A recent report by the research and consulting firm McKinsey and Co. examines what it would take to induce more talented young people in the United States to become teachers.
The report, titled “Closing the Talent Gap,” makes a nice complement to most of the debate taking place on teaching quality – which focuses on how to improve the performance of those already in the profession, typically with merit pay and making it easier to fire “bad” teachers.
Newspaper columnist Andrea Neal of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation wrote about McKinsey’s international education research in a recent column. But it’s better to read the report, not Neal’s selective and slanted account.
“Closing the Talent Gap” looks at the K-12 teaching profession in Finland, Singapore and South Korea, three of the countries that do best on international comparisons of student performance. It describes how those countries draw their elementary and secondary teachers almost entirely from the top third of college-bound students. Admission to teacher preparation programs is highly selective, with only the best students getting in.
The report says that the U.S., on the other hand, disproportionately draws teachers from the bottom third of college graduates. (Note that’s the bottom third of college graduates. Neal, in her column, contrasts this with Finland, Singapore and South Korea, which draw teachers from the top 5-30 percent of high school graduates, as if it were an apples-to-apples comparison.)
The McKinsey report asks what it would take for the U.S. to implement a similar approach. While conceding that the research is mixed on whether academically “talented” college graduates make the best teachers, it concludes that experimenting with the approach would be worthwhile.
One obvious issue is money. Based on interviews with U.S. students, McKinsey concludes we could significantly improve the percentage of “top third” college graduates willing to become teachers and teach in high-need schools – if we improved starting salaries to $65,000 and maximum pay to $155,000.
Another striking factor in the report is the high social status and cultural respect accorded to teachers in countries with the highest performing students, but not in the U.S. High status is reflected by high salaries in Singapore and South Korea, but not in Finland, the report says.
McKinsey doesn’t provide a lot of support for people who think that merit pay based on student test scores will attract more talented people to the profession. Singapore does pay teachers large bonuses based on performance as judged by rigorous and broad-based evaluations. In South Korea, bonuses don’t vary much by teacher performance. In Finland, there isn’t merit pay, and “anybody who suggested it would be laughed at or hanged,” the report quotes an education official as saying.
But in the U.S., where professional status is so closely tied to money, it’s hard to imagine attracting more top college students to teaching without changing the pay structure.
The report says that teacher pay has stayed relatively flat in the U.S. while compensation for some other professions has exploded. It says that, in 1970, the difference between starting pay for a teacher and a lawyer at a top firm in New York City was only $2,000. Now the difference is $115,000.