As we look around the corner to the occupations of tomorrow, schools and states will need to be more dynamic and future oriented–especially when it comes to career and technical education. – Vicki Phillips in Forbes

Nathan Driskell
by Nathan Driskell

In the world’s top performing education systems, teachers are not only well respected by society, they are also treated as professionals by the system. These systems organize their schools as professional work environments where teachers receive incentives, such as additional compensation and responsibilities, along with supports, such as protected time and the support of experienced peers, to improve their own practice and the performance of their students. Top-performing jurisdictions pursue four concrete strategies for creating such professional work environments for teachers:

  • Paying teachers salaries that are competitive with other professions;
  • Enabling teachers to earn more responsibility as they acquire more skill and experience;
  • Providing structured induction experiences for new teachers alongside a mentor; and,
  • Giving teachers resources and incentives for ongoing professional learning, particularly collaborative learning.

In this month’s Global Perspectives, we will look in greater detail at how four top-performing jurisdictions – Finland, Ontario, Shanghai, and Singapore – pursue each of these strategies. Much of this information comes from a soon to be released CIEB study by Linda Darling-Hammond and her colleagues analyzing the teacher quality systems in top performing countries.

Paying Teachers Competitive Salaries

One much-discussed strategy used to recruit and keep highly competent employees is to provide salaries competitive with other professions. Indeed, the top performers pay teachers at similar levels to other high-status professions, at the start of and throughout their careers. The charts below show the salaries of teachers compared to three professions that require similar levels of education and training and are similarly well-respected in these societies: engineers, accountants, and registered nurses.



Teachers are not necessarily paid more than other professions in these jurisdictions, but their earnings are comparable. In Finland, the starting salary of teachers is higher than the starting salary of engineers; in Ontario and Singapore, teachers’ starting salaries are higher than those of accountants. Teachers’ average salary in Finland, Ontario and Singapore is higher than the average salary of nurses, although it lags behind that of engineers. However, even when salaries lag behind other professions, they are reasonably close. The difference in the average salaries of teachers and other professions is often less than 10 percent, and never exceeds 40 percent. As a result, from the time they are first licensed, the most capable and qualified graduates have a monetary incentive to become teachers, rather than to enter a field with a much higher starting salary. It is also worth mentioning that in Finland and Singapore, teacher training is fully paid for by the state, and in Singapore, teachers in training earn full-time salaries during their student teaching, further incentivizing entry into the teaching profession. Furthermore, the pay for teachers remains competitive throughout teachers’ careers. Therefore, teachers have little incentive, based on their pay, to move on to professions that are more lucrative.

Giving Teachers the Opportunity for Greater Responsibility and Leadership

The top performers also give teachers the opportunity to earn not only higher pay, but also increasing responsibility and leadership opportunities. Unlike in the United States, where teachers have essentially the same job when they retire as they did when they were first certified, teachers in the top international performing jurisdictions take on various additional roles depending on their interests, skills, and qualifications.

Top performing jurisdictions vary in the level of structure they have created to facilitate this career progression. Shanghai and Singapore both have defined career ladder systems, where teachers’ annual evaluations and years of experience enable them to move up the ladder and attain increasing levels of pay and responsibility, from leading induction activities and mentorship for new teachers to demonstrating expert lessons in front of hundreds of peers. Singapore’s career ladder system is especially tailored for the variety of skills and interests that teachers may have and the skills the system values. As the graphic below shows, Singapore’s career ladder system includes three tracks: teaching, leadership, and curriculum specialists. The teaching track allows teachers to stay in the classroom, but gives them greater opportunities to mentor others and share their practice. The specialist track gives teachers a pathway into curriculum research and instructional design. The leadership track serves as a career ladder for principals and de facto pathway into district leadership. At the end of their third year of teaching, teachers use their evaluation results to select the career track they would be best suited for, in consultation with their mentors and supervisor. Each level commands a different pay grade, but more importantly, very different job descriptions, from full-time classroom teacher, to coach and mentor, to curriculum developer. Teachers must score well on their personal performance goals on their annual evaluation in order to move along the career ladder. Each stage of the career ladder is not tied to length of time served, but rather to meeting competencies that the teacher and his or her supervisor have agreed upon, and that are aligned with the Ministry’s goals.

Singapore’s Career Ladder System 

SingaporeTeacherTrackv2Source: Ministry of Education Singapore

In Shanghai, there is only one career ladder, but it offers teachers the opportunity to take on mentoring roles. There are five levels for both primary and secondary school teachers: first-year teachers, level 1, level 2, level 3, and master teachers. Level 2 and 3 teachers take responsibility for mentoring other teachers and leading professional development. As in Singapore, promotion is not automatic. Instead, ministry officials take into account the amount of professional development completed, principal evaluations, and external evaluations by distinguished teachers and subject matter experts when making decisions on promoting teachers. Master teachers are honored teaching veterans who have not only distinguished themselves in the classroom, but also published their teaching research in education journals. This honor is only conferred on a select few: in 2014, there were only 300-400 master teachers in service in Shanghai out of a total of 99,990 teachers.

Ontario and Finland do not have concretely mapped out career ladders for teachers, but still, both jurisdictions ensure that teachers are offered opportunities for additional pay and responsibilities inside and outside of the classroom. In Ontario, teachers can add additional qualifications to their license through ongoing professional learning, and these endorsements enable them to mentor their peers and pursue other leadership opportunities. Experienced and entrepreneurial teachers are also invited to apply for the Teacher Learning and Leadership Program, where teachers can collaboratively research problems and design and lead professional development for their peers across the province. In Finland, the expectation is that schools are run democratically, with teachers sharing responsibility for administration and instructional leadership with principals. School principals delegate additional responsibilities to their expert teachers, and write those responsibilities into their job descriptions while decreasing the amount of time they are expected to teach.

Structured Induction Experiences for New Teachers

Top-performing jurisdictions typically ensure that new teachers have additional support and guidance by pairing them with experienced mentors. These mentorship experiences range from one year in Singapore and Ontario to three years in Shanghai. Mentors observe their mentees, coach them, and provide detailed feedback on their teaching. In Singapore, mentor coordinators ensure that new teachers receive coaching and feedback from mentors both in their grade level and in their area of specialty, so they receive ongoing coaching in both pedagogy and content. An important point to note is that these mentors are carefully screened and trained. In Singapore and Shanghai, becoming a mentor is a reward for progression up the career ladder, so mentors all have the experience and demonstrated teaching skill to successfully mentor their peers. Furthermore, a mentor’s continued progression up the ladder is tied to the success in the classroom of their mentees. While Ontario does not have a comparable career ladder, they do have selection guidelines for mentors that require them to demonstrate their knowledge of the curriculum, and they are required to undergo training in mentorship. In the top performers, these induction experiences, facilitated by experienced mentors, ensure that collaborative continuous professional learning is structured into teachers’ days from the very beginning of their teaching careers.

Supporting and Incentivizing Professional Growth

Teachers in top performing jurisdictions receive considerable resources for professional learning and improvement. Such resources include protected time for collaborating with their peers and developing high-quality tools and innovations and funding for additional professional development of the teachers’ choosing. All four top-performing jurisdictions expect teachers to collaborate in teams and provide them with the time needed to do so. Teachers observe each other’s classrooms regularly and debrief those lessons in teams in order to determine what could be done better. They also practice lessons with one another, jointly develop formative assessments and learning materials, and conduct research by developing innovative strategies, piloting them, and evaluating the results. Teachers also often receive time and funding above and beyond collaborative time for professional development of their choice. For example, in Singapore, teachers have 100 hours of professional development per year to use as they see fit, including pursuing study abroad opportunities to learn from the strategies of other countries.

In addition to resources, the top performers also provide teachers with incentives to improve performance through evaluation systems that enable teachers to reflect on their performance, set personal goals, and gain the opportunity to take on new responsibilities when they meet those goals. In Finland, Ontario, and Singapore, evaluations include a classroom observation component, but the focus is not on principals telling teachers how they need to improve. Instead, teachers are expected to reflect on their performance and set their own goals for improvement, based on student performance, a set of teaching competencies, or both. Principals coach their teachers on resources that are available to help them meet these goals. In Singapore, those that meet their agreed-upon goals are rewarded with advancement on the career ladder. All four jurisdictions reward teachers who meet their goals for professional growth with monetary bonuses. In the Asian jurisdictions these bonuses are substantial: up to 20 percent of base pay in Shanghai and up to 30 percent of base pay in Singapore.

Making These Strategies Possible

How do teachers have time to take on these additional responsibilities and participate in so much collaborative planning? According to the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), they spend far less of their time in front of children. In Shanghai, teachers spend 50 percent of their working hours or less teaching, with some estimates putting the amount of time they spend teaching at 12 to 15 hours per week. Teachers in Finland report working an average of 36 hours per week, with 21 hours being used for teaching (58 percent). Only 5 hours (14 percent) are used for individual planning; the rest may be devoted to collaboration and other activities.Teachers in Singapore report working 56 hours per week, only 17 of which are used for teaching (30 percent). 8 hours (14 percent) are used for individual planning.

These international jurisdictions can afford to have teachers teach for so much less time because they have either larger class sizes or shorter school days. In the Asian jurisdictions, Singapore and Shanghai, class sizes are much higher than anywhere in the United States. The Shanghai Municipal Education Commission stipulates that class size should be fewer than 40, with an average class size of 35. However, some schools that accept the children of migrant workers are permitted to increase the class size. In Singapore, average class sizes are 34 students in primary schools and 35 in secondary schools. On the other hand, in Finland, average class sizes are much lower than in the U.S.: 19 for primary and 20 for secondary. Teachers have the time they need to plan, practice, and collaborate because school days for students, on the whole, are much shorter in Finland than in other countries.

CountryFive Year Teacher Retention Rate
Shanghaivery few leave the profession
United StatesEstimates of U.S. average range between 50-83%

Why should other countries and states pay attention to these four strategies for creating professional working environments for teachers? Because they create a group of dedicated teachers that views teaching as a career. Typically, teachers in these countries stay in the classroom for long periods of time. In Singapore, the attrition rate for teachers is less than 3 percent annually. The Toronto School District retained 98 percent of first-year hires annually between 2005 and 2010. And in Finland, 90 percent of teachers stay in teaching until they retire. In these systems, teacher attrition is not viewed as inevitable; on the contrary, it is considered a failure of the system if attrition rates are high. Countries that want to keep their teachers in the classroom, rather than losing them to better-paying and more professionally rewarding jobs, would do well to learn from this mindset.