Countries that outpace the U.S. in education employ many different strategies to help their students excel. They do, however, share one: They set high requirements to become a teacher, hold those who become one in high esteem and offer the instructors plenty of support.
On Wednesday and Thursday, education leaders, including U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the nation's largest teacher unions, and officials from the highest scoring countries, are meeting in New York to identify the best teaching practices.
The meeting comes after the recently released results of the Programme for International Student Assessment exam of 15-year-olds alarmed U.S. educators. Out of 34 countries, it ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math.
"On the one hand, the United States has a very expensive education system in international standards," said Andreas Schleicher, who directs the exam. "On the other hand, it's one of the systems where teachers get the lowest salaries.
"Then you ask yourself, how do you square those things?"
Schleicher co-authored a report released Wednesday in conjunction with the conference which concluded that for the U.S. to remain competitive, it must raise the status of the teaching profession. An additional report released by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, as well as the PISA exam, identified several effective practices observed in the top performing regions and countries:
— They draw teachers from the same pool of applicants as those from other selective professional careers.
Aspiring teachers in Singapore, for example, are selected from the top one-third of secondary school graduating classes. They are given a monthly stipend while in schools and starting salaries are competitive with other professional jobs.
In Finland, there were 6,600 applicants for 660 openings in primary school preparation programs in 2010.
— Higher teacher salaries — rather than smaller class sizes — were a better indicator of student performance.
At the same time, it wasn't an exclusive means of attracting the best into the profession and must be accompanied by support from school leaders and a work environment that values professional judgment rather than formulas.
"They want to do knowledge work, not work in a prescriptive environment," Schleicher said.
— Teachers are continually being trained and developing their skills as instructors.
In Shanghai, teachers are expected to participate in 240 hours of professional development within five years. Singapore teachers are entitled to 100 hours of training per year "to keep up with the rapid changes in the world."
— Instructors are held accountable for student performance, but test results would be just one of a number of measures to determine student outcomes. Teachers welcome effective appraisal systems.
— In many cases, countries with the highest student performance also had strong teacher unions. The unions also developed their research capacities, with international links and connections to ministries and universities.
In the U.S., part of the reason why the standards to enter teaching are not higher stems from lingering fears over teacher shortages, like those seen during the 1950s when baby boomers were students and what may happen as they are retiring.
Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality, said the higher standards to enter the profession are critical to later success.
"Everything else is sort of a ripple effect," she said.
Jacobs noted that there is evidence from other countries that raising the bar would add prestige to the profession and allow schools to attract a new set of teaching candidates.
There is also significant variation among states in standards for entry, licensure, training and development, noted Joseph Agueberre, president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
Students in one place, for example, might be required to put in more hours in the classroom.
"All of that variability is problematic, because what it does is lead to the fact that we have schools with teachers who are differentially prepared," Agueberre said. "It's a little bit of luck of the draw what kind of teacher a child will get."
Adeline Rodriguez, a third-grade math teacher at a school north of Miami, said that when she was studying to become a teacher, just two of her college classes and an internship involved visits to schools.
Most of the focus of her bachelor's degree program, she said, was on book work.
"It's almost like learning it all anew because it's no longer out of a textbook where you're given a scenario," Rodriguez said. "You are living the scenario."
Mary Osteen, who teaches English and drama at a middle school in Sacramento, Calif., transitioned into teaching after working many years as a paralegal. She said the clinical practice, from professors who were still working in the teaching field, was crucial.
She entered the school where she presently teaches alongside many who had gone through more traditional routes to teaching.
"Within a short period of time, those people were clamoring to us because their programs gave them no support once in the classroom," Osteen said.
Deborah Ball, dean of the University of Michigan's School of Education, said teachers in the United States are also at a disadvantage because they are prepared without knowing what they will teach.
Prospective teachers in countries that outperformed the U.S. on the PISA exam also frequently have the advantage of learning how to teach a curriculum they themselves followed as young students.
"They're learning to unpack it, help kids learn it, they've seen those books, they've seen that curriculum, they've been part of the system that is stable," Ball said.
Another key difference lies in how much time that students aspiring to become teachers are required to work with students.
"Student success is key in becoming a teacher from day one," Schleicher said.