Teaching Profession

Teachers’ Literacy Skills Akin to Other Professionals’, ETS Says

By Jeff Archer — March 31, 1999 3 min read

Educators have long suffered the biting witticism, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” But new research shows that, at least by one measure, teachers hold their own against people in other lines of work.

The Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service carried out the analysis for the study “How Teachers Compare: The Prose, Document, and Quantitative Skills of America’s Teachers,” using the results of a 1992 federal survey of adult literacy.

Based on results from more than 26,000 individuals, the ETS report defines three areas of ability: “prose literacy"--the ability to use and understand information from texts, such as news stories and fiction; “document literacy"--the ability to locate and use information in everyday materials; and “quantitative literacy"--proficiency in mathematics.

About half the teachers scored at least at the fourth-highest level--out of five--in all three areas, compared with about 20 percent for adults nationwide.

The analysis also found teachers, on average, performing about the same as lawyers, marketing professionals, and social workers in prose literacy, and at least as well in document literacy as other professionals--with the exception of electrical engineers. And, though outperformed by auditors and computer-systems analysts in quantitative literacy, teachers scored about as well as other managers and professionals in that category.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the results,” said Richard Coley, the report’s lead analyst, “because the traditional wisdom is that teachers have always been drawn from the bottom part of the academic distribution.”

Money Matters

The report also shows teachers earning significantly less than other professionals who possess the same level of skills, a finding that education officials and teachers’ groups were quick to zero in on. In a written statement last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said the study confirms “that teachers are among the highest-skilled professionals and do not receive salaries commensurate with their knowledge and skills.”

For More Information

“How Teachers Compare: The Prose, Document, and Quantitative Skills of America’s Teachers” is available from: www.ets.org/research/pic/compare.html. The report can be downloaded in Adobe Acrobat format. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

In a similar reaction, Joan Baratz-Snowden, the deputy director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers, said in an interview that “in our society, the more literate you are, the more you get paid, and that’s true across the board, except for teachers.”

While conceding that the median salaries of lawyers and physicians are generally much higher than teachers’, a few observers still questioned some of the report’s specific comparisons.

“I don’t necessarily conclude that teachers are overpaid or adequately paid,” said C. Emily Feistritzer, the president of the Washington-based National Center for Education Information, a private research organization. “But I don’t think the issue has been analyzed enough to draw a conclusion.”

The study, she pointed out, shows teachers with the highest level of prose ability making $574 a week after deductions, compared with $796 for similarly skilled college graduates. But the analysis doesn’t fully account for the shorter work year of most teachers, she said. And the estimated annual teachers’ salary reported by the National Education Association, Ms. Feistritzer said, is higher than the amount one would get based on a weekly wage of $574. According to a survey the NEA conducts every five years, the average teacher’s salary in 1990-91 was $31,790.

Even if some of those adjustments are made, however, Mr. Coley said he doubts the ranking of teachers’ salaries against other occupations would change much. “They tend to have skills at the higher end of the scale, and they’re paid at the lower end of the scale,” he said. “And this is important as we try to attract talented people into the profession.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 1999 edition of Education Week as Teachers’ Literacy Skills Akin to Other Professionals’, ETS Says

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