Lesson from PISA: raise the status of teachers

The U.S. needs to recruit and retain better teachers and raise the status of the teaching profession if it’s going to catch up with educational leaders like Finland, Canada and South Korea, according to a new report that draws on the much-talked-about PISA comparisons of educational outcomes.

The report, “Lessons from PISA: What the U.S. Can Learn from the World’s Most Successful Education Reform Efforts,” comes from the McGraw-Hill Research Foundation. Authors are Andreas Schleicher, the director of PISA (the Program for International Student Assessment), and Steven L. Paine, a McGraw-Hill vice president and former West Virginia state school superintendent.

“The most important lesson the U.S. can take from the countries that have been most successful in achieving high PISA scores for their students is to begin investing in the preparation and development of high-quality teachers, while at the same time taking steps to elevate the status of the entire profession to a higher level of respect and regard,” the report says.

But how exactly do we do that? That’s where the debate gets difficult.

PISA, a project of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, assesses the test performance of 15-year-olds in dozens of countries every three years. When the latest PISA results came out in December 2010, media reports focused on the rankings – in particular, the fact that the U.S. was in the middle of the pack in reading and science and below average in math.

But PISA produces a ton of data and extensive reports on how nations compare in a variety of educational outcomes and what can be learned from the top-performing countries. The McGraw-Hill report draws on those findings and asks: Can the U.S. catch up with world leaders? It answers in the affirmative, pointing to dramatic strides by South Korea and Poland as examples of what a concerted effort can do.

In addition to raising the status of teachers, Schleicher and Paine call for implementing rigorous and focused standards – they view the adoption of Common Core Standards by most states, including Indiana, as a good step – and doing more to develop leadership at the local and school level.

Some other observations:

— Unions aren’t the problem. Teachers are heavily unionized in Canada and Finland, and the unions in those countries advocate for improving the profession.

— Money isn’t the problem. The U.S. spends more on education than most countries. But how we spend money may be a problem. The U.S. is one of the few nations that spend more to educate well-off students than poor kids. And it spends more on buildings, buses and extracurriculars than most.

But back to the question of what it will take to attract and retain good teachers and raise the status of the profession. Would higher pay make a difference? Pay that’s tied to performance? Opportunities for leadership and advancement? Does union-bashing (and bad-teacher-bashing) help or hurt?

Alas, PISA, for all its useful data, doesn’t offer any easy answers.

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