Uncommon Wisdom on Teaching

Cross-posted from The Huffington Post.

Much of the conventional wisdom today about the difficulty of elevating the teaching profession is mistaken or exaggerated. Many people believe that the challenges facing the teaching profession are largely unique to each nation. Others contend that the status of the teaching profession in America and other countries is largely immutable, fixed by economic and social tradition. Or they believe that teachers unions are inevitable roadblocks to reform, rather than potential sources of knowledge and expertise.

We disagree with all three of these popular assumptions — which is one reason why we have convened the first-ever international summit on the teaching profession for high-performing nations and rapidly-improving countries on March 16 and 17 in New York City. The stakes for strengthening the teaching profession could not be higher: The quality of the teacher in the classroom is the single biggest in-school influence on student learning. And in the knowledge economy, the quality of student learning is one of the biggest drivers of national growth, economic competitiveness, and social responsibility.

It’s true that every nation has unique characteristics of its teaching profession. Few countries can simply adopt wholesale another nation’s system for recruiting, training, and compensating teachers. Yet many high-performing nations share a surprising number of common challenges to securing a high-quality teaching force. Many top-performing education systems face looming teacher shortages — and similar stumbling blocks to preparing, rewarding, and retaining top-notch teachers.

For example, the United States is not alone in seeking to update its policies on the teaching profession to better prepare students for the twenty-first century. For most of the last century, schools and the teaching profession in the U.S. have been organized like an assembly line, with teachers largely treated as interchangeable widgets. Children were expected to learn routine cognitive skills and content that would last a lifetime, rather than learning higher-order thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making skills that would help them be lifelong learners.

Teachers in the U.S. have typically been compensated based solely on their longevity in the job and their educational credentials — not for their impact on student learning, or for teaching in high-poverty and high-needs schools. In contrast to the U.S. and some other countries, top-performing education systems encourage excellent teachers to teach the students who most need their help. And they provide teachers with more autonomy to help students’ master higher-order skills, like adaptability, communication, and critical thinking, all of which are keys to success in the information age.

In every nation, the nature of the teaching profession inevitably reflects local economic and cultural tradition. Yet that does not mean that the teaching profession can only undergo glacial change. Government policy can significantly strengthen the teaching profession if that policy is based on an understanding of teachers and teaching and takes account of lessons learned in high-performing countries.

Singapore now has one of the world’s highest-performing education systems — but it was not always so. In the early 1970s, less than half of Singapore’s students reached fourth grade. Teachers were hired en masse, with little attention to quality.

Singapore soon identified teacher quality as key to improving educational outcomes — and government policy has been instrumental in identifying and nurturing teaching talent. Today, Singapore offers teaching internships for top-performing students starting in high school. It carefully selects promising adolescents from the top third of high school seniors and offers them a competitive monthly stipend while still in school.

In exchange, these teacher candidates must commit to teaching for at least three years and serving diverse students. After these bright, committed students undergo a rigorous teacher education program and become teachers, they receive 100 hours of professional development per year to keep up with changes in classroom instruction and to improve their practice.

Some believe that teachers unions are immovable stumbling blocks to reform, but the international picture tells a different story. Many of the world’s top-performing nations have strong teacher unions that work in tandem with local and national authorities to boost student achievement. In top-performing education systems like Finland, Singapore, and Ontario, Canada, teachers unions engage in reforms as partners in a joint quest to advance and accelerate learning.

These high-performing nations illustrate how tough-minded collaboration more often leads to educational progress than tough-minded confrontation. Education leaders can better accelerate achievement by working together and sharing best practices than by working alone.

Across the globe, education is the great equalizer, the one force that can consistently overcome differences in background, culture, and privilege. Increasing teacher autonomy and participation in reform is vital not just to improving student outcomes but to elevating the teaching profession. We reject the prevailing wisdom that it can’t be done.

Arne Duncan, Angel Gurría and Fred van Leeuwen

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education; Angel Gurría is the Secretary-General of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development; Fred van Leeuwen is General Secretary of Education International, which represents 30 million teachers in 171 countries and territories.


  1. I agree that our nation as a whole is in need of education reform. We need to open our minds to new & fresh ideas, whether borrowed from one another within this great nation or borrowed from abroad. If we take an in-depth look at what’s “working” at top-performing schools worldwide, we may extropolate the most essential components of a successful educational system and then apply those to our own system here in the U.S..

    I feel that there is a general feeling of frustration & anger, both toward administrators & educators, regarding the current state of our educational system. I am hopeful that we can all work together to help our students achieve success throughout their educational careers.

  2. Education in this country is like an onion- the more layers you peel away, the closer you get to the core. It’s easy to point fingers at administrators, place blame on teachers or scoff at unions, policymakers, and government in an attempt to justify why our children underperform. There are issues at every level that needs to be put into the context of learning stages.

    Children learn their first… everything, basically, from their caregivers and families. Memories, habits, manners, and social norms begin at home before a child even enters school at the age of 5. If a child is fortunate enough to attend pre-school, they have a head-start on acquiring the fundamentals of life which might put them at an advantage. Or if you’re a child living in poverty, distress or less than ideal conditions, just attending pre-school alone is the starting point to closing the achievement gap. But I digress…

    Simplistically put, it’s like putting together pieces of a puzzle. The first piece is parenting and the child’s early life experiences. The second piece is HIGH QUALITY INSTRUCTION. As a child begins K, opportunity arises to expose the developing mind to all it can take in. As a sixth year elementary teacher I’ve witnessed with my own eyes the impact good teaching makes on individual lives of children because I do it every year, ad have gotten better through learning from other great teachers (and I’ve worked with some good/ some ineffective)m. In addition, an effective school building leader ensures the curriculum allows teachers to build on those curiosities while maintaining integrity of learning standards, maintains order and discipline, offers multipe opportunities to master the arts and sciences, and holds parents accountable. These small pieces add up to a school community that works in tandem with parents and children. When you have that, a school is now ripe for success.

    A large part of putting those pieces of the puzzle together depend on money. I consider myself a highly qualified teacher not only because of my credentials but the impact of my teaching. And I deserve to be paid accordingly. But I’m not complaining- working in NYC I make more than teachers in other states. Policy makers need to work on obtaining funding to upgrade quality of teacher professional development and preparation programs to attract, recruit and retain the best of the best.

    I also want to point out, I’ve worked only at urban schools in mid- low income neighborhoods. And believe me, kids in these schools are smart, capable, engaging and creative thinkers who simply need EXPOSURE and direct instruction.

  3. It’s truly unbelievable how little people know about public education! Regular education classes are being filled with more and more special needs students. Regardless of your ‘feelings’ about special needs kids, they require more attention which impacts the rest of the class. Regular education teachers do not know how to deal with special needs kids just because they are enrolled into the classroom. With the continuing shortage of funding to the classroom and more to ‘administrative’ costs, the number of students in each class has increased and more special education students are being placed into regular education classes. It’s wrong for all! I wish the people who were making decisions would dare to ask the teacher…maybe an improvement can be made! Try it!

  4. I agree with Faridprimadi. Education is dynamic and should be treated as one. Change with the ways of teaching is evolving with technology. We should all be able to cope with that change.

  5. I believe there is no standard for education. As long as it best and suits with its local or region needs. Education must be dynamically develop, so do with teaching methods.

    In this new age, when information can be accessed from anywhere, the conservative wisdom on teaching sooner or later will become obsolete. Every nation should be treated uniquely.

  6. Arne, Angel and Fred, I agree with your article. Now, with that said, why do I see so many controversial articles, written by Journalists who want to change public opinion? My wife is a teacher working for CPS and I had the opportunity to see you and Mayor Daley at one of the NBCT events at Intercontinental, Chicago. I do not see the validity of any articles, even some articles written in the American Educator. The question is why is the Media doing this?

  7. The job market for Ph.Ds in the humanities has been in the doldrums for decades. Many experienced teachers with advanced degrees are forced to give up on an university position. Why not let these people teach high school? They could take a very short (one summer) certification course to give them some advice about the differences between teaching high school and college. Ideally, they would not pay for this course; instead they would be paid to take it.

    As it stands, people who have completed a Ph.D. (often seven years if you teach to support yourself) don’t want to spend the time and money to complete a two-year teaching certificate.

    Of course, the teachers’ unions may hate this suggest, but if implemented, it would surely raise the quality of public high school education,

  8. I agree with Becky. This job is exhausting, low-paying, and thankless to anyone that cares enough to spend the hours it actually takes to do a great job at it, and the media has been vicious in its portrayal of teachers as overpaid loafers. I have the qualifications to attend a top 20 law school, but I keep teaching because everyday I look my kids in the eye and see the potential they have inside them- potential that is being squandered by the current system. I know that if I leave, the likelihood that they will get another teacher that is willing to work as hard or care as much as I do is almost nil. I can’t allow my students to grow up and be as uninformed and unprepared for the world as our school would allow them to be. We graduate an embarrassing number of kids that read and write below an 8th grade level. Our administrators are not leaders. Our professional development is nothing of the sort. Half our teachers are exactly what the media portrays us as. We lack clear communication. Our union fights against change. And yet if you, Mr. Duncan, were to talk to our administrators, I have no doubt that you walk away telling them what a good job they are doing. So far, I have no confidence that real change is coming, because no one is charge is talking about real change. You use allusions to “improvement” and “higher-level thinking” without any substantive, systemic reworking of the current hierarchy of failure.

  9. It is a shame that people still enter the teaching profession with the idea that it is easy and because they passed the third grade they can most certainly teach it. This is not the case and I have seen it. Some teachers refuse to change their strategies and attitude as cange occurs in society and in technology. I feel sorry for thier students because they are the ones who miss out! Due to teachers neglect of continually learning about the best practices in education the students’ learning suffers. I love what I do and I hope that I can make a difference not only with the children in my class but with the teachers that I work.

  10. Higher quality teacher training programs must be put in place in every university. Teacher candidates need to undergo intensive interviewing process as well as rigid methods courses with more research on the science and art of teaching. Teachers also need to be willing to understand how the learning process takes place for different types of students at different developmental stages. The U.S moved towards worrying about teachers being highly qualified on paper with no concern whether it was true in the classroom. Many school administrators were weak teachers so to expect them to provide instructional leadership in our schools is extremely pointless. The “good old boys” , coach-turned-administrator is still in place in many schools which means bad teachers get ignored and great teachers carry the load. Take athletics out of the schools and give it to community club programs is the first place to start so students are going to school for the academics. Offer vocational schools at an earlier age for struggling adolescents an avenue to find a trade that fits their personalities and skills. Reduce the number of classes teachers are expected to teach so they can actually have the mental, emotional, and physical strength to do a higher quality job for all students. Currently teaching in the U.S. is an exhausting, thankless profession for the good teachers and an easy 8 – 3 job for bad teachers.

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