Study Calls for Big Hikes in Teacher Pay, National Plan

Published December 19, 2010

A new study calling for substantially higher pay for teachers has evoked criticism arguing it overlooks crucial differences between U.S. and overseas school systems and national cultures and is biased toward maintaining the government-school status quo.

“Closing the Talent Gap,” by Byron Auguste, Paul Kihn, and Matt Miller, argues public schools should duplicate the best practices of top-performing countries by raising salaries and creating incentives to attract new teachers from the top-third of U.S. college graduates. That means much higher pay.

‘Who Should Teach?’
Comparing U.S. teacher hiring practices with those of South Korea, Finland, and Singapore, and the authors recommend the United States develop a national teaching talent plan which treats teaching as “a highly selective profession.”

According to the report, published by Washington, DC-based management-consultant firm McKinsey & Company, 100 percent of college graduates who enter the teaching profession in South Korea, Korea, and Singapore are from the top third of their class. Just 23 percent of new public school teachers in the United States are drawn from that academic cohort, and just 14 percent of those teachers enter high-poverty schools, the study reports.

Noting more than half of the nation’s teaching corps will be turning over in the next decade, the study challenges the nation to grapple with the question of “who should teach?”

Focus on Top-Third Grads
Michael Petrilli, vice president of research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, DC, says comparing U.S. training and hiring practices to foreign countries is not always apt.

“What makes international comparisons in education so tricky is that it’s hard to draw conclusions from countries that differ so fundamentally from ours,” Petrilli explained.

“The approaches that Finland, Singapore, and South Korea take to teacher recruitment and preparation are appealing, no doubt,” he said. “But teaching is a much more attractive profession in those countries, partly because of higher salaries, partly because of higher esteem, but especially because their tax systems make other forms of work less lucrative.”

Petrilli says U.S. reforms must “synch with America’s culture and economics—which by nature are going to be more entrepreneurial.”

“Until we’re ready to regularly pay teachers six-figure salaries, it’s going to be hard to create the same dynamics here,” he added.

Double Class Sizes?
Petrilli points out, however, while the McKinsey study suggests paying teachers substantially higher salaries—starting at $65,000 and topping out at $150,000—the unintended consequence might not be popular with the education establishment.

“The experience of other countries shows large classes aren’t the end of the world. If we want to pay teachers a lot more and be much more selective about hiring, we could simply double the size of the typical class and double the amount of the typical salary,” Petrilli said. “That would go a long way.”

Private Schools Overlooked
Andrew Coulson, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, says the report neglected to include the private and for-profit education markets in those foreign countries. That’s a serious oversight, Coulson said.

“It is an unbelievable shortcoming that when trying to improve a labor force you would look only at government monopoly systems when there are fantastic examples of market education at work,” explained Coulson.

Coulson points to recent news stories about private tutors in South Korea, some of whom can earn salaries of six and seven figures. A single math tutor, Woo Hyeong-cheol, made more than $4 million last year. Woo is an independent contractor, unaffiliated with South Korea’s government school system.

“It is shocking that the McKinsey report ignored private sector education,” Coulson said.

‘No Silver Bullet’
While “no single reform can serve as a ‘silver bullet'” for encouraging the best graduates to enter the public school system, Coulson says the lack of information on secondary education labor markets, coupled with lack of data and analysis of top-tier graduates entering the private school system, raises questions about the veracity of the McKinsey report.

Rachel Davison ([email protected]) is an educator writing from Phoenix, Arizona.

Internet Info:
McKinsey & Co. “Closing the Talent Gap: Attracting and Retaining Top-Third Graduates to Careers in Teaching” (Oct. 2010):