Would raising teacher pay boost America's low test scores?

Liz Goodwin
In this January 2013 photo, preparatory students sit for National Center Test for University Admissions at the University of Tokyo. Students from Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea were among the highest-ranking groups in math, science and reading in test results released Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013 by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) coordinated by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The group tests students worldwide every three years. In Japan, the government added 1,200 pages to elementary school textbooks after its children fell behind in those in rivals such as South Korea and Hong Kong in 2009, although Japan’s scores for 2009 were tops for rich industrialized countries. Japan has since improved its standings in all three areas. (AP Photo/Kyodo News) JAPAN OUT, CREDIT MANDATORY

America’s lackluster performance on international math, reading and science tests released Tuesday has rekindled the debate over the status and pay of U.S. teachers.

American 15 year-olds again had mediocre scores on the tests, which are administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development every three years and compare global problem solving and other education skills. Students in Shanghai, Japan, Korea and Singapore scored the highest on all three tests, followed closely by Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Despite spending more per pupil than most countries, American students were ranked in the middle of the pack, and scored 26th in the world on the math test, close to Hungary, Russia and the Slovak Republic.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned Tuesday that the scores on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, showed “stagnation” in the U.S. education system.

The OECD report, did, however highlight one possible solution: paying teachers better to help lure high caliber college graduates who might otherwise want to join a profession with better pay and promotion opportunities.

“While paying teachers well is only part of the equation, higher salaries can help school systems to attract the best candidates to the teaching profession,” the report said.

High performing countries, like Korea and the Netherlands, pay teachers more compared to the country’s average salary than lower performing countries — including the United States. The average salary of America’s 3.3 million public school teachers in 2010 was $56,069, according to the Department of Education.

The relatively higher pay in those countries appears to draw teachers who had better grades in college. In 2010, McKinsey and Co. found that nearly every teacher in Finland, Singapore and Korea — all high scoring countries on the PISA tests — came from the top third of their college classes. In the United States, only a third of teachers graduated in the top third of their class.

This finding that higher teacher pay is substantially correlated to student performance on the PISA tests was not lost on the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said he thinks Singapore’s teacher compensation system should be a model for the United States.

“They understand that compensation undergirds the system,” Van Roekel told Yahoo News. “They analyze occupations that require the same education as teachers. They keep [the salaries] comparable. No one who wants to teach is deterred because they want to make three times as much in a different occupation.”

But another key union priority — small class sizes — didn’t seem to have a relationship with higher scores. In the U.S., teacher-pupil ratios were about the same for poorer and richer students, and some of the high performing countries and regions have bigger average class sizes than America does.

“You’ve got a fixed amount of money to spend on schooling: You can spend it on either quality or quantity [of teachers],” said Lori Taylor, a professor at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service who has researched teacher pay. “There are returns to quality — there are no obvious returns to quantity.”

But raising salaries would not necessarily have a quick effect on performance.

”An increase in teacher compensation for today’s teachers isn’t going to change their skills and abilities one drop,” Taylor said. “It’s intended to influence the kinds of students who choose teaching as a career and it’s a very long-term strategy.”

But it’s unclear that importing a strategy from another country would have any effect on ours. Andrew Coulson, an education expert with the libertarian Cato think tank, pointed out that research on U.S. teacher pay, which is largely determined by seniority and whether a teacher has advanced degrees, shows that a teacher’s salary does not have a great impact on students’ performance on tests.

Other education experts caution against drawing too many conclusions from the report in general, which only tells us how 15-year-olds are performing on a certain test. Richard Rothstein, an education expert at the Economic Policy Institute think tank, points out that the difference in countries’ performance is not that great, even if American is not at the front of the pack. Much of the difference that does exist in scores he thinks can be attributed to the higher share of low-income students in U.S. schools.

“One of the reasons why our scores are lower, not the only reason, but one reason, is that students in the United States on average are much more disadvantaged,” Rothstein said. “We have much more inequality in our country.”