U.S. Should Rethink How It Compensates Teachers
To improve education system, attract higher quality teachers
November 9, 2011
Learning outcomes are the result of what happens in classrooms, and what happens in classrooms is mainly shaped by teachers. That's why the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. The quality of teachers, in turn, is a function of the pool from which teachers are drawn, the standards of university-level teacher-preparation programs, and the quality of their initial training, induction, and continued professional development.
Many high-performing education systems have very clear national or state policies on these matters—but in the United States, they remain a function of myriad decisions made by local authorities who often have no idea how these decisions are actually affecting the status and quality of the teaching profession.
Money alone does not guarantee a high-quality teaching profession—the world provides plenty of examples for that. But no high-performing education system has teacher salaries that compare as poorly to salaries in other graduate professions as they do in the United States. What's more, most high-performing countries pay teachers better and still spend less per student than the United States because they devote a higher share of spending to classrooms and because, different than the United States, prioritize teacher quality over smaller class size.
Richwine and Biggs argue that teachers' degrees don't count as much as degrees for other professions because their education is less rigorous and of lower quality. If that's true, then the answer is surely not to forgo that education, but to improve its rigor and quality to match that of the highest-performing education systems.
That has never been more important than now. In the Industrial Age, when teaching was about explaining prefabricated content, countries could tolerate low teacher quality. And when teacher quality was low, governments tended to tell their teachers exactly what to do and how to do it using prescriptive methods of administrative control and accountability. Today, the best-performing education systems have made teaching a profession of high-level knowledge workers. In these countries, teachers are able to personalize learning experiences to help every student succeed. They're able to manage increasing diversity in their classrooms and differences in learning styles, and they keep up with innovations in curricula, pedagogy, and digital resources. Their teachers work in environments that provide the status, professional autonomy, and high-quality education that go with professional work, with effective systems of teacher evaluation and differentiated career paths.
If the United States wants to match the performance of these education systems, it will have to rethink its approaches to teacher development on many fronts. Education leaders and policymakers need to make the teaching profession more attractive for the most talented graduates. They need to improve the education recruits obtain before they start their jobs, as well as how new teachers are inducted into the profession and supported afterward. More attention needs to be paid to improving the performance of struggling teachers, and giving the best-performing teachers opportunities to acquire more status and responsibility. But leaders should also rethink how teacher compensation is structured—and consider bringing it more in line with other professions.