Role Call

Just about every principal has faced challenges finding strong, well-qualified teachers. Experienced and skilled teachers continue to leave the profession at a rapid clip, and fewer and fewer young people are entering the teaching profession. In some states—and in areas such as math, science, and special education—the gap between the demand for well-qualified teachers and the available supply is especially large.

Some state legislatures have attempted to address the issue by waiving the already low standards necessary for obtaining a teaching certificate. As principals know, however, bringing unqualified and unprepared individuals into classrooms will not help students. Additionally, school leaders run the risk of the newly hired teachers leaving the profession soon anyway.

How Other Countries Attract Teachers

The experience in educationally high-performing countries shows that there is a better way. It is possible to ensure that a steady supply of capable students are eager to go into teaching, and that teachers stay in their jobs for a long time. And when shortages happen, these nations develop policies to address them without lowering standards. They show that ensuring an abundant supply of highly qualified teachers—one of “The 9 Building Blocks for a World-Class Education System” referenced by Marc Tucker—is not only possible, but essential for high performance.

What do these countries do to attract and retain teachers?

1. Elevate the status of teaching. Unlike in the United States, where enrollment in teacher education dropped by 35 percent from 2009 to 2014, students in countries such as Finland and Singapore are clamoring to get into teacher education institutions. In Finland, in fact, it was harder to gain entry to the University of Helsinki’s teacher education program than the law program or the medical school in 2016. And in Singapore, only 1 in 8 students who applied to the National Institute of Education—the only teacher education program in the country—was accepted.

What makes teaching in those countries so attractive? Although there are a number of reasons why teachers are well-respected in those and other top-performing countries, one important factor is the selectivity of teacher education itself. Rather than opening the profession to just about anyone who wants to enter it, these countries have restricted educator training to a small number of research universities and kept the programs rigorous. In that way, they have made teaching a prestigious field of study and attracted top high school students to it.

The Netherlands is taking a similar step. Dutch policymakers are making efforts to elevate the overall standard of primary teacher preparation programs by offering them only through research universities, rather than the current system of universities of applied sciences, and enacting new regulations to make entry into teacher preparation programs harder. Although enrollments dipped at first, they have risen sharply—2018 saw a 30 percent increase in applications to teacher training programs.

Of course, pay helps, too. The United States, where thousands of teachers in a number of states in 2018 walked out to demand higher pay, lags in this area. Top-performing countries, by contrast, tend to pay teachers at about the same rate as other skilled professions that require similar levels of education. As part of a national strategy to elevate the teaching profession at a time when the high-paying technology sector competes with teaching for talent, Estonia—home to one of Europe’s top-performing systems—is committed to moving in that direction by 2020.

2. Support students who want to go into teaching. One reason top-performing students in the United States are reluctant to go into teaching is the fact that they will likely graduate from college with substantial student debt and face the prospect of low salaries to help pay them off. Top-performing countries, on the other hand, encourage students to enter the profession by paying their way. In Singapore, teacher candidates receive a stipend in addition to attending school tuition-free. The Netherlands is moving in a similar direction, halving fees for the first two years of teacher training.

In addition, top-performing countries also support teachers new to the job by providing them with strong mentorship programs. In the Canadian province of British Columbia, for example, the teachers’ union provides mentors for all new teachers; mentoring programs are also universal in Ontario. In the United States, by contrast, teachers are left to sink or swim—one reason why many teachers leave.

3. Create a career path. In much of the United States, the job description for a teacher on the last day of work is the same as it was on the first. That’s a recipe for burnout. Educators in Singapore and Shanghai have developed a better way. There, teachers can move up career ladders to gain more responsibility and higher pay without leaving teaching and moving into administration. These paths provide teachers with opportunities to lead professional development in their schools or regions, develop curricula and assessments, and even develop policies by spending time in the Ministry of Education. Schools are organized as professional workplaces, where teachers work regularly with their peers and receive support and guidance from senior and more expert colleagues. The attrition rate for Singaporean teachers is 3 percent, less than half the U.S. rate of 8 percent.

4. Create incentives to teach in hard-to-staff schools. When teacher shortages exist, top-​performing countries direct resources to address them. In British Columbia, for example, the province found that it was having difficulty attracting teachers to rural schools. In response, the government has allocated $1.23 million toward helping rural districts in teacher application management; coordination of national and international recruitment; and creating local incentives to help cover relocation expenses, transitional housing, and professional development. Similarly, the Chinese government has enacted several measures to attract and retain more rural teachers, including enlisting retirees or soon-to-retire teachers for one-year assignments in rural schools, and even offering free education for teacher trainees who commit to working in rural areas for a certain period.

Promoting a Profession Worth Entering

Teacher shortages are a matter of supply and demand. As long as the demand outstrips the supply, principals will continue to struggle to find well-qualified teachers to fill classrooms. Unless schools dramatically increase class size, the demand won’t go away. The challenge is to increase the supply.

Currently in the United States, the supply of teachers is low because teaching is seen as an unattractive line of work, particularly for capable students who have many options. According to the 2018 “PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools,” for the first time since the question was introduced in 1969, a majority of parents said they would not want their child to go into teaching.

Top-performing countries demonstrate that making teaching an attractive profession can do more than any other step to ensure that countries maintain a steady supply of well-qualified teachers who stay in teaching for a lifetime. Above all, these nations create systems to ensure that they have an abundant supply of well-qualified teachers. For more about the systems in some of the top-performing countries, check out “Empowered Educators: How High-Performing Systems Shape Teaching Quality Around the World,” a landmark study sponsored by the National Center on Education and the Economy and led by Linda Darling-Hammond.


Bob Rothman is a senior editor at the National Center on Education and the Economy and a consultant to the Learning Policy Institute.