Can an educational system be smarter than it’s teachers?

What do you get if you combine the results of PISA with PIAAC the lesser known survey of adult skills also by the OECD? Maybe some interesting correlations, certainly when you focus on the literacy of the teachers! This is what Meroni et al have done.

And although not entirely surprising, countries with higher literate teachers are more likely to have better performing pupils:

Our goal is to analyse whether those students living in countries whose teachers present higher skills also perform better. …we find a positive significant coefficient of the teachers’ skills in Numeracy and in Literacy, meaning that students who live in countries where teachers have higher skills in Mathematics and Literacy present better results in Mathematics and Reading respectively. Thus, results confirm our hypothesis of a positive relationship between country average of teacher’s skills and students’ achievement in both subjects.

Of course one could also argue that better pupils will become teachers with better sills in Numeracy and Literacy.

But how big is the influence, or rather the correlation?

  • the country average teachers’ skill on Numeracy is able to explain 14.2% of the between country variation in students Mathematics results.
  • the country average teachers’ skills in Literacy explains 17.1% of the between country variation in students’ Reading performance.

This may not seem too much, but actually if you look at the influence of e.g. SES, this is not incomparable.

So, what are the results of the jury?

The comparative approach we employed in our work provided some interesting results. First and foremost, we observed differences among countries in both teachers’ proficiency scores in Numeracy and Literacy (teacher quality), and students’ performance (in Maths and Reading). In particular, the variability of the latter is not negligible with Japan, the Netherland, Norway, Germany and Belgium (Flanders) among the top performers and Italy, Spain, Russia or Slovak Republic performing very poorly.

So can an educational system be smarter than it’s teachers. Well, it’s not clear to say because there are many other elements playing a role, but higher Literacy and Numeracy skills of teachers certainly seem to help.

Abstract of the study (open access):

Using teachers’ skills from the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) and students’ performance from the Programme for International Students Assessment (PISA) we exploit a multilevel model to investigate how much of the variation in student performance can be explained by teacher quality at the country level across a number of OECD countries. Results show how teachers’ skills seem to have positive effects on student achievement and explain part of the variation between countries in students’ achievement. National policies and efforts made from Education departments to improve teacher quality seem crucial to achieve both overall excellence and greater equity across countries.


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