Do Piano Teachers Need to Know How to Play the Piano?

Silly question—it might seem. How could someone be expected to teach piano if they do not know how to play themselves? Yet that is what the public schools are about to ask of teachers more generally. In two years, most public schools will administer new student assessments in reading and math, pegged to the higher academic standards of the Common Core. Although performance standards—how high a student must score to be proficient—are still being set, the bar will likely be at the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) “proficient” level. This will be a huge challenge for students, particularly in high school, as NAEP proficiency is the equivalent of an SAT score in verbal and math of nearly 1200—or 200 points higher than the average student taking the SAT today achieves.

The Common Core standards will be an even greater challenge for America’s teachers. The average SAT score of public elementary teachers today is less than 1000; for secondary teachers a bit higher. In effect, our public schools are asking teachers to help students reach standards that are far above the standards that they have achieved  themselves. A 200 point gap on the SAT scale is huge; statistically, it amounts to two standard deviations. It’s like saying that teachers achieving at the 50th percentile need to help students achieve at the 90th percentile—like asking ordinary pianists to train virtuosos.

Of course, America has many brilliant teachers. And aptitude is but one measure of teaching ability. Lots of teachers will be able to help their students achieve the new higher standards. But numerous teachers are also below average in both aptitude and teaching ability. So, the general point holds: America has not built a teaching force anywhere near the standards that are being set for tomorrow’s students. Our presidential candidates are fond of saying that the U.S. will be number one in the world in education—that our students will achieve with the best in the world. That will never happen if our teachers are not also the best in the world.

In my new book, I make precisely this argument—and suggest how we can do better. The Best Teachers in the World: Why We Don’t Have Them and How We Could observes, as is now customary, that nothing is more important for student achievement than teacher quality. The quality of a nation’s schools cannot rise above the quality of its teachers. The book argues—and this is far from customary—that the nation is just not serious about teacher quality. Our current policies have not a prayer of producing the best teachers in the world. We spend the most per pupil on public education in the world, but over 20 nations compensate teachers more highly. We draw teaching candidates on average from the least able high school graduates. We train teachers in non-selective colleges and universities. We do not recognize merit on the job. These are not practices that attract and retain the best and the brightest in teaching.

Doing better will require much more than currently favored reforms. New teacher evaluation systems, the bipartisan rage today, are a step in the right direction, but a small step. We can’t evaluate and fire our way to a great teaching pool. We must elevate the status of the profession, the attractiveness of the work, and the compensation for doing it. We need to recognize that quality teaching is intellectual demanding, requiring deep academic knowledge, research-based training, and rigorously guided practice. Teaching must uphold standards commensurate with those we aim to hold for our students.

But these are all just platitudes—and familiar ones—if not backed by measures that can truly move the profession. The book makes three recommendations: a much smaller, selective, intellectually engaged, and better compensated teaching force supported by technology; an open, transparent, and accountable system of preparation and professional development that drives out inferior providers and rewards success; and increased responsibility for teacher development in the hands of principals, who may be the strongest determinant of teacher quality on the job. These reforms are decidedly not more of the same. Each would be devastating to some element of the status quo. Each will be fought tooth and nail by vested interests. So be it. Our willingness as a nation to fight for the best teachers in the world is the best measure of our commitment to the future achievement of our children.

-John Chubb

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College