Why Preparing Great Primary School Teachers Is Essential To Education

A report released by the National Center on Education and the Economy’s Center on International Education Benchmarking, Not So Elementary: Primary School Teacher Quality in Top-Performing Systems found that developing teachers with a deep understanding of the content they teach underpins the success of primary schools in top-performing education systems.

Lead author Ben Jensen found that top-performing education systems like Finland, Japan, Shanghai and Hong Kong use various strategies to ensure primary school teachers have both deep content knowledge and a far-reaching understanding of how students learn that content—the foundation upon which high-performing, equitable school systems operate in these systems. High quality elementary school teaching and learning builds a strong foundation for students that increases their chances of achieving at higher levels throughout their schooling.

The report also found that by focusing on the selection of high-quality teachers, content specialization, initial teacher education, and professional learning systems in their schools, the world’s top performers are building entire systems of teacher preparation that equip their teaching corps with these skills.

These four policy levers, combined with a well-integrated and highly effective education system as a whole, serve as a powerful means of improving student learning.


High-performing systems set rigorous standards for becoming a teacher in order to ensure that only the most qualified individuals enter classrooms. According to the report, each jurisdiction studied has developed quality control checks at different points in the teacher development pathway.

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Some—like Finland—have very high admissions requirements for entry into teacher education institutions, the very beginning of the development pathway.  Others—like Japan—place the quality control check at the point of hiring in the form of an employment examination.  Only the top-scoring candidates who possess the academic knowledge, skills and dispositions for teaching young children are hired for teaching positions.


Specialization refers to the idea that elementary school teachers have some sort of subject-specialization in their preparation and development. It can also mean a narrower teaching role—instead of teaching all subjects, elementary teachers may study and teach only one or a few subjects, as is the case in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

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In Finland and Japan, elementary school teachers are generalists, as they are in the United States, studying and teaching all subjects. In both Finland and Japan, however unlike the U.S., elementary teachers also choose a subject to major or minor in, so they receive specialized content knowledge in at least one subject area.  In Japan, teachers with specialized knowledge lead professional learning in that subject area.

Initial teacher education

Initial teacher education programs in high-performing systems share three things in common, according to Not So Elementary.

First, they focus on the content that teachers will teach at the elementary school level. Rather than taking advanced mathematics courses, for instance, elementary math teachers develop a deep and flexible understanding of the actual mathematics topics they will teach.

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Second, there is a strong emphasis on how students learn and understand the specific content that will be taught and not just general teaching skills.

Finally, teacher education institutions have a high degree of alignment between their courses and curricula and the curriculum being taught in elementary schools.

Professional learning

Many of the top-performing countries apprentice new teachers to senior master teachers during the first year and sometimes the first two years of their work as teachers.  This kind of strong apprenticeship enables the new teachers to learn their craft in a way that is simply not possible in a traditionally organized university experience.  But that is not the end of a new teacher’s growth and development.   High-performing systems build professional learning strategies and practices to support all teachers through their whole professional career.

In Shanghai, teacher professional learning is largely structured to develop subject-specific expertise through mentoring relationships and teacher research & lesson development groups. In Hong Kong, new teachers are observed while teaching and also observe more senior teachers in their specialized subject area with the goal of constantly improving lessons. They then take part in reflection activities to understand what they have learned from their peers.

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Systemic approach

One of the most important characteristics of top performers’ success in developing elementary school teacher quality is the systemic nature of the education system itself.

In Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, and Shanghai, different parts of the system constantly support and reinforce the need for deep subject expertise and understanding of student learning. Not So Elementary describes how all parts of the system, from selection to initial teacher education, school curriculum, school organization and professional development, work in an integrated and highly effective manner to support teachers and the students that they teach.

In addition to the report and an accompanying policy brief, researchers have collected authentic tools used by the systems highlighted to assist policymakers and practitioners interested in adapting lessons learned for their own context and culture.

The article first appeared in The World Bank Blogs