Tucker’s Lens: How to Get a First-Rate Teacher in Front of Every Student

by Marc Tucker

We start from the assumption that policy should aim at getting a first-rate teacher in front of every student. Then we note that the research on expertise says that it takes about 10 years to become an expert in just about any professional endeavor. Some experts estimate that half of those who start a career in teaching are gone in five years, and those whose view is much less grim nonetheless estimate attrition rates that are still way above the rates of teacher attrition in the top-performing countries. Consider that those who leave teaching before 10 years have elapsed never get a chance to become an expert teacher and that is a good deal more than half of those who start a career in teaching.

When teachers are asked why they leave teaching so early in their careers, they typically complain that they were not well prepared for the realities of teaching and had little help from anyone else once they started teaching. Indeed, many report a “sink or swim” experience that was distinctly unpleasant.

But what about those who stay in teaching? Here the research is helpful again. It tells us that most teachers have a steep learning curve during their first three years in teaching, but that curve typically flattens out after three years. There is, to my knowledge, no definitive finding on why this is so, but when you look at the incentives that teachers face, it is hard to find any incentives for teachers to get better and better at their jobs. They have a strong incentive to learn enough to survive—to do the job “well enough” at the outset. But, after that, all teachers have pretty much the same job, at the same pay, with the same status, for the rest of their working lives.

Most professionals in the high-status professions work hard at honing their expertise during their whole career, because there is a career, a succession of positions of increasing responsibility, authority, status and compensation available to them, but only if they are willing to get better and better at the work. There are no such career trajectories, by and large, available to teachers in the U.S. Though the research on expertise says it takes at least ten years to become an expert, it does not say that one becomes an expert after accumulating ten years of experience. It says that happens only if the individual keeps working hard, year after year, to become better and better at the work. But teachers have no incentive to do that.


There are, of course, teachers who do work really hard, year after year, to get better and better at the work, but they are the ones driven by an inner demon, not ordinary mortals like you and me. So, while it is probably true that most of our teachers could be really good, really expert, there are not nearly enough of them, because they have no incentive to do so. Even if they had the incentives, they have none of the support they would need to achieve true expertise.

Maybe that’s it, the best we can hope for. But a new research report, previewed at the recent annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in Washington, makes it plain that we could have first-rate teachers in front of virtually every student if we wanted to, but we would have to change many features of our education system to get there.

Eighteen months ago, NCEE’s Center on International Education Benchmarking gave a grant to Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University to organize and direct a very large international comparative study of teacher quality policies and practices in a sample of countries that rank very high on the OECD PISA assessments of student performance. Darling-Hammond assembled a brilliant team of researchers from all over the world to conduct the research. Last Sunday morning, several of them reported on one aspect of their work—how schools in those countries are organized and managed to support high-quality teachers and high-quality teaching in Australia, Singapore, Shanghai and Canada. Jossey-Bass/Wiley will be publishing the case studies and the cross-case analysis. What we heard on Sunday was a preview.

You MUST buy the books when they come out, later this year. Having read several draft chapters from one section of the cross-case analysis and several from the case studies, I promise you that it will be worth every penny and as much of your time as you can spend. This will be the landmark study on teacher quality for many years to come.

Without giving away the study’s findings, this week’s preview gave strong evidence that despite differences in culture, context and continent, there are common elements around how the work of teaching and schools themselves are organized that play no small role in propelling these systems to the top end of the international league tables.

From this research, we see that when a system focuses on building teacher expertise through collaborative, research-focused professional learning and at the same time provides a meaningful career progression that reinforces and rewards the building of teacher expertise, the following tends to occur:

  1. Novice teachers don’t bail right away, as many do now, because they get plenty of support from expert teachers to learn their craft.
  2. Teacher learning does not peak after the third year of teaching, because the system creates very strong norms and incentives for continuous improvement.
  3. Teacher retention rates go way up; novices stay in teaching on average about twice as long as the average teacher in the United States, providing the time most teachers will need to become truly expert.

One strong caution: The reports I have so briefly summed up here cover only one aspect of the teacher quality systems established in the countries studied — what goes in the schools once a teacher is first hired. In every one of these cases, enormous efforts have been made to create the strongest possible cadre of teachers beginning their careers as novice teachers.

This package needs to have a warning sign on it: Do not expect the same results from your schools as these countries have gotten if you adopt the measures described in these papers but fail to attend to the quality of the teachers entering the system.