A new report from the Center on Education and the Economy's Center on International Education Benchmarking has detailed what they say makes the top-performing education systems so successful: teachers with deep content knowledge.
The report, "Not So Elementary: Primary School Teacher Quality in Top-Performing Systems," suggests that gaining a strong foundation in the core subjects at an early age increases the opportunity available to students achieve at higher levels throughout their school years. Findings show that teacher preparation in countries such as Finland, Japan, Shanghai, and Hong Kong ensure that participants have a deep understanding of the content they are going to be teaching in elementary schools in addition to how their students best learn and understand the content, which the authors say are two of the key components of highly effective teaching.
The report goes on to offer guidance concerning lessons the United States can take away from the systems in order to strengthen teaching at elementary schools.
"We now face an enormous challenge: raising the segment of high school graduates from which we recruit our elementary school teachers, demanding much deeper grounding of prospective teachers in the subjects they will teach, and, at the same time, raising the game of the teachers already in our schools," said NCEE President and CEO Marc Tucker.
Leading Australian researcher Ben Jensen uses the report to describe how high-performing countries make sure their elementary teachers have a deep understanding of content knowledge. He writes that they accomplish this by focusing on the selection of teachers, content specialization, initial teacher education, and professional learning systems in their schools.
"Without a deep understanding of the subjects being taught in elementary school, a teacher will not be able to identify the specific misunderstandings of the underlying concepts that defeat students and cannot help them grasp the concepts that constitute the essential foundation for more advanced work in middle and high school," Tucker said.
In terms of selection, rigorous standards are set that must be met by prospective teachers in order to ensure that only the highest-quality teachers enter classrooms. Quality control checks are put in place at various points in teacher development to make sure that this happens. For example, countries such as Finland have high admissions requirements to even enter the program, while others like Japan only accept top-scoring candidates for teaching positions.
Meanwhile, specialization suggests that teachers have subject-area expertise along with their preparation and development. Or it may mean that instead of teaching all subjects, a teacher may study and teach just one or two subjects as they do in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
The report states that initial teacher preparation programs in high-performing countries have three things in common: a focus on foundational knowledge of the content teachers will actually teach; an emphasis on how students learn; and an alignment between the curriculum in teacher education courses and the curriculum taught in elementary schools.
Top-performing countries essentially apprentice new teachers to senior master teachers in their first year in order to help the new teachers learn how to become a high-quality teacher. From there, professional learning strategies are used throughout a teacher's career through such strategies as mentorships and classroom observations.
Finally, the report discusses the systemic approach used by top-performing countries, which it says is one of the most important characteristics. The report states that in these countries, different parts of the system continuously support and reinforce the need for deep subject expertise and an understanding of student learning.