Education Is A Vital Sign

A movement to bring the highest level of prestige and honor to the teaching profession.


FEBRUARY 1, 2009

Ruth Chung Wei, Alethea Andree, and Linda Darling-Hammond

Educational Leadership (ASDC)

The following article was published in Educational Leadership, a magazine of the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Citation: Wei, R.C., Andree, A., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2009). How nations invest in teachers. Educational Leadership, 66(5), 28-33

All around the world, nations seeking to improve their education systems are investing in teacher learning as a major engine for academic success. The highest-achieving countries on international measures such as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and TIMSS (Third International Math and Science Study) have been particularly intent on developing teachers' expertise both before they enter the profession and throughout their careers.

As part of a study for the National Staff Development Council, we examined the professional development opportunities provided for teachers in several of those high-achieving nations, including Finland, Sweden, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and Australia. We found that their learning systems have many features in common, including:

  • Extensive opportunities for both formal and informal in-service development;
    Time for professional learning and collaboration built into teachers' work hours;
  • Professional development activities that are embedded in teachers' contexts and that are ongoing over a period of time;
  • School governance structures that support the involvement of teachers in decisions regarding curriculum and instructional practice;
  • Teacher induction programs for new teachers with release time for new teachers and mentor teachers, and formal training for mentors.

Unfortunately, while more such opportunities are gradually being offered in the United States, surveys find that well-designed opportunities are not representative of most U.S. teachers' professional development experiences (Blank, de las Alas, & Smith, 2007). For example, in analyzing national survey results, Birman and colleagues (2007) found that mathematics teachers averaged only 8 hours of professional development on how to teach mathematics and 5 hours on the “in-depth study” of topics in the subject area during 2003-04. Fewer than 10 percent experienced more than 24 hours of professional development on mathematics content or pedagogy during the year. Even the more intensive professional development activities offered math and science teachers through Eisenhower grants included, on average, only 25 contact hours. Most activities did not feature either a major emphasis on content or collegial work among teachers (Garet, et al., 1999), in part because most schools still lack structures for collective work on problems of practice.

Time for Professional Learning and Collaboration

One of the key structural supports for teachers engaging in professional learning is the allocation of time in teachers' work day and week to participate in such activities. In most European and Asian countries, instruction comprises less than half of a teacher's working time (NCTAF, 1996 and OECD, 2007). The rest of teachers' working time -- generally about 15 to 20 hours per week -- is spent on tasks related to teaching such as working with colleagues on preparing and analyzing lessons, developing and evaluating assessments, observing other classrooms, and meeting with students and parents. Most planning is done in collegial settings, in the context of subject matter departments, grade level teams, or the large teacher rooms where teachers' desks are located to facilitate collective work.

In South Korea -- much like Japan and Singapore -- only about 35% of teachers' working time is spent teaching pupils. Teachers work in a shared office space during out-of-class time since the students stay in a fixed classroom while the teachers rotate to teach them different subjects. The shared office space facilitates sharing of instructional resources and ideas among teachers, which is especially helpful for new teachers (Kang & Hong, 2008). These practices are also found in European nations. In Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Switzerland and the Flemish Community of Belgium, schools provide substantial time for regular collaboration among teachers on issues of instruction (OECD, 2004). Teachers in Finnish schools, for example, meet one afternoon each week to jointly plan and develop curriculum, and schools in the same municipality are encouraged to work together to share materials.

By contrast, U.S. teachers generally have from 3 to 5 hours a week for lesson planning, usually scheduled independently rather than jointly with colleagues (NCTAF, 1996). Teachers in the U.S. also teach more hours per year (1080) than any other OECD nation, and far more than the OECD average of 803 hours per year for primary schools and 664 hours for upper secondary schools (OECD, 2007). U.S. teachers are teaching students about 80% of their total working time as compared to about 60% for teachers in these other nations, leaving them much less time to plan and learn together, developing high-quality curriculum and instruction.

A majority of schools in high-achieving nations also provide time for teachers' professional development by building it into teachers' work day and/or by providing class coverage by other teachers. Among OECD nations, more than 85% of schools in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland provide time for professional development in teachers' work day or week (OECD, 2004). When time for professional development is built into teachers' working time, their learning activities can be ongoing and sustained, and can focus on particular issues and problems over time.

Job-embedded professional learning time also supports the kind of context-specific professional learning and action research that has been found to be more effective in catalyzing change in teaching practice than the generic workshops that are common in the U.S. Active research on a topic related to education is fairly common in Western European schools where professional development time is built into the teachers' work time. In Denmark, Finland, Italy, and Norway, teachers participate in collaborative research and/or development on topics related to education both in their pre-service preparation and in their ongoing work on the job (OECD, 2004). Similarly, England, Hungary, and Ontario (Canada) have created opportunities for teachers to engage in school-focused research and development. Teachers are provided time and support for studying and evaluating their own teaching strategies and school programs and in sharing their findings with their colleagues, and through conferences and publications (OECD, 2005).

A highly developed practice in Japan and China -- one that is now spreading to other nations -- is the “research lesson” (or “lesson study”) approach to professional inquiry. When engaged in lesson study, groups of 4 to 6 teachers observe each other's classrooms and work together to refine individual lessons, expediting the spread of best practices throughout the school (Barber & Mourshed, 2007). Every teacher periodically prepares a “best” lesson that demonstrates strategies to achieve a specific goal (e.g. students becoming active problem solvers). A group of teachers observe while the lesson is taught and usually record the lesson in a number of ways, including videotape, audiotape, and narrative or checklist observations that focus on areas of interest to the instructing teacher (for example, how many students volunteered their own ideas.) Afterward, the group of teachers and sometimes outside educators discuss the lesson's strengths and limitations, ask questions, and make suggestions for improvement. Sometimes, the revised lesson is given by another teacher a few days later and observed

In a typical lesson study cycle, about 10 to 15 hours of group meetings are spread over 3 to 4 weeks. The research lessons allow teachers to refine individual lessons, consult with other teachers and receive feedback based on colleagues' observations of their classroom practice, reflect on their own practice, learn new content and approaches, and build a culture that emphasizes continuous improvement and collaboration (Barber & Mourshed, 2007; Fernandez, 2002; Pang, 2006).

Formal Professional Development

Many high-achieving nations also organize extensive professional development that draws on expertise beyond the school. While relatively few countries have established national professional development requirements, Singapore, Sweden and the Netherlands require at least 100 hours of professional development per year, beyond the many hours spent in collegial planning and inquiry (OECD, 2005; Barber & Mourshed, 2007).

In Sweden, 104 hours or 15 days a year (approximately 6% of teachers' total working time) are allocated for teachers' in-service training (OECD, 2005), and in 2007, the national government appropriated a large grant to establish a professional development program called “lifting the teachers.” The grant pays the tuition for one university course for all compulsory school and preschool teachers, and supports 80% of a teacher's salary while the teacher works in a school for 20% of her time while studying in a university post-graduate program for the remaining time (Rönnerman, 2008).

After their fourth year of teaching, South Korean teachers are required to take 90 hours of professional development courses every three years. Also, after three years of teaching, teachers are eligible to enroll in a five-week (180 hour) professional development program approved by the government to obtain an advanced certificate, which provides an increase in salary and eligibility for promotion (Kang & Hong, 2008).

Among Singapore's many investments in teacher professional learning is the Teacher's Network, established in 1998 by the Singapore Ministry of Education as part of the Prime Minister's new vision, "Thinking Schools, Learning Nation." The mission of the Teacher's Network is to serve as a catalyst and support for teacher-initiated development through sharing, collaboration, and reflection. The Teacher's Network includes learning circles, teacher-led workshops, conferences, and a well-being program, as well as a website and publications series for sharing knowledge (Tripp, 2004; Salleh, 2006)

As part of this initiative, the government pays for 100 hours of professional development each year for all teachers in addition to the 20 hours a week they have to work with other teachers and visit each others' classrooms to study teaching. In addition, teachers are being trained to undertake action research projects in the classroom so that they can examine teaching and learning problems, and find solutions that can be disseminated to others. With government funding, teachers can take courses at the National Institute of Education toward a master's degree aimed at any of three career ladders that help them become curriculum specialists, mentors for other teachers, or school principals. These opportunities build their own expertise and that of the profession as a whole, as their work in these roles supports other teachers.

A few countries have established national training programs. For example, as part of the National Literacy and National Numeracy Strategies, England instituted a national training program in best-practice training techniques accompanied by resources to support implementation of the national curriculum frameworks. These include packets of high quality teaching materials, resource documents, and videos depicting good practice. A “cascade” model of training -- similar to a trainer of trainers model -- is structured around these resources to help teachers learn and use productive practices. The National Literacy and National Numeracy Centers provide leadership and training for teacher training institutions and consultants, who train school heads, coordinators, lead math teachers and expert literacy teachers, who in turn support and train other teachers (Fullan, 2007; Earl, Watson, & Torrance, 2002).

As more teachers become familiar with the strategies, expertise is increasingly located at the local level with consultants and leading mathematics teachers and literacy teachers providing support for teachers (Earl, Watson, & Torrance, 2002). In 2004, England began a new component of the Strategies designed to allow schools and local education agencies to learn best practices from each other by funding and supporting 1,500 groups of six schools each (Fullan, 2007). These strategies have been accompanied by a rise in the percentage of students meeting the target literacy standards from 63% to 75% in just three years (Barber & Mourshed, 2007).

Since 2000, the Australian government has been sponsoring the Quality Teacher Programme, a large scale program that provides funding to update and improve teachers' skills and understandings in priority areas and enhance the status of teaching in both government and non-government schools. The Programme operates at three levels: (1) Teaching Australia (formerly the National Institute for Quality Teaching and School Leadership); (2) National Projects; and (3) State and Territory Projects. Teaching Australia facilitates the development and implementation of nationally agreed upon teaching standards, conducts research and communicates research findings, and facilitates and coordinates professional development courses. The National Projects include programs designed to identify and promote best practice, support the development and dissemination of professional learning resources in priority areas, and develop professional networks for teachers and school leaders. The State and Territory Projects fund a wide variety of professional learning activities for teachers and school leaders -- including school-based action research and learning, conferences, workshops, on-line or digital media, and training of trainers -- tailoring these to local needs (Skilbeck & Connell. 2003; Atelier Learning Solutions, 2005).

Teacher Induction

Many countries offer professional development programs specifically for new teachers. Induction programs are mandatory in many countries, such as Australia, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, and Switzerland. Most of these include release time for new teachers and, often, mentor teachers to participate in the induction activities, as well as training for mentor teachers.

In a model like that found in a number of Asian nations, the New Zealand Ministry of Education funds 20% release time for new teachers and 10% release time for second-year teachers, and requires schools to have a locally developed program to develop new teachers' abilities (Britton, 2006). Most of the release time is used to give the new teachers time to attend professional development activities or extra time to perform teacher duties like writing lesson plans. Some time is also used to support mentor teachers in observing and meeting with beginners. Induction programs support new teachers' observations of other teachers (both in their own school and at other schools), class visits followed by informal discussion or written reports, working in a classroom with a mentor teacher, attending meetings for beginning teachers, and attending courses (Clement, 2000).

Some countries (including Israel, Switzerland, France, Norway and England) require formal training for mentor teachers (OECD, 2005). In Singapore, master teachers are appointed to lead the coaching and development of the teachers in each school (Barber & Mourshed, 2007). Norwegian principals assign an experienced, highly qualified mentor to each new teacher and the teacher education institution then trains the mentor and takes part in in-school guidance (OECD, 2005). In some Swiss states the new teachers in each district meet in reflective practice groups twice a month with an experienced teacher who is trained to facilitate their discussions of common problems for new teachers (Stansbury & Zimmerman, 2000). England trains new teacher coaches about both effective pedagogies for students and the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies techniques (Barber & Mourshed, 2007).

Teacher Involvement in Decision-Making

One of the policy conditions associated with increased teacher collaboration in many high-achieving nations is the decentralization of educational policy. In Western Europe, nations such as Finland, Sweden, and Switzerland have decentralized much of their educational decision-making to local agencies, schools, and teachers. Highly detailed curriculum documents and external tests were replaced in the 1970s and 1980s by much broader goal statements that were designed to guide teachers' development of curriculum and instruction. Teachers in these and many other nations are responsible for designing key assessments to evaluate student learning as part of an assessment system that includes school-based assessments. The content of professional learning is determined according to local needs and is often embedded in the work of “teacher teams” or “teacher units” at particular schools, which are empowered to make decisions around curriculum and evaluation (Ahlstrand, 1994).

A study of school leadership in Finland found the inclusion of teachers and other staff in policy and decision-making to be the norm, with teacher and administrator teams work together on developing syllabi, selecting textbooks, developing curriculum and assessments, deciding on course offerings and budget, planning and scheduling professional development, and more (Hargreaves, Halász, and Pont, 2007; Välijärvi et al, 2007). These deliberations are themselves a form of professional development, as teachers study issues and share their ideas. (For more details on professional development in Finland, see articles in this issue.)

Similarly, in Sweden, the decentralization of the curriculum and in-service training led to a shift in the focus of the development work at each school from prescribed teaching methods to problems in teachers' own classrooms. Teachers now work in teams which meet during regular working hours to discuss and make decisions on common matters in their work, including the planning of lessons, the welfare of pupils, curriculum development, and evaluation (Alhstrand, 1994).


Professional development policies and practices in high-achieving nations reflect many of the principles of effective professional learning outlined by research, providing sustained and extensive opportunities to develop practice that go well beyond the traditional “one-shot” workshop approaches that are more commonly found in the U.S. Building time into teachers' work schedules provides them with regular and ongoing opportunities to engage in collaborative inquiry aimed at improving teaching and learning in their unique contexts. Policies that provide schools and teachers with the power to make decisions around local curriculum and assessment practices, and to select the content of professional development based on local priorities, are also associated with higher levels of teacher engagement in collaborative work and learning activities.

In these high achieving nations, teachers' professional learning is a high priority and teachers are treated as professionals. Many of the countries that have established strong infrastructures for high-quality teaching have built them over the last two decades. This suggests that such conditions could be developed in the United States as well, with purposeful effort and clarity about what matters and what works to support professional learning and practice.