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CLOSING THE TALENT GAP: New McKinsey Report Outlines Strategy for Attracting and Retaining “Top-Third” College Students in Teaching Field

“The world’s best-performing school systems make great teaching their ‘north star.’”

Top-performing countries in education recruit 100 percent of their teacher corps from the top third of the academic cohort. In the United States, however, only 23 percent of new teachers come from the top third; in high-poverty schools, the number is only 14 percent. So says Closing the Talent Gap: Afttracting and Retaining Top-Third Graduates to Careers in Teaching, a new report from McKinsey & Company that outlines how the United States could attract and retain more students with strong academic backgrounds into the teaching profession.

“The world’s best-performing school systems make great teaching their ‘north star,’” the report states. “They have strategic and systematic approaches to attract, develop, retain, and ensure the efficacy of the most talented educators—and they make sure great teachers serve students of all socio-economic backgrounds. The U.S. does not take a strategic or systematic approach to nurturing teacher talent. Buffeted by a chaotic mix of labor market trends, university economics, and local school district and budget dynamics, [the U.S. has] failed to attract, develop, reward or retain outstanding professional teaching talent on a consistent basis.”

The good news is that improving teaching effectiveness has become a major reform theme in the United States, as many school districts and states are finding new ways to measure, evaluate, reward, coach, and replicate effectiveness in teaching, the report notes. However, most of these efforts focus on improving the effectiveness of teachers already in the classroom or retaining the best and dismissing the least effective. Meanwhile, little attention has been paid to what the report calls “altering the value proposition” of teaching to draw young people with strong academic backgrounds to the profession.

The practice in the United States is markedly different from the world’s top performers in education. According to the report, countries such as Singapore, Finland, and South Korea focus on recruiting, developing, and retaining “top third+” students as one of their central education strategies. In these countries selection process and teacher training is more like that of medical school and residency than of a typical American school of education. Additionally, some of these countries also pay for tuition and fees and provide students with a stipend while they train. To maintain an ideal balance of teachers, these governments monitor the demand and regulate supply to match it. By doing so, they can guarantee jobs and competitive compensation to teachers who complete the selective training. At the same time, they offer opportunities for advancement and growth and bestow enormous prestige on the profession.

Based on market research that McKinsey conducted among nine hundred top-third American college students and 525 current teachers with similarly strong academic backgrounds, it learned that major new efforts are required for the United States to attract and retain more top-third+ talent to teaching. Currently, most students see teaching as an unattractive profession in terms of the quality of the people in the field, professional growth opportunities, and compensation. In fact, only 9 percent of the top-third college students surveyed say they plan to go into teaching.

According to the report, a combination of improved compensation and other features such as better school leaders and working conditions could dramatically increase the proportion of top-third new hires in high-needs schools and districts.

McKinsey estimates that the United States could hire more than double the portion of top-third+ new hires in high-needs schools—going from 14 percent to 34 percent—by making several changes not related to raising teacher salaries. These reform strategies include providing high-needs schools with effective principals, offering ongoing training comparable to the best professional institutions, improving “shabby and sometimes unsafe” working conditions, and providing performance bonuses of 20 percent. The report estimates that these changes would cost roughly $10–$30 million per year for one of the largest school district (50,000–150,000 students) and approximately $66 million for an average-sized state.

Drawing the majority of teachers from among top-third+ students, however, would require substantial increases in compensation to close real and perceived gaps between teachers’ compensation and that of other careers open to top students, the report notes. McKinsey’s research finds that raising the share of top-third+ new hires in high-needs schools from 14 percent to 68 percent would mean paying new teachers around $65,000 with a maximum career compensation of $150,000 per year. Such a proposal would cost large urban school districts $100–$290 million per year and $630 million for the average-sized state.

The report suggests that a U.S. version of a top-talent strategy might aim to transform schools of education directly, give districts the power to demand better-equipped educators, or rely more heavily on identifying effective and ineffective teachers early in their careers. But for an American top-third+ strategy to work, the nation would need to address not only the attraction and retention of top-third graduates to teaching, but also the many levers that support the efficacy of teachers once they are in the classroom.

Closing the Talent Gap suggests exploring top-third+ strategies with pilot programs in high-needs districts or in a state, with a new “Race to the Top Third” grant competition or through collaborations among school systems, philanthropic institutions, and other education stakeholders.

The report notes that simply “sprinkling” top-third academically credentialed teachers into the current system is not a silver bullet for producing dramatic gains in student achievement. It acknowledges that U.S. research on whether teachers’ academic backgrounds significantly predict classroom effectiveness is mixed, but suggests that bringing in more teachers with stronger academic backgrounds will allow the United States to learn whether such a strategy can work.

The report concludes by saying that progress on a top-third approach will require research, experimentation, and learning, but the economic and social returns from getting it right could be enormous.

Read the complete report at

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