Want to compete with Finland, Singapore, Shanghai, and the rest of the world’s top-performing school systems? Invest in teachers.

Teacher quality was one of several hallmarks discussed by Andreas Schleicher, who as Director of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Achievement (PISA), is the architect of the world’s best-known study on international school quality.  Schleicher spoke on March 26 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, as part of Houston A+ Challenge’s speaker series on public education.

Systems that perform well on the PISA test – both those who have dominated for years, like Finland, and systems on the rise, like Vietnam – invest their dollars in teachers’ pay, training, ongoing professional development, and time to plan and collaborate.

“The quality of an education system can never surpass the quality of its teachers,” he noted. “The education system is created by those on the front line.”

Though attracting the best and brightest college grads to the profession can help, many high-performing countries begin with average candidates.  Robust teacher training – frequently grounded in hands-on practice, and often offered at little or no cost to trainees – lays the groundwork for these systems’ strong teacher corps.

Furthermore, top-performing systems retain teachers better than low-performing systems. Salaries competitive with other professional fields play a role, as does the high respect for teachers in many countries.  In countries where teachers contribute to the school’s educational vision and management, share standards for excellence, and maintain an intellectual interest in the job, student performance on PISA tends to rise.

Schleicher noted that investing in the quality of teachers can mean a trade-off with teacher quantity. Like many countries that perform below the OECD average, U.S. schools invest in small class sizes.  Korea, by contrast, has 40 or more students per class.  The U.S. also spends a higher-than-average portion of its education dollars outside of the classroom – in, for example, administration and testing.

Teacher Quality in Context

Teacher quality was just one of several “must haves” Schleicher identified as hallmarks of high-performing systems.

Cultural factors, such as placing a high value on education, play a substantial role:  Parents’ daily interest in their children’s studies is as predictive of success as socioeconomic factors. Students’ sense of self-efficacy –confidence in their ability to master the material, attributing success or failure to their own work rather than external factors – is substantially higher in top systems.

Policies matter too.  Nearly all top systems feature high-stakes gateways that force students to take responsibility for their own performance in order to advance, as well as clear, universal, high expectations for student performance.

PISA: Testing for an Information Economy

The richness of the data presented is a reflection of PISA’s purpose and origins. Andreas Schleicher began his career as a physicist and developed the test as a scientific approach to determining whether schools – a substantial investment in any country – were truly preparing students for the future.

The test is designed to test student’s preparedness to be knowledge workers.  As routine physical and mental work is usurped by analytical and interpersonal jobs in workplaces worldwide, students must be prepared with the skills to think, communicate and problem-solve.

“The world economy no longer pays you for what you know,” Schleicher noted. “Google knows everything.  The world economy pays you for what you can do with what you know.”

Though some critics deride the PISA scores as an oversimplified ranking, the program is, at its core, a detailed study of the complicated systems that underlie future economic success and produce a happy, healthy population.

Schleicher noted that around the world, highly skilled workers are more likely not only to be employed and earn high wages, but also to be in good health, volunteer in their communities, feel a sense of political efficacy, and have trust in their relationships.

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