Lessons from the PISA: U.S. Teacher Preparation and Teacher Quality Through International Comparisons

by Robin Vitucci

International benchmarking tests for education have been around since the 1960s. Despite criticisms that the United States has fallen behind in recent years, in truth we have never been top performers. Still, these comparisons have become an increasing part of education reform efforts around the world.  The most comprehensive benchmark comes from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international organization dedicated to global economic development. Since 2000, the OECD has administered the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) to evaluate worldwide education systems every three years by assessing the competencies of 15-year-olds in math, reading, and science.

The United States has seen average performance on these exams when compared with other OECD and partner countries. In 2000, the first year of PISA, the United States ranked 20th in math, 15th in science, and 16th in reading out of 41 countries. On the 2012 exam, the U.S. ranked 36th in math, 28th in science, and 24th in reading out of the 65 OECD and partner countries. That exam focused on math; and the U.S. had a score that was slightly lower than the overall average score.

International Benchmarking: Implications for Teaching

The recent Survey of Adult Skills was an OECD product released in October 2013. Again, the United States scored lower than the international average in numeracy and literacy scores. This study indicated that many adults in the U.S. are lacking skills needed in the 21st century workforce, including problem solving and using technology. The U.S. Department of Education released a subsequent engagement plan to attain feedback from across the country to develop a plan to improve these low skills. Schools and colleges of education would benefit from becoming active participants in this conversation to show how important teacher preparation is to improving student outcomes and thus adult skills, especially in areas impacted by globalization such as STEM and cultural competencies.

Another recent international survey specifically targeted higher education institutions and their globalization efforts. The International Association of Universities in 2013, stated that heads of higher education institutions from 131 countries named internationalization as one of the most significant factors in their institutional strategy. Half of the responding institutions currently have an internationalization policy, and almost one quarter have one in preparation. These results were similar to the results of the prior Internationalization of Higher Education surveys conducted in 2009 and 2005 that found an increase in internationalization and preparing students for life in a globalized world as central to institutional planning.

PISA and Internationalization

While the survey was not aimed specifically at colleges of education, teaching students to be participants in a global society is clearly a major component of many school systems. However, teacher education remains one of the least internationalized disciplines in higher education – even at institutions with clear internationalization goals. U.S. higher education institutions should ensure they are incorporating these policies into their teacher preparation programs. In the current educational climate, the work of GTE and others focusing specifically on teacher education is vital.

What do the results of the international comparison tests mean for our country and its education reforms, specifically in regard to teacher education? Aside from merely showing us how our students rank against students from other countries, PISA and other comparisons provide a larger context in which to address national education issues. For instance, Finland has been at the tips of the tongues of those looking beyond the border for examples of high quality school systems, due in large part to its recent success on PISA. However, concerns over the differences in a social welfare state compared with our free market system, diversity in demographics and income, and how schools are run (and by whom), all prevent many from making that step from admiring top performing countries like Finland to taking away ideas for improvement. Nonetheless, there are valuable lessons the U.S. can learn from Finland and other top-performers that can be translated to reforms that work for our system.

Most people are aware that the OECD releases PISA test score data and country rankings, but many do not know that they also release many companion policy guides. In Lessons from PISA for the United States (2011), the OECD provides detailed descriptions of the systems from top-performing countries, and applications of how to apply those successes in the context of the U.S. system – and considerations for teacher quality and preparation are included in those suggestions.

Implications for Teacher Preparation

Some key lessons on attracting and developing high-quality teachers include:

  • Increase the appeal of the teaching profession in order to attract high-caliber candidates. Top performing countries attract quality young people into the profession because of its high social status. Teaching in the U.S. is not regarded as highly. In order to improve the candidate pool, teaching needs to be viewed as a respected profession, with key attributes such as autonomy, time for collaboration, and competitive compensation. Singapore has a comprehensive human resources system to recruit talented candidates and national policies target ongoing training and support to ensure a high quality teaching force. Teachers are given autonomy and job authority and are thus respected within the school as well as throughout the country.
  • Raise standards for entrance into teacher preparation programs, graduation, and certification. Successful preparation programs include extensive clinical experiences, research-based pedagogy courses, emphasis on instructional techniques for the subjects the prospective educator will teach, and development of capacity to understand and work with a wide variety of child development issues. In Finland, for example, teachers are required to obtain a master’s degree, including a research-based dissertation and at least a full year of clinical experience.
  • Implement induction and ongoing professional development programs to allow teachers to grow in their profession and continuously improve their practice. Teachers in East Asia have built-in time to work together on an on-going basis to develop and improve lessons. Japanese teachers, for instance, use lesson study to perfect their lessons with support and input from other teachers.

The recommendations also indicate that high performing school systems also have a strong union presence, and that unions work to professionalize teaching. U.S. teacher organizations have responded to the international comparisons with the understanding that they can contribute positively to improving education in our country. The American Federation of Teachers launched a website to explain to teachers and the public what the results and research mean, and how to use that information to help provide all children with high quality education. Resources include a webinar, briefing papers, and articles. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) released a statement after the announcement of the PISA results, calling on policymakers and education leaders to use the 2012 Lessons from PISA, in particular to develop a comprehensive, system-wide approach to improvement with investments in teachers both during and after preparation.

There is much to learn from other countries in terms of teacher training and teacher quality. Instead of looking at the data to show that American schools are failing or that our students are falling behind, we should look to the lessons beyond the tests to help improve our education system. We should take advantage of our increasingly global society by sharing resources and ideas with school systems across the world on how to improve student knowledge and achievement. We should work to improve our preparation programs to ensure that all teachers emerge with the skills needed to help all students succeed and to become active, knowledgeable citizens.

Geographic regions: 
Instructional Methods: