Teacher Careers in Education Systems That Are Coherent for Learning: Choose and Curate Toward Commitment to Capable and Committed Teachers (5Cs)

This primer proposes a set of key principles for realising a vision of an empowered and effective teaching profession that cultivates student learning.


Image of Yue-Yi Hwa

Yue-Yi Hwa

RISE Directorate

Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

Image of Lant Pritchett

Lant Pritchett

RISE Directorate

Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford


How can education authorities and organisations develop empowered, highly respected, strongly performance-normed, contextually embedded teaching professionals who cultivate student learning? This challenge is particularly acute in many low- and middle-income education systems that have successfully expanded school enrolment but struggle to help children master even the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. In this primer, we synthesise research from a wide range of academic disciplines and country contexts, and we propose a set of principles for guiding the journey toward an empowered, effective teaching profession. We call these principles the 5Cs: choose and curate toward commitment to capable and committed teachers. These principles are rooted in the fact that teachers and their career structures are embedded in multi-level, multi-component systems that interact in complex ways. We also outline five premises for practice, each highlighting an area in which education authorities and organisations can change the typical status quo approach in order to apply the 5Cs and realise the vision of empowered teaching profession.

Table of Contents

Part 1. Introduction: Back from the brink

Part 2. We need to start with purpose and priorities (because teaching and teacher careers are complex)

Part 3. Why the 5Cs matter (and how they fit together)

Part 4. The 5Cs in practice: Varied examples of common principles

Part 5. Conclusion: Where do you want to go?

Part 1. Introduction: Back from the brink

A guiding vision needs to be clear-eyed about both the present reality and the possible future. A clear-eyed view focused solely on the present reality can lead to pessimism and even cynicism and inaction. On the other hand, turning a blind eye to current reality prevents effective action because effective action responds to fact—not fiction—about actual conditions. A useful map must show the desired destination—but it must also show the steps from where you are now to that destination.

Our vision of the future is one of empowered, highly respected, strongly performance-normed, contextually embedded teaching professions that cultivate student learning. As we discuss below, the present reality in all too many education systems is that the structure of teacher careers neither expects nor cultivates good performance. These career structures often treat teachers as interchangeable civil servants rather than professionals with a specialised craft. Moreover, these structures often facilitate other purposes—such as compliance with bureaucratic processes, centralised control over children’s socialisation, or the distribution of patronage—that do not contribute (and often inhibit) teaching practices that promote student learning.

1.1 The 5Cs: Choose and curate toward commitment to capable and committed teachers

The 5Cs as a set of principles for teacher careers in education systems coherent for learning

To guide education systems beyond these dispiriting and damaging present realities, we propose a set of principles for building empowered, respected, well-compensated teacher careers in education systems that are coherent for learning. We call these principles the 5Cs: choose and curate toward commitment to capable and committed teachers. The 5Cs are summarised in Table 1.

Table 1. The 5Cs: A set of principles for teacher careers in education systems coherent for learning

The 5Cs What they imply
Choose... Education authorities and organisations should initially choose teachers based on their potential capability and commitment to cultivating student learning.
… and Curate … The novice phase of teaching should be viewed as a period of curation, during which there is ongoing attention to teachers’ professional development—and also to identifying those teachers who are most willing and able to make careerlong contributions to children’s learning.
… toward Commitment … After the initial curation, education authorities and organisations should make a long-term employment commitment to those teachers who have demonstrated capability and commitment in classroom practice.
… to Capable … Effective teachers need to be technically capable and equipped for cultivating student learning in their specific school, classroom, and curricular contexts.
… and Committed teachers Teachers also need to be motivationally committed to the systemwide goal of cultivating student learning.

The 5Cs suggest that teacher career structures should seek to identify those teachers who are capable of enacting effective classroom teaching and learning practices and who are committed to the educational purposes of the organisation. The evidence suggests that capable and committed teachers can only be accurately identified through the teacher’s actual practice (and certainly not exclusively through ‘thin’1  indicators like pre-qualification training or examinations). Selecting the best achievable pool of teachers entails not only some initial process of choosing pre-service and novice teachers based on the available non-classroom-practice-based information, but also an ongoing process of curation during the early phases of teacher careers with a moderate to high degree of turnover (nearly all voluntary) as it becomes apparent which novice teachers are best suited to remaining in the profession. After the initial choose-and-curate period, the organisation makes an employment commitment to these capable and committed teachers.

These 5Cs principles are not a new or novel idea of ours. Rather, they are just our description of what is common in effective organisations that require specialised, highly professional skills and do not rely on short-term pay-for-performance based on standardised ‘thin’ indicators (either of inputs, outputs, or outcomes). High-performance organisations in both not-for-profit and in purely private, for-profit domains, from hospitals and medical practices to architects to religious organisations to military to universities, all use variants of this 5Cs approach.

The 5Cs are a set of principles—not a recipe or formula or blueprint—because empowered and strongly performance-normed, contextually embedded teaching professions that cultivate student learning can look very different from each other. Singapore’s and Finland’s teaching career structures are both lionised as exemplifying ‘best’ practices—despite large differences between these two sets of ‘best’ practices in teaching career structures. And, yet, crucially, these stark differences are entirely coherent and appropriate to the very different contexts in which they are embedded (Hwa, 2021; for other examples, see Voisin & Dumay, 2020).

This variability in context-coherent forms applies not just to teaching careers, but also to education systems more broadly, whether among the most celebrated systems or otherwise. Consider these education systems at good-but-not-stellar performance levels: the federalised education system in Germany, the pillar-choice-based system in the Netherlands, and the centralised system in France yielded remarkably similar performance in PISA 2012 (Pritchett, 2014; this similarity in performance levels holds true in the more recent PISA 2018). Given the different goals, features, and historical path dependencies across education systems, these contextual differences are not only an inevitable feature of effective teacher career structures, but also a desirable one.

This is why we call the 5Cs a set of principles: principles can (and often should) be applied differently in different contexts.

With that in mind, Figure 1 shows a hypothetical example of just one of any number of possible instantiations of the 5Cs principles, presented in contrast to the typical civil service approach. (We return to this example in more detail in Section 3.1.)

Crucially, the 5Cs differ from the status quo of teacher careers in ways that go much deeper than the structure of compensation and teacher cohort sizes illustrated in Figure 1. We argue that one of the reasons why the discourse on teacher compensation has been unproductive is that it has been assumed that the design of teacher compensation could be discussed as a matter of public sector ‘personnel economics’ more or less independently of that nature of the education system, its structure and objectives, and the nature of teaching as an activity. Some of these fundamental differences are summarised in Table 2.

These differences between the status quo and the 5Cs are explored throughout this report. For now, we preview our arguments for just three of them.

Figure 1. Unlike typical civil service approaches, teacher career structures that apply the 5Cs are designed such that each phase of the teacher career cycle optimally serves systemwide goals

Illustrations showing the phases of teacher careers and two different scenarios

Notes on panel (b): Hypothetical example illustrating one of many possible instantiations of the 5Cs; adapted from Pritchett & Murgai (2006), Figure 9.

Table 2. The 5Cs differ from the status quo approach to teacher careers in several fundamental ways

Status quo The 5Cs
Piecemeal policies and reforms System-oriented policies and reforms
Financial compensation is artificially separated from other elements of teacher motivation The approach is fully hedonic and fully dynamic in considering the full range of sources of teacher motivation
Teaching as straightforward task Teaching as complex
Education as indistinguishable from other aspects of public service delivery Education as a distinct field with a distinct purpose and specialised technical practices
Teacher career and compensation structures as a single salary scale that varies little across contexts Teacher career and compensation structures as tailored to systems and purposes in question

First, we say that the 5Cs are a fully hedonic, fully dynamic approach. By fully hedonic2  we mean that the 5Cs take into account all of the features that affect teachers’ satisfaction with their work: not only monetary compensation, but also the details of school assignments, roles, responsibilities and school-specific work conditions, their satisfaction from effective accomplishment of an important purpose, and the respect and validation that others in their society accord to them. The 5Cs are also fully dynamic3  in that they look beyond isolated points in the career cycle (e.g., starting salaries or annual bonus schemes) and aggregate measures (e.g., whether teachers are overpaid or underpaid), and instead consider the interplay of hedonics across all phases of the teacher career cycle. For example, some jobseekers in Indonesia are willing to accept unstable, poorly paid positions as contract teachers in the hope of eventually gaining secure, well-compensated tenure as civil service teachers (Huang et al., 2020; Alifia, Pramana, & Revina, forthcoming). Beyond the individual teacher, a fully hedonic, fully dynamic approach must also take into account the heterogeneity of motivational levels and hedonic preferences across the full pool of teachers, as well as the fact that policies and perceptions of prior cohorts can affect subsequent cohorts of teachers. In this primer, we make the case that such a hedonic and dynamic perspective on the complex interactions within teacher career systems substantially raises the likelihood that education authorities and organisations will attract, retain, and motivate teachers who will carry out their goals.

Second, we take it as a given that classroom teaching is a complex task (see, inter alia, S.A. Brown & McIntyre, 1993; DeJaeghere, Duong, & Dao, 2021). It requires the teacher to somehow align curricular expectations and available instructional materials with students’ varied levels of prior knowledge, attention spans, and moods, all of which can change in real time within the open system of the classroom. In many low- and middle-income countries, the challenge of this complexity is compounded by curricula that are far more advanced than the average students’ mastery levels (e.g., Pritchett & Beatty, 2012; Muralidharan & Singh, forthcoming) and by learning goals that far exceed teachers’ own subject-matter competencies (e.g., Venkat & Spaull, 2015).

Third, even though we focus in this synthesis on teachers within large-scale, public-sector education bureaucracies (rather than mom-and-pop standalone schools that are both simpler in organisational structure and directly responsive to families rather than enmeshed in various administrative or jurisdictional levels), we nonetheless believe that teachers should not be viewed as interchangeable civil servants who could be frictionlessly reallocated to or from a different government ministry. Rather, teachers and teaching should be regarded as a distinct professional field with a distinct purpose and specialised technical practices—precisely because classroom teaching is complex.

These second and third characteristics of teacher careers— the fact that classroom teaching is complex and the importance of establishing a clear, consensus-based purpose and a set of specialised technical practices—in turn underscore how important it is for teacher careers structures to incorporate a process of curation during the early career phases. Specifically, the complexity of teaching means that no prospective teacher (nor the education authorities and organisations that may wish to employ this teacher) can fully know whether they will thrive amid this distinct professional purpose and specialised technical practices until they have spent a significant amount of time in engaging in classroom practice. Moreover, such engagement in classroom practice will undoubtedly reveal that some novice teachers may instead be better suited to— and happier in—other occupations.

Hence education authorities and organisations have the choice of either (a) sticking to the typical civil service approach, which does not disrupt the status quo but does mean that the teaching profession will include a nontrivial proportion of people who may not be particularly committed to the purpose of the profession nor especially capable at the specialised technical practices that can further that purpose but who remain in the profession due to inertia, sunk costs, or a lack of appealing routes out of the teaching profession; or (b) designing teacher careers that allow for a nontrivial amount of turnover during a probationary novice period, for the sake of having an empowered teaching profession comprising teachers who have made an open-eyed choice to contribute to the profession long-term. We further discuss both the value and the challenges of curation in Part 3.

We are far from the first to emphasise the need for new approaches to teacher compensation or that teacher careers are shaped by numerous factors. In 2019 alone, major reports on teacher career policy were published by the World Bank (Béteille & Evans, 2019), the Education Commission (2019), UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning (Tournier & Chimier, 2019), and the International Task Force on Teachers for Education 2030 (UNESCO, 2019).

We join the conversation and hopefully add value by focusing on the fact that teacher careers are embedded in education systems. Prior studies of teacher careers have similarly observed that teacher-related policies interact in complex systems (e.g., Vegas & Ganimian, 2013), and we further this line of thinking. We show that teacher career structures involve complexity at multiple levels of analyses, and that typical policy approaches are often incoherent with this complexity. We then propose a set of principles— the 5Cs—that fully acknowledges this complexity in managing teacher careers.

Five premises for practising the 5Cs

The 5Cs go hand in hand with five premises for practice. Each premise for practice highlights an area in which education authorities and organisations should change the typical status quo approach in order to apply the 5Cs and realise the vision of empowered, highly respected, strongly performance-normed, contextually embedded teaching professions that cultivate student learning.

These premises for practice are summarised in Table 3. More details on premise for practice can be found in boxes throughout this primer, and Figure 10 in the conclusion of this primer shows how each premise for practice relates to the 5Cs.The reason why the 5Cs and these premises for practice matter is that conventional solutions to improving teaching and teacher careers—such as raising teacher pay or improving pre-service training—do not go anywhere near far enough to truly reform and re-form the teaching profession in many underperforming education systems. In such systems, the premises in Table 3 represent a radical departure from business as usual. In the rest of this primer, we justify why such a radically different approach is needed to get back from the brink of such deeply rooted and persistent dysfunctions.

1.2 Five current realities for teacher careers

At this point, you might think that the 5Cs sound good but that the principles outlined above—with the extensive turnover of novice teachers during ‘curation’ (premise for practice #3) and of substantial investments in identifying and supporting good teaching (premise for practice #4)—will never be implemented. You might be tempted to dismiss the approach as ‘impractical’.

The reality is the exact opposite. The current conventional approach to public-sector teacher careers may be ‘practical’ only in the sense that it can be realistically implemented, but it is far less practical for achieving results. It isn’t working, has never worked, and will never work. And it is ludicrous to tack on piecemeal reform attempts to this fundamentally broken approach, on the baseless assumption that these piecemeal reforms will somehow revolutionise classroom teaching to become the empowered, respected, technically specialised profession that it can and should be.

Here’s an illustration of what we mean by ‘practical’. If you want to have a stamp collection, then the usual approach of soaking the stamps off any letters that are sent to your house is a practical way of going about it. But if your vision is to have one of the biggest and most exciting stamp collections in the world, then soaking the stamps off of your letters is not a practical strategy for getting there. It may be a realistic, easy-to-implement, conventional strategy— but it would not at all be an effective strategy for building pre-eminence in world of stamp collecting.4  

Similarly, an approach that is practical for employing a large number of people called teachers may be completely impractical if your vision is building up empowered, highly respected, strongly performance-normed, contextually embedded, teaching professionals who cultivate student learning. The fact that existing practices in the status quo can be implemented year in and year out doesn’t make them ‘practical’ if they do not deliver the outcomes they are designed for. ‘Practical’ must imply not only ‘realistic’ but also ‘effective’—or else we regress into the cynical outlook that although the status quo doesn’t deliver, it is the only option. In this section, we show just how absurd the conventional approach has become, as demonstrated in five shaping conditions for teacher careers in many low-and middle-income countries.

Table 3. Premises for practice: what to do differently in building teacher careers under the 5Cs

Typical approach What to do differently
No consideration of whether the education system is actually committed to universal achievement of acceptable student learning outcomes. Premise for practice #1: Clear, consensus-based prioritisation of learning, delegated from education authorities and organisations to schools and teachers, is fundamental to teacher career reform.
No particular attention to the novice phase. Premise for practice #2: Contextually embedded, learning-oriented teacher professional norms must be cultivated throughout the novice teacher phase.
Teacher security in job tenure is de facto awarded from day one. Premise for practice #3: The pre-service and novice phases should be a period of curation, such that, as with nearly all other professions, a substantial proportion of initial entrants do not persist in the career.
EMIS indicators, years of service, and formal certifications are the main (or only) sources of information about teaching quality used in structuring teacher compensation. Premise for practice #4: Education authorities and organisations should invest in building multi-component ‘thick’ information systems about teaching quality and in supporting teachers to continually improve their pedagogical competencies.
Fairness in teacher compensation is defined almost exclusively in terms of seniority, perhaps with some consideration of formal qualifications and official responsibilities. Premise for practice #5: Fairness in teacher compensation should be defined based on what, in the specific context, will attract, retain, and motivate capable and committed teachers who make the best possible contributions to student learning.

If, instead, you think that the 5Cs sound obvious, then there’s no reason for you to read the rest of this primer (although you may enjoy it). Also, if the teachers in your education system are already good at cultivating student learning—such that, (a) nearly all students are still enrolled in school at age 15, (b) average performance on measures of learning is near the OECD median, and (c) student learning is steady or improving5 —then this is not aimed at you. We’re offering principles for guiding the journey from a disempowered teaching corps to an empowered and effective teaching profession. The teaching profession in your education has already reached that destination. The journey ‘back from the brink’ of low-performing education systems, which we focus on in this primer, may look very different from the iterative exploration of possibilities by an effective teaching profession, which would be the case in your already functional and at least mostly effective education system.

The current realities for students and teachers in many education systems around the world are truly dire and are a shameful disservice to students and teachers alike. Surely, we can do better—and surely we should.

The first of the five current realities for teacher careers in underperforming education systems is that the learning crisis is widespread and severe—but not inevitable. In many low- and middle-income countries, education systems fail to cultivate learning for most children, even those enrolled in school. The World Bank estimates that at age 10, nearly half of all children who are enrolled in school across all low-and middle-income countries are unable to meaningfully engage with a simple text (44 percent of children, out of 91.3 percent who are enrolled in school; World Bank, 2019), as shown in Figure 2. By age 15, many of those children will have either dropped out of school or fallen far behind their expected grade level—and even among those who are formally progressing in their school careers, the proportion who are meeting minimum proficiency levels will have shrunk drastically. According to PISA-D data in seven upper- and lower-middle-income countries, only 9.1 percent of 15-year-old are enrolled in Grade 7 or above and are meeting minimum proficiency levels in the SDG, whereas 33.5 percent children of the cohort are enrolled in Grade 7 or above but are nevertheless not meeting minimum proficiency standard of the SDG (Pritchett & Viarengo, 2021).

Figure 2. Many education systems are failing to cultivate learning for most children, whether they are enrolled in school or out-of-school

Bar chart comparing learning and enrolment in all low- and middle-income countries for 10-year-olds to learning and enrolment for 15-year-olds in seven middle-income countries (Cambodia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, Senegal, Zambia). The bar showing data for these seven countries has a lower proportion of students enrolled in the appropriate year and meeting PISA level 2 and a higher proportion of students not enrolled and/or not meeting PISA level 2.

Sources: Authors; based on data from World Bank EduAnalytics (2019), Tables and Figures for Learning Poverty technical paper, accessed 13 April 2021; and Pritchett & Viarengo (2021).

While learning crisis conditions are common across the developing world, they are not inevitable. Learning outcomes around the world range from literally the worst possible to mediocre to impressively high. As shown in Figure 3, across 51 countries in the Demographic and Health Surveys, among young women at the time of the survey who had attended Grade 6 (but no higher), the proportion who could read a simple sentence (e.g., ‘Farming is hard work’) in a language of their own choosing ranged from 97 percent in Rwanda to 11 percent in Nigeria. The tremendous variation shows that low learning levels are not an inescapable fate of poor countries. Vietnam, for instance, reaches near-OECD performance levels even after adjusting for the lower enrolment rates and sample composition (Dang et al., 2020).

Figure 3. Schooling leads to wildly varying learning outcomes across developing countries, from near-universal literacy to widespread illiteracy

Percent of young women who can read a sentence in a language of their choice, by highest grade completed (DHS)

Line graph with 0 to 100 percent on the Y axis and highest grade completed from 1-6 on the x axis. Lines displayed, in order from top to bottom, are for Rwanda, Ethiopia, an average of 51 countries, Peru, Bangladesh, and Nigeria. Rwanda reaches around 100 percent at Grade 6, Nigeria reaches around 10 percent at Grade 6, and the other lines are in between.

Source: Pritchett & Sandefur (2020), Figure 1(a).

Second, while schooling completion has expanded impressively and this has raised the overall education of the global population, it appears that in most countries in the world the learning outcomes for those enrolled have gotten worse.In an analysis of DHS and MICS survey data from 87 developing countries, Le Nestour, Moscoviz, & Sandefur (2021) found that every country in the sample had expanded completion of at least Grade 5 between the mid- and late-20thcentury, with some countries charting schooling expansions of over 50 percentage points (e.g., Bangladesh). Yet, as shown in Figure 4, only a small number of these countries have managed to substantially improve schooling access while also improving the percentage of adults who completed Grade 5 and no higher who are literate. Instead, the large majority of countries have seen declines in the literacy rates of those with five years of schooling. Moreover, in many countries these declines have been more than 20 percentage points. In other words, education systems in many low- and middle-income countries have been effectively aligned for expanding access to schooling in the logistical sense of building more schools, hiring more civil servants, and getting more children into classrooms.

Figure 4. While virtually all countries have improved access to schooling, few have concurrently improved student learning—and most have instead seen declines in school quality.

Scatter plot with 30-year change in share completing five years of schooling on the x axis and 30-year change in share completing five years of schooling who can read in the y axis. A line of best fit shows that they are negatively correlated.

Source: Authors’ calculations based on data from Le Nestour, Moscoviz, & Sandefur (2021), Table A.4.
Notes. Each datapoint represents a country from the Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) or from the Multiple Indicators Cluster Survey (MICS) for which information on literacy and schooling were available. For each country, the first birth cohort decade in the sample was either the 1950s or the 1960s, and the last birth cohort decade was either the 1980s (rarely) or the 1990s.

This situation of sustained expansion in grade attainment accompanied by stagnating or declining learning per year of schooling suggests that most education systems have achieved ‘alignment’ and ‘coherence’ for the logistics of expanding access but are evidently not fit for purpose in improving, or even maintaining, the quality of student learning in the classroom (Pritchett, 2013). 

Third, current teacher career structures fail to support capable and committed teachers. To give just one example of the failure to cultivate capable teachers, nationally representative data from SACMEQ 2007 indicates that Grade 6 teachers in South Africa had completed an average of 3.3 years of teacher training, and 74 percent of them had completed senior secondary school or above (Makuwa, 2011)—but only 21 percent of teachers demonstrated mastery of the Grade 6 maths content that they were supposed to be teaching (Venkat & Spaull, 2015).

As an example of the failure to cultivate committed teachers, across the eight African countries surveyed in the Service Delivery Indicators, an average of 40 percent of randomly selected teachers were not present in the classroom during an unannounced survey visit (World Bank, 2017).6 Schipper & Rodriguez-Segura (2021) find similarly disappointing classroom absence rates in a separate study in Tanzania and show that more than half of classroom absence is due to teachers that are physically on school grounds but not in the classroom, which is some ways is even more striking than not having come to work at all. In India, one estimate suggests that US$5.0 billion of government expenditure on teacher salaries is lost due to teacher absences (Datta & Kingdon, 2021).

Empirical data suggests that poorly designed teacher career structures are contributing to—or, at least, failing to mitigate—these systemic failures to cultivate capable and committed teachers who, in turn, cultivate student learning. For instance, in Andhra Pradesh, India, there is a negative (though insignificant) correlation between teacher value-added and pay, likely due to a subset of veteran teachers who are getting higher pay but exerting less effort (Lemos, Muralidharan, & Scur, 2021; see also Bryson, Corsini, & Martelli, 2020, on Italy).7 Few would argue that teachers who are contributing less to students’ learning growth should be paid more than their more effective colleagues.8 (Instead, as we propose in premise for practice #5, fairness in teacher compensation should be defined based on what, in the specific context, will attract, retain, and motivate capable and committed teachers who make the best possible contributions to student learning.) In Pakistan, Bano (forthcoming) has characterised the internal school environment created by the fact that many teachers are hired by political patrons as an ‘anti-work’ culture.

Fourth, in many low-performing education systems, teacher professional norms—and societal respect for the teaching profession—have been eroded. A 2007 study of teacher motivation in 12 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia observed that:

The general perception of stakeholders and teachers in all countries is that the teaching profession no longer commands the high status it enjoyed 30 years ago and that teachers, especially primary school teachers, are now ‘undervalued by society’, The country studies confirm that teaching is very much regarded as ‘employment of last resort’ by most school leavers and university graduates (Bennell & Akeyeampong, 2007, p. 38).

Also, as shown in Figure 5, among five middle-income countries that participated in the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) in both 2013 and 2018, less than half of all teachers agreed or strongly agreed with the statement ‘I think that the teaching profession is valued in society’, with less than 12 percent of Brazilian teachers agreeing with that statement in 2018. Moreover, between these two survey rounds, Mexico and Chile saw sizeable declines in teachers’ beliefs that their profession was socially valued. In contrast, in high-performing Vietnam, 92.8 percent of teachers in TALIS 2018 agreed or strongly agreed that their profession was socially valued.

Figure 5. In some middle-income countries, only a small (and, in some cases, declining) proportion of teachers feel that they are valued by society

Percent of teachers who ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ that the teaching profession is valued in society (TALIS)

Graph showing proportion of teachers who agree or strongly agree that the teaching profession is valued in 2013 and 2018. The proportion remained the same for Georgia, decreased slightly for Bulgaria and Brazil, and decreased significantly for Mexico and Chile.

Source: Authors, using TALIS data extracted from OECD.Stat.

In many education systems, this erosion of professional norms and societal respect for teachers is closely intertwined with the rapid expansion of schooling enrolment described above. Or, more specifically, this shift in norms and professional status coincided with systemic inadequacies in support for teaching and learning as education systems expanded toward mass enrolment without the concomitant shift in the understanding of purpose. As teaching evolved from a profession that was for the elite and by the elite toward a profession serving all children at scale, the profession lost a substantial amount of prestige and social validation—which was not inevitable (the Vietnam case offers a counterexample), but occurred in many contexts that lacked a deep consensus about the importance of universal learning (see, e.g., Béteille et al., 2020, Chapter 4, on the weakening of teacher professional norms amid rapidly growing demand for education in a number of South Asian countries). Concurrently, as a more diverse body of teachers began serving a more diverse body of students, elite or colonial-era learning benchmarks became less and less attainable, affecting the personal satisfaction that teachers could derive from their jobs (to the extent that teachers’ job satisfaction was still defined by the ideals of a few students passing high stakes examinations). Often, this coincided with an expansion of top-down, ‘rational’ bureaucratic control over school systems in line with postcolonial modernisation (Metzler, 2009; Harper, 2011)—whether driven by local leaders or by the donors and lenders ingrained in the international development orthodoxy—with the side effect of re-orienting the norms in the teaching profession from fostering autonomous and creative educators toward generating rule-following bureaucrats. (We discuss this further in Section 2.1 on ‘donut’ organisations that are hollow inside as they have lost their core purpose.)

Fifth, piecemeal approaches to improving teaching and teachers are largely failing because they are neither system-oriented in considering the complex interactions between different parts of the education system nor fully hedonic in considering all elements of teacher motivation. As noted above, the problems facing the teaching profession in low-performing education systems are large, interconnected, and entrenched. Given the magnitude of these problems, it is both tragic and unsurprising that numerous standalone attempts to reform teaching and teachers have failed to realign the profession as a whole for student learning. This has been demonstrated time and again, and is discussed further in Section 2.2. For example, the past few decades have seen multiple reform attempts in Indonesia, but incremental improvements in the technical quality of in-service teacher training have failed to meaningfully shift the norms of classroom practice (Revina et al., 2020). More strikingly, a national policy that effectively doubledthe salaries of teachers did not lead to any gains in student learning (de Ree et al., 2018). Similarly, despite being lauded by many economists, teacher ‘performance pay for learning outcomes’ schemes have a decidedly mixed track record, at least in developing countries, of leading to sustained student learning gains (Breeding et al., 2021). The issue with these piecemeal solutions is that they don’t account for complex, longstanding interactions throughout the wider education system—so they don’t go deep enough to reset teacher professional norms or to establish systemwide consensus about student learning as the overarching priority of teacher careers specifically and of the education system as a whole.

1.3 Readers' guide

In the rest of this primer on teacher careers, we make the case that teaching and teacher career reform are complex, and that the 5Cs can serve as an approach for guiding reform amid these interconnected and sometimes unpredictable systemic interactions.

What this primer is and is not

To shape reader expectations, it is worth noting four points about this primer.9  

First, what you are reading is nota typical academic journal article or even a typical academic or research ‘paper’. We present the 5Cs principles, as along with key premises for translating those principles into practice, by synthesising insights and identifying patterns across dozens of studies in a wide range of academic papers and country contexts. We also draw on pertinent examples from occupations that are not teaching, but that share with it certain recognisable characteristics. This cross-disciplinary, cross-context synthesis approach means that we do notoffer estimates of effect sizes for student learning gains under the 5Cs (because there are far too many interacting factors across far too many contexts; and teacher career structures that apply the 5Cs principles should look different in different contexts). Neither do we point to a single education system that perfectly embodies every principle of the 5Cs and all five of the premises for practice about what to do differently (because principles can and should be applied differently in different contexts, and no such archetype exists). However, we do offer numerous empirical examples throughout the primer to substantiate different aspects of the approach. This primer is not an academic paper that is too long and tries to cover too much with too much structure and not enough precision, but an analytic synthesis.

Second, despite being very long, this primer is not a comprehensive discussion of teachers and teaching. Rather, we call it a ‘primer’ because we give an overview of many (but not all) topics related to teacher career structures, including system-level policies, processes, and practices that affect the composition of the pool of teachers in an education system and their performance and progression throughout the career cycle. We do not look in detail at many other important aspects of teaching (e.g., curriculum and classroom materials), teachers (e.g., teacher wellbeing during crises and pandemics), and teacher-related policy (e.g., teacher standards).10 As we illustrate in Figure 11 in the conclusion, the teacher career structures are a subset of the larger conditions in which an empowered, respected, professional teaching force can individually and collectively act for students’ sakes. Neither do we look in detail at every single aspect of teacher careers. Instead, we prioritise the aspects of teacher career structures that are most distinctive to the 5Cs (as compared to elements that are common across many teacher career approaches, e.g., high-quality teacher education and training). In some instances, we include boxes that suggest, as a starting point, some resources on related aspects that we do not cover in detail.

Third, when it comes to framing, the 5Cs and the five premises for practice are designed as guidelines for the education authorities and organisations that have the authority to make systemic decisions that shape teacher careers. This inevitably means that this primer does not give teacher agency the amount of airtime that it deserves. This is notbecause teacher agency doesn’t matter. As stated at the very beginning, our vision of the future is of an empowered teaching profession, and our exploration of complexity in the teaching profession in Part 2 below starts with a discussion of motivation from the teacher’s perspective of view rather than from a policy standpoint. Rather, the 5Cs are framed around education authorities and organisations because (for better or worse) their decisions and actions can shape the lived experiences—and room for agency—of teachers and students throughout the education system.

Finally, this primer is not intended to be the final word on teacher careers. It is not a report that results from a multistakeholder consultative process, but rather a narrative written by two people trying to make sense of this subject by drawing on research across a wide range of academic disciplines and contexts. We have written this primer to provoke discussion about teacher careers. We hope that you engage with it and, perhaps, disagree with it—in addition to being a ‘primer’ in the sense of an introductory guidebook on a subject, we hope that this will be a ‘primer’ in the sense of an initial layer of material that prepares the ground for further development.


In the rest of this primer, we make the case that teaching and teacher career reform is complex, and that the 5Cs can serve as a set of principles for guiding reform amid these interconnected and sometimes unpredictable systemic interactions.

In Part 2, we first discuss some of the complexities that affect teacher careers, focusing on three levels of analysis: the sources of teacher motivation, the design of teacher careers, and the drivers of organisational effectiveness. Against the backdrop of this complexity, we identify three types of incoherence that frequently afflict attempts to reform teacher careers (and education systems more broadly). We also argue that a fundamental way of strengthening the teaching profession amid these complexities is by emphasising a consensus-based, systemwide purpose.

In Part 3, we lay out the 5Cs, discussing why each of the ‘C’s is a necessary part of the whole, how they collectively accommodate the complexities and overcome the incoherences identified in the previous section, and what this means for hedonics and dynamics.

In Part 4, we explore concrete examples of the 5Cs in practice. We discuss how elements of the 5Cs are applied differently in different contexts, and also look at commonalities in teacher career reform across contexts. This part of the primer includes examples both from education systems that have high-performing teacher careers—representing the desired ‘destination’ of the 5Cs and of teacher career reform more generally—and from education systems that are on the journey back from the brink.

Part 5 is the conclusion.

Throughout this primer, we use standalone boxes to highlight some premises for practice. These premises for practice propose key areas in which education authorities and organisations can change the status quo in line with the 5Cs. Other boxes suggest further reading on aspects of teacher careers that we do not address in detail.

To read the rest of the primer, please download using the link at the top of the page or view the full PDF.


  • 1Our use of ‘thin’ draws on three sources: Clifford Geertz’s (1973) notion of ‘thick description’; James Scott’s (2008) distinction in Seeing Like a State between the constrained vision of bureaucratic high modernism that attempts to reduce reality to narrow classifications versus the richness of actual lives; and the idea in principal-agent models that some indicators are easily observable and verifiable (like age or ‘seniority’) versus other indicators that involve the use of judgment.
  • 2‘Hedonic’ analysis is used by economists as a way of determining ‘prices’ for the gains/losses from a specific product (or job) by breaking it into a detailed list of characteristics. For instance, there is a massive literature on hedonic pricing of houses that assigns a value to characteristics of a house like square footage, number of bedrooms, number of bathrooms, age, etc. There is also a massive literature in labour economics examining how risky job require greater compensation and hence there is a ‘hedonic price’ of risk (e.g., Smith, 1979; Thaler & Rosen, 1976; Viscusi, 1993). Hedonic wage analysis has long been used in the economics of education in the United States, where school districts can set their own wages and conditions and compete for teachers, especially since it is not uncommon for multiple school districts to exist within the same metropolitan area (Chambers, 1981).
  • 3That is, a fully dynamic approach assumes that prospective teachers will aim to maximise their utility over the full course of the career cycle.
  • 4For reference, according to the Guinness World Records, the largest collection of stamps featuring birds includes 14,558 stamps from 332 countries. The largest collections of stamps featuring paintings weighs in at 19,284, while another collector has amassed 2,740 stamps featuring eyeglasses.
  • 5If, for instance, your average PISA scores on math, reading and science are above 425 (roughly the level of Turkey) and are steady or rising (or, at least, not falling fast) then this paper really is not meant for you. This of course rules out nearly all OECD countries. But if your average scores are near those of the recent participants in PISA-D (which, as Pritchett & Viarengo, 2021, show are typical of the developing world) and are around 350 or below, then this paper is for you. We mention PISA and other cross-country assessments here and elsewhere in this paper not because we think PISA should be the be-all-and-end-all for educational quality, or because we think it is worth paying attention to small differences in PISA scores (as is generally the case for OECD countries) or to relative ranks in the PISA horse race among OECD countries. Rather, we mention these learning assessments because many countries that fail to cultivate learning for all children also fail to maintain rigorous localised benchmarks for locally determined student learning goals. Hence our reliance on these cross-country assessments as benchmarks that are incomplete and imperfect but far better than the alternative of no benchmark whatsoever.
  • 6Based on the mean of country-level absence rates in Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda. Some of these teachers were absent from school, and some were present in school but absent from the classrooms in which they were scheduled to teach.
  • 7Even more striking is that being a ‘civil service’ teacher per se (versus variants of renewable contracts) appears to lower teacher performance on promoting student learning, a finding from both experimental (RCT) evidence in Kenya (Duflo, Dupas, & Kremer, 2011) and in observational evidence in Uttar Pradesh, India (Atherton & Kingdon, 2010). The evidence from Uttar Pradesh suggests students learned half as much with a teacher with a civil service appointment but in all other respects observationally equivalent to a teacher on a renewable contract. This suggests, shockingly, that being engaged in the typical existing teacher career structures in and of itself reduces performance. That said, this does not mean that teachers should never receive permanent contracts. As we discuss in Section 3.5 , continuous short-term contracts are costly for individual teachers and for the education system as a whole. Rather, as we argue throughout this paper. low-performing education systems need to radically reform of what it means to be a civil service teacher in their context.
  • 8Some of the shortcomings of teacher careers and compensation structures become apparent when assessed relative to the wider job markets in which they are embedded. Using administrative data on public school teachers in Florida, Martin West and his collaborators have found that teachers who enter the profession during economic recessions tend to be more effective at raising test scores, which is likely due to a greater supply of high-skilled individuals opting into teaching, implying that teaching is a relatively unappealing profession under normal circumstances (Nagler, Piopuinik & West, 2020). They also found that teachers who are more effective at raising their students’ test scores tend to receive a larger boost in pay after switching careers, relative to less effective teachers who also exited the profession—such that the most effective teachers have the strongest incentives to leave the classroom (Chingos & West, 2012). This implies an embedded perverse structure wherein those who emerge as the best teachers have larger pay raises from being a good teacher outside of teaching rather than in the profession.
  • 9An intriguing analysis of which movies get an ‘F’ rating by opening-night audiences via CinemaScore (something only a handful of movies have ever done) suggests that violating genre expectations is a way of eliciting strong disapproval, so we want to be clear that we know what this primer is not. See: Lincoln, K. (2017, September 20). What the 19 Movies to Ever Receive an ‘F’ CinemaScore Have in Common. Vulture.
  • 10For one example of teacher standards, see the Education International/UNESCO Global Framework of Professional Teaching Standards.


Hwa, Y. and Pritchett, L. 2021. Teacher Careers in Education Systems That Are Coherent for Learning: Choose and Curate Toward Commitment to Capable and Committed Teachers (5Cs). Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE). https://doi.org/10.35489/BSG-RISE-Misc_2021/02