This article on education policy from The Economist makes an observation about improving schools that seems obvious to the point of banality:
Now, an organisation from outside the teaching fold—McKinsey, a consultancy that advises companies and governments—has boldly gone where educationalists have mostly never gone: into policy recommendations based on the PISA findings. Schools, it says*, need to do three things: get the best teachers; get the best out of teachers; and step in when pupils start to lag behind. That may not sound exactly “first-of-its-kind” (which is how Andreas Schleicher, the OECD's head of education research, describes McKinsey's approach): schools surely do all this already? Actually, they don't. If these ideas were really taken seriously, they would change education radically.
But this is surprising:
You might think that schools should offer as much money as possible, seek to attract a large pool of applicants into teacher training and then pick the best. Not so, says McKinsey. If money were so important, then countries with the highest teacher salaries—Germany, Spain and Switzerland—would presumably be among the best. They aren't. In practice, the top performers pay no more than average salaries.
School systems that get good teachers do so not because the pay is extraordinary, but because teaching is a high status job. In fact, successful countries may be successful because they restrict the number of teacher training slots, which makes teaching hard to get into, and therefore well-respected.
But I don't know what that suggests for America. How do you make teaching into a highly respected job, one that top graduates (rather than, as now, mostly the bottom third of the class) want to go into? It seems like there's a chicken and egg problem.
My solution (and here I violate everything I just said earlier by advocating a Federal program): create a Federal corps of really, really, well paid teachers (starting salaries in the high five-figures). Let those teachers take their salaries anywhere, which should help solve the problem of underserved rural districts; $75K is a fortune in a country area. Make admission to the program dependent on having a four-year degree in something other than education, and passing a really, really hard test that combines general knowledge and knowledge about whatever subjects they want to teach. Gradually expand until teaching is on par with banking, consulting, law, medicine, or journalism as a preferred destination for high-performing graduates.