World's best school systems look for the best and brightest to teach

The Ohio teacher misconduct scandal is moving forward in predictable ways with the governor and the General Assembly scrambling to do something, the state teacher unions asking them not to go too far, and the Ohio Department of Education and various local school boards looking befuddled at best.

Once the state resolves the current mess over tracking teacher child molesters, however, we need to learn a lot more about the other 99.99 percent of the Buckeye State's 150,000+ teachers. For example, exactly how well do they teach? How much do they actually affect their students' learning? We've got no real quantifiable evidence in Ohio to answer these questions. But, we know that teachers are the key to a better education system, a goal that seems to have eluded the educational policy in most industrialized countries, according to a new survey searching for common threads in the world's most effective school systems.

The British publication The Economist (see here) reports on a new survey by McKinsey & Company, an internationally renowned consulting group, that examines top-of-the-heap school systems like those in Canada, Finland, Singapore, and South Korea. McKinsey reports schools in these countries do three things right: attract the best and brightest into teaching, get the best out of teachers, and intervene when students start falling behind. This isn't rocket science but most of the world's school systems don't do it. Studies in Tennessee and Dallas, according to The Economist, also have shown that teacher quality is the most significant school factor on student learning.

The world's top-performing education systems do not necessarily pay teachers gobs of money, but they make sure teaching is seen as a high-status profession. That enables South Korea to recruit primary-school teachers from the top 5 percent of graduates, Singapore and Hong Kong from the top 30 percent. Contrast this to the United States where teachers often come from the bottom third of college graduates.

Countries with top education systems also intensely train teachers after they're hired. Singapore provides 100 hours of training a year. Senior teachers oversee professional development in each school. In Japan and Finland, groups of teachers visit each others' classrooms and plan lessons together. This idea is taking root in the United States. Teachers in Boston schools arrange class schedules so teachers of the same subjects have free time for common planning. In Ohio, the same idea is used in the Granville schools in Licking County, among other districts.

And, according to McKinsey, in the most successful countries teachers intervene early when students look like they're in trouble. Finland has as many as one teacher in seven providing remedial help in some schools. A third of the pupils may get one-on-one lessons, according to The Economist.

McKinsey's conclusions are optimistic: "getting good teachers depends on how you select and train them; teaching can become a career choice for top graduates without paying a fortune; and that with the right policies, schools and pupils are not doomed to lag behind."

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