Want students to perform better? Ensure teachers are better paid

There are many factors that can contribute to student success in schools - and teacher quality is one of them. Source: Shutterstock

Many factors contribute to student success in schools, and conventional wisdom would predict that the smarter the teacher, the better the learning outcome.

However, typical measures of teacher qualifications, such as advanced degrees and experience levels, do not necessarily translate to classroom effectiveness.

Using data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to estimate the effects of teachers’ cognitive skills on student achievement across 31 OECD countries, researchers, who published their study Do Smarter Teachers Make Smarter Students? in Education Next, found that students whose teachers have higher cognitive skills tend to perform better academically.

Teacher cognitive skills, such as literacy and numeracy, were measured using data from the OECD’s Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) survey in 2012 and 2015.

Data showed that teacher cognitive skills vary across countries. For example, teachers in the US perform worse than the average teacher in numeracy, while their literacy skills were “slightly better than average”.

Meanwhile, the report noted that: “These differences in teacher cognitive skills reflect both where teachers are drawn from within each country’s skill distribution and where a country’s overall cognitive-skill level falls in the world distribution.”

It added that “teachers perform better than the median college graduate in countries like Finland, Singapore, Ireland, and Chile, and perform worse than the median college graduate in others, such as Austria, Denmark, the Slovak Republic and Poland”.

Researchers compared teachers’ math and reading skills in the 31 OECD countries to the skills of other adult workers in their country as well as the skills of teachers in other countries. Whether students’ scored higher than average on PISA in countries, where the median teacher has stronger math and reading skills, were also examined.

They found that “increasing teacher numeracy skills by one standard deviation increase student performance by nearly 15 percent of a standard deviation on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) math test”, while the impact of teacher skills is larger for girls than for boys and for low-income students compared to wealthier students, particularly in reading.

In other words, teacher skills in either subject, such as math or reading, only affect student performance in the same subject.

Meanwhile, researchers also found that students achieve at higher levels in countries where teachers are paid more for their skills.

To study the salary-skills relationship across countries, the researchers first estimated “whether teachers are paid a positive or negative wage premium compared to other college graduates with the same gender, work experience and literacy and numeracy skills. We find a wide range of wage premiums, ranging from a positive 45 percent in Ireland to a negative 22 percent in the US and Sweden. This means that American teachers are paid 22 percent less than comparably experienced and skilled college graduates doing other jobs.”

Following this, they assessed how these pay premiums relate to the position of teachers in a country’s skill distribution.

They found that countries which pay teachers more tend to draw their teachers from higher parts of the college skill distribution; a higher teacher wage premium of 10 percent is associated with an increase in teacher skills of about one-tenth of a standard deviation for a given level of college graduates’ skills. They noted that these pay choices appear to carry through to student performance in the classroom.

This means that students tend to achieve higher levels in countries where teachers are better paid.

The results of these findings may be useful for policymakers  looking for ways to improve the teaching workforce.

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