Few teachers come from top of the class

Singapore, Finland and South Korea, all countries with high-performing school systems,  recruit teachers from the top third of college graduates.  In the U.S.,  only 23 percent of teachers are top graduates; that falls to 14 percent in high-poverty schools. A majority attend colleges that admit virtually all applicants.  So concludes a report by the McKinsey consulting firm.

For top U.S. graduates, teachers salaries aren’t competitive with other careers.  The average teacher starts at $39,000 and peaks at $67,000.

In contrast, starting salaries in Singapore are more competitive, and teachers can receive retention bonuses of $10,000 to $36,000 every three to five years, the report says. Teachers also receive merit-based bonuses and increases, ranging from 10 percent to 30 percent of their base salaries. In South Korea, teachers receive salaries that would translate to between $55,000 and $155,000 in the United States, it says.

Teaching lacks prestige in the U.S., the report adds.

“Smart, capable people have to feel confident they will work with other smart, capable people,” responded Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality,

By contrast, in Finland, the process for becoming a teacher is “extremely competitive,” and “only about one in 10 applicants is accepted to become a teacher,” according to the McKinsey report. Applicants to education schools are drawn from the top 20 percent of high school classes and must pass several exams and interviews. In Finland, “teaching is the most admired profession among top students, outpolling law and medicine,” it says.

Teacher attrition is very low in Singapore and even lower in South Korea, the report notes.

The U.S. could attract more top graduates by “subsidizing teacher-preparation tuition costs; ensuring more effective administration and training opportunities in high-need schools; improving teachers’ working conditions; and providing performance bonuses of up to 20 percent,” McKinsey suggests. A pricier alternative would be to raise pay substantially, starting new teachers at $65,000 and offering a maximum salary of $150,000.

Keeping top-level teachers is another challenge. If working conditions are lousy, smart people with options won’t stick around, even for high pay.

Half of current teachers are expected to retire in the next 10 years. Who will replace them?

About Joanne


  1. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    Most top students won’t want to feel like they’re re-attending kindergarten. I think the only people who enjoy education school are those that would be happiest being baby sitters and nannies.

    In addition to the proposed remedies you’ll need to make ed school a non-joke. That’ll be the hardest part.

  2. If all the political indoctrination and post-modernism was taken out, there would be room for academics (or just cutting the time to get the degree).

  3. Agreed to the above two commenters –
    No amount of money will attract highly qualified (the real meaning of that term, not the DOE meaning) graduates to teaching…there are plenty of positions that they accept that pay less than teaching.
    What does have to be reformed is the nature of the position itself and a return of the respect that was once given to teachers. Unfortunately, that is nothing that our overactive government or numerous philanthropic individuals can achieve, so they resort to tilting at windmills.

  4. I’m curious how merit is calculated in Singapore.

  5. I work with/know a number of teachers who are “late bloomers” — they screwed around enough not to be top students until they found their calling — but they’re very sharp.

    However, I, too, wonder who is going to be willing to wear the Scarlet T in the next 10 years.

    You can talk about merit pay and increased salaries all you want, but local tax bases won’t support them, and too many people get apoplexy the minute you mention the dreaded feds.

  6. I never went to ed school, but got a teacher license in my late 20’s when I decided to teach math. The income wasn’t an issue for me, since I was coming from non-engineering grad school, and didn’t have much to look forward to if I’d kept up that track, and I enjoyed teaching.

    One job interview at a middle school, the principal mused “I wonder what it would be like if, instead of the best students, teachers came from the students who didn’t always do well in school…” I wasn’t really sure what to say to this–actually, all I could think of to say was “Look around you” which wouldn’t have been the most political thing to say… On the other hand, I didn’t get the job, anyway, so I kind of wish I’d said something clever, or at least mentioning that the statistics show that this *is* already the case in this country.

    At another school, they didn’t even question my grades, but the fact that I was good at math, because, obviously, you don’t want someone who got an 800 on the GRE math to be teaching your kids math or science. This was 5 years ago (and I also didn’t get that job), but in the past few weeks, that school has been threatened with being shut down for poor performance.

    So, it’s not just a matter of attracting the “best students” to teaching, but we also need to make sure that the people doing the hiring aren’t actively repelling the “best and brightest”…

    (And having actually taught at several grade levels, I recognize that experience with things like discipline does matter, but the schools that thought I was “overqualified” in math never questioned my discipline skill, and the schools that questioned my discipline skill were happy with my math background.)

  7. One of the things that makes teaching miserable is the amount of effort you have to put into discipline. The Asian teachers don’t have to put up with what most American teachers do.

    I taught math and Latin– the Latin kids were always a treat because they wanted to be there. The Math kids varied a lot– and there were quite a few ‘problem’ kids- the ones that didn’t want to work, didn’t want to learn, didn’t want to be there AND made a huge effort to disrupt class and ruin it for everyone else.

    I went in with romantic Anne of Green Gables ideas about how if you respect the kids and love the material and are willing to stay after school as long as anyone needed help, the kids will learn and behave.

    Pfff. Why should I spend all day trying to teach basic social skills to someone ELSE’S teens when I can spend all day with my kind, polite children and actually teach them MATH? (And all the other subjects!)

    We won’t attract and keep good teachers if the schools are a miserable place to work. And the schools are miserable when there’s no discipline and the parents DON’T CARE.

  8. And then there’s the fact that plenty of the admins didn’t do well in school either (and not because they were late bloomers). It is discouraging to be supervised and evaluated by someone who couldn’t have graduated from college in any major except Education — and what does that say about the quality of our university Education programs?

  9. tim-10-ber says:

    I still say get rid of ed schools…education should only be a minor…all teachers should have an academic degree, the teachers will rotate among the lower grades but starting at 3rd or 4th grade the kids can rotate classes — all academic and enrichment. Also, teachers need to be paid more and the working conditions need to be much improved in order to attract the top students…administrators at all levels need to back teachers when they discipline students…

  10. Agree with what Deirdre Mundy says above. Are public school teachers “educators” or “disciplinarians?” We public school teachers have pretty much been neutered by the courts who favor the rights of the minority “trouble makers” over the rights of the majority of “good kids.” Critics of public schools cite the success of “Charter” schools and private schools. Ok, level the playing field and give public school the right to require parents and students to sign and adhere to a “Behavior and academic “contract. Nope, for public schools, we get everyone, whether they want to be there or not. And we are stuck with them. IMO, this is another example of the decay that is dragging the USA down…..and its the liberal left who have done this, in their foggy utopic minds of creating a world wide equality planet….. [ OK, you may not like the last sentence…..but at least take to heart the rest of my post 🙂 ]

  11. We’re never going to have the “best and the brightest” teaching here. Who on earth would want us to?

    Most suburban teachers are plenty bright enough to teach their subjects. Leave it alone.

  12. Private schools pay their teachers less than government-run schools and have no problem attracting graduates of top universities. The difference is that those schools don’t require an ed degree and provide a working environment where the teacher can actually enjoy his/her job (enforcing strict discipline, no NCLB, etc.)

  13. I was initially rejected from ed school because I seemed too intellectual (I scored 800 on my GRE verbal and analytical tests). I was told that I wouldn’t make a good fit with public schools. I appealed the decision and got in.

  14. Teachers in California make pretty good money. Damn good money, if you figure in the cost of their benefits. (Some of which are stupidly inflated.) $67k is an *average* in California, not a top of scale.

    And how did they “translate” those South Korean salaries?

  15. TFA and anti-teacher propaganda. The “study”, if you choose to read the VERY small print for the footnotes, defines “top” by ACT, SAT and GPA scores. It does not examine teacher quality at all.

    Another “fact” conveniently overlooked, Finland’s teachers are nearly all unionized.

    Throw in the usual gibberish about merit pay and you have a typical “reform” study.

  16. Michael E. Lopez says:

    The “study”, if you choose to read the VERY small print for the footnotes, defines “top” by ACT, SAT and GPA scores. It does not examine teacher quality at all.

    And how, pray tell, is someone supposed to measure the quality of teachers who never become teachers? The conclusion of the study is that few teachers were “top” students, not that few teachers are any damn good. Frankly it makes sense for “top” to be defined by GPA, perhaps adjusted by test scores to control for grade inflation.

  17. Michael Lopez,

    “Not that few teachers are any damn good”

    Proof of your statement?

    This article says nothing of teacher quality and relies heavily on scores accumlated during high school.

    Last time I checked most states, except for charter school teachers, require a college degree to teach, automatically putting teachers into the top 80% of the country, since (I believee) the statistics show 20% of the people in the US have a college degree.

  18. When I was in college many years ago no one with any ‘ambition’ wanted to go into teaching. It was known to be awful. They had students spending entire semesters making bulletin boards. However, if you really wanted a college degree and couldn’t pass anything else, teaching was always available, providing you could stand it. My kids say not much has changed. We are not impressed with the quality of teachers in our public system (second best in the area). Many are downright awful. Mostly we work with our kids to navigate around the worst ones and get through with high enough grades and SAT scores to get into a decent public college. One more kid to go. Hope the calculus teacher retires before he takes it.

  19. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Mike in Texas Wrote:
    “Not that few teachers are any damn good”

    Proof of your statement?

    Whoah there, Nellie. Check me on this — because something’s gone wrong.

    First, you say that the “study… does not examine teacher quality at all.”
    Then, essentially repeating your point in an attempt to try to show that your complaint is somewhat inconsistent, I point out that the study is about academic achievements, not teacher quality.

    Then you demand *proof* of my assertion that the study isn’t actually about the fact that some certain number of teachers are or aren’t any good at teaching (i.e., teacher quality) but is instead about academic achievement. And then immediately following your demand for this proof, you again assert pretty much exactly what I said: “This article says nothing of teacher quality.”

    I’m confused.

    So let’s go back to what you said in your first post again, and let me repeat myself even more carefully, because obviously something got terribly mixed up.

    You originally complained that the study doesn’t look at teacher quality. Do I have that right? (I think I do.)

    My point in response was this: it’s true, the study does not look at any measure of teacher quality. Instead, it’s looking at certain types of academic achievement. The conclusion of the study is essentially factual: the United States doesn’t draw as many teachers from the top ranks of its university class as some other countries whose education systems are often admired for certain characteristics related to the achievement of their respective students.

    Now, it’s possible that you’re finding some fault with the notion that the practice of drawing higher academic achievers into the classroom will have any result whatsoever on what actually happens in the classroom. In other words, I imagine that you think it’s unfair to think that there’s any sort of relationship between GPA/Test Scores on the one hand, and teacher quality on the other. And I’ll grant that it’s possible (though I imagine it’s highly unlikely) that we could recruit nothing but the top 10% of students (ranked by GPA and some set of test scores) coming from the top 10% of universities (pick your criteria for that) into the classroom, and things might get worse in terms of teacher quality; it’s possible that academic talent and teaching effectiveness aren’t correlated at all and that those other countries where high performance seems to coincide with high academic achievement by teachers are merely lucky, or perhaps are subject to some sort of conditions that don’t apply in the US.

    But the “study” (which you suggested that others didn’t “choose to read”) admits this right up front, and indeed that possibility is part of its primary conclusion:

    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. No single reform can serve as a “silver bullet”. Nonetheless, the extraordinary success of top-performing systems suggests a “top third+” strategy deserves serious examination as part of a comprehensive human capital strategy for the U.S. education system.

    So I really don’t understand why it is that you seem to think that it’s problematic that the study doesn’t look at measures of teacher quality., because THAT’S NOT WHAT THE STUDY IS ABOUT. It doesn’t say that we aren’t picking the “top” teachers to be teachers, it says that we aren’t picking the “top” students to be teachers, and it suggests that, because of results reached in other countries, that might be worth looking at as an option.

    And yet you complain that the study doesn’t say anything about teacher quality. (Not precisely true, actually, but I took your point and agree with you.)

    You might as well complain that your ice cream maker doesn’t make pretzels. It’s true, it doesn’t. But if you want pretzels, you should buy a pretzel maker. And if you want a study that attempts to measure teacher effectiveness, you should go perform or read some other study instead.

  20. Roger Sweeny says:

    If my life depended on betting correctly, I would bet that student outcomes would be worse if teachers only came from the top 10% of students coming from the top 10% of universities.

    The teachers would be expecting way too much in terms of student preparation and motivation. They would find it extremely difficult to go from an academic environment that is primarily intellectual to one that is, well, educational day care.

  21. Roger-
    You’re making a huge leap from academic ability to personal coping strategies and interpersonal skills. It’s not like the top 10% of top 10% have been completely isolated from the unwashed masses… remember that these would be 22-25 year olds who mostly went through public schools and attended universities with wide demographics.

    Teaching successfully requires a varied skillset. One must have good interpersonal skills, be able to lead others, be able to plan towards a goal, be responsible for one’s actions, and have the knowledge to teach. As Mike and Mike have made a point of saying, this study only looks at one or two of the above qualities, which have little or no correlation to the others. That being said, having enough responsibility and knowledge to be an effective teacher are probably the easiest qualifications to check off simply by looking at the teaching applicant’s academic record. Does it guarantee success? Nope, but it does increase the odds of it.

  22. Michael Lopez,

    Perhaps I misunderstood your point then? You said “Not that few teachers are any damn good”, I took that to mean you think there are very few good teachers in the public school.

    Can you elaborate on that statement?

  23. Michael E. Lopez says:

    OK, I think I see. You thought I was structuring my sentence like this:

    “The point is that he’s gay, not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

    So when I said “Not that few teachers are any damn good” you would have heard something like either “Many teachers are good” or “Few teachers aren’t any damn good” or something like that. (You’d have to wreak linguistic violence on the sentence to get “there are very few good teachers in the public school” out of that, but if you were “reading the words” rather than “reading the sentence” as my English teacher used to say, it’s an understandable error.)

    So let me insert a little parenthetical and see if I can’t make some more sense out of what I said earlier:

    The conclusion of the study is that few teachers were “top” students, (the conclusion is not that few teachers are any damn good.


  24. Thank you for the clarification.

  25. Roger Sweeny says:


    I’m not saying that the top 10% have been “isolated from the unwashed masses.” I’m saying that for the last four years, their experience of school has been largely intellectual. Classes are basically sit down, listen, and think. Much of the work is done outside class on your own. Students provide much of their own motivation.

    High school classes, on the other hand, are about keeping busy. The teacher is a combination story-teller, disciplinarian, activity director, coach, and motivator. Students aren’t expected to do much learning on their own outside of class.

    It’s a big switch.

  26. A good start, however, regardless of the problem of whether the top 10% would adapt well to the demands of schoolteaching, would be to stop accepting teacher candidates from the bottom 30%.