11/21/2013 11:22 am ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

What Teachers Know and How That Compares With College Graduates Around the World

One of the most frequent claims I have heard from people trying to explain poor learning outcomes in their country is that their teachers come from the bottom third of their college graduates, while high-performing countries recruit their teachers from the top third. It sounds plausible, since the quality of a school system will never exceed the quality of teaching. And, surely, top school systems pay much attention to how they select their staff. They work hard to improve the performance of teachers who are struggling, they provide an environment in which teachers work together to frame good practice, and they establish intelligent pathways for teachers to grow in their careers.

But, again, does all that mean that in those countries the top third graduates chose to become teachers rather than lawyers, doctors or engineers? In the past, nobody really knew because it is very difficult to get comparative evidence on this. That has now changed. A few weeks ago, we published results from our first Survey of Adult Skills, which tested the skills of countries' workforces -- including teachers -- in key areas such as numeracy, literacy and problem-solving. With a back-of-the-envelope calculation (teachers are only a small group of the 5000+ workers in each country who were tested) it is possible to compare the numeracy and literacy skills of teachers with those of other college and university graduates.

So what do the results (see link) show? In short, among the countries with comparable data, there is no single country where, based on their average numeracy skills, teachers are in the top third of workers with a college degree; and there is no country where they are among the bottom third of college graduates. In fact, teachers tend to come out remarkable similarly to the average worker with a college or university degree. There are just a few exceptions: In Japan and Finland, for example, the average teacher has better numeracy skills than the average college graduate while in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, the Slovak Republic and Sweden it is the other way round.

But you can look at this another way. While, in each country, teachers tend to score similarly to college graduates on our numeracy test, the numeracy skills of the workforce themselves differ substantially across countries, and so the numeracy skills of teachers vary too: Teachers in Japan and Finland come out on top, followed by their Flemish (Belgium), German, Norwegian and Dutch colleagues, while teachers in Italy, the Russian Federation, Spain, Poland, Estonia and the United States come out at the bottom.

So, how then do the numeracy skills of teachers square with student learning outcomes in mathematics? We will all find out on December 3 when results from the next PISA round, the global metric of student performance, will be published.

In the meantime, we can turn our attention to the things we already know. Unless countries have the luxury of hiring teachers from Finland or Japan, they need to think hard about making teaching a well-respected profession and a more attractive career choice -- both intellectually and financially -- and invest more in teacher development and competitive employment conditions. They can also learn from high-performing education systems how to transform the work organization in their schools by replacing administrative forms of management with professional norms that provide the status and the high-quality training, responsibility and collaborative work that go with professional work. They can develop effective systems of social dialogue, and appealing forms of employment that balance flexibility with job security, and that grant sufficient authority for schools to manage their talent. And, perhaps most crucially, many countries need to do better in attracting the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms to ensure that every student benefits from high-quality teaching. The alternative is clear: a downward spiral -- from lowered standards for entry, leading to lowered confidence in the profession, resulting, in turn, in more prescriptive teaching and thus less personalization in learning experiences -- that will risk driving the most talented teachers out of the profession, that will then lower the skills of the teacher population.