Countries that outpace the United States in education use many different strategies to help their students excel. They do, however, share three: They set high requirements to become a teacher; hold those who become one in high esteem; and offer the instructors plenty of support.
On Wednesday and today, education leaders, including U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the nation's largest teacher unions, and officials from the highest-scoring countries, are meeting in New York to identify the best teaching practices.
The meeting comes after the recently released results of the Programme for International Student Assessment exam of 15-year-olds alarmed U.S. educators. Out of 34 countries, the United States ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math.
"On the one hand, the United States has a very expensive education system in international standards," said Andreas Schleicher, who directs the exam. "On the other hand, it's one of the systems where teachers get the lowest salaries."
Schleicher co-authored a report released Wednesday in conjunction with the conference which concluded that for the United States to remain competitive, it must raise the status of the teaching profession. An additional report released by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, as well as the PISA exam, identified several effective practices observed in the top-performing regions and countries:
* They draw teachers from the same pool of applicants as those from other selective professional careers. Aspiring teachers in Singapore, for example, are selected from the top one-third of secondary school graduating classes. They are given a monthly stipend while in schools and starting salaries are competitive with other professional jobs.
* Higher teacher salaries -- rather than smaller class sizes -- were a better indicator of student performance. At the same time, it wasn't an exclusive means of attracting the best into the profession and must be accompanied by support from school leaders and a work environment that values professional judgment rather than formulas.
"They want to do knowledge work, not work in a prescriptive environment," Schleicher said.
* Instructors are held accountable for student performance, but test results would be just one of a number of measures to determine student outcomes. Teachers welcome effective appraisal systems.
Deborah Ball, dean of the University of Michigan's School of Education, said teachers in the United States are also at a disadvantage because they are prepared without knowing what they will teach.
Prospective teachers in countries that outperformed the United States in the PISA exam also frequently have the advantage of learning how to teach a curriculum they themselves followed as young students.
"They're learning to unpack it, help kids learn it, they've seen those books, they've seen that curriculum, they've been part of the system that is stable," Ball said.