The latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) shows that teachers’ qualifications continued to vary substantially between 64 high- and middle-income countries in 2019. In addition, many countries did not ensure that all teachers participated in substantial quantities of in-service training. The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 has thrown these deficits into sharp relief, emphasizing the crucial role of teachers’ professional development.
Teachers’ qualifications and training feature in a new report by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), in collaboration with UNESCO, which examines TIMSS 2019 data that shed light on countries’ progress towards achieving the fourth Sustainable Development Goal (“Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”). The report includes two key teacher indicators: the proportion of teachers with the minimum required qualifications, by education level (Global Indicator 4.c.1); and the percentage of teachers who received in-service training in the last 12 months by type of training (Thematic Indicator 4.c.7).
Teachers’ initial qualifications vary according to level of education
Although there is no international agreement yet of how to define a teacher that is qualified, teachers at all levels require high standards of initial formal education, including subject-matter knowledge and pedagogical skills to teach. Moreover, it is generally accepted that those teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects at higher levels and grades of education require increasingly expert knowledge and skills (UIS, 2006). Collecting data on the highest level of formal education completed by mathematics and science teachers, data from participating countries show Grade 8 mathematics teachers had higher qualifications on average, with 95% of students being taught by a teacher who had at least a bachelor’s or equivalent degree, compared with 85% of their Grade 4 peers. Some countries demonstrated very large gaps between grades. For example, Italy had the highest percentage of Grade 8 students whose teachers had a postgraduate level qualification (100%), but also the highest percentage of Grade 4 students whose mathematics teachers only had a secondary level qualification (59%). Other large gaps between Grade 8 and 4, such as the percentage of students taught by a mathematics teacher who had at least a bachelor’s degree or equivalent, were observed in the Russian Federation (99% and 75%) and South Africa (79% and 62%).
Countries can reinforce teacher qualifications to support teacher knowledge and skills
Reinforcing formal teaching qualifications by increasing standards or by facilitating current teachers to achieve minimum qualifications can enhance the quality of teaching and learning. As of 2013, Italy requires tertiary-level qualifications to teach primary level mathematics (IEA, 2016). In some middle-income countries, a sizeable share of Grade 4 students also continued to be taught by teachers who only had at most a secondary education qualification, including Albania (19%), Pakistan (36%) and Armenia (40%). In Morocco, high percentages of students were taught by teachers with just secondary level qualifications in Grade 4 (43%) and Grade 8 (34%). Means to facilitate teacher efforts to meet current minimum qualifications include incentive programmes such as financial aid and tuition waivers, flexible schedules and the availability of online education as in Pakistan (ADB, 2019).
Many teachers lack in-service training opportunities
In-service continuing professional development can help teachers achieve higher level qualifications. It also builds their professionalism through the acquisition of new knowledge and skills about pedagogy, ICTs, assessment and other areas. Surveying whether teachers have received in-service training, related TIMSS data are expressed in terms of the percentage of students who are being taught by teachers who had received at least 35 hours of professional development during the two years before the assessment. On average, Grade 8 students (23%) were more than twice as likely as their Grade 4 peers (10%) to have been taught by a teacher who received at least the minimum 35 hours of professional development.
In Croatia, no Grade 4 teachers were reported to have met the threshold for in-service training. Meanwhile, training levels were also very low in countries that generally have a strong reputation for their education system, such as Japan (1% in Grade 4 and 6% in Grade 8) and Finland (2% and 6%). With the rapid shift to remote education at the onset of COVID-19 and the need for distance teaching skills, such a lack of training may not be sustainable. For example, prior to COVID-19, 71% of Grade 8 students across all countries were taught by teachers who indicated a need for future professional development on integrating technology into mathematics instruction. Institutionalized training, in contrast, appears common in Kazakhstan (30% in Grade 4 and 61% in Grade 8) and the Russian Federation (32% and 71%).
Lack of ICTs in schools
With teachers working remotely during school closures and children using available household ICT, the already large digital divide was underlined, especially in middle- and low-income countries where household Internet access is far from ubiquitous. The Teacher Task Force previously estimated that 43% of learners globally lacked household Internet (Teacher Task Force, 2020). TIMSS results demonstrate additional inequities in schools. In Grade 8, across all countries surveyed, there were 2.8 students per computer in urban and 4.1 students per computer in rural schools. Turkey had the highest disparity with a ratio of 3.4 in urban and 10.3 in rural schools, while Lebanon showed a reverse disparity of 8.4 in urban and 5.0 in rural schools.
Policy implications for teachers
Since the TIMSS 2019 data collection started in the first half of 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, it provides a baseline against which to gauge how changes implemented during and after the pandemic may have affected education and teachers. The rapid transition to distance education has also taught us the need for fresher and more reliable data so policy-makers can make decisions on a real-time basis.
It is critical that governments respond by improving teacher quality. In the medium-term this includes enhancing standards for initial teacher education and continuous professional development to strengthen teacher resilience. In the short term, based on the finding of few in-service training opportunities for teachers, particularly in Grade 4, additional training or a more equitable distribution of resources based on critical needs is required. Digital and remote teaching skills, especially where hybrid learning models are used, are important to reduce students’ learning loss. This is true for high-income countries where in-service training is less common and for middle-income countries, to improve upon teachers’ lower initial qualifications.
Digital divides should also be minimized, ensuring that teachers and students have access to the Internet and a range of technologies, including radio and television, in both urban and rural settings.
Online learning allows for greater anonymity in communication between students and teachers, and among students, which can allow bullying. Better responses to combat cyber-bullying are needed, such as awareness and sensitization campaigns, training for teachers, and mechanisms for handling complaints. According to TIMSS 2019, this need exists for both grades, but perhaps especially for Grade 4 where it is reported more frequently.
COVID-19 could set education back by many years and erase much of the progress of the previous decade. Efforts to achieve SDG4, including Target 4.c, would benefit from richer and more comprehensive data to inform decision-making. Extending TIMSS data collection to additional countries would be a step towards meeting growing needs. Another step could include expanding the set of indicators to include a more comprehensive view of teachers’ context and needs based on all SDG 4.c indicators, including pupil-qualified teacher ratios, teacher salaries relative to similar professions, and teacher attrition.
TIMSS is a large-scale assessment of education achievement with the aim to gain an in-depth understanding of the effects of policies and practices within and across systems of education. Providing internationally comparative data on how students perform in mathematics and science at Grade 4 and Grade 8, the TIMSS 2019 surveys gather information about curriculum, instructional practices and school resources known to be associated with learning and students' achievement. TIMSS 2019 covers 72 educational systems, including 64 high- and middle-income countries and dependent territories, and 8 benchmarking jurisdictions.
Photo credit: Shutterstock/AVAVA