A Disturbing Trend

A colleague dropped by my office yesterday. Seeing that I was writing an article on education, he asked whether I had visited schools lately to see the individuals teaching our children. He inquired if I had noticed how young the teachers were. He likewise queried if I thought the teachers had children of their own. Then he lamented on how much knowledge had exploded recently and rhetorically asked whether I thought the teachers I saw were up to the task. It was good that the question was rhetorical because I did not know how to respond.

There are encouraging trends in basic education in the United States. As reported in the Educational Researcher December 2014 issue, individuals who have recently entered the teaching profession are increasingly coming from the top third of high school graduates, based on SAT scores. Unfortunately, there are other trends which only amplify the doubt raised by my colleague. One trend comes from a closer examination of the results from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). The report made by Madeline J. Goodman, Anita M. Sands, Richard J. Cole from the Educational Testing Service looks specifically at the performance of millenials (individuals born after 1980). Focusing on individuals age 16-34, a comparison against other countries does not look promising for the United States. Three competencies are assessed in the PIAAC. One is Literacy: the ability to understand, evaluate, use, and engage with written text to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential. In this area, half of young American adults do not reach level 3, the minimum standard:

Above graph drawn from data provided by America's Skills Challenge: Millenials and the Future
In Numeracy: the ability to access, use, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas in order to engage in and manage the mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life, the situation is worse. Nearly two-thirds of American age 16-34 do not reach level 3, the minimum standard:

Above graph drawn from data provided by America's Skills Challenge: Millenials and the Future

In the last area, Problem Solving in Technology-Rich Environments (PS-TRE): using digital technology, communication tools, and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others, and perform practical tasks, millenials from the United States are among the worse performers:

Above graph drawn from data provided by America's Skills Challenge: Millenials and the Future
The alarming trend becomes even more obvious when scores from millenials that have college degrees are placed against those of other countries. On the numeracy assessment, college graduates from the United States are barely performing better than high school graduates from France and Japan. More dismaying, high school graduates from Belgium, Austria, Sweden, Germany, Finland and Denmark are doing better.

Above figure adapted from America's Skills Challenge: Millenials and the Future
Combine the above with the findings of the report, Seven Trends: The Transformation of the Teaching Force, that teachers in 2012 compared to teachers in 1987 are larger in numbers, younger, less experienced, more female, more diverse by ethnicity, similar in academic abilities, and are less likely to stay teaching, a disturbing trend does become visible.

Given what we have now, we may still hope. The teachers are young. We can focus on their professional development. Scores are not static but we must do the right thing. There is enough assessment or testing, what teachers need now is our support.


  1. Professional development at karanasan ang makakatulong sa kanilang mas humusay pa sa pagtuturo. Bigyan sila ng ilan pang taon at meron rin silang matututunan. Ang nakakaalarma e ang ideya ng 'less likely to stay teaching'. Ito ba e bunga ng kanilang kakulangan sa commitment at parang panandaliang tarbaho laang para sa kanila ang teaching bago pumasok sa larangan ng modeling?

  2. Teachers in the US are "less likely to stay teaching" for various reasons. There are good reasons and there are bad reasons. Teaching does require a commitment and if an individual does not have such a commitment then perhaps there is no point in staying. This is a good reason to leave. But there are bad reasons too. There is an occupational therapist in Virginia who shared with me an observation. Good teachers are being transferred to desk work where they develop curriculum materials or perform administrative work. This one maybe a bad reason. But the most disconcerting one is how teachers are treated. Teachers could be paid good salaries. This is obviously required to retain them. But as important, the conditions or environment must be equally inviting. When everything is top-down and test results are on the spotlight, a teacher loses autonomy and with that, responsibility. This is almost a lethal combination for basic education: a centralized, top-down approach plus teachers who have not been prepared well for the task of teaching.


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