Working Together, Governments and Unions of Top-Performing Countries Show that it is Possible to Improve the Teaching Profession

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ImageLast week, I traveled to New York City to attend the first International Summit on the Teaching Profession hosted by the US Department of Education, the OECD, and Education International, a global teachers union.  Of the 16 countries represented, all were top-performers in the international PISA tests, or rapid improvers, such as Poland and Brazil.  U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the meeting to learn from what other countries are doing to improve teaching and learning, a sign that not only is this task complex and challenging, but that it is critical to countries at all levels of development.

So how do these top-performers and rapid-improvers manage their teaching forces to achieve high learning outcomes? The goal of the Summit was to have frank and open discussions about what works. Each country’s delegation included both government and teacher representatives, thus recognizing from the start the need for collaboration in the design and implementation of teacher policy reforms.

Here are some of the key messages I took away from the Summit:

  • High-performing countries recruit from the top tier of potential entrants and have stringent selection systems.  For example, in Finland, only 1 in 10 teacher applicants makes it into teaching, with a several-step selection process geared toward recruiting the most talented.
  • Teacher policies need to be systemic, aligned with other education policies, and no one recipe will work in all countries -- rather emerging best practices from top-performing countries need to be adapted to local contexts. 
  • An example was discussed in the context of Singapore, where:
    o    teachers are recruited from the top 30% of high school graduates;
    o    they are paid competitive salaries in order to ensure that these top graduates do not choose other well-remunerated professions
    o   there are ample career opportunities for teachers, including within classrooms, as researchers in specific teaching domains, and in leadership;
    o   they are offered continuous professional development opportunities;
    o   the evaluation and compensation of teachers undergird the goals of attracting the best, preparing them with useful training and experience, supporting them to improve instruction, and motivating them to perform; and
    o   a substantial share (10-30%) of total compensation is performance based, and this share increases with seniority.
  • The recognition that teacher selection should be based not only on cognitive skills but, equally important, on leadership, ethical values, commitment to the profession, inter-personal qualities, and communication skills. Effective teachers need to know their content but also know how to effectively communicate with students, motivate them to learn, and exert leadership.
  • The importance of respect for the teaching profession – manifested not only in working conditions but also in the appreciation of teachers in the national media.
  • Teachers preparing students for the future need to be able to exert autonomy, practice applied research on classroom practices, and innovate.
  • The importance of nurturing a profession that is representative of society as a whole.  Manitoba, Canada, for example, has made significant efforts to recruit teachers from aboriginal backgrounds. Similarly, the issue of adequate gender balance in the profession was raised.
  • The need for teacher appraisals to be used to inform teachers and support their development, as opposed to exclusively using them as a tool to dismiss low-performing teachers.


In closing, the need for a “systems approach” to improving the teaching profession was highlighted by virtually every speaker.  They emphasized the need for better data on policies and more analysis of what works, in other words, the need to develop more of a knowledge industry for improving results in education. Our hope is that our SABER-Teachers work will make a substantial contribution.

 Photo credit: Masaru Goto/ World Bank

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