Shanghai (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

Shanghai has been No. 1 on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, two straight times — in 2009 and 2012 — though it is now considering pulling out of the exercise in part, officials say, because they don’t want to place so much emphasis on standardized tests. That sounds refreshing. And here’s another lesson from Shanghai: how to professionalize teaching and develop teachers. Here to explain how Shanghai does it is Rachel Evans,  a National Board Certified Teacher in Seattle, Washington. Since 2010, she has been an active member of her district’s International Schools Leadership Team, working collaboratively with colleagues to develop a framework for international education for Seattle Public Schools. She is also a Virtual Community Organizer and Collaboratory member with the Center for Teaching Quality.


By Rachel Evans

In 2009 and again in 2012, Shanghai claimed the  No. 1 ranking on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a global assessment of 15 year-old students’ abilities in math, reading, and science across 65 countries.

As a North American teacher, I’m interested in Shanghai’s education system for a number of reasons. But what truly excites me—and inspires my envy—is its laser focus on teacher development and professional learning.

In Shanghai, teaching is a 40-year career steeped in ongoing professional learning. Compare that with the United States, where we cross our fingers and hope that teachers stay in the classroom for more than five years.

Would it surprise you to learn that teacher attrition in the United States costs upwards of  $7 billion annually? Here are a few things that $7 billion could fund:

  • 1.7 million teachers’ certification through the rigorous National Board process.
  • 14 million college credits for teachers to continue their education, or one 4-credit college course for each of the 3.5 million teachers in the United States
  • 400,000 teacherpreneur positions—over 7,000 per state.  

So, that naturally leads to a few questions:

Why do teachers in the United States leave the profession early?

This is a not-so-complicated question. Effective teaching requires collaboration with colleagues, and in the U.S., this time is too limited. In Singapore and Shanghai, teachers work 40 hours a week—but they spend just 10 to 18 of those hours teaching. They use the remaining time to collaborate with colleagues and improve their practice. Compare that with the U.S., where educators teach 25 to 32 hours per week.

Without adequate time to collaborate, analyze student work and achievement data, share tried and true methodologies, research best practices, and observe demonstration lessons, teachers have little professional support.

Our job cannot be done effectively in isolation, though so often we have to go at it alone. This is exhausting work—so it’s no surprise that many teachers leave the classroom altogether.

Why do teachers in Shanghai stay in the profession?

In Shanghai, education leaders are dedicated to attracting and retaining the best teachers. Teachers are offered continuous, job-embedded professional development, collaboration time with colleagues (including mentoring relationships with master teachers), and compensated career growth opportunities.

In short: Shanghai has figured out how to professionalize teaching. Teachers are given a clear path to leadership opportunities within their profession. They have access to systemic and effective in-service training. And they continuously improve their practice with career-long professional learning opportunities.

Here’s a short list of what Shanghai’s commitment to teaching looks like:

  • Extended learning: In the first five years of teaching, the government pays for teachers to complete 360 hours of required training. An additional 180 government-funded hours are available for interested teachers. Teachers are also able to increase their salary as they meet and exceed these benchmarks.
  • Ample time to collaborate: Teachers are in front of students about 12 hours a week. When they aren’t teaching, teachers collaborate with colleagues in lesson planning and research groups to solve problems of practice. They also observe and teach demonstration lessons, which are deconstructed in order to help teachers improve their instruction.
  • Career ladder: Teachers are identified across four levels as an indication of their professional status: new teachers (1st year), junior-level teachers (2nd-5th years), middle-level teachers (6th -10th years), and senior-level teachers (11th year and above). A “master teacher” title is as an honor given to senior secondary school teachers for their outstanding contributions to education. 

Overall, teachers are promoted based on professional evaluations, which take into account classroom observations, demonstration lessons, and quality of mentorship to other teachers. As teachers move up the ranks of the career ladder, they receive professional growth opportunities and increased compensation, responsibility, and stature—all without having to leave the classroom.

So what should the United States do to improve professional development for teachers?

In the United States, professional development often involves having an outside trainer come in to instruct teachers. But what I find fascinating—liberating even—about the Shanghai system is that teachers are at the center of professional learning.

Professional learning doesn’t have to come from the outside. In fact, some of the best learning that teachers experience is spending time dissecting lessons, discussing strategies, analyzing student work, and mentoring—all with other teachers.

Recently, seven teacher leaders from the United States, Shanghai, Singapore, and Canada completed a report, “A Global Network of Teachers and Their Professional Learning Systems,” analyzing professional learning systems across six international cities. These teachers observed that, in the United States, “there are few concerted efforts to design school structures that allow teachers to learn in systematic ways.”

Scaling professional learning requires a commitment to removing obstacles for teachers to learn and lead. Here are five recommendations from the report on how to do just that:

  • Rethink how teachers’ time is allocated;
  • Connect teacher evaluations with professional learning systems;
  • Value opportunities for teachers to learn from one another;
  • Establish career pathways encouraging teachers to lead without leaving the classroom; and
  • Expand professional learning offerings and access points. 

Teachers learn best when they watch expert teachers in action and are observed by those teachers. In the U.S., we need to provide our teachers the opportunity to do the same.

Imagine how teaching—and student outcomes—might transform if we offered teachers systemic, collaborative opportunities to strengthen their practice and lead from within the classroom. What would a career ladder for teachers look like?

We need to study the example of countries that have professionalized teaching and bring creativity to the task of developing our own models for improving education for every North American student.