Nation Builders; In Defense of Teachers

“In South Korea, teachers are known as nation builders. I think it’s time we treated our teachers with the same level of respect right here in the United States of  America”

President Barack Obama

The McGraw-Hill Research Foundation issued a report titled, “What the U.S. Can Learn from the World’s Most Successful Education Reform Efforts.” It compared the U.S. education system to those of the highest performing countries as ranked by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). According to the most recent PISA, the U.S. was ranked on average at 19th among more than 50 countries for science, 15th for reading, and a dismal 27th in math. Chinese, South Korean, Japanese, Canadian and Finnish students left ours in the dust.

The McGraw-Hill report found four key differences between the United States and the most successful countries:

1.    In successful countries, teaching is held in much higher esteem as a profession than in the U.S. Entering the profession is difficult, and candidates are drawn from the top of their university classes. These countries provide more resources for teacher training and professional development, and they give teachers more responsibility for leading reform.
2.    High-performing nations establish rigorous student achievement standards, premised on “the proposition that it is possible for all students to achieve at high levels and necessary that they do so”.
3.    The U.S. spends more money per pupil than almost all countries studied but lavishes resources on the more economically advantaged schools. In high-performing nations, budgets are often much smaller and extra resources go to disadvantaged schools.
4.    The U.S. is no more stratified socio-economically than the average country studied, but class differences have a much more pronounced effect on educational achievement here than in high-performing nations.

How can we change the results we are NOT achieving in our public schools?

First, we can upgrade how we value teachers. As a profession, education is not held in high esteem in the U.S. It is noteworthy that countries that have succeeded in making teaching an attractive profession have often done so not just through pay, but by raising the status of teaching, offering real career prospects, and giving teachers responsibility as professionals and leaders of reform. Perhaps more important than boosting pay, we should create methods which place teachers in charge of policing the standards of their profession. We need to give them resources for professional development. Principals should be chosen from the ranks of the most successful teachers. Testing and assessment should serve not to punish schools, as in the U.S., but to assess which students and classrooms need more attention, as in high-performing countries. When teachers are given both resources and responsibility to help under performing students, even school systems with strong teachers unions, such as Ontario, Canada, perform at a high level.

Most high performing countries have developed world-class academic standards for their students and these standards are responsible for the overall performance of their education systems. The approaches to standard-setting in countries range from defining broad educational goals up to formulating concise performance expectations in well-defined subject areas. Most of these countries have also incorporated their standards into systems of high-quality curricula and external examinations at the secondary school level. For example, our son’s attended school in England where they took their GCSE exams (our high school equivalent) prior to their admittance into their A-Levels. The GCSE exams are used to construct clear gateways for students either into the workforce and good jobs or to the next stage of education, the A-Levels and universities. Children meet your expectations because they don’t know any better. If we think they are stellar they will believe it because we believe it.

PISA results show that the amount of money a nation or state spends on education is not a decisive factor in achieving high scores on student assessments. Despite spending more money per student than other countries, neither Luxembourg nor the U.S. has managed to break into the ranks of top PISA performers. The U.S. hovers in the middle ranks, along with countries such as Estonia and Poland, each of which spend half as much per student as the U.S. New Zealand, one of the highest performing OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, spends well below the OECD average. The number-one ranking Shanghai, with top scores in every category, illustrates forcefully what can be achieved with moderate economic resources in a diverse social context. In about half of OECD countries, disadvantaged schools tend to have a lower teacher/student ratio, on the assumption that children from less economically advantaged neighborhoods and cultures should have more and better teachers. High-performing Singapore sends its best teachers to work with students who are having the most difficulty. That pattern is reversed in the U.S., Israel, Slovenia and Turkey, the only four OECD countries to favor their economically advantaged schools with more teachers on a statistically significant basis. In the U.S., this is partly due to school systems that are locally financed with tax rates based on the value of local homes and businesses. This allows people who are better off financially to form a school taxing district that can raise more money for hiring the best teachers and providing other desirable resources.

Most importantly, and above all, the top countries in the world value their teachers and the human capital for which they are responsible. Finland regularly tops global comparisons of national performance. In 2010 it was ranked Number One in educational achievement in a Newsweek magazine survey of “The World’s Best Countries”. In Finland, it is a tremendous honor to be a teacher. They are afforded a status comparable to what doctors, lawyers, and other highly regarded professionals enjoy in the U.S. Only one out of every ten applicants makes it into the Finnish training pool for teachers. Despite their high status, teachers in Finland are not paid much more than teachers are in the U.S. on a comparative basis keyed to per capita GDP. However, they do enjoy tremendous respect and regard from both the general public and their nation’s political leaders. One teacher who was asked what made him want to be a teacher, replied that, “It is the most honorable of all professions; it is a patriotic, and a national calling to be a teacher”.

Finnish teachers take great care to protect and maintain the status of their profession. They regularly stay after school, uncompensated, and work together on each others professional development. They set their own performance standards. The Finnish government establishes some achievement guidelines, but as a general rule there are few attempts to enforce performance, and there are not many measures taken to ensure accountability. Government education leaders trust their teachers to do their jobs well. Precisely because Finnish teachers enjoy that level of trust from education officials, they accept the responsibility and reciprocate by excelling in the classroom every day.

The examples set in the best-performing PISA nations show so decisively that the U.S. needs great teachers to once again be a great nation when it comes to educational development and achievement.  We must do our best to both develop exceptional teachers and raise the level of professional regard in which the job of teacher is held by the public and officials.

Last, in countries where teachers are respected and valued we see parents raising their children to have high regard for education and educators. Their incidence of teacher abuse and disrespect is nearly nonexistent. Their classrooms are orderly and serious. When we value teachers as professionals in the U.S. we will find a return of respect, order, and seriousness to our classrooms. Teachers are NOT baby sitters. They do NOT teach Values. They teach our children how to reason and become creative problem solvers. Parents teach values, respect, behavior, and a desire for knowledge. Parents should do what they do best and teachers should be allowed to do what they do best.

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  1. March 20, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    In South Korea, according to my Korean friend, who teaches in a middle school there, teachers have to write letters of apologies to their students’ parents for the students’ poor grades.

  2. March 21, 2011 at 7:43 am

    If teachers had to do this in America, there would be no time to teach. Statistics are reality.

  3. March 21, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    Unfortunately, teachers are always “bad guys.” Only someone who has never been in a classroom can complain about teachers’ holidays, vacations, unions and everything else.Parents often seem to think that it is a teacher’s job to make sure kids turn out fine; students see teachers as teaching -machines and are genuinely surprised that teachers have feelings, problems, health issues, well anything that a human being can have; principal demands results and you sometimes have to fight for any innovation you would like to introduce to the classroom. I agree with your common sense approach! My common sense tells me that not every person is cut out to be a teacher and there is no real way to teach a person who is not, to be a good one. Smaller classrooms!!! You can’t expect one teacher to pay attention to 29 students at the same time and treat every student the way is best for this individual. Parents should not expect a teacher to do it all for them!
    When it comes to being a teacher abroad, it is not as rosy as your article leads to believe. Usually, it is a low-paid, highly regulated position, at least in the countries I am familiar with,such as Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Germany.
    Oh, I just ramble and better stop 🙂

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