Finding and cultivating talented teachers: Insights from high-performing countries

by Esther Carvalhaes
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills 

Teachers are the backbone of any education system. After all, without qualified teachers, how can governments and schools secure each child’s right to quality education and build a society of educated citizens, capable of shaping their own future?  But selecting the right candidates to the profession – aspiring teachers who hold the promise of becoming great teachers – can often feel like an elusive task. The complications start with the very definition of what a good teacher is.

In a rapidly changing world, having a strong knowledge base in their subject area, good classroom management skills and a commitment to helping students learn may no longer be enough to meet the expanding role of teachers. Nowadays, teachers are expected to teach diverse groups of students, adapt to new technologies and curricular changes, and be attuned to the skills, values and attitudes that their students will need in the near future. The reality is: most teachers develop those skills on the job, which makes it harder to predict from the outset who has the potential to become an effective teacher.

But that does not deter some PISA high-performing countries from keeping a close eye on the pool of candidates entering the profession. As this month’s PISA in Focus shows, in Finland, Hong Kong (China), Macao (China) and Chinese Taipei, for example, those who wish to enter a teacher training programme must pass a competitive entry examination. In Japan, it is not enough to receive training from such programmes: graduates must pass a competitive examination before they start teaching. In Singapore, recruitment starts by looking at the best students from the secondary school graduating class; in addition, teaching graduates must complete a probation period in order to teach. Yet, some of these requirements are also found in low-performing countries, showing that selection mechanisms alone are not enough to ensure a qualified teaching force.

Certification requirements add another quality checkpoint to the profession. Research shows that students learn more from teachers who are certified in the subject they teach compared to those taught by uncertified teachers. In PISA 2015, countries that performed above the OECD average in science have a higher percentage of fully certified teachers (92%) compared to other countries (76%), on average. In OECD countries, even though almost all teachers are certified, a modest but positive association is observed between the proportion of fully qualified teachers and student performance.

High-performing countries also know that great teaching may only occur after a good deal of practice, allowing teachers to deepen their knowledge base and skills. This is why professional development is critical, particularly school-based activities. In high-performing countries, at least 80% of students are in schools that invite specialists to conduct teacher training, organise in-service workshops or where teachers co-operate with each other, while only 40% to 60% of students in Algeria, Brazil, Kosovo and Turkey are in such schools. Within countries, teacher collaboration clearly pays off: students in schools where teachers co-operate by exchanging ideas or materials score higher in science. It makes sense: rather than sitting through hours of mandatory lectures that are only weakly connected to their day-to-day practice, teachers benefit more from learning from each other and from sharing “tried and tested” techniques that work in their own contexts, as TALIS results also show.

These are some of the ways in which countries boost teacher quality: they strive to attract the best candidates to the profession, but also foster a culture of continuous learning by engaging teachers in professional development and in peer networks to strengthen their knowledge and maintain high standards of teaching. Together with the ability to take work-related decisions, these form the pillars of a professional teacher workforce.

PISA in Focus No. 70: What do we know about teachers’ selection and professional development in high-performing countries?
PISA 2015 Results (Volume I): Excellence and Equity in Education
Teaching in Focus No. 14: Teacher Professionalism

The 2017 International Summit on the Teaching Profession (ISTP 2017)
29-31 March in Edinburgh, Scotland
Join a public webinar on Wednesday, 29 March, 12:00pm Europe Summer Time (Paris, GMT +02:00) with Andreas Schleicher, Director of the OECD Education and Skills Directorate.
Follow on Twitter #ISTP2017

photo credit:friendly senior high school teacher helping students in classroom @shutterstock

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