Matt Miller - The Archives
Why aren't our teachers the best and the brightest?
The Washington Post, October 10, 2010

People trying to improve education in this country have been talking a lot lately about boosting "teacher effectiveness." But nearly all such efforts focus on the teachers who are already in the classroom, instead of seeking to change the caliber of the people who enter teaching in the first place.

Three of the top-performing school systems in the world—those in Finland, Singapore and South Korea—take a different approach, recruiting 100 percent of their teachers from the top third of their high school and college students. Simply put, they don't take middling students and make them teachers. They tap their best people for the job.

Of course, academic achievement isn't the whole story in these countries. They screen would-be teachers for other important qualities, and they invest heavily in training teachers and in retaining them for their entire careers. But scholastic prowess comes first: You don't get through the classroom door in Finland, Singapore or South Korea without having distinguished yourself academically. In the United States, by contrast, only 23 percent of new teachers scored among the top third of SAT and ACT test-takers back in high school. In high-poverty schools, that figure is just 14 percent.

This shouldn't come as news. The late Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1997 to 2004, was open about the problem as far back as 2003. "You have in the schools right now, among the teachers who are going to be retiring, very smart people," she said in an interview. "We're not getting in now the same kinds of people. It's disastrous. We've been saying for years now that we're attracting from the bottom third."

Feldman was right to point out that we are entering a period of enormous turnover in our classrooms: With about half of America's 3.5 million teachers eligible to retire in the next decade, the question of who should teach looms especially large.

So why do top U.S. college students have so little interest in teaching careers compared with their counterparts in the world's best-performing nations?

Partly, it's because we are stuck in a time warp. Up through the mid-1970s, the academic quality of the teacher corps in the United States was effectively subsidized by discrimination: Talented women and members of minorities became teachers at high rates in large part because they didn't have many opportunities outside the classroom.

When that changed, teaching lost its longtime labor supply and suddenly had to compete with more lucrative professions, even as educators' salaries were falling behind. In New York City in 1970, for example, a starting lawyer at a prestigious firm earned about $2,000 per year more than a starting public school teacher. Today, that starting New York lawyer makes $160,000, including salary and bonus, while a new teacher across town earns $45,000. Nationally, teachers' starting salaries average $39,000 today, rising to an average career maximum of $67,000.

But it's not just pay that's a problem. A teaching career does not offer our nation's top college graduates a compelling peer group, opportunities for continued learning or the prestige of other professions. Moreover, our most needy schools mostly fail to offer the working conditions or the leadership needed to retain top talent once it has been recruited.

Our approach to teacher recruitment and development doesn't hold a candle to the methods used in Singapore, Finland and South Korea, where attracting high-quality people to the profession is considered a national priority. The good news, based on research that we and our colleagues at McKinsey & Company recently completed, is that the United States could dramatically increase the number of top students who choose teaching by adopting some of these countries' practices.

How do they do it? For starters, these countries make teacher training programs highly selective, accepting no more than one out of every seven or eight applicants. Their governments also limit the number of training positions to match the expected demand for educators, so that those admitted are assured jobs. American teachers, by contrast, mostly enter the profession through programs that are not selective at all. As a result, more than half of newly certified teachers in the United States—about 100,000 each year—do not take jobs in the classroom.

Next, Singapore and Finland fully fund teacher education and pay students salaries or stipends. In the United States, meanwhile, students must often go into debt to attend education schools. In addition, the quality of teacher training in top-performing nations is first-rate. Companies such as Nokia, for example, covet teachers who leave the classroom in Finland, because graduates of teacher training there are known to be exceptional talents.

These countries also foster a professional working environment. Finland, for example, grants teachers the kind of autonomy typically enjoyed by doctors in this country: They have wide latitude over how they teach, they share responsibility for their schools' operating budgets, and they belong to a culture that emphasizes the need to continually update one's skills.

In the United States, by contrast, teaching is often seen as an "unprofessional" career track, even by teachers. For example, we found that only 3 percent of the U.S. teachers we surveyed who were in the top third of their college class think that people who do well in teaching can advance professionally.

Crucially, these other countries provide competitive compensation. Of the three, South Korea puts the greatest emphasis on salary, with starting pay equivalent to about $55,000 and top salaries reaching $155,000. According to Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University, these earnings place South Korea's teachers somewhere between its engineers and its doctors. Singapore, in addition to competitive pay, offers retention bonuses of $10,000 to $36,000 every three to five years.

To top it all off, these nations accord enormous cultural respect to teaching and teachers. Leaders in the United States routinely offer rhetorical tributes to teaching, but the profession here enjoys nothing like the exalted status it holds in these three countries.

What will it take to emulate Finland, South Korea and Singapore? In part, it will require a total makeover of the teaching profession's image. Our national survey of 900 top-third college students (as calculated based on self-reported SAT and ACT scores and grade point averages) showed that such students simply aren't interested in teaching. The good news, though, is that the kind of makeover needed to win them over won't break the bank.

For example, we calculate that the United States could more than double the portion of top-third new hires in the worst-performing 5 percent of schools (serving about 2.5 million students nationwide) from 14 percent to 34 percent, without raising teacher salaries. Under this scenario, which would cost about $1 billion a year, the government would pay for teacher training; schools would offer enhanced leadership and professional development; shabby, unsafe working conditions would be improved; high-performing teachers would be paid a bonus of 20 percent; and a national marketing campaign would promote teaching careers.

More ambitious efforts to close the talent gap would require higher salaries, which are the most powerful lever for attracting and retaining top graduates. For example, we found that in one scenario involving high-poverty schools serving about 8 million children nationally, increasing starting teacher salaries to $65,000 and maximum salaries to $150,000 would increase the percentage of new teachers drawn from the top third of their class from 14 percent to 68 percent. This approach would cost something like $30 billion a year at current student/teacher ratios, or about 5 percent of national K-12 spending.

The cost of action is relatively low, in other words, particularly compared with the cost of inaction, which is staggeringly high. Separate research by McKinsey last year on the economic costs of the achievement gap between the United States and other countries suggests that the stakes are huge: If the United States had closed this gap between 1983 and 1998, raising its academic performance to the level of nations such as Finland and South Korea, U.S. GDP in 2008 would have been roughly $1.3 trillion higher than it was. The ongoing cost of that difference is the equivalent of a permanent national recession much larger than the one from which we are now emerging.

So, if recruiting and retaining teachers drawn from the top third could help close the achievement gap, even at a cost of $30 billion a year, the social and economic returns could be enormous.

Some U.S. researchers say there's little evidence that teachers with stronger academic backgrounds produce higher student achievement, but this conclusion is starkly at odds with the experiences of Singapore, Finland and South Korea. Our McKinsey colleagues have studied more than 50 school systems around the world and have never seen a nation achieve or sustain world-class educational performance without drawing its teachers from the top third of their class. Should we really bet our children's future on the possibility that our country might be the exception?