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