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CEPEDA: In teaching, why not be the best?

Let’s imagine this country really believed that to thrive in the 21st century, we have to be able to compete in a global economy. And to do so, we need creative, well-educated workers who, presumably, got into the best colleges and then vied for the best jobs in organizations that closely measure outcomes or profits.

So why do we support a system that dissuades few from entering teacher preparation programs, then graduates them into a labor system that keeps them in a practically guaranteed-for-life job with no competition — for resources, pay incentives, or even glory — and little accountability for their performance in the classroom?

When I entered my pricey, well-respected master’s in education program, it wasn’t like getting into medical school or law school where standardized tests separate the chaff — I wasn’t even required to take an entrance exam. There were some really bright students, but others had high aspirations without the skills to navigate even the most rudimentary reading comprehension or writing tasks.

My experience was not anomalous. A 2010 McKinsey report found that only 23 percent of U.S. teachers come from the top third of their college class, compared to 100 percent in the three countries — Finland, Singapore and South Korea — with the best school systems.

At Roosevelt University, a few excellent professors assigned rigorous, intellectually challenging work, but many classes were so fluffy and unstimulating that it pained me to pay the tuition.

In Illinois, a state that has supposedly rigorous teacher standards, the only things keeping near-illiterates from getting a teaching certificate are basic skills and content area tests, which, until recently, were so ridiculously easy that nearly everyone passed. After a couple of overhauls, the passing rate has dropped to an alarming 22 percent.

Once you’re a teacher, your pay goes up every year whether you’re a superstar overachiever or completely ineffective. You keep your job unless you seriously screw up or get caught untenured during budget cutbacks. If you take extra classes or earn additional degrees, you qualify for more pay without having to prove the extra education made you a better teacher. Merit pay is rarely seriously discussed.

School districts vary in their guidelines for evaluating teachers — new ones usually get two a year and tenured teachers routinely go more than a year without — but anything more demanding than a 15- to 30-minute observation and a chat with the supervising administrator is rare.

Sure, there are many highly effective teachers in schools across the country. But even they lead uncompetitive professional lives well outside what they are supposed to be preparing their students for.

Teachers don’t have to prove their continuing mastery of a subject matter on regularly administered standardized tests, don’t compete with other teachers on any sort of metrics to earn a “class” ranking, and many didn’t experience high-stakes competition for entry into elite university programs. Most students will not aspire to teaching careers, but will be taught by educators with no personal familiarity with professions that rely on a competitive edge to be successful.

Does this seem right?

In a new report, “What the U.S. Can Learn from the World’s Most Successful Education Reform Efforts,” Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the Program for International Student Assessment, tells us that it isn’t.

The nations with the best educational systems recruit only the very best aspirants and train them with specific, rigorous national educational standards in mind. Such countries have effective teacher education programs in universities and aggressive teacher leadership programs in schools. Teacher pay is tied to successful outcomes, even in countries where strong union protections and benefits are in place.

Not exactly rocket science.

The report pushes the idea that if we really care about education, we need to start valuing our teachers more. I agree, but add that society would easily value teachers more if they were believed to be the very cream of the crop working toward student success rather than toward a pension.

There’s no good reason the U.S. can’t overhaul its education system to require vigorous teacher preparation, demand accountability from teachers and reward their successes.

But this won’t happen until the fiefdoms of teacher education programs, local boards of education, and teacher unions understand that more competition in the education profession will yield the academic successes that are essential to competing in the global economy.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. E-mail her at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.