Creating the conditions for teachers to be effective

Most Americans would agree that all students—regardless of where they live or how much money their parents make—should be taught by effective teachers, every day, in every class.

How to make that happen is trickier. Is it about recruiting more talent into teaching? Or getting rid of the incompetent teachers in our nation’s classrooms? For years, America’s policymakers have fixated on these two possibilities.

Slowly but surely, more potent and transcendent questions are taking hold: What are the conditions necessary for teachers to do their jobs effectively? How do the teaching and learning conditions that govern our schools compare to those in other nations?

Conveniently, a study released last week—including data from 100,000 randomly selected teachers in 6,500 schools and 34 nations—hones in on these very queries.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) first conducted the Teaching and Learning International Study (TALIS) in 2008, but 2013 was the first time the United States has participated. The OECD results reveal a great deal about how America’s efforts to improve our public schools stack up against those of other nations.

American teachers have the longest school day and spend the most time in front of students.

U.S. teachers work more hours per week than their global counterparts—45 hours versus an average of 38 in other nations. And far more of their hours are devoted to the act of teaching: 27 versus the 19-hour OECD average.

So, that means we’re #winning, right? Nope. Here’s why.

American teachers have fewer opportunities to observe and collaborate with one another to improve instruction.

Teachers in top-performing countries like Singapore and Finland spend far less time in front of students than in the United States for a good reason: so they can ensure they teach effectively, making the best possible use of instructional time. In these countries, teachers’ schedules enable them to spread their expertise to one another, analyze student progress, and improve how they teach.

Schools in top-performing nations are organized according to what teaching and learning call for today, not 100 years ago. (Worth noting: teacher preparation programs in these countries also ensure teachers know how to use this planning, observation, and collaboration time effectively.)

Meanwhile, in the United States, 50% of teachers never observe other teachers (compared to 5% in Korea and 20% in Singapore). Compared to average teachers elsewhere, American teachers are twice as likely to lack opportunities to work with teaching colleagues across different student age groups and classes. And only 10% of US teachers reported receiving feedback from assigned mentors—compared to 38% in Singapore and 29% in England and 24% in Australia.

Strikingly—while American teachers’ planning and collaboration time is scarce—the time they must devote to general administrative tasks is nearly triple that of Finnish teachers, and they spend six times as long on extracurricular activities. In addition, US teachers are two and a half times more likely than peers in other nations to be required to spend time on “unspecified tasks.”

American teachers give their professional development lower ratings.

The average teacher in the U.S. reports spending a similar number of days engaged in professional development as does the average teacher in other countries. However, American teachers are uniformly less satisfied with content and delivery of their on-the-job learning opportunities. And no wonder—they are less likely than teachers elsewhere to report they receive helpful feedback on their teaching practices, methods for working with special needs students, and assessments for gauging student progress.

From: OECD (2014). Key Findings from the Teaching and Learning International Study (United States Country Note). Belgium: Author.

American teachers are less likely to be evaluated by expert peers.

On average, teachers in other countries are twice as likely to be evaluated by peers than U.S. teachers. While regular evaluation is ubiquitous in the U.S., observations are often conducted by administrators who may have little background knowledge of the subject or grade—and little time for regular observation and feedback.

American students attend larger schools with fewer teachers, and have more administrative and extracurricular tasks.

Not only do U.S. teachers work longer and spend more time teaching than do their counterparts, but they also teach larger classes. On average, American teachers teach in larger classes (average of 27 students) than do their counterparts in thirty-three other nations (average of 24).

Does this matter? The merits of school and class size can be debatable—and often the empirical evidence is clouded by researchers’ inability to control for mitigating factors, like teaching quality and working conditions.

But some research shows that top-performing nations take measures to ensure that teachers have the structures and resources to teach effectively even when average class sizes are larger.

For example, while Finnish classes may be large, the “regular” teacher is often supplemented by additional teachers who offer specialized support to students who struggle. And many teachers also teach the same students from a single class for many years (what is often called “looping” here in America). The idea? A teacher can better serve a large class if he or she knows students and their families well.

And of course, teachers in Finland and other top-performing nations are not as burdened by administrative tasks and extracurricular demands. These organizational conditions matter a great deal—and have even more impact when class sizes are large.

Sooner or later, American policymakers must step back from measuring the effectiveness of individual teachers to look at the bigger picture, the context in which teaching and learning occurs. (Some pragmatic initial steps are outlined in a new CTQ-Global report on improving professional learning systems for teachers, and Linda Darling-Hammond has offered a succinct outline of key policy shifts in response to the TALIS results. Linda led the work of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) twenty years ago, making recommendations strikingly sympatico with today’s TALIS takeaways.)

Indeed, isn’t it about time that our nation’s leading policymakers recognize that teacher working conditions are student learning conditions? It’s a tagline that has been around for decades, and one that is critical to improving all schools.

Images above (“U.S. teachers teach the most instructional hours” and “The U.S. has larger schools with fewer teachers”) used with the permission of Linda Darling-Hammond, who shared them at the #OECDTALIS press conference hosted by NCTAF in June 2014. 



  • Sean Padilla


    This article is very interesting in how it echoes the many topics and current issues being discussed in the Teacher Leadership course I am taking at Elmhurst College. The conditions (such as long hours, large class sizes) that exhaust classroom teachers combined with the limited opportunities to improve instruction (limited collaboration, poorly delivered professional development, and little discussion on evaluation) truly show the need for teacher leaders to step forward and play a more active role in their school communities. In doing so, active professionals with qualifications and experience are present and available to share and learn from their colleagues on how to improve instruction and assessment. More importantly, teacher leaders can be knowledgeable and participate in making the decisions that are aimed to reform education, improve our conditions, and ultimately effectively plan for student growth. Teacher leaders can serve as the communication medium of bringing forth the issues to their peers and transferring their ideas for solutions to the policymakers. 

  • ReneeMoore

    Keys to Unlocking the Future of the Teaching Profession

    The information you share here, and the that in the two reports you linked at the end, hold vital keys to [finally] elevating the teaching profession in this country and moving our educational system ahead in quantum leaps, rather than the painful inching back and forth that we’ve seen over the past 50-100 years.

    Would like to hear more about those policy steps that must be taken to accomplish these types of shifts. What do we need to be doing or pushing for at the state/district level, and what [if anything] can federal level policymakers to move us in this direction?

  • terryjones


    Being a southerner, I am adamant about speaking the truth and letting the chips fall where they may. 

    This article puts a very fine point on one of my greivances against today’s education in our country.

    When interviewed for my current position, I was asked the question “what do you think is the most wrong about education today?”

    I was not polite in my answer. I simply stated that our education is inbred-we lurch from the “new idea” to the next “new idea” without stepping back, focusing on what needs to be looked at (standards, expectations, teachers who do not teach, etc) and that we cover it up by trying to add too much to our schedules.

    Renee, I will be using this information in my next chat with my adminstrators. I thank you!

    • EileenForrest

      What is wrong with education today?

      Terry, your comments made me think of what I consider to be a significant issue in our profession.  Unlike other professions, where top performers are often sought out and recruited by others in their field (legal, business, technology, engineering, advertising) because they are valued for their expertise, many teachers in the U.S. spend the majority of their career in one school district and some in one school. Recruiting teachers from other districts rarely happens except for administrative positions.  In part this is due to the fact that there is no financial incentive to change districts like there is in the private sector when one changes companies. In fact, there is a disincentive as often you can lose years of service and take a pay cut.  This practice imposes limitations on our teachers that significantly impact their ability to grow and improve because they have limited perspectives based on their experiences. Teachers often only know about how things work in “their” building or district and are not even aware of the issues that impact schools or students in their own state, let alone in other areas of the country.  In my opinion this negatively impacts students, as all teachers are not always able to maximize their own growth potential in this scenario. Additionally, teachers in “high performing” districts often consider themselves to be outstanding teachers based on the test scores of the students, when in fact, there may not be a correlation between the teaching and the test scores. 

      Other professions have a wider view of their industry and in today’s world very often a global view is considered when establishing protocols and best practices.  In education we need to start using some of the effective strategies that have been utilized in private enterprise to grow and develop companies. I think it is a good thing that the U.S. participated in the TALIS study so that we can learn from other countries.  Granted, the U.S. has more diversity than say Finland, but we can still learn from their teacher recruitment and training practices to improve our system. Using this information to start making real changes to our education system will be a great first start. It is time to make some real changes to our education system that will stick and postively impact all students. 

  • BarnettBerry

    Policy shifts

    A number of the issues y’all raise suggest the kinds of policy shifts necessary to truly elevate the teaching profession. Let me start with three:

    1.  A new kind of teacher education that not only prepares new recruits to teach more effectlvely (i.e.,  technical pedagogical skills) but also serious readiness to lead. This means skills as assessors, researchers, and communicators. This does not mean all teachers are prepared this way as teacherpreneurs – but a gracious plenty.

    2. Incentives for school and districts to rethink and reallocate their resources so more teachers to lead without leaving the classrooms. 

    3. Incentives for school districts and higher ed as well as non-profits (not just CTQ!) to create joint appointments of teachers to serve in hybrid roles (and teacherpreneurs).


  • TriciaEbner

    So much I agree with here . . .

    I’ve been reading the various summaries and reports on the OECD study in the past week, and at various points in time I’ve found myself whispering a quick prayer of thanks–some of what is pointed to as a lack in US schools, my own district does allow for. However, some of the most critical components are missing–like the opportunity for teachers to observe one another.

    There are so many elements and moving parts at play. One of the biggest components is a teacher-level insecurity with peer observations. Our younger teachers don’t seem at all bothered by this. (And by younger, I mean newer to the profession.) Our more veteran teachers find the idea of a colleague coming in to observe a bit intimidating, or at least a bit of a “time-waster.” After all, those unspecified administrative tasks are also waiting!

    This is most certainly an opportunity to elevate the profession. What can we get started on now? What can we get moving, even in the contexts we have at the moment? I’ve hit a point where saying, “Gosh, that would be great to try, but these structures (schedule, etc.) keep us from even attempting it” is no longer acceptable. Be creative. Be a problem-solver. We aren’t going to get the changes we need into place if we sit back, wring our hands, and wait for The Powers That Be to make the necessary structural or cultural changes for us.

    Barnett, you’re exactly right about findings ways for teachers to lead from classrooms. I’m fortunate in that my curriculum director sees the value in this and supports my interest in this. Now my challenge is find a way to fund it . . . (and he’s looking, too.)

  • SusieScott

    So much to think about…

    I really respect the way you lay out all the facts about why there may be ineffective teachers in the US.  So many teachers, myself included, practically beg to just be able to teach. I am learning that there are opportunities for change and I am building upon that knowledge to hopefully create some of that change myself! Thanks for your perspective.

  • monicaholz

    Facts that make me want to learn more

    After reading all of this very important data and all of the information comparing the US and other countries, I am most struck by the fact that in succesful schools around the world teachers are staying in one teaching position for a long period of time.  This makes me wonder about all of the factors that influence our choices as Americans to move around from place to place.  Why do teachers stay in ine teaching position longer in Finland than in the US.  My guess is that one significant part of this is that teachers are supported, valued, and understand what is expected of them.  I’m intrigued.  I must learn more.  Thanks for sparking my interest.