Education International
Education International

Looking beyond simply scores

published 25 March 2014 updated 15 April 2014
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Yet relevant data that could provide valuable context for these scores is too often overlooked or outright ignored. With the possible exception of the OECD's PISA and TALIS studies Little consideration is ever given to teacher quality and other education policies that define school systems in top-performing nations and in the United States. Not doing so paints an incomplete and distorted picture of how U.S. students actually stack up internationally, and it obscures the real issues that need addressing in America’s public schools.

While politicians and the public focus on “outputs” – PISA scores – National Education Association researchers reviewed data from a multitude of sources to assess how well the United States fares on “inputs.”

By comparing the U.S. and high-performing nations in a number of key educational areas, researchers found a more complete but more complex portrait, one that goes beyond the international “test factor” to compare specific aspects of what forms the core of a top-ranked education system. Through such comparisons, a clearer picture emerges of how particular countries that score well on international assessments differ from the United States and other nations.

Delving into one component – teacher quality – researchers explored the issue of equity in teacher pay. The American public mostly believes teachers are underpaid, and the proportional spending on teacher salaries in the U.S. falls short of the same spending on teacher salaries in the other developed countries—reflecting different spending priorities. Teacher salaries in U.S. secondary schools make up 55.3% of the total education expenditures, which is notably lower than the 62.8% average of OECD countries. Countries that devote a higher percentage of their education budgets to salaries include Korea (56%). A different picture emerges when comparisons are made between the U.S. and other OECD countries on the compensation of ‘non-teacher’ staff, including school administrators. At 26.1%, the U.S. spends a higher proportion than other developed countries on non-teacher salaries. Most OECD countries range between 12-18%, with a low of 8.6% in Korea.

Another education area ripe for comparison was the public perception of teachers. While American sentiment towards teachers is very positive, public policies toward the teaching profession in the U.S. are less rewarding than in other countries. This is reflected in U.S. teachers’ limited input in school decision-making.

Around the world, the status of teachers is reflected in their level of professional responsibilities and their role in decision-making. Although making decisions at the school level differs substantially among countries, the U.S. reports one of the lowest levels of decision making at the school level among other reporting OECD countries. In the U.S., 67% of decisions related to the organizing of instruction are made at the school level or after consultation with schools, while in many other countries the percentage is much higher—89% in England and Italy; 78% in Finland, France, Korea, and Germany.

Some scholars believe the status of teaching as a profession is rooted in the larger social and cultural values of society and may reflect some elements of gender discrimination toward a profession dominated by women. Experts point out that Finland is found to be among the most equal countries in how men and women are empowered. They argue that, while teaching is a well-respected and coveted profession in Finland, Finnish citizens’ respect for teachers might be explained more by the gender equity that exists in their country. In contrast, teachers in the United States—traditionally and predominantly female—are treated with much less respect.

In his address at the 2012 World Teacher Day Summit, Ronald Thorpe, president of the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, acknowledged the low status of teaching and the hard truth that this can only be resolved by those in the profession creating the conditions under which teachers are the agents of reform, not the targets of it.

It was precisely this kind of thinking that spawned “Raise Your Hand,” NEA’s national campaign to empower educators across the nation to lead the charge for students and quality public education. The foundation of the campaign rests on the strong belief that educators – not politicians or self-proclaimed “reform” experts – know what works and they are the ones to lead and act for student success.

The campaign has identified four simple yet ambitious goals: successful students, accomplished professionals, dynamic collaboration and empowered school leaders.

Too many teachers and education support professionals work in environments not conducive to professional growth. Empowering these professionals is a key component of NEA’s Raise Your Hand campaign. Student success depends on strong leadership. So working in partnership with our affiliates, we will support and engage all members of the school team—paraeducators, bus drivers, food services, building maintenance staff, security officers, clerical workers, skilled trades workers, and health and technology service workers, as well as teachers—to take direct action for student success. NEA will establish new peer assistance and review programs and new profession-ready residency models will become a part of educators’ preparation.

Our members are coming together to help lift up good ideas, smart policies, and successful programs and spread them to every corner of the country. By harnessing the collective expertise and experience of educators across the U.S., we will empower teachers to lead, shape education policy, and prepare the next generation of teacher leaders.

Moving forward, NEA will also provide the necessary resources to make Raise Your Hand sustainable and successful. In 2013, delegates to the NEA Representative Assembly approved a $3 per member fee to fund new efforts. So far, we have awarded $2 million to more than 30 projects at the school or school district level and put educators’ ideas into action. The added revenue—more than $6 million annually—will support grants to NEA’s local and state affiliates for projects that advance student-centered, union-led school improvement.

This loud and strong educator voice is needed wherever schools are being undermined by economic and political forces. Raise Your Hand dovetails with Education International’s Unite for Quality Education campaign to ensure that universal, free quality education remains at the top of the political agenda.

Initiatives like “Unite for Quality Education” and “Raise Your Hand” are essential because they provide critical platforms for educators to direct their ideas and energy. The passion of educators and their commitment to make a difference can not only change the lives of their individual students, but can transform public schools into high-quality learning centers.

PISA's top-performing countries show us that the way forward is by elevating the teaching profession. Identifying, supporting, and advancing effective teaching. High-performing countries have strong unions. They also support teachers and engage them in the reform process. In Finland, Singapore, and other nations, collaboration with teacher unions has been a keystone in their successful efforts to improve student achievement – along with vigorous policies to recruit, retain and support their teachers.

The lesson is clear: Respect teachers and treat them like professionals. NEA has taken a good, hard look at what is working and applied those lessons. We are learning from the world’s best.