Reading & Literacy

U.S. Teachers Score Below Average on Numeracy Skills

By Emmanuel Felton — July 26, 2016 2 min read
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This post originally appeared on the Teacher Beat blog.

When compared both to their peers internationally and fellow American college graduates, U.S. teachers have middling math and literacy skills, finds a group of international researchers, who conclude that boosting salaries would be one way to attract higher-skilled individuals into teaching.

The trio of researchers found that in terms of literacy skills, American educators score just about as well as other American college graduates and outscore teachers in 13 of the 23 developed countries analyzed using data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), which tested the cognitive skills of more than 160,000 adults across 24 developed countries.

The report compares teachers using PIAAC scores, which are on a 500-point scale. They were able to isolate teachers’ scores because results were linked with occupations. Teachers’ median scores are compared to their nation’s college-educated populace and fellow educators across the 23 countries.

The results from numeracy skills measures were much more discouraging. American teachers score below the averages for both other college-educated Americans and teachers internationally. America bested only four countries in this measure of mathematical problem-solving skills.

At the same time, the researchers found American teachers are underpaid relative to other U.S. college graduates for the skills that they do have.

“The estimates here indicate that teachers are paid some 20 percent less than a comparable college graduate elsewhere in the U.S. economy after adjusting for observable characteristics,” wrote Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and his German coauthors.

While 15 of the 23 countries pay their teachers more than the average wage for their country’s college graduates, America had the largest negative pay gap, even after controlling for gender, work experience, and cognitive skills. Here’s a graphic illustrating this conundrum.

The report asserts “differences in teacher cognitive skills are a significant determinant of international differences in student performance.” The report coupled PIAAC data with student data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Teachers in Finland and Japan, which usually rank near the top of PISA scores, performed best in both numeracy and literacy PIAAC measures. The researchers used two models, both of which controlled for variables like student and family educational background, to tie student and teacher skills. They concluded that there’s a “robust impact of teacher cognitive skills on student performance.”

Similarly, a 2007 McKinsey report found that “the top-performing systems we studied recruit their teachers from the top third of each cohort graduate from their school system.”

The debate about how teachers’ background abilities affect pupil achievement is longstanding. For example, here’s a snippet from 50 years ago in the landmark 1966 Coleman Report:

"[T]he quality of teachers shows a stronger relationship [than school facilities and curricula] to pupil achievement. Furthermore, it is progressively greater at higher grades, indicating a cumulative impact of the qualities of teachers in a school on the pupil’s achievements. Again, teacher quality seems more important to minority achievement than to that of the majority.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.