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2 Recruiting “Top Third” Talent into the US Teaching Ranks

McKinsey & Co recently published a compelling report on the strategies that high-performing nations use to recruit teacher talent from the top third of college graduates. In the US, the report points out, only 23% of teachers entering the workforce are among the top third, and the proportion is even lower (14%) among those taking jobs in high-poverty schools.

McKinsey reportIn Finland, South Korea, and Singapore, by contrast, 100% of teachers are recruited from the top third of college graduates. While academic talent alone doesn’t fully predict teacher performance, it certainly can’t hurt to have the best and brightest teaching the nation’s students.

In the US, only Teach for America is so selective and successful in attracting top talent. TfA admits high-achieving elite students, often from the Ivies, and admission carries serious prestige. However, TfA graduates often have no intention of staying in teaching more than a few years, and are still subject to the same labor market conditions that drive top talent into other professions. Even as TfA continues to rise in prestige, teaching itself remains a lower-status job in the US than in top-performing nations.

Most teacher preparation programs in the US screen only for basic academic and personal qualifications; recruiting “the best of the best” is difficult for a variety of reasons:

  • Starting and maximum teacher salaries are often lower than those in other professions, and are based on seniority rather than performance
  • Teacher-bashing has become a national pastime, and the prestige of the profession seems to be on the decline
  • Teacher education classes are often made very easy, to ensure that everyone succeeds; consequently, high-achieving students choose majors that are more engaging and challenging

On this last point, I can speak from personal experience. Many of my friends left the teacher education program at my university after sitting through a 3-credit course on how to use an overhead projector and a photocopier. They had no interest in having their intelligence insulted, nor in being surrounded by the university’s worst students for four years. My interest was sustained only by my much more rigorous science coursework. I graduated first in my class in the physical sciences department, yet I was the only physical science major to also earn teacher certification. Clearly, my university had failed to attract many of its best students into the teacher education program.

Finland, South Korea, and Singapore use a combination of salary, prestige, and labor-market responsiveness to ensure that teaching is a career to which the best and brightest aspire. Critically, these strategies are used with great purposefulness on the national level, whereas in the US, there is no national strategy for developing a strong teacher workforce.

While these nations’ high performance is due to a variety of factors, teacher quality is certainly a centerpiece of their national strategies for excellence:

When asked what’s accounted for the extraordinary rise in the nation’s educational performance in recent decades, Korean officials put the matter simply: “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”


It’s inspiring to think what could happen in US schools if we developed a national strategy for attracting and retaining top talent in teaching. It’d be nice to know that the only people accepted into teacher certification programs are top-third students, but obviously that’s a long way off.

I hope that as a nation, we can recognize the logic of the McKinsey report’s recommendations and start to take steps to attract high performers to our nation’s classrooms. In addition to identifying how Finland, Singapore, and South Korea attract top talent, McKinsey conducted market research to determine the approximate cost of developing a comparable strategy in the US. It wouldn’t be cheap, but at a time when we’re spending billions to improve our schools, making teaching a more attractive profession to our top college graduates is certainly a worthwhile investment.

Ignoring these nations’ examples would be to stake America’s future on the idea that the U.S., alone among nations, can prepare its children to thrive in a global economy while relying on lower-achieving graduates to teach them.

Read the full report (PDF)