Why focusing on teachers could improve the US education system

America is widely considered a global leader in economics, business, and culture. But when it comes to education, the US is falling behind. 

In the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment results, we ranked 27th in mathematics, 17th in reading, and 20th in science. Our high school graduation rates are ranked 18th internationally.

Education is arguably the most complex and challenging issue of our time. Yet despite the vast advances in technology and globalisation, the American education system remains rooted in the 19th century. Despite our technological advances, we are still stuck in the factory model, imported from Europe and implemented at the urging of education reformer Horace Mann. This model puts kids into age-based classrooms and uses seat time to determine when they’re ready to move on to the next level.

Tacitly, we ask teachers to compensate for the system’s many inadequacies. And because teachers are the most visible emissaries of the model, we irrationally conflate them with its failures. Teachers aren’t 'the system'. Teachers are fighting the system, every day, as best they can. What warmth and energy students see in the classroom comes from teachers. What supplemental content, what motivation and inspiration, what differentiation – it comes from teachers. Let’s stop blaming them for the system’s shortfalls, and let’s start helping them overcome them.

I have made multiple trips to Korea and Japan over the past two years, meeting with leading education, technology, telecommunications companies, our publishing partners, and the ministry of education interested in Knewton adaptive learning technology.

I couldn’t help but compare the education systems in these countries to that in the US. Korea and Japan have some of the highest rates of academic achievement globally. In the 2012 PISA survey, Korea was ranked fifth in mathematics and reading, and seventh in science; Japan was ranked seventh in mathematics, and fourth in reading and science. Japan has the second highest high school graduation rate internationally, with Korea in fifth place.

It’s obvious that Korea and Japan both value education enormously. But so does the United States. We regard education as a basic human right.

So what’s driving this huge discrepancy? Some say it’s cultural. In America, we prize exceptionalism; in Korea and Japan, the focus is on raising the mean. Others point to socioeconomic inequality; schools can’t fix poverty. US K-12 education is controlled at the local level, making it difficult to implement programmes widely. We’re paralysed by politicised debates over standards, testing and budgets.

But there’s something more important at play here: the way we treat teachers.

In Korea and Japan, teachers are revered. Top students aspire to the profession. Teachers are paid in accordance with their stature in society. Several studies have found a correlation between higher teacher pay and improved student outcomes. Korea and Japan were at the top of the spectrum for both. The study concluded that “a 10 per cent increase in teachers’ pay would produce a five to 10 per cent increase in student performance.”

The pay increase would have a ripple effect. Districts would be under pressure to provide top talent with great places to work – including benefits, facilities, and technology (think broadband, software, devices, and cloud infrastructure).

But increased pay is not the only magic bullet. In Singapore and New Zealand, for example, school systems offer ongoing professional development, as well as programs utilising master teachers and administrators with strong pedagogy, interpersonal skills, and curriculum understanding as mentors, observing and providing advice to newer teachers. It’s common for teachers in Japan to practice instructing in front of an audience of educators and university observers — providing less experienced teachers with valuable feedback on how best to engage students and stimulate learning.

Let’s provide more career advancement opportunities to prevent our best teachers from leaving education. Not every teacher wants to become an administrator. But many teachers do want a chance to advance within the profession.

US teachers also need more time to prepare for class lessons – to grade assignments, learn from colleagues, speak with stakeholders in their students’ educations, and familiarise themselves with new technology. No CEO would give a presentation to the board of directors without preparation. The same should be true for educators. 

And let’s set reasonable expectations and recognise that teachers can’t fix in a semester societal inequities that have been festering for generations. Let’s substantially reduce the emphasis on high-stakes testing – it’s turning schools into test prep drilling centers.

Our students – our children, our future – are the ones who are already being unfairly burdened by this fixation with testing. They are being forced to adapt to this system when what they really need is for the system to adapt to them. Students all have different needs, tendencies, and interests. Let’s give teachers the tools they need to differentiate instruction effectively. By replacing traditional textbooks with data-driven personalised learning materials, we can help every student come to class better prepared and give teachers more information about how their students learn than ever before.

Knewton, the global leader in adaptive learning, recently launched its free, open personalised learning platform. For the first time, any individual can create or use state-of-the-art supplemental lessons to provide students with unique learning paths in real-time. The new platform transforms any content into the best data-rich version of itself, then bundles together those pieces of content that are best for each student based on exactly what she knows and how she learns best. We think of it as a friendly robot-tutor in the sky.

Transforming the world's most important education industry in this one-time shift to digital and the internet does not happen successfully without aggressively seeding, encouraging, supporting and developing one of our most important national resources: our teachers. 

- This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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