How Can American Education Compete Globally?

An interview with U Missouri education researcher Motoko Akiba

Of the many issues that have sparked the debate over education reform in recent years, one that seems to many to be a bit more abstract is the concern that we may be losing our competitive standing on the world stage, in terms of leadership in innovation, in technology, and in overall math and science proficiency.

Motoko Akiba is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Along with her research partner, Prof. Gerald LeTendre of the College of Education at Pennsylvania State University, Akiba conducted a comparative study between the nationwide primary and secondary education systems of the United States, Australia, and Japan.

Akiba and LeTendre recently published a book, entitled Improving Teacher Quality: The U.S. Teaching Force in Global Context, based upon the results of the study, in which they make the argument that the way to improve U.S. teachers' quality is to overhaul the way teachers are recruited, trained, hired, distributed, supported, and retained. Their recommendations include substantial changes to bureaucratic procedures, a narrowing of the education gap between the wealthy and all others, a more integrated approach to professional development, potential for better pay and incentives throughout one's career, and broader societal support and advocacy.

THE Journal spoke to Akiba about the book, her overall research, and the prospect of effective and lasting reform in American education.

Scott Aronowitz: The debate seems endless over how to improve education in the United States. What, in your opinion, are the three things we need to do first and foremost to educate our K-12 students in order to make them better learners and thinkers, more knowledgeable, and better able to compete in career and other markets?

Motoko Akiba: In my opinion, the most important things to do to educate our K-12 students are:

  1. To improve teacher quality;
  2. To develop school community; and
  3. To improve school safety.

My comparative study on teacher quality found that only 64 percent of mathematics teachers have basic qualifications in the U.S. (Akiba & LeTendre, 2009). Without being taught by teachers with in-depth subject knowledge, pedagogical skills, and commitment to teaching, we cannot expect our students to become better learners.

Also, the school needs to be organized as a community in which each student feels that he or she is supported by teachers, administrators, and community members to maximize potential. Research has shown that students achieve better when they are learning in a school characterized by support and trust among students, teachers, and community members.

Finally, students cannot learn when they constantly fear for their safety at school. My previous study showed that 10 percent of 15-year-olds reported that they often feel as if someone will attach or harm them at school (Akiba, 2009). School administrators and teachers need to ensure that school is a safe place to learn.

Aronowitz: Why did you choose to compare the United States to Japan and Australia? What is it about these two countries' systems of education that you thought made it an effective comparison?

Akiba: I chose Japan and Australia for [two primary] reasons. First, as in the U.S., both countries see improving teacher quality as a [critical] focus of educational reforms. Second, students in both countries achieved better in mathematics and science in international assessments than the students in the U.S., which shows the potential for learning from their systems.

Aronowitz: Apart from better wages at all stages of a teacher's career, what specifically does the U.S. educational system need to do in order to create a stronger support system for teachers/educators?

Akiba: The U.S. educational system needs to improve teachers' working conditions and professional learning opportunities. U.S. teachers are assigned to teach longer hours each week (19.3 hours) than Australian teachers (17.3 hours) or Japanese teachers (14.5 hours). Yet, they spend the least amount of time preparing for their classes (3.8 hours) compared to Australian teachers (4.5 hours) and Japanese teachers (5.1 hours). Heavy teaching load leaves less time for preparation, which affects instructional quality. U.S. teachers' load needs to be reduced, and lesson preparation should be integrated into the regular school hours.

In addition, they need to [be] given more support for professional learning. U.S. teachers spend 66 hours for professional development per year on average, compared to 76 hours among Australian teachers and 284 hours among Japanese teachers. The Japanese system integrates professional development hours into the regular work schedule, which allows teachers to engage in continuous professional learning activities. U.S. teachers need to be provided more resources and time for professional learning so that they can continuously improve their instruction and promote student learning.

Aronowitz: Given both the economic crisis and the hotly debated issues in education regarding what will make American graduates most competitive on the world stage, what can the American educational system feasibly do to create the stronger teacher support system you recommend?

Akiba: Every change in an education system requires financial commitment to succeed. However, there are changes that are less costly than others.

One such change would be to the hiring system. Australian state departments of education work with local districts and schools to conduct efficient and effective teaching hiring using computerized matches between qualifications sought and applicants, followed by interviews with districts and schools. Each teacher candidate needs to upload an electronic application only once in order to be considered for multiple positions in the schools or regions of their choices. This system allows for a rapid employment decisions and ensures that schools are staffed with qualified individuals. In the U.S., due to the decentralized hiring system, the hiring efficiency and effectiveness varies across districts and schools. A national study showed that one-third of new teachers are hired only one month before the school year starts, and another one-third are hired after the school year begins. This shows that hiring is not efficient in the U.S., and our system loses many qualified candidates to other more financially attractive occupations.

Systematizing hiring in conjunction with state departments of education, thereby making the application process more efficient and allowing for earlier employment decisions, can reduce hiring costs at district and school levels, while attracting more qualified candidates to consider the teaching profession.

Aronowitz: What, if any, correlation have you discovered or determined exists between the factors in your study and long-term competitiveness in both the domestic job markets of the countries studied and the global markets for jobs, innovation, and economic growth? In other words, how do we know that improving these factors will really make a difference?

Akiba: My study did not examine the relationship between teacher quality and economic growth. However, an earlier cross-national study of 47 countries showed that countries with a higher percentage of qualified mathematics teachers--measured by a full certification, math or math education major, and three or more years of teaching experience--produced higher national student achievement in mathematics (Akiba, LeTendre, & Scribner, 2007). ITQ further showed that Japan and Australia, both of which produce high student achievement levels and have strong economies, have stronger systems for supporting teachers and improving teacher quality.

Aronowitz: Where do you plan to take your research from here? What can the U.S. education system hope to gain from comparative analysis of other countries' systems?

Akiba: ITQ offers a set of policy recommendations for state departments of education to take a leadership [role] in developing a coherent policy to improve teacher quality. This comparative study shed light on the nature of U.S. teachers' qualifications, working conditions, and professional learning activities in comparison to those in Australia and Japan. The findings showed that there are many things policymakers can do to improve the system for supporting teachers through three major processes: 1) recruitment and training, 2) hiring and distribution, and 3) continuous support and retention of teachers.

Aronowitz: What, specifically, can those not directly involved in the education system (parents, taxpayers, private commercial interests, etc.) do to help improve the educational environment for both teachers and students?

Akiba: Parents and community members can play an important role in advocating for the importance of education and supporting funding for improving teacher quality and student achievement. The biggest challenge in the U.S. is the opportunity gap between wealthy schools and poor schools in students' opportunity to be taught by qualified teachers. Only 52 percent of mathematics teachers have basic qualifications in poor schools compared to 75 percent in wealthy schools (Akiba & LeTendre, 2009). This opportunity gap in the U.S. is fourth largest in the world (Akiba, LeTendre, & Scribner, 2007). If we believe that every child deserves to be taught by qualified teachers as his/her educational right, then we need to support the system to reduce this inequality.


Akiba, M. & LeTendre, G. (2009). Improving Teacher Quality: The U.S. teaching force in global context. New York: Teachers College Press.

Akiba, M. (2009). What predicts fear of school violence among U.S. adolescents? Teachers College Record, 111(12).

Akiba, M., LeTendre, G. K., & Scribner, J. P. (2007). Teacher quality, opportunity gap, and achievement gap in 47 countries. Educational Researcher, 36(7), 369-387.