting public school teacher. Today, that starting New York lawyer makes $160,000, including salary and bonus, while a new teacher across town earns $45,000. Nationally, teachers' starting salaries average $39,000 today, rising to an average career maximum of $67,000.

But it's not just pay that's a problem. A teaching career does not offer our nation's top college graduates a compelling peer group, opportunities for continued learning or the prestige of other professions. Moreover, our most needy schools mostly fail to offer the working conditions or the leadership needed to retain top talent once it has been recruited.

Our approach to teacher recruitment and development doesn't hold a candle to the methods used in Singapore, Finland and South Korea, where attracting high-quality people to the profession is considered a national priority. The good news, based on research that we and our colleagues at McKinsey & Company recently completed, is that the United States could dramatically increase the number of top students who choose teaching by adopting some of these countries' practices.

How do they do it? For starters, these countries make teacher training programs highly selective, accepting no more than one out of every seven or eight applicants. Their governments also limit the number of training positions to match the expected demand for educators, so that those admitted are assured jobs. American teachers, by contrast, mostly enter the profession through programs that are not selective at all. As a result, more than half of newly certified teachers in the United States -- about 100,000 each year -- do not take jobs in the classroom.

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