Teacher Status and Student Achievement: A Global Comparison

On the 17th of March, as may as 1,800 teachers across 26 state run upper secondary schools in Iceland have gone on strike. [1] Updates that followed nine days later reported that the strike was still ongoing with no end in sight. [2] The Icelandic Teacher’s Union, Kennarasamband Islands (KI), has cited that teachers earn, on average, 17% less than other university-educated workers in the public sector.  Further, a law was changed in 2008 calling for teachers at all levels to obtain a Masters degree in order to get a teaching license, however teacher’s salaries have not increased as much as those for other professions since 2006.  Teachers are now fighting for better conditions with support from the union, and the president of KI has stated that they will back down until their demands are met. [3]

Interestingly, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) “warned Iceland that because the salary difference between teachers and other university-level professions is too large, young people are not interested in becoming teachers and choose other professions.” [3] Essentially, the OECD is commenting on the ways in which indicators of teacher status, one of which is monetary compensation, affect how the best and brightest young people are attracted to the teaching profession.  This ultimately has very obvious implications for the quality of education and student achievement.

Speaking further to this issue, in October 2013, the Varkey GEMS Foundation published a study, the 2013 Global Teacher Status Index[4] In the foreword of this report the chairman of the foundation, Sunny Varkey, states that research shows that better paid teachers are associated with greater student outcomes overall.  In 95% of the countries surveyed, survey respondents thought that teachers should be paid more than the salary participants thought teachers currently received; this held true even in Finland, a country that already achieves outstanding results in student achievement. [4] Of note, in the United States, people generally underestimate the salaries that teachers actually make, and teachers generally make more than people deem a fair amount; along with this, 80% of people in the US support performance-related pay for teachers, which was an overwhelming trend in the study overall. [4] While Varkey supports governments increasing the pay and working conditions for teachers as a whole as a way to increase their status, he acknowledges that this is not all it will take to add to the cultural value placed on teachers in various contexts. [4]

A rather interesting case for examining this distinction is that of China.  Out of 21 countries surveyed, China was the only country in which people saw teachers as having equal status as doctors, in contrast to less than 5% feeling this way in the UK. [4] Further, while 50% of parents in China would encourage their children to become teachers, a mere 8% of parents in Israel would do so, with very similar numbers in Brazil, Japan, and Portugal. [4] While those conducting this study recognized many elements that could be included under the umbrella of “teacher status”, they utilized four such elements to create an index score that ranked countries on a scale of 1 (low status) to 100 (high status): ranking status for primary teachers, secondary teachers and head teachers against other key professions; analyzing the aspiration of teaching as a ‘sought’ profession; creating a contextual understanding of teachers’ social status; and examining views on pupil respect for teachers. [4]

China received an index score of 100 and more respondents were likely to believe that students respect their teachers.  Conversely, in most European countries surveyed, a majority of participants felt that more students disrespect their teachers than respect them. [4] Ultimately, there was no conclusive correlation between this index score and student outcomes in each country, but the authors still stress that there is considerable variation in the ways that teachers are viewed in societies across cultures and considering the implications this may have for teaching and learning, these dynamics should continue to be explored more closely. [4]

Returning full circle to the teacher strikes in Iceland, and the demands for compensation comparable to other university graduates in the public sector, there are some important questions to consider.  Does the status afforded to teachers through monetary compensation behave differently in societies, and have different effects on student outcomes, than status measured by teacher respect and the ranking of the teaching profession as a whole as compared to other professions in a certain country?  Is the external motivation of a higher salary enough to get the best of younger generations out of universities and into classrooms teaching children rather than moving into careers as doctors, lawyers, or engineers? Could this be incentive enough to defeminize the teaching profession and attract a more balance demographic of teachers at all levels? Further, what does it mean for a student’s learning that they respect their teachers?  On one hand this could mean that the student finds it worthwhile to pay attention and listen to what their teacher has prepared each day, to do their homework and study, and to put forth a certain amount of effort in class.  In other contexts, this may mean that a student respects the teacher as an absolute authority and subsequently might feel that it is inappropriate to ask questions to their teacher or raise their hand in class.  These two scenarios will likely have very different impacts on a child’s learning overall.

A final thought is that regarding the way in which teaching and status is increasingly tied to ever-greater levels of credentials, as evidenced in the case of Iceland, and the impact this has on both teacher’s wages as well as the profession as a whole.  I have heard more than one friend of mine in the United States comment on the fact that in many states, especially if you are an early childhood educator, having a masters degree would most likely be a huge barrier to getting a teaching job because you are “overqualified” and schools are unable or unwilling to compensate you at the appropriate monetary level.  What message are we sending our teachers about the value of their work if we are unwilling to compensate them for their hard work and time they are putting into teaching our youth, especially when movie stars and professional athletes are easily rewarded by our society for the entertainment they provide.  Beyond this, by requiring ever increasing levels of credentials are we missing out on a population of enthusiastic, caring, and dedicated teachers of diverse backgrounds that may not be able to afford education to that level?  All of these questions impact the quality of education delivered as a whole both in the United States and in contexts all over the world, and undoubtedly must be explored in greater detail.


[1] http://icelandreview.com/news/2014/03/17/teachers-iceland-go-strike

[2] http://www.ei-ie.org/en/news/news_details/2950

[3] http://www.ei-ie.org/en/news/news_details/2934

[4] http://www.varkeygemsfoundation.org/sites/default/files/documents/2013GlobalTeacherStatusIndex.pdf