McKinsey Report: Shrinking the tent

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They've said it once and they're saying it again: it's time that we all stop tiptoeing around the need to recruit more teachers from the top tiers of talent.

Following up on their widely-cited 2007 report How the World's Best Performing School Systems Come Out on Top, consultants at McKinsey & Company make a return visit to a key finding of that report--that high performing nations such as Singapore, South Korea and Finland recruit all of their teachers from the top-third of the academic talent pool. This report focuses on what it would take for the US to adopt such a standard, postulating that making the profession a whole lot more selective is necessary if the nation is to be competitive globally and close achievement gaps at home and abroad.

Given the prevailing "Big Tent" approach to teacher selection, this represents no small feat. Currently only 23 percent of US teachers are top thirders. McKinsey investigates the cost and feasibility of adapting international best practices for recruiting and retaining the best of the talent pool. Maybe the US could learn from Singapore, which offers considerable retention bonuses (between $10K and $36K every few years), or from Finland, which only admits 1 in 10 applicants to teacher training programs.

A particularly interesting twist to the report is a market survey piece, asking 1,600 top thirders about their perceptions of teaching and other careers. It finds that for those who didn't pick teaching, it was mainly because the profession didn't offer prestige or peer groups with whom they'd enjoy working. Sufficient financial incentives were also a major factor, but what's fascinating here is that most top-thirders underestimate teacher compensation, thinking most teachers start out making $30K, when the actual national average is actually $39K.

Bottom line on the cost of moving to a top third strategy: it's hefty. Just to hire only top thirders for high-needs' schools has price tag of $630 million for an average-sized state.