Why We Should Treat Teachers Like Software Engineers

Editor’s note: David Liu is COO of Knewton. He is responsible for helping Knewton launch and scale its platform and operations while expanding its presence globally. Previously, David served as AOL’s senior vice president of global messaging, where he and his teams created web products and communications platforms that have served more than 100 million users worldwide.

America is widely considered a global leader in economics, business, and culture. But when it comes to education, the U.S. seems to be falling behind. In the 2012 PISA results, we ranked 27th in math, 17th in reading, and 20th in science. Our high school graduation rates are ranked 18th internationally.

A month ago, I had the pleasure of spending two weeks in Korea and Japan, meeting with leading education, technology, and telecommunications companies, as well as a ministry of education interested in Knewton adaptive learning technology.

I couldn’t help but compare the education systems in these countries to that in the United States. Globally, Korea and Japan have some of the highest rates of academic achievement. In the 2012 PISA survey, Korea was ranked fifth in math and reading and seventh in science; Japan was ranked seventh in math and fourth in reading and science. Japan has the second highest high school graduation rate internationally, with Korea in fifth place.

It’s obvious that Korea and Japan both value education enormously. But so does the United States. We regard education as a basic human right.

So what’s driving this huge discrepancy?

Some say it’s cultural. In America, we prize exceptionalism; in Korea and Japan, the focus is on raising the mean. Others point to socioeconomic inequality; schools can’t fix poverty. American K-12 education is controlled at the local level, making it difficult to implement programs widely. We’re paralyzed by politicized debates over standards, testing, and budgets.

But I think there’s something more important at play here: the way we treat teachers. In Korea and Japan, teachers are revered and paid accordingly. Top students aspire to the profession.

We need to start treating teachers with the respect they deserve. Imagine if Apple, Google, Facebook, and the country’s top tech companies tried to recruit employees without offering them great pay, perks, top-of-the-line technology, development opportunities, and smart colleagues. It would be unthinkable.These companies have spent the time and investment to figure out exactly what it takes to get top people to want to work for them — and, once they’re there, to stay.

Could improving outcomes be as simple as treating teachers like software engineers? I say yes.

In Korea and Japan, teachers are paid in accordance with their stature in society.A 2012 study found a correlation between higher teacher pay and improved student outcomes. Korea and Japan were at the top of the spectrum for both.The study concluded that a mere “10 percent increase in teachers’ pay would produce a 5–10 percent increase in student performance.”

Teachers in America are committed to their work despite low compensation. Paying these teachers 100 percent more would increase the desirability of the profession and improve retention. The pay increase would have a much-needed ripple effect. Districts and states would have to figure out a way to provide top talent with great work environments — including benefits, facilities, superb colleagues, and technology (broadband, software, devices, and cloud infrastructure).

Schools should also have career advancement opportunities for exceptional teachers. We need to offer teachers opportunities for professional growth within the classroom. As a recent New York Times article about math education points out, it’s common for teachers in Japan to practice instructing in front of an audience of educators and university observers — providing less experienced teachers with valuable feedback on how best to engage students and stimulate learning. By creating roles for master teachers — senior educators with strong pedagogy, interpersonal skills, and curriculum understanding — to observe and mentor newer teachers, U.S. schools would both increase retention and also improve learning experiences for today’s students.

U.S. teachers also need more time to prepare for class lessons — to grade assignments, learn from colleagues, speak with stakeholders in their students’ educations, and familiarize themselves with new technology. No CEO would give a presentation to the board of directors without preparation. The same should be true for educators. Teachers in the U.S., Japan, and Korea all spend roughly the same amount of time working. But while teachers in Korea and Japan have plenty of time for preparation, nearly all of American teachers’ time is spent instructing. Japanese secondary teachers spend just 500 of 1,899 total hours in the classroom — compared to 1,051 out of 1,998 hours for U.S. teachers.

Preparing students for competitive careers in a constantly evolving workplace isn’t just about changing the curriculum or better engaging students. Teachers are education’s greatest asset. We need to place the same value on them as tech companies do on software engineers. The first step is providing teachers with the support they need: competitive compensation, growth opportunities, well-equipped schools, and enough time. Today, almost half of American teachersleave the classroom within their first five years of teaching. No industry can endure that kind of turnover and not suffer from it. Treating teachers like star programmers will help us attract and retain the best and brightest to education. These teachers will have a lasting impact on generations of students to come.

Image via Shutterstock user Sergey Nivens