Lesson from Abroad

CAP Unveils Teacher Compensation Study

New report examines teacher and principal compensation in other developed countries to find education reforms that work.

Education policy in America is one of the hottest topics in communities across the country. Stories abound concerning the quality of teachers, the poor quality of teacher preparation, the rate at which teachers are leaving the profession, worsening shortages of teachers, and the inability of states to meet the federal government’s minimum requirement for having certified teachers in front of school children. 

The United States, however, is hardly alone in its increasing concern about getting and keeping the quality teachers it needs to remain economically competitive in the 21st century.  Shortages of qualified teachers are pervasive in all advanced industrial countries today.  Like us, these countries are finding it especially difficult to recruit teachers in mathematics, sciences, technology and computer science, and foreign languages.

A new report from the Center for American Progress, “Teacher and Principal Compensation: An International Review,” presents a comprehensive review of education reforms in developed countries around the globe. The purpose: to find those reforms that work and those which might be applicable to the American public educational system.

The authors, Susan Sclafani of the Chartwell Education Group and Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy, note the fact that most of the advanced industrial countries are encountering many of the same problems, such as recruiting and keeping well qualified teachers in public school classrooms. These problems are directly attributable to the fundamental changes taking place in the global economy. Most workers in advanced industrial societies need a far higher level of education—the kind needed to do what Peter Drucker dubbed “knowledge work” some years ago—to be able to cope with ideas in ways that was certainly not needed even recently by most workers.

That, the authors say, is what has transformed the demand for teachers and created the shortages now so prevalent in the advanced industrial nations. The United States and its peers elsewhere are only beginning to realize the depth of the problem. So it is no surprise that the relatively tentative measures being taken by most nations are no match for the severity of the challenge.

To address these challenges, advanced industrial countries in Europe and elsewhere are trying many of the same remedies with which the U.S. is experimenting, such as across-the-board salary adjustments for teachers, and incentives targeted at attracting individuals to particular shortage areas. Though many of these actions roughly parallel developments in the United States, there are interesting and important variations on these themes that some countries have tried that could potentially be very interesting to American policymakers. And there are some points of substantial difference.

We should not be surprised that relatively modest financial incentives are not working very well in this country or in any other. Researchers speculate that the effects will not be larger unless the incentives approach those of comparable private sector professions as a proportion of base pay. Moreover, highly qualified young people today are less interested in a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work than they are in an outstanding day’s pay for an outstanding day’s work. And they are much less interested in a career than they are in doing something next that is interesting and personally rewarding.

In this paper, the authors take a key feature of teaching policy—teachers’ compensation—and examine it from the perspective of the way policies on that topic are evolving in a variety of countries. In addition, they examine what researchers are reporting about: both the problems and the effects of the policy approaches that other nations have been trying. Their purpose (and ours at the Center) is to enrich the information available to American policy makers with the experience and reflections available from other countries faced with much of the same problems.

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