Smart teachers, successful students

Countries with high-scoring students tend to have high-quality teachers, reports the Christian Science Monitor, looking at Finland and Singapore. In both, teaching is a prestige profession open only to top students.

Only the top third of secondary-school graduates in Singapore can apply for teacher training. The National Institute of Education winnows that field down more and pays a living stipend while they learn to teach. Each year, teachers take an additional 100 hours of paid professional development. And they spend substantial time outside the classroom to plan with colleagues.

Singapore’s teachers earn as much as scientists and engineers.

Other successful education nations may: mentor new teachers; give teachers time to collaborate with colleagues and design lessons, work within a national curriculum and invest in improving teachers’ skills.

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Comments

  1. While this is interesting and certainly tempting as a reform idea, the rational side of me keeps in mind the significant cultural differences between European/Asian countries and America. Having taught in Taiwan for five years, I know there are fundamental components of their system that, while very effective there, would simply not transfer here with the same results.

    That said, I am intrigued by their differing concepts of teacher training and support, and there is much to recommend a move toward a more internship-style program following an undergrad content-area degree. Most teachers assert that they learned to teach in their first two years (a reason so many leave during that integral time). How many students are shortchanged by that system.

    We all have, or have heard, stories of taking over a new class/curriculum and basically winging it in terms of lessons, evaluations, exit standards, etc. Thus, some reform in that area is certainly welcomed.

    Additionally, while making more money might be nice, it’s not the reason I became a teacher, and it won’t change my motivation, as money was never a factor. To imply that teachers are holding back their best teaching based on money is sad.

  2. Its been my experience that most people aren’t motivated by how much money they make. Even those people who focus on money a lot are often more motivated by winning than by making money. The money just happens to provide a meaningful scale of measuring a win. But its also been my experience that people can feel taken advantage of when the amount of money they make seems lacking. That’s when they start to look for alternatives. I’ve often thought that teacher turnover rates may have a lot to do with exactly this issue. Why devote your life to a challenge that nobody else cares enough about to commit adequate resources to? A teacher’s salary being only one element of adequate resources. Of course it takes time for this process to play out and I’m not saying there are no outliers.

  3. It’s not the money, it’s the crap. I can’t imagine anything more deadening than having to take all those methods courses that education depts. deem necessary to train a teacher. I’ve taught community college classes without benefit of teacher training, and I don’t see how teaching the same classes in a high school would be so different.

  4. Ponderosa says:

    “Teacher training” as it currently exists in the US is mostly useless. Both ed school courses and district in-services offer up vague, general fare, not the specific, content-focused workshops that would actually make us better teachers. I would LOVE to see a course called How to Teach a Unit on Islam in a California Seventh Grade Classroom…have a Berkeley HISTORY professor give a primer on the actual history; have a master teacher highlight the key talking points and share some lore about how best to make this specific material appetizing and lucid to 12 year olds…load us with juicy stories, bios and anecdotes that will hook the kids… THIS is what excellent teacher training would look like, but it DOES NOT EXIST in the US (as far as I can tell). Too expensive, I guess, and runs counter to the prevailing ideology that generalized processes are all that matter. My county department of education sends out a flyer to all teachers every month listing professional development courses it’s offering: NONE of them come close to what I’m describing. It’s usually just a plethora of tech trainings.

  5. Margo/Mom says:

    Michael:

    I think that you are missing the point. I am sure that you are a great teacher, top of your class. But the reason for looking at salary schedules (on top of the reason that teachers keep bringing up the fact that they aren’t paid sufficiently for what they do), is not to see if it will motivate existing teachers to do a better job, it’s to see if it will attract a better, overall, field of teachers. It is more than a tad embarrassing to look at the fact that in Singapore and Finland their teachers are drawn from the top of their high school cohorts and compare that to data showing that ours are generally down near the bottom. Meaning to cast no aspersions at any individuals, we seem to have a problem, particularly in the lower grades, in pulling in folks who are at or above average based on SAT scores.

    I don’t know exactly the role that salary plays in this, but I am certainly willing to keep it on the table. I certainly also believe that their induction process has a good bit more thought put into it than ours, which would be termed haphazard, at best. There is absolutely, to my mind, value in providing teachers with adequate time to plan, learn and collaborate. But I get apprehensive when I hear the kind of thing that Ponderosa articulates–everything we get now is useless. Unless teachers, as a profession, are willing to step up to the plate and accept some responsibility for crafting and seeking professional development that is of high quality and suits their needs, I don’t know that anyone will be able to “provide” anything to them that is more useful. Recall that trainers are teachers as well, and there is nothing less conducive to an educational process than facing a room full of adults who have pre-determined that you have nothing of value to share with them and they are only there to get paid (or avoid punishment, or whatever the inducement is).

  6. Oh, so this is now part of the teaching job as well? Let me see. In addition to planning data-driven lessons, making sure all children — from the mentally retarded to highly gifted — are challenged in the same classroom, and tracking and reporting on mastery of 27 different standards, I’m now supposed to design and conduct professional development (not to mention hire and evaluate other teachers in the building) all on that one hour plan time when I’m not actually teaching.

    News flash: these are administrative tasks. That’s why we have administrators. Perhaps administrators need to step up and do their job. If I can plan and teach six classes a day, I don’t see why they can’t plan and present good PD that meets the needs of all the teachers in the building once a month.

  7. Margo/Mom,

    While I believe deeply in providing incentives for performance, my original point focused on the perceived notion that American schools trail Asian/European because we don’t pay our teachers comparable to the high earners in their subject, if not field and that we don’t limit teaching spots to our top students. Those countries value education in a far different way than American society, and thus their teachers face different obstacles to educating their children. On the most basic level, they face far fewer obstacles, as they limit access to higher education based on ability and discipline.

    In the United States, students have a “property right” to education, which means they can stay on a college-prep track with a D-average, atrocious attendance, and discipline problems. Americans can and are encouraged to go to college even if they didn’t graduate high school. That is true no where else in the world. Having taught in Taiwan for five years, I know their students are under tremendous pressure to perform, as they take national tests to get into “college-bound, junior high schools.” If they don’t perform well on tests at age eleven, they are effectively barred from college. Hence, their teachers encounter a much different level of motivation.

    Additionally, there is much evidence that superior intelligence and high grades in school do not logically translate into effective teachers. Smart people don’t automatically make good teachers. It’s flawed to think so. In fact, often the smartest people make the worse teachers simply through their inability to understand why their students don’t just “get it.” Teachers need to understand the struggle to learn in order to decipher the best ways to help their students access learning. Implying that higher pay will “attract a better, overall, field of teachers” is disconnected from the motivation behind teaching. It’s not a good idea to entice people into the field simply based on higher pay. That flawed model contributed to much of the problems in the financial sector in the last decade as the best and brightest were lured away from other professions because they could make a killing on Wall Street. They did, and left a disaster in their wake.

    Note: I am not opposed to seeking a “better quality” of student and teacher, and I concede that some restructuring of pay may will be progress toward a more effective system. However, I simply asserted that looking at Singapore and Finland – specifically on pay and intelligence of teacher candidate – is flawed.

    In terms of professional development, there are many districts (mine included) that currently “are willing to step up to the plate and accept some responsibility for crafting and seeking professional development that is of high quality and suits their needs.” From reading the comments of many education blogs, I know their are thousands of teachers regularly seeking best practice in a myriad of ways.

    Thus, my feelings is that there is no nationwide systemic problem. There are many districts, however, that are not effectively finding, training, and maintaining the most effective staff.

  8. Physics Teacher says:

    But I get apprehensive when I hear the kind of thing that Ponderosa articulates–everything we get now is useless.

    I would have thought the same thing prior to becoming a teacher. But Ponderosa is right. If you’ve got time and money to throw away you can start taking education classes and see for yourself.

    Unless teachers, as a profession, are willing to step up to the plate and accept some responsibility for crafting and seeking professional development that is of high quality and suits their needs

    When are teachers supposed to do this? You don’t realize how worthless the so-called training is until you enter the classroom. You can’t omit the training and be allowed into a classroom. By the time you are in a classroom all your time is chewed up staying afloat. Worse, folks who’ve done nothing besides teaching never witnessed the type of training available in other fields so they see nothing wrong, and they’ve usually been around long enough to be in charge.

    I don’t know that anyone will be able to “provide” anything to them that is more useful.

    Other professions do routinely. I’ve worked for the military and I took courses alongside folks in uniform, and I’ve worked for major corporations, and the training was top-notch. In addition, my non-education college classes were superior to education classes (kinda ironic, huh?)

  9. I am very choosy about the professional development I take. I have walked out of workshops that are a waste of my time. I have also used my own funds to take classes that I believe will help me in the classroom with my students.

    As for smart people becoming teachers, we do need to pay better to attract that bright person. All teachers believe they are smart, but it is not always true. Just look in some of the rooms around you, and you will see poor literacy skills. And I don’t mean the students! I cannot believe some of the memos and emails teachers (and administrators) send out to other faculty members. The grammar and spelling is often atrocious. I also see the same mistakes written on white boards or in letters of recommendation for students. We need the very best and brightest people teaching our children.

  10. Elizabeth says:

    I would throw out another item – unions. To attract a better quality of applicant, you need to push for portability of pensions and do away with the wrench tuner mentality. Who wants to go through 4-6 years of college and perform a challenging job so they can be treated the same as the absolute worst of their chosen field? And not be able to easily relocate for better jobs? I work in an office where some staff belong to the union – the poorer the qualifications, the less work done the more virulently pro-union they are.

  11. Margo/Mom says:

    LS:

    Let’s stay in context, please. The discussion was of school systems that provide teachers with more out-of-classroom time to do such things as planning and learning together. To my mind, one barrier to the ability of American teachers to benefit from such a re-arrangement is exactly what you articulate, which is a deep belief that PD is something that is provided by someone else (an administrative responsibility). Of course this approach is doomed to failure due to another deep belief, which is that administrators cannot possibly understand the needs of teachers.

    Michael:

    I would note that while Singapore and Finland differ significantly from the US, they also differ significantly from each other. The Singapore system is, as you say, still a system with levels that are determined fairly early on, that determine a student’s ultimate level of access to higher education. They differ from the US, in their commitment to providing access to the same Math and language curriculum to even the lowest levels–although they have an additional year built in. The US, despite recent requirements of NCLB still struggles with the idea of all kids being able to “get” all of the math. Finland, however, is far different. While they do have exit exams that determine access to various post-secondary options (like the teaching profession, for instance), they have been heavily committed to equality of opportunity for many years, and support that in ways both educational and social.

    So–when we see that they are outscoring us (actually at both the top and bottom of the spectrum) AND doing teacher selection, training and induction very differently, I think it is worthy of further study. If our problem really IS an unsupportive culture (or a school system that doesn’t know yet how to respond to our culture), I would expect to be a great hue and cry for research into ways to overcome these kinds of problems. Because it is clear that we are going to have to, or accept that we are merely mediocre when compared across the board.

  12. Margo: I’m right in context. PD and collaboration are obviously very much a part of those systems in Finland and Singapore and something the system expects and provides. Their system provides the time and structure — both of which are expensive. Our system does not.

    I wouldn’t expect any great hues, cries, or weeping and gnashing of teeth for that matter.

    (I’m a great fan of the Advanced Placement Summer Institutes, but they’re pricey. I also spend a lot of time finding my own PD.)

  13. I’m late to the discussion. Agree emphatically w/Ponderosa. Just finished a well-respected M.A. credential program at a U.C. school last summer. While I wouldn’t say that everything taught was useless (though I felt that way at times), so much in the field of education is social science at its absolute lowest–useless at best, harmful at worst. I had little instruction in content and none in classroom management. My profs (many of whom had never taught kids) seemed to talk vaguely about psychology and sociology and the history of education, and the necessity of white guilt.

    The kind of PD Ponderosa talks about would be infinitely preferable. I’d sign up for that course (or one just like it). Heck, I’d even pay for it myself. More and more, I see that what helps me connect w/my students (and manage the classroom) is my own love and passion for English literature and language, including grammar. (My 12 years of Catholic school also helps with the C.M.) I would have preferred to get an M.A. in English w/one class on the history of education, one class on adolescent development, different learning styles, and a workshop on classroom management thrown in. My two cents.

  14. …all on that one hour plan time when I’m not actually teaching.

    I think this attitude might illustrate part of the problem, LS. I doubt any teacher in your district is paid by the hour.

    That said, I agree that admin should be more ambitious regarding such matters. In my experience, however, many administrators were laughably poor teachers who have little to offer in professional development and who are mostly impotent to enact any real changes in a school, thanks to decades of litigation by parents and teachers who belong to unions.

    Other professions do routinely. I’ve worked for the military and I took courses alongside folks in uniform, and I’ve worked for major corporations, and the training was top-notch.

    Don’t keep us in the dark, PT. Describe the superior trainings in detail. Many of us could use the information.

    And I don’t mean the students! I cannot believe some of the memos and emails teachers (and administrators) send out to other faculty members. The grammar and spelling is often atrocious. I also see the same mistakes written on white boards or in letters of recommendation for students. We need the very best and brightest people teaching our children.

    Precisely right, dkzody. My ed students hated me for demanding they serve as models of high-quality communication for their students. The problem is, few (prospective) teachers outside of communication arts see this as their responsibility.

    ***

    If schools of education would start moving away from theory and “foundations” courses toward a model that prepared new teachers for the actual problems of professional practice (e.g., this is how you develop a lesson plan, this is how you write an exam that actually measures the objectives you are supposed to teach, this is how you structure a classroom for effective student management, etc.), we’d be a good deal closer to seeing actual improvements in student achievement. Currently, it’s up to districts to provide these kinds of lessons after they’ve hired someone. The results could best be described as “hit and miss.”

  15. Physics Teacher says:

    Don’t keep us in the dark, PT. Describe the superior trainings in detail. Many of us could use the information

    At the military base where I worked there were TO’s, or Technical Orders, for everything you can imagine. Step by step instructions for everything. This is in addition to training, which was also very detailed.

    I once attended a course that was supposed to teach us how to evaluate microwave links. The course was seven weeks in total, with the first four being classwork involving electronics, eletromagnetic theory, etc., and the remaining three were application oriented in a very well-appointed lab. And, we went home with a stack of written materials about 18 inches high.

    Here’s a story that comes to mind. Years ago I had a summer job in a factory where I worked in the drafting/engineering area. One lazy Friday afternoon someone brought in Omni magazine (now probably dead) and in the back of the magazine was a contest. The contest involved an optical illusion and the challenge was to determine exactly how the illusion was accomplished. It was an “impossible box”, except that it was a real life photo of a guy standing in the box and holding it up. It was obvious that the cube wasn’t really a cube, but only appeared to be so, but it wasn’t exactly obvious what the shape actually was.

    Many people in the office became somewhat obsessed with this particular illusion, but what was even more interesting was the response of a certain subset of people who looked at the illusion. They would glance at the picture and, after about 20 seconds, declare the following:

    “It’s obvious how they did this!”

    Rest of people in office: “Really? Tell us how!”

    Member of subset: “It’s simple — Trick Photography!”

    And then they would proudly walk away as though they actually figured something out.

    So what’s this have to do with education and professional development? Most education professors are exactly like this. They’ll tell you that they’re training you HOW to manage a classroom while all they actually do is tell you TO manage a classroom.