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Teacher Quality: National Trends in Teacher Policy

Teacher quality and teacher qualifications are a global issue, and nations are rushing to implement policies to improve "teacher quality." Ironically, no one seems to have a common definition of quality. In both the U.S. and Japan, the unintended effects of national policies may have serious repercussions for the education of children. Policy makers may be implementing policies that decrease the quality of education - essentially undercutting aspects of national systems that already serve children well. Nations need to pay attention to a broader definition of teacher quality if they are to adequately serve all children in their nation.

Teacher Quality, Educational Policy, Comparative Educational Studies, Teacher Workforce, Teacher Certification, Educational Credentials


Improving teacher quality has become the educational mantra of the international community since the turn of the millennium. As Motoko Akiba and I outline in our book, Improving Teacher Quality, (Akiba and LeTendre 2009) the U.S. appears to be one of many countries instituting increased standards and certifications for teachers (see Steiner-Khamsi and Stolpe 2006). Educational policymakers around the world have paid attention to teacher quality as a major vehicle to improve student learning (OECD 2005,2006). Attracting competent candidates for the teaching profession, retaining highly-qualified teachers by providing support and incentives, and ensuring students' access to high quality teaching have been major foci of educational reforms in many countries (OCED, 2005).

In the U.S., teacher quality is seen as the crucial driving force for improving student achievement thus promoting a nation's economic competitiveness in this global society. In the fifth annual report on teacher quality, Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings stated, "In order to strengthen our nation's competitiveness in the global marketplace, as well as our security at home, we must be certain that teacher proficiency in mathematics, science, technology, and foreign languages is sufficient to enable America's students to achieve at grade level and above in these subjects" (U.S. Dept. of Education, 2006a, p. iii).

Global trends toward more standardization and accountability have also influenced Japan. The School Evaluation System (Article 42 of School Education Law in 2007) focused on evaluating school management. The need for strengthening teacher education and teacher quality has been debated since the 1990s, leading to the establishment of the Teacher Certification Renewal System in 2007. MEXT stated: "The purpose of the Teacher Certification Renewal System is for teachers to have confidence and pride in teaching and to gain respect and trust of general public through periodically obtaining most recent skills and knowledge and maintaining needed quality and competence" (MEXT, 2007a). However, the new DPJ administration plans to scrap this system and instead implementing the equivalent of master's level degrees.

This move by the new administration would bring Japan more in line with the U.S. where teachers are increasing expected to possess a master's degree. This kind of degree specialization, especially an emphasis on post-baccalaureate certification has been seen in many countries. It is not clear if the new policy of requiring an M.A. would undermine current equality of teacher distribution in Japan. In her book, Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics (Erlbaum, 1999) Liping Ma found that Chinese teachers with only a high school degree often had a better grasp of mathematical concepts than their more educated American counterparts. Her point is that national systems of education vary greatly in how well they prepare students in different subjects.

So, although years of schooling or degrees obtained does not guarantee higher quality teaching, on balance, more educated professionals in any field typically outperform their less educated peers. Compared to the rest of the world, both the U.S. and Japan, however, have relatively well-trained and professional teacher workforces (Akiba, LeTendre and Scribner, 2007). Outside of the developed world, many nations are struggling to find enough qualified teachers to staff their schools, and in the poorest nations, some individuals may be hired as teachers even though they have only finished primary schooling.

While both the U.S. and Japan have large pools of highly educated teachers, Japan is in the enviable position of having very equal access to qualified teachers (See Figure 1). How is it that the U.S. has such problems in providing access to qualified teachers for all students? The problem likes in the highly decentralized nature of the U.S. education system. Although The No Child Left Behind Act actually set requirements for the states to hire only "highly qualified" teachers, it did not address the root problems of unbalanced teacher labor markets that create a major teacher shortage in high poverty schools (National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, 1996). As R. Ingersoll (2001) noted, the U.S. does not have a teacher "shortage" problem, it has a teacher retention and distribution problem. U.S. colleges and universities train more than enough new teachers, but as many as 30% leave the profession in the first five years. Low-income school districts tend to have high rates of teacher turnover, forcing more teachers in these schools to teach out of field.

Even though the U.S. and Japan have very different educational systems, policy makers on both sides of the Pacific appear eager to manipulate and reform their educational systems without any systematic examination of what constitutes "quality" in teaching. In the U.S., educational reforms have typically ebbed and flowed with each new administration. Japanese educational policies remained very stable throughout much of the post-war period (Schoppa 1991), since the 1990s, Japan appears to be following the kind of wave-like reform pattern that has plagued the U.S. Unfortunately, in both nations, policy makers appear caught in a policy trap that equates high math and science test scores with improved educational quality (LeTendre, et al.). Politicians readily take the opportunity to "reform" the education system without considering whether or the quality of education needs to be changed. We need to have a clearer understanding of what the goals of reform should be. What would a broader view of teacher quality look like? 

Teacher Quality in Cross-national Perspective

"Defining quality always requires value judgments about which disagreements abound. Studying teaching cross-culturally makes this evident (Alexander, 2000). A high-quality teacher in India does not allow questioning by the students. Students simply listen for hours on end. The opposite is true in many American classes, where students are expected to raise questions during class. Alexander (2000) found that maintaining discipline is not part of any definition of quality in Russia or India because there are almost no discipline problems in their schools. But in the organizationally complex world of American and British schools, with individualization of some activities, promotion of collaboration and negotiation, and a concern for students' feelings, there is a greater incidence of behavior problems. Thus, American and British teachers of high quality must have classroom management skills that are unnecessary in Russia or India."

David C. Berliner, "The Near Impossibility of Testing for Teacher Quality"
Journal of Teacher Education
2005; 56; 205

While researchers are not always so pessimistic, it has been very difficult to find a common definition that all agree on. Researchers for the Australian Business Council have compiled a list of twelve traits that flow well across many national lines. These traits of quality teachers include:

  • A capacity to respond appropriately to students, individually and collectively, and to the context, through their teaching practice.
  • A refusal to let anything get in the way of their own or their students' learning, and what they perceive as needing to be addressed.
  • A capacity to engender a high level of respect and even affection from their students and colleagues, a by-product of their hard work and professionalism.
  • A great capacity for engagement in professional learning through self-initiated involvement in various combinations of professional development activities, some provided by the employing authority; others sought out by the individual.
  • A great capacity to contribute to the professional learning of others, and a willingness to do so.

Source: "Teaching Talent: The Best Teachers for Australia's Classrooms" Copyright May 2008 Business Council of Australia, p. 12

I have chosen these characteristics out of the twelve, because they best exemplify the culture of teaching in Japanese public schools that Lewis, Peak, Hendry and others so well documented (Hendry 1986; Peak 1991; Lewis 1995). These same characteristics are typically applied to U.S. schools where "successful" reform efforts are underway, and suggest that the children are best served not when each teacher is "certified," but when teachers themselves engender a culture of professionalism that demands high standards and places the child's interest at the core of their professional ethos.

In many regards, Japan is an international outlier with regard to the homogeneity of its teaching culture. (Givvin, Hiebert et al. 2005) and (Desimone, Smith et al. 2005) demonstrate this cross-nationally, but do not draw the connection to the complex relationship between lesson study, subject study, and other forms of professional development and the requirement to present "example" lessons as part of the ongoing professional development of teachers. (Shimahara and Sakai 1995) and (Okano and Tsuchiya 1999) also note the ways that teacher induction lead into a sustained pattern of professional development.


Teacher Qualifications Do Matter

In our work, Dr. Akiba and I examined the relationship between national levels of teacher quality and opportunity gaps in the access to qualified teachers. This work shows that the percentage of students taught by fully certified teachers, the percentage of students taught by teachers with 3 or more years of teaching experience, and the percentage of students taught by teachers with high overall quality (full certification, mathematics or mathematic education major, at least 3 years of experience) were significantly associated with higher national achievement. In addition, opportunity gaps in students' access to teachers with a mathematics major and to teachers with high overall quality were significantly associated with a larger achievement gap.

We conducted multiple analyses that essentially show that all the teacher quality indicators (except mathematics major) are significantly and positively associated with national achievement. Simply put, in countries where higher percentages of eighth graders were taught by fully certified teachers, any teachers with a mathematics education major, or teachers with at least 3 years of teaching experience, students achieved significantly higher national average mathematics score than in other countries. Our data confirmed the importance of providing a qualified teaching workforce for a nation's children.

However, these data do not take into consideration changes in recent policy and how these will affect instruction. While the intent of policy changes in both the U.S. and Japan are to increase student academic performance, it is not clear that these will drive the kind of high-level of professionalism that is associated with high quality teaching. For example, we note that in systems where teacher learning opportunities, combined with more equal educational resource allocations, are high, differential access to certified teachers does not create a large achievement gap (E.g., Hong Kong and Singapore). However, in the United States, where the teacher qualification gap is likely to be accompanied by gaps in teachers' access to instructional resources and professional development opportunities, the impact of the gap in opportunity to be taught by qualified teachers is likely to be further enhanced, thereby increasing the achievement gap. Changes in national patterns of work assignment, funding and educational focus threaten to erode the positive effects of the movement to improve access to qualified teachers.

Unintended Policy Consequences

The focus on teacher qualifications has lead to a global focus on subject matter proficiency and a narrowing of the focus of the teacher's work in many nations. Instead of the kind of generalist ideals of a quality teacher outlined above in the example from Australia, teachers in many nations are now expected to "just teach." This has potentially disastrous implications for the quality of life for teachers, and for the quality of education that children receive.

In nations around the world, politicians have called for more wide-ranging reforms to give children access to high quality teachers. But, the data we examined show the magnitude of the problem facing many nations. It isn't enough to recruit more teachers; nations have to assure that teachers are distributed equally within national boundaries. Nations can successfully address this issue in a variety of ways. Both centralized and decentralized countries have used policy tools to improve access for children. But, a reliance on limited accountability systems does not work.

Despite years of implementation, our data show that NCLB (No Child Left Behind) has not reduced differential access to qualified teachers. In fact, the access in gap in the U.S. is larger than in most nations that do not have such accountability legislation in place. Before nations attempt to emulate U.S. teacher education practices or policies, they should pay closer attention to those nations that have an equitable distribution of teachers. Here, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand are all potential models for policy borrowing. These nations have achieved both a high level of quality and an equitable distribution of qualified teachers - critical steps in assuring a high quality education for all children.

Figure 1: Access to Qualified Teachers

Source: Akiba, M., G. LeTendre, et al. (2007). "Teacher Quality, Opportunity Gap, and National Achievement in 46 Countries." Educational Researcher 36(7): 369-387.




Akiba, M. and G. LeTendre (2009). Improving Teacher Quality: The U.S. Teaching Force in Global Context. New York, Teachers College Press.

Akiba, M., G. LeTendre, et al. (2007). "Teacher Quality, Opportunity Gap, and National Achievement in 46 Countries." Educational Researcher 36(7): 369-387.

Berliner, D. and B. Biddle (1995). The Manufactured Crisis. New York, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Desimone, L., T. Smith, et al. (2005). "Assessing Barriers to the Reform of U.S. Mathematics Instruction From an International Perspective." American Educational Research Journal 42(3): 501-535.

Givvin, K. B., J. Hiebert, et al. (2005). "Are There National Patterns of Teaching? Evidence from the TIMSS 1999 Video Study." Comparative Education Review 49(3 11-343).

Hendry, J. (1986). Becoming Japanese: the world of the pre-school child. Manchester, UK, Manchester University Press.

Ingersoll, Richard. (2001). Teacher Turnover and Teacher Shortages: An Organizational Analysis Teacher Turnover and Teacher Shortages: An Organizational Analysis. American Educational Research Journal, 38, 3: 499-534.

Lewis, C. (1995). Educating Hearts and Minds. New York, Cambridge University Press.

OECD (2005). Teachers Matter. Paris, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Okano, K. and M. Tsuchiya (1999). Education in Contemporary Japan: Inequality and Diversity. New York, Cambridge University Press.

Peak, L. (1991). Learning to go to school in Japan. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Schoppa, L. (1991). Education reform in Japan: A case of immobilist policies. New York, Routledge.

Shimahara, N. and A. Sakai (1995). Learning to Teach in Two Cultures. New York, Garland Publishing.

Steiner-Khamsi, G. and I. Stolpe (2006). Educational Import: Local Encounters with Global Forces in Mongolia. New York, Palgrave Macmillan.

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