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What the US could learn from Singapore about making teachers better

Singapore treats its teachers like adults. The US should, too.
Singapore treats its teachers like adults. The US should, too.

For teachers in Singapore to advance in their career, they must make sure their students learn. They also have to help their fellow teachers get better.

This model of collaborative professional development is one way other countries are doing a better job than the United States at improving the skills of educators. While the US spends billions of dollars a year for occasional workshops on the latest technology or curriculum trends, there's almost no evidence to suggest that the model works.

A new study from the National Center on Education and the Economy explores teacher professional development in three countries with excellent education outcomes — Shanghai, Singapore, and British Columbia.

The report found that unlike in the United States, in these countries teaching is much more like other careers, where advancement is expected and interaction with other professionals is expected for growth.

If the US were able to imitate these systems, experts have argued for years, it could help attract more qualified teachers, raise test scores, and have a lifelong impact on students.

How teaching is different from other careers — and why it's a problem

There are two ways that teaching doesn't look like other jobs in the United States: The job stays pretty much the same for as long as a teacher is in the classroom, and there's little interaction with other adults. Experts argue that both are a problem when it comes to helping teachers improve.

If you started out teaching third grade 35 years ago and retired this year, your last day in the classroom easily could have looked a lot like your first. You might have been getting paid more for more years of experience, but the expertise you'd developed after decades in the classroom wasn't formally recognized.

Most professions don't work this way. Lawyers move up from first-year associate to managing partner; nurses can deepen their specialization in branches of medicine. Experts have argued for years that the lack of a similar path in teaching makes it harder to retain good teachers. The clearest path up is becoming a principal — which is essentially an entirely different job.

Teachers' skills, perhaps as a result, improve quickly in the first five years they're in the classroom. Then the research disagrees on what happens next. Some studies have found teachers plateau completely; others find they continue to improve, but not as dramatically.

"There’s no reward for getting better at it," said Marc Tucker, director of the National Center on Education and the Economy, which released the report today exploring how teachers' professional development works in Shanghai, Singapore, and British Columbia. "There’s no career in teaching. There’s no high amounts of responsibility to aspire to."

And although teachers are rarely alone, teaching in the US is a solitary profession: They spend most of their time with students, not other adults.

Compared with teachers in other countries, teachers in the US spend far more time in front of their classes, which means they have less time to work on lesson planning or collaboration. Teachers in the US teach about 27 hours per week, compared with 19 hours per week in Korea and Shanghai.

That means they have less time to discuss problems and techniques with each other and improve their skills.

"Teachers have no time to think, no time to learn, no time to study the kids, no time to study the curriculum," Elizabeth Green, the author of Building a Better Teacher, told me last year. "They have no way of seeing anything that's happening outside their own classroom."

Research has found that collaboration is key to helping teachers improve — or at least that teachers think it is. A 2007 study found a link between teacher collaboration and higher student test scores in Tennessee.

Teachers in other countries are responsible for each other's success

UK Prime Minister David Cameron Visits Singapore Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

A different system of helping teachers learn on the job, already in use in Shanghai, Singapore, and British Columbia, could solve all these problems. Those systems give teachers more time to collaborate, get rid of ineffective professional development, and create a more varied career path for teachers who want to stay in the classroom.

Teachers are responsible not just for their students' learning but also for each other's. They work together to develop better lesson plans or new ways of teaching. And they constantly evaluate whether the work they're doing is paying off in the classroom.

In Singapore, an elite group of "master teachers" are responsible for helping other teachers in the school system to improve. Those teachers train mentors and other leaders within the system, who in turn work with newer teachers to develop their skills.

The system expects tangible results. The teachers set goals for what their students will learn, and if students aren't performing well they're expected to adjust. This approach, according to Tucker, turns teachers into researchers who evaluate data and change their approaches accordingly.

Teachers use four questions to guide their work: 1) What do we want students to learn? 2) How will we know they have learned it? 3) How will we respond when they don't learn? 4) How do we respond when they already know it?

Educating teachers is seen as crucially important: Teachers advance within the profession based in part on how successfully they educate each other, and schools are held accountable for helping their teachers improve.

The Singapore system, as well as similar teacher development systems in Shanghai and British Columbia, "make it very clear that the way we improve schools is to improve teaching," said Ben Jensen, the CEO of Learning First and a co-author of the new report.

But it also requires a high level of trust in teachers. "Until you’re willing to let schools try, and some of them will get it wrong, you’re not going to get the growth that’s possible," Jensen said, adding that he's not sure the system in the US has that much trust.

Unlike many reforms meant to help the US catch up with other countries, this idea wouldn't require a big, national effort. And Tucker suspects that it wouldn't cost more than the billions of dollars that they're already spending on less effective forms of professional development.

Creating a system like Singapore's would still face huge hurdles. It would require reimagining how professional development works and, in some cases, reimagining what a teaching career looks like. It would require huge amounts of training to ensure that it's effective. While teachers unions aren't necessarily opposed to a system of master teachers, most teachers' contracts aren't set up for anything like this, and altering them would require tricky political negotiations.

Freeing up more time for teachers to collaborate also often means larger classes — common in Singapore and Shanghai but strongly resisted by American teachers

The United States is doing some experimenting


One state has come further than the rest in trying to rethink how it helps its teachers improve: Iowa. A new system, backed by the teachers union, creates leadership positions for teachers, including mentoring, serving as a model of good teaching for others, or helping develop the curriculum within their school.

At a coaching session at Roosevelt Middle School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in September, Laura Zimmerman, who teaches students learning English, met with instructional coach Anne Ironside to talk about what was going well and poorly in her classroom. They discussed how she could change her language to reflect a "growth mindset" — the idea that intelligence isn't fixed but can be developed over time.

Ironside asked Zimmerman to pick out specific words and phrases — "effort," "perseverance," "rise to the challenge" — to encourage students who are struggling. And she asked her to pick out when in her lesson plan she might use those techniques.

"Sometimes when I give them a writing prompt … that's when they groan," Zimmerman said. Ironside asked her which students were most likely to struggle, and asked her to role-play how she would encourage those students to keep it up. They brainstormed other ways she could get students started, including model sentences and extra detail on the assignment, and scheduled Ironside's next visit to Zimmerman's classroom during a writing assignment to check up on whether the advice worked.

Feedback in Cedar Rapids used to be much more cursory: a short visit from an administrator, followed by written comments. Under the new system, teachers meet with instructional coaches, some of whom also spend part of their day in the classroom, for 15 to 30 minutes once a week.

"Teachers are saying, I haven’t ever received this much support; I’m getting more support now than I ever have," said Mary Ellen Maske, a Cedar Rapids deputy superintendent.

Iowa's model has gotten national attention: Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited Ironside and Zimmerman's coaching session on a bus tour in September and said Iowa leads the country in developing new roles for teachers.

But it's still far less sophisticated than the systems that Tucker's group highlighted. The key is a policy reform: "We need an overall strategy that says professional learning is important, we’re going to be explicit about what it looks like, and we’re going to structure policies to get that improvement," he said.