The following policy briefs are based on NCEE’s research into the practices of the world’s top-performing education systems as articulated in NCEE’s The Design of High-Performing Education Systems.
Top performing countries know it is impossible to deliver a world-class education to all their students unless every child has a very well-prepared teacher, every school is led by a highly skilled principal, and all educators work in environments that allow them to do their best work and continuously improve.
The top-performing systems all have policies in place to ensure that they are recruiting a world-class teaching force. They have a limited number of teacher preparation programs, and all are housed in top research universities. The systems limit entry into teacher preparation to ensure that only the most qualified are admitted by setting rigorous entry requirements, including interviews, exams, and demonstration lessons. Some raise the barrier to entry still further by allowing only the most accomplished high school graduates to apply. Furthermore, they have supply-and-demand policies in place to prevent shortages or surpluses and ensure the system is producing the teachers it needs and new graduates are going to schools that need them.
Preparation program content emphasizes content mastery, focused on the curriculum that teachers will be expected to teach, including the ability to diagnose how and why students are struggling with a specific aspect of content and prescribe teaching techniques to correct misconceptions. It also includes research methods for the craft of teaching, such as the skill of piloting a new technique, evaluating the results on student learning, and making refinements appropriately. At least a year is given over to mastery of the craft of teaching, and teachers complete clinical experiences under the guidance of specially selected and trained mentor teachers, sometimes in designated practice schools that collaborate closely with the preparation program. Once teachers exit preparation and enter the classroom, they typically spend at least a year in induction programs under the guidance of a trained mentor who has time and incentives to coach them on their work.
In top-performing systems, teachers do not stop learning and growing once they have completed induction and training. Improving the competence of currently serving teachers and leaders is a priority, and both schools and the teaching profession have to be designed to serve this purpose. Career ladders are created to develop the skills of the current teacher workforce and establish a culture and organization that supports continuous improvement of the school as a whole. Teachers at the upper levels of the teacher career ladder serve as mentors to new teachers and lead teams in the process of observing lessons, improving their practice and their instructional tools and materials, reviewing assessment data, doing school-based research on ways to improve student learning and sharing results of that work. In this way, leadership is distributed throughout school buildings and teachers have incentives to improve and to help one another improve.
School schedules also offer all teachers sufficient time to plan, to observe one another, to collaborate on improvements, and to seek out professional learning opportunities that will contribute to their ongoing growth and ability to move up the ladder. Sometimes, the trade-off to this increased time for planning and personal development is increasing class size. But in such cases, teachers are trained to harness the greater class size to encourage students’ to learn from one another and encourage deeper exploration of course content.
The global top performers prioritize developing principals who can ensure that their schools offer high-quality and equitable learning opportunities to their students. They recruit school leaders from the ranks of their most skilled teachers who have a combination of strategic skills, self-knowledge, patience, drive, ethical roots, moral qualities and knowledge of how to manage professionals effectively. They offer them training experiences, some before they are hired as principals, and some on the job, that give them exposure to pressing problems of practice and the opportunity to reflect on those problems in a community of peers and mentors. Not only do they require that principals continuously develop their skills through ongoing training, but they also provide funding, time, and incentives to do so. Finally, they deploy their most skilled leaders to support the parts of their system that are struggling the most.
In Singapore, there is only one teacher preparation institution, the National Institute of Education (NIE) at Nanyang Technological University. Recruitment standards are exceptionally demanding: currently, only applications from the top 30 percent of the college-going high school cohort, as measured by performance on A-level exams, are considered. Once candidates apply, they must complete an entrance exam and an interview process measuring their passion for teaching, knowledge of pedagogy and skill at working with children. NIE offers both a four-year Bachelor of Arts or Science in Education and an 18-month master’s degree for those who already have a bachelor’s. The curriculum includes academic subjects, education students, curriculum studies, and courses focused on oral and written communication. After preservice preparation, candidates enroll in a two-year induction program, where they are paired with an experienced mentor. Both are expected to collaborate, observe lessons, and give one another feedback, and have their teaching loads reduced by 20 percent in order to do so.
In Shanghai, China, ongoing learning is conducted in one of two groups. Subject groups, comprised of all the subject teachers in a given school, meet once per week to share how their classes are going, describe the teaching strategies they are trying and their priorities for the coming weeks, and share any new initiatives or big innovations they plan to try. Grade-level subgroups, made up of the teachers in a specific grade level and subject area specialty in one school, meet regularly, both formally and informally, to observe and debrief each other’s lessons and try out new research strategies. Both groups also review the teaching tools, lesson plans, and assignments they have developed, and communally suggest edits to improve them year after year.
In Hong Kong, there is no one required program for school leaders, but certification requirements for new principals and ongoing learning requirements for serving principals are all structured around a centralized Continuing Professional Development Framework. All preservice training and ongoing learning for principals must include in-school professional learning experiences, classroom-based formal training in leadership theory, and a Needs Analysis process that gives principals individualized professional growth goals and lays out a plan for ongoing learning to meet those goals. Principals are required to revisit this Needs Analysis at various stages of their career to ensure that their professional growth is constantly aligned with their own goals and the goals of their supervisors. In both preservice training and ongoing learning requirements, all principals must undertake Action Learning projects that require them to identify problems, propose innovative solutions, do research to evaluate the efficacy of their solutions, and produce written publications evaluating the results of their research.