Can Anyone Teach?


The world’s top-performing school systems (Singapore, Finland, and South Korea) recruit, develop, and retain the top third of their college graduates to be educators. In the United States, 23 percent of new teachers come from the top third of their graduating class. In high-poverty schools, that number drops to 14 percent.

If an education system is only as good as its teachers, isn’t it time the United States had a talent strategy for staffing teachers, just like every other high-performing country?

Researchers at McKinsey & Company say yes and offer their latest report (Closing the Talent Gap: Attracting and Retaining Top-Third Graduates to Careers in Teaching) as a springboard to piloting a top-third talent strategy in districts or a state and developing a national top-third teacher talent strategy.

What would make teaching more attractive to top-third recruits?

Of 900 top-third students surveyed by McKinsey, 91 percent said they were not considering a career in teaching because they didn’t think it would offer the same level of prestige and high-quality collegial collaboration as their chosen profession. And while compensation wasn’t the top concern of top-thirders, it was the area of widest difference—between what they’d make as a teacher and what they’d make in their chosen profession.

For the 525 top-third graduates surveyed who did choose teaching, good working conditions and strong school leadership ranked as their top attractors.

In a live webinar accompanying the release of the report, lead researchers and a panel of experts hashed out the significance of the report’s findings and recommendations.

The panel acknowledged that simply peppering the existing education system with more top-third recruits alone would not raise student achievement. Also, while successful talent recruitment organizations like Teach for America provide valuable lessons for developing a talent strategy (Sample Lesson: A high quality peer group is one lever proven to attract top-third college graduates to teaching), TFA is not the answer.

Panelist and National Council on Teacher Quality President Kate Walsh said the amount leading education nations invest in ongoing teacher development should challenge the commonly held belief that teachers reach their peak effectiveness after three years.

“Is that more a product of very flawed development of teachers? Right now, it’s easier to get into an education school in the U.S. than it is to qualify to play college football,” said Walsh. (She’s not the first to put ed. schools on blast.) In other countries, practice and research show that teachers continue to improve over time, she added.

On the disconnect between recruitment efforts (if there are any) and sustained on-the-job support, American Federation of Teachers VP Louis Malfaro said, “Sink or swim is not an effective national teacher talent strategy.”

“My job is to bring them, your job (the district’s) is to keep them,” Kaya Henderson (now DC Public Schools deputy chancellor) said of her former role at the New Teacher Project.

A top-third strategy would need to address not only attracing and retaining top-third candidates, but also the many levers that support teachers once in the classroom, McKinsey researchers write.

Here’s where things get a bit contentious.

Loose estimates on a top-third talent strategy that doesn’t include salary increases for teachers clock in at roughly $66 million for an average state. With teacher salary increases, it’s more like $630 million.

States would have to rethink spending priorities, and schools would have to hire less support staff and rethink student-teacher ratios and who is eligible for compensation benefits. Bigger class sizes, less classroom support, and contentious evaluation systems could be potential dealbreakers in a plan like McKinsey’s.

There’s also anecdotal evidence that “a golden résumé and a well-run classroom are two different things.” Just ask elite NYC charter the Equity Project what they learned from their nationwide search for top-tier educators.

Back to the question: Can anyone teach? McKinsey’s report says, in the United States, the answer has been “yes.” In top education nations, the answer is a definitive “no.”

Has the time come for a national talent strategy for teaching?


  1. Of course, just ANYONE cannot teach.We, as teachers, know that it takes a lot more to be a teacher than what the text implies.This, too, is another discussion in totality.
    I understand that we see that in top education nations they are looking for the top third of the graduating classes from thier universities; however what it failed to mention was that although it states that teachers are not looking at compensation; they are compensated quite well. These top nations, where education is a priority, also make sure that teachers are well compensated and respected. Here in the United States we have a lack of support from the district, our state or federal government, or the parents. It is easy to judge the abilities and the hiring of the teachers in the United States. However, you must also look at the social environment and the elite status that these teachers in these top education nations uphold in respect to that of the students and parents.
    Therefore, my stance still holds true that I do not believe that just anyone can teach. However, with less testing and less teacher bashing,and better compensation; only then will the better qualities of teaching and the attitude of the teacher be changed and will changes be seen.

  2. @Rebekah, Yes, if you read the report, or just the Executive Summary, it actually supports what you are saying. Educators in leading education nations are well-respected and well compensated for their work.

  3. I think that it is absurd when I hear people say Anyone can teach or be a teacher”. Not only is it demeaning to the profession, it is not true. I believe teaching to be an art or a talent if you will; not everyone has what it takes. For example, if one cannot sing, it doesn’t matter how many lessons they take; or if they graduated in the top-third, if it is not in them, it is not going to happen. Ask any artist, talent is something that comes from deep within, some will even say they were born with it. The artistry comes from what they can do with their talent. Just because one graduates in the top-third does not mean that they can make that authentic connection with children that is so important and vital to their succcess. So I do not understand how people can say that anyone can teach.

  4. I agree with everyone who responded in that not everyone can teach. A teacher takes a special person who is dedicated to lifelong learning and conveying material in a way that students will understand. A teacher must be a patient, caring individual who is willing to spend many hours,often outside of the classroom, preparing materials and lessons. Teachers typically work many hours throughout the week for little pay. Not everyone is willing to make the monetary sacrifice.

  5. Please check the report again. Is there a sentence where the report says that American schools should try to draw teachers from the top-third of COLLEGE graduates? I haven’t been able to find that sentence. The word “college” is conspicuously absent.
    The title says “top third of graduates” and not “top third of college graduates.”
    The report’s evidence that Finland and Singapore recruit top graduates is that Singapore draws from the top 30 percent of high school graduates and Finland from the top 20 percent of high school graduates.
    The only time the report talks about “top third of college graduates” is to report how Teach for America recruits and how McKinsey & Company designed their marketing research.
    It would have been easy for the authors to put the word college or the word high school into their own definition of the top third that should be recruited. Now I’ve gone through it five times, and I still can’t find any place where they answer that core question about their intentions.


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