State must attract top students to teaching


By Charles McElwee
Charleston, WV

The Education Audit says it not once but twice: “Having effective teachers rises to the top of every study as the most important factor in determining student success” and “National research and best practice clearly shows [sic] that the best predictor of student achievement is effective teachers….” (pp. 117,122).

Many commentators agree.  Among them:

Andrew N. Liveris, Chairman and CEO, The Dow Chemical Company, in his book Make It In America (“[T]he most decisive factor in student achievement [is] the quality of the teacher in front of [the classroom].” p. 149);

Bill Gates (“‘[W]hen each of the variables under a school’s control is correlated with student achievement, the teacher is the one that makes the biggest difference—and that difference can be dramatic.’”)  Quoted by Liveris, p. 149;

Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, That Used To Be Us (“The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of the teachers,” citing a study conducted by McKinsey, p. 111.)

McKinsey & Company, “Closing the talent gap: Attracting and retaining top-third graduates to careers in teaching,” (September 2010) (“Research shows that of all the controllable factors influencing student achievement, the most important by far is the effectiveness of the classroom teacher.” p. 9.)

According to McKinsey, the U.S. initiatives, unlike the world’s top-performing school systems, have sought “to improve the effectiveness of teachers already in the classroom, not to upgrade the caliber of young people entering the profession.” p. 9.)

“Top-performing [school systems] such as Singapore, Finland and South Korea have made a different choice [than the United States]….” They recruit leading academic talent, “top third students,” to teaching careers and then “rigorously screen students on other qualities they believe to be predictors of teaching success….” (McKinsey, p. 9.)

“Prior to 2000, Finland rarely, if ever, appeared on anyone’s list of the world’s most outstanding education systems.”  Nine years later, in 2009, its students’ reading, math and science performances on PISA that year ranked either second or third among the world’s school systems.  Surpassing Shanghai, Marc S. Tucker, Editor, pp. 51, 76.

(For an excellent survey of the Finnish public-school system, see Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish Lessons.)

While officials in top-performing countries have little doubt that recruiting teachers from the top third± is critical to their success, the story is different in the United States. It “attracts most of its teachers from the bottom two-thirds of college classes, with nearly half coming from the bottom third, especially for schools in poor neighborhoods.”    McKinsey, p. 12.

Tucker observes that “[o]rganizations that care about the quality of their workforce know that the single most important factor in that calculus is the character of the pool from which it recruits.  No private firm, much less an entire industry, would prefer to recruit its professional staff from the least-able college graduates if it could do better than that.” p. 179.

“The College Board reported in 2008 that when high school graduates going on to college were asked what their intended major was, those who had decided on education scored in the bottom third on their SATs. Their combined scores in mathematics and reading came in at fifty-seven points below the national average.” Tucker, pp. 180-81.

McKinsey surveyed nearly 1,500 top-third US college students and current teachers and found that when they compared teaching with their preferred occupations, teaching fell short across the board.   In an exhibit to its report, McKinsey found that the survey participants who did not plan to teach ranked these three attributes of their preferred occupation most highly and in the following order:  “Attracts the type of people I would want to work with”; “I would be proud to tell people I had the job”; and “Would be challenging in a satisfying way.” McKinsey, “Attracting and retaining top talent in US teaching,” September 2010 article.

Tucker concludes at page 171 that “[n]o [school system] can move the vast majority of students to the levels of intellectual capacity and creativity now demanded [for a workforce in a global economy] unless that [system] is recruiting most of its teachers from the group of young people who are now typically going into the nonfeminized professions….”

What will it take for West Virginia to develop the “will” to find a “way” to address in a bold, comprehensive manner fundamental, but long-neglected basics of its public school system, including, as this article suggests, a review of (a) the academic rankings among their immediately preceding  scholastic peer group of students enrolling for the first time in, and (b) the academic rankings among their current scholastic peer group (including those who have not chosen to teach), graduating from, an approved teacher preparation  program in an  institution of higher education in the State.

Again, a reference to McKinsey is in order.  It reports that “[w]hile there is no single path to improving school system performance, the experiences of all the 20 improving school systems we studied show that strong commonalities exist in the nature of their journeys.” “How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better,” (p. 1) by Mona Mourshed and others, November 2010.

According to the cited article, “By far, the most common event to spark the drive to reform is a change in leadership: every system we studied relied upon the presence and energy of a new leader, either political or strategic, to jumpstart their reforms…. [t]hese new leaders tend to follow a consistent ‘playbook’ of practices upon entering office to lay the foundations for their improvement journey.” (p. 3)

In my view, that “new leadership” in West Virginia resides in its Board of Education (its President and members), as the determiner “of the educational policies of the public schools of the State,” and in a newly selected, exemplary State Superintendent of Schools chosen, based on a vigorous nationwide search, for his/her breadth of knowledge of innovative thinking in public education and of how high-performing school systems have dramatically changed education and improved student outcomes.


McElwee is a Charleston lawyer with the firm Robinson & McElwee PLLC.  The views expressed are his own.

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