U.S. Teachers Have Below-Average Numeracy Skills, Data Shows

Published August 13, 2016

U.S. educators have average literacy skills and below-average mathematical problem-solving skills compared to their international counterparts, data shows.

Education Week, reporting in July on a study conducted by international researchers, writes, “When compared both to their peers internationally and fellow American college graduates, US teachers have middling math and literacy skills.”

Researchers Eric A. Hanushek, Marc Piopiunik, and Simon Wiederhold published, “The Value of Smarter Teachers: International Evidence on Teacher Cognitive Skills and Student Performance” in 2014, as part of a National Bureau of Economic Research working papers series, and updated the report in March 2016. The researchers write they find “substantial differences in teacher cognitive skills across countries, and these are strongly related to student performance.”

“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,” Education Week reports.

In numeracy, though, “American teachers score below the averages for both other college-educated Americans and teachers internationally,” reports Education Week.

The researchers also write their estimates indicate U.S. teachers “are paid some 20 percent less than a comparable college graduate elsewhere in the U.S. economy after adjusting for observable characteristics.”

‘Muddled’ Conclusions

Ze’ev Wurman, a U.S. Department of Education official under George W. Bush, says what the data concludes is unclear.

“While the specifics quoted in the piece are true, the picture it tries to paint is rather muddled,” Wurman said. “We know that our teachers drew predominantly from the lower third of SAT distribution of college students in 2000. It is supposed to have improved a bit in recent years, but the average is still below national median, and many teachers are long-lived in their jobs.

“The report asserts ‘differences in teacher cognitive skills are a significant determinant of international differences in student performance,'” Wurman said. “Is this really true? What about Singapore or China, where many elementary teachers have no college degrees, but rather high school plus two years of teacher college? We really don’t know what makes a quality teacher, particularly in early grades. Certainly teachers cannot teach what they don’t know, but how important is general IQ? What about attitude, empathy, mentoring? We really have little clear understanding.”

Analyzing Teacher Salaries

Teacher salary seems to have little impact on teacher performance, Wurman says.

“[The data] seems to show little correlation between salary and teacher quality,” Wurman said. “For example, Ireland has the highest salaries and Italy and Spain have the third and fourth highest, yet they are educational laggards. Japan and Finland are considered strong, yet they lie in the middle salary-wise.

“U.S. spending seems to fund fewer qualified teachers, and fewer students per teacher, while elsewhere they have more qualified teachers and more students per teacher,” Wurman said. “In other words, we focus on class size, while others focus on teacher qualifications, and can offer bigger salaries for fewer teachers with bigger classes.”

The Value of Textbooks

James Wilson, a former teacher and co-founder of Truth in American Education, says high-quality teaching materials go a long way in helping teachers improve.

“Younger folks coming out of the teacher factories now were brought up with fuzzy reform math programs,” Wilson said. “At the primary level, having a good math textbook to teach from may be as, or more, important than the teacher’s math skills. Good teachers, even with good math skills, are hindered if they are given a poor math program to use, and the administration requires and evaluates on fidelity of implementation.”

Wurman says textbooks “must support self-learning.”

“If textbooks support self-learning, they must be inherently coherent and not overly rely on in-class activities, with the teacher as a gatekeeper,” Wurman said. “Many recent textbooks are focused on classroom activities, on big multi-day, or even multi-week, messy problems, while lacking coherent written instruction in the essential content. Consequently, they limit learning to what occurs in the classroom. If one happens to get a bad teacher with such book, even assuming their approach actually works, there is no escape.”

Teresa Mull ([email protected]) is an education research fellow for The Heartland Institute.