Global Perspectives: How the Top Performing Countries Prepare Primary Teachers

by Nathan Driskell

Think tanks, advocacy groups, and researchers have recently been sending American policymakers a clear and urgent message: too often, the United States’ system of teacher preparation is less than rigorous, attracts under-qualified candidates, and does not impart the knowledge and skills that will ultimately prepare teachers to be successful in the classroom. A recent, much-publicized National Council on Teacher Quality report is only the latest example. Top-performing education systems around the world have put much emphasis on making sure teachers have deep content knowledge in the subject they will teach and the craft knowledge to teach that subject well, before they enter the classroom and when they are in their induction period. These jurisdictions focus their attention on making sure this is the case, not just for secondary teachers, but also for elementary, or what they call primary, school teachers.

In order to learn more about this important topic, CIEB is sponsoring a major study of primary school teacher preparation and induction in the top-performing systems. Led by Ben Jensen of Learning First, the study will examine the structure, curriculum, and degree of specialization required of primary school teacher candidates in selected top performing countries: how do these countries ensure that primary teachers enter the classroom with the requisite skills and content knowledge to tackle their demanding jobs?

TeachersWe anticipate that when this ambitious study is released in a year-and-a-half, it will fill an urgent gap in the field. But we know that many of our readers are eager to know more now about what the top performers are doing to prepare primary school teachers. For this reason, CIEB conducted a brief scan of the existing research on primary school teacher preparation in the top performing countries. While by no means comprehensive, this initial scan answers some preliminary questions and gives us a useful starting point for future research. For example: How are primary teacher candidates admitted into preparation programs in the top performing countries? How is preparation structured, what credentials does it provide, and what topics are included in the curriculum? Where do the top performers house their primary teacher preparation programs? Who oversees them? We hope our readers find this preliminary information useful, and we look forward to learning and sharing more as Learning First completes its research.

Evaluating and Accepting Candidates

Although ensuring that prospective teachers are well prepared through relevant and engaging curriculum is key, we also know that it is critical to ensure that teacher preparation programs are accepting only the best candidates. The top performers do this in very different ways, but each of their strategies leads to the same outcome: a uniformly committed and qualified corps of prospective teachers. Arguably, Singapore represents the gold standard for rigorous screening of primary school teacher candidates. Primary school teachers in Singapore are recruited by the Ministry of Education and trained at the National Institute of Education (NIE) in Nanyang Technological University. Applicants need to score in the top-third of their class in their high school exams, as well as above average on Singapore’s immensely challenging A-level exams. They are also evaluated on personal attributes, including passion for teaching, during a rigorous interview process.

Hong Kong Art TeacherAs a result, entry into the teacher training programs in Singapore is exceptionally competitive. Exactly how competitive varies from year to year, because each year, NIE only opens the number of spots in the training programs for the number of teachers it calculates it will need. However, estimates peg the average at an acceptance rate of roughly one in eight. What is remarkable about this rate is how not remarkable it is among many other top performers. In Finland, the acceptance rate to teacher preparation programs is one in ten. In Poland, it is one in three. While these figures represent the acceptance rate for all teacher-training programs, not just primary teachers, it is worth noting that primary school training programs almost always have more applicants than secondary school programs. In other words, the acceptance rate at primary programs must be considerably lower than the already-competitive average. The result is that in the top performers, prospective primary school teachers begin their training once they have already demonstrated high academic aptitude (most come from the top of their high school class), passion for teaching, and skill in conducting mock lessons.

In Shanghai, entrance into teacher preparation programs is just as competitive as other countries, requiring top entrance examination scores. But it is worth pausing to highlight Shanghai’s strenuous interview process as well. Experts on Shanghai widely consider its teacher applicant interviews to be among the most unique – and highly promising – aspects of the system. These interviews are divided into two parts. In individual interviews, experienced educators assess candidates on their commitment to serving in education and their interest in and passion for supporting the development of young children. In group interviews, observers look at how candidates collaborate to solve problems and function as part of a team. The individual interviews help Shanghai’s policymakers to ensure that they are only recruiting teachers who are committed to persisting in the profession, thereby addressing the problem of teacher retention from the onset. The group interviews send the message that educators are expected to work collaboratively as part of a team to reflect, critically assess results, strategize, and continuously improve, even from the start of their careers.

Curriculum Structure and Credentials

All that being said, recruiting the best, brightest and most committed is worth almost nothing if they do not receive relevant and actionable training that will enable them to be well-versed in the content they will teach (even if they are expected to be generalists) and able to teach skillfully. For that reason, we need to look closely at how programs for preparing primary school teachers are structured: what are they required to study and in what order, and what credentials do they receive and when?

Almost all of the top performing countries use one or both of two basic structures for their primary school teacher preparation programs. In the “concurrent model,” candidates study pedagogy alongside core subjects for four years, after which they typically receive a bachelor’s of education. Candidates typically take exclusively core curriculum classes during the first year. In the second year, they declare a major in teacher education and begin to take courses on pedagogy; the study of content and the study of teaching are integrated into their learning from then on. In the “consecutive model,” candidates receive their bachelor’s degree in a certain subject area after three or four years, and then study pedagogy exclusively during an additional one- or two-year program that culminates in an education certificate or master’s of education degree. This model does not integrate (or only minimally integrates) the study of pedagogy with subject matter study.

The majority of top performing systems follow the concurrent model as the preferred path of entry into the profession, while reserving the consecutive model for career switchers who already have a bachelor’s degree. However, it would be a mistake to immediately conclude that the concurrent model is universally better. Ultimately, neither model may be better or worse, so long as the curriculum and experiential learning components are strong. As we will see, Canada favors the consecutive model (with some variation at the provincial level). Meanwhile, Japan offers a choice of different training pathways that are used to determine the compensation and prestige new teachers have when they first enter the classroom.

Finnish studentsand teacherCurrently students in Ontario must enroll in a one-year post-bachelor degree program in teaching to be certified; in 2015, the one-year program will be expanded to two years. The teaching credential program blends methods, theory, and practice. For example, the one-year program is currently required to include: 40 percent teaching methods; 20 percent education foundation courses; 20 percent other education courses; and, at least 40 days of practice teaching. (This will be doubled to 80 days of practice teaching in 2015, but other components of the lengthened program have not yet been announced.)

Both Finland and Estonia, on the other hand, prepare primary school teachers using the concurrent model: an integrated bachelor’s/master’s program. In the bachelor’s of education (which lasts four years in Estonia and three in Finland), candidates specialize in a chosen field that then becomes the subject candidates must teach. In Estonia, these fields are general: humanities, sciences, or math. In Finland, candidates have more opportunity for specialization, and can choose between Finnish, math, art and music, history, natural sciences, biology, geography, or religion and ethics.

In both countries, the concurrent model allows teacher candidates to practice the skills associated with teaching for a considerable amount of time. For example, in Estonia, prospective primary school teachers have three years’ worth of opportunities to practice their teaching. This includes a 24-credit practice module with a variety of opportunities to practice and hone pedagogical skills, including practice and feedback sessions at university demonstration labs and traineeship in designated practice schools. Practice schools apply to be part of a network affiliated with the universities and are carefully vetted and prepared for this responsibility. Furthermore, student teachers in Estonia must spend one full year in induction, where they work closely with mentor teachers, teach in front of classrooms for 18 hours per week, and are evaluated critically on their performance before being granted a certificate and teaching license.

In Finland, several innovative elements of preparation are worth highlighting. One is the problem-solving group, where teacher candidates and their mentors meet in cycles of planning, action, and reflection to prepare teachers to create lessons, self-evaluate, and consistently improve. Candidates are also required to write and defend a theoretical master’s thesis in pedagogy. These additional requirements elevate the teaching profession, as teachers are widely known to have undergone rigorous training. Furthermore, they set the expectation that teachers will be intellectually curious and reflective learners, who are capable of conducting independent research to evaluate the impact of new techniques, and using the findings to improve throughout their careers.

Moving away from Europe, Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore are examples of Asian countries that favor the concurrent model of primary school teacher preparation. While Taiwan and Singapore each have a few specialized teacher education centers that offer post-graduate certification to teachers, this option is reserved primarily for career-switchers who already have bachelor’s degrees and those who seek to change their area of specialization. In contrast, most Taiwanese and Singaporean universities and colleges offer teacher education programs which award a bachelor’s of education degree.

Japanese Math Teacher2One particularly striking, if not unique, element of the Taiwanese and Singaporean approaches to primary school education is the degree of specialization. In Taiwan, all teachers, primary and secondary, are required to take most of their classes in a specialized area (30 percent of their coursework is reserved for pedagogical studies; the remaining 70 percent is largely specialized). All candidates are granted teaching certificates specific to their teaching area, and must obtain further credentials if they seek to teach outside their specialized area. In Singapore, candidates are required to choose whether to pursue a bachelor’s of arts degree or a bachelor’s of science degree, and this choice determines whether they will be expected to teach mathematics/sciences or literacy when they enter the classroom. South Korea, however, does not pursue this kind of specialized approach, instead opting to focus 70 percent of prospective primary school teachers’ time on pedagogical studies (including theory, practice, and an advanced graduate research thesis), while reserving 30 percent for general education topics.

Top-performing Hong Kong has only recently required teachers to obtain a bachelor’s degree. Over a decade ago, primary teachers in Hong Kong only had to obtain teachers’ certificates. This lax requirement limited the amount of content to which teachers were exposed, because their only required coursework was largely informal and focused mostly on pedagogy. As of 2005, primary teachers in Hong Kong are now required to complete four years of post-secondary education. This may be conducted either in the concurrent or the consecutive model, depending on whether candidates already have a bachelor’s degree. Candidates coming directly from secondary school undertake four years of education study (including 16 weeks in practicum), leading to a bachelor’s of education degree. Candidates who already have a three-year bachelor’s degree with a general major are only required to follow up with a one-year teaching diploma.

In either case, prospective primary school teachers in Hong Kong take courses at the Institute of Education. The four-year bachelor’s of education requires a mix of content in a specialized area, pedagogy and research: 30 credits in a major teaching subject area, such as math or language; 30 credits in education studies, including pedagogy studies specialized to the chosen content area; 21 credits in general education; 6 credits of an honors project, which requires students to learn research methods and conduct independent research on teaching; 36 credits of a minor subject area or second major, including visual arts, music, P.E., or other languages; and 15 credits of field experience.   For the one-year postgraduate Diploma in Education, candidates must participate in 12 weeks of field experience involving progressively more independent teaching assignments. In both forms of certification, the pedagogical studies component focuses on imparting the skills considered most essential to running an effective classroom: good communication skills; a positive attitude toward teaching, learning and working with other people; sociability; physical and psychological well being; and assertiveness and adaptability.

Hong Kong also requires a considerable amount of specialization, although it takes a slightly different form. Prospective primary school teachers must choose two specialized teaching subjects, one of which must be the students’ undergraduate major. This regulation ensures that primary school teachers in Hong Kong have studied at least one of the subjects they will teach, both when they pursued their bachelor’s, and when they studied to be a teacher. This requirement is designed to give them both greater theoretical knowledge of content and the ability to apply that content knowledge to the classroom.

Differentiated Teacher Certification: The Case of Japan

As we have seen, most of the top performing countries consistently require one of two models for primary teacher preparation. Japan is the exception to this rule, demonstrating how increased options for obtaining training credentials can build a teacher career ladder. In Japan, all teachers are required to complete a postsecondary degree leading to a degree in their subject of choice, and a teacher training certification program.  However, prospective primary teachers can choose between three models of teacher training, and may receive one of three levels of certificates, depending on the rigor of the program they choose. Teachers who obtain a junior college degree with their teacher training receive a second-class certificate. Teachers who obtain a bachelor’s and then go on to teacher training receive a first-class certificate. While the second-class certificate enables a primary school teacher to seek licensure and employment as a teacher anywhere, it is valid for only 15 years. Furthermore, licensure and employment are determined by the prefecture where the applicant wants to teach, and prefectures generally prefer applicants with a first-class certificate or better. For this reason, obtaining a bachelor’s degree and a first-class certificate makes it considerably easier for candidates to find employment in schools.

Finally, teachers who obtain a master’s degree may receive an Advanced Certificate. This is similar to advanced certification, such as National Board Certification, in the United States. The most qualified and experienced teachers have considerable incentives to obtain the Advanced Certificate.   They receive competitive paid-leave programs from prefectural boards of education. Advanced Certificates also confer status and command extra pay. In this way, certification in Japan functions as a kind of competitive career ladder, incentivizing additional preparation, longevity, and dedication amongst the top ranks of Japanese teachers. (Poland offers a similar, if somewhat less regulated alternative to this approach by requiring a bachelor’s of education for teachers, but offering increased pay and responsibility to those with a master’s degree; as a result, 90 percent of teachers in Poland have a master’s.)

In Japan, each of the certificates requires a balance of study between subject areas and pedagogy, but exact credit requirements vary depending on the level of certification. The first-class certificate requires the following for primary school teachers: eight credits of subject courses; 41 credits of pedagogical and guidance courses; 10 credits of either pedagogy or subject courses; eight credits on the Japanese Constitution, physical education, foreign-language communication, and media literacy; a three-week teaching practicum; and a one-week internship. In many places, teachers must also pass an exam before being hired, at which point they spend a year in induction. These many requirements (a degree and a certificate, an exam, a conditional hire with an induction period,) ensure that teachers have received critical feedback from a variety of different groups before awarded their license. It is an arduous process no matter the path that candidates choose to take. That being said, candidates have the option to follow less or more competitive tracks, and receive commensurate prestige and compensation in return.

Program Governance and Oversight

In the United States, individual institutions determine the offerings they provide, and therefore, the structure of teacher preparation. Institutions may be subject to accreditation requirements from the state, including the kinds of courses they must offer. But given the many diverse teacher preparation programs throughout the United States (including public and private universities, teacher preparation colleges, and alternative certification programs) states have little capacity to substantively evaluate the content of their courses and the proficiency of their graduates.   In effect, there is very little oversight.

In the top performers, the national Ministry of Education typically exercises much greater control. Ministries set requirements for courses of study, credentials that must be obtained, and the kinds of mastery candidates need to demonstrate by the time they graduate, including not only passing standardized tests, but also earning the approval of a mentor teacher during an induction period.

Singapore teachersFurthermore, the Ministries in the top performing systems are also extremely selective about the number of institutions that may certify teachers and the number of candidates they may certify, both in order to prevent oversupply and to exercise stringent quality control. They may do this by permanently limiting the number of institutions authorized to train teachers by regulation or statute. For example, in Singapore, the Ministry of Education oversees teacher recruitment, and all teacher training is conducted at the National Institute of Education, which maintains a close relationship with the Ministry. Hong Kong has a similar policy, albeit slightly more relaxed: over 80 percent of teachers are trained at the Institute of Education. Another policy lever for strengthening quality control is to define measures of success for preparation programs, and revoke accreditation for those who fail to meet them. For example, in 2005, Taiwan closed a number of teacher preparation programs that failed to meet performance metrics, reducing new teachers by 44 percent in the process. Taiwan regularly evaluates its teacher preparation programs in part based on the performance of its candidates on national exams. Once candidates have completed their preparation program, they must take the Teacher Qualification Examination in order to be granted the right to be a teacher. The benchmark required for passing this examination is rigorous and uncompromising: in 2007, the pass rate was 68 percent; and in 2008, it was 76 percent.

Teacher training in South Korea is slightly more decentralized. Training for primary school teachers takes place at one of 13 teacher-training programs: the 11 teachers colleges, the South Korea National University of Education, and the Ewha Womans University. However, all of these programs are still subject to Ministerial oversight. Furthermore, the preparation programs for primary school teachers is actually much more centralized than for secondary school teachers. Pathways for secondary school teachers are considerably more diverse. This not only reflects the greater range of subjects that secondary school teachers may teach, but also the system’s priority of more tightly controlling the content and delivery of primary school teacher preparation, in order to guarantee quality teachers in the early years.

In Japan, oversight of teacher certification is split between the federal and local levels, providing a set of checks and balances. The national Ministry of Education sets requirements for the coursework teachers must complete to earn their bachelor’s degree and teaching certificate from a nationally accredited teacher-training program. However, licensure is handled at the prefectural level: local school boards oversee the frequently rigorous requirements for obtaining a license to teach in local schools. Often, teachers must pass a competitive exam administered by the local board, and a one-year induction period under the supervision of a mentor teacher, in order to be licensed in a prefecture.

Emerging Themes

The top performing countries’ strategies to prepare highly qualified primary school teachers differ in the policy details. Some require master’s degrees, while others do not. Some place great value on interviewing candidates, while others strictly adhere to test score cutoffs. Some oversee all preparation programs at the national level, and hold programs accountable for following tightly controlled programs; others hold institutions accountable for results. Some require all elementary school teachers to specialize in either math and science or the humanities; some do not. Yet the outcomes are remarkably similar. Each of the top performers recruits cohorts of academically skilled and committed candidates, who receive extensive education in the subject or subjects they will teach and training in how to teach those subjects well. Primary school teachers are given opportunities to do high-level research and practice teaching with experienced mentors. And these teachers go on to teach students who demonstrate world-class performance on global tests of literacy, math, and critical thinking.

For further reading, take a look at some of the existing research on this topic in the box to the right. And keep following the Center on International Education Benchmarking for future updates on the research we have commissioned.