Student Achievement – lessons from TIMSS

We all want good teachers for our children but how do you recognise one. Data from progressive PISA studies keep telling us that Australia lags behind in academic achievement. In truth, Australia has not dropped in the PISA data but other countries have powered ahead of us. What do they do better than us?

The TIMSS data looks at international achievement in mathematics and science and covers more countries than the PISA studies.

Teacher quality  as a societal question

It is a large and complex question but let’s take hold of one small corner of that and look at teacher quality. Stanford professor of Economics Ray Chetty has shown in a large American study that teacher quality was the greatest predictor of life outcomes (see: Good Teachers Providing Better Futures ). He looked at the education and lives of 10 million Americans born 1980-82. Children from a poor socio-economic background who from a young age had access to good teachers greatly increased their chances of having better socio-economic status than their parents.

The TIMSS study and why it is interesting

To find a large data sample that is based on single classroom samples, we can go to the TIMSS study from 2010-11. This gives us a sample of 205 515 students from 47 countries, 10 059 classrooms with an average class size of 20.

Unfortunately, Australia is excluded from the data as we had high values of missing data for this study. The data does show a universal pattern and is no doubt useful when looking at what we do here in Australia.

When collecting the data, the idea was that it should be possible to nail down some features of teacher quality that could be related to instructional quality that again could show varying degrees of correlation to student achievement. The specific sample I am looking at relates to grade four kids and achievement in mathematics.

What did they look at

The characteristics they inquired about related to teacher qualifications. This included education, how much experience the teachers had in teaching and whether they participated in professional development and what kind and how often they attended professional development.

Secondly, they inquired about personal characteristics around self-efficacy (“Preparedness” in the diagram below). How confident were the teachers implementing their teaching methodology, how did they manage the classroom and deal with weaker students. Thirdly, they looked at instructional characteristics around cognitive activation, clarity of instruction and how supportive the classroom was for the students.

Interestingly, TIMSS shows that socio-economic factors were very important for outcomes in Europe, all English speaking countries and South-East Asia while being indifferent in the rest of the world. Gender was a factor in some countries. Boys achieved better in mathematics across Europe and Latin-America while girls achieved better in Western-Asian countries, Arab countries and African countries included in the study. It highlights how culture and pedagogy are inextricably linked to academic achievement.

The researchers Sigrid Blomeke, Rolf Vegar Olsen and Ute Suhl made the following diagram to show the interrelationships inquired about:

Student Achievement - lessons from TIMSS 1


What did they find

After adjusting the TIMSS data for some control variables like gender and socio-economic status, they found that there were two strong predictors of student achievement: Professional Development and the teacher’s sense of preparedness for the classroom. This formed a universal pattern for all the countries.

The evaluation by the researchers of these findings revolved around proximity with the task at hand, i.e. to teach year four students mathematics.

Why didn’t a teacher’s level of educational attainment show a correlation to student achievement when intuitively one might have expected that to be the case? Education has a more distant relationship to the teaching task than professional development. A teacher’s education in many cases was several years back in time, for some twenty and more years ago and often bore no semblance to the educational approach in the classroom. Professional development, on the other hand, was usually completed over the last two years and had a close relationship in time and to practical classroom pedagogy. Thus, the proximate relationship to classroom preparedness improved student achievement.

Proximate factors

Moving away from the TIMSS data specifically and on to musings over what we can do at home, we can ask, what are the factors that may influence a teacher’s preparedness in the classroom and thus improve student achievement?

Each country will have different structures that in turn influence teachers. This can be the value placed on teachers and education in the community at large; this, of course, is led by government policy all the way down to teacher remuneration and educational standards required to enter teaching. Finland has been at the top of the PISA achievement tables for some years and it is worth noting that teachers in Finland have a high social status, they are remunerated well and Finland has high educational requirements to enter the teaching profession. While it cannot be a matter of copying Finland and paying our way to better achievement, we can, however, ask how we can improve a teacher’s position of authority in the classroom and the students’ attitudes to their teacher since that appears to be the proximate and determining relationship.

Policy all the way down to the school level is relevant to the classroom environment because policies set out accountability principles, decide how standardised teaching is and how hierarchical the school is. How do you enable teachers to be prepared for the classroom and the variety of student needs they encounter? Knowing that teacher effectiveness in the classroom is the key, it is easy to see that there will be a tipping point where policies can stifle the teaching that is happening rather than upholding standards and supporting teachers.


You can find a more thorough analysis of the TIMSS data here:

Teacher Quality, Instructional Quality and Student Outcomes

pages 21-51 by Sigrid Blömeke Email author, Rolf Vegar Olsen, Ute Suhl

What are we talking about:

PISA – Programme for International Student Assessment 

PISA is the educational ranking among OECD countries. OECD is the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development

TIMSS – Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. A study done by the IEA, International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. It is an independent, international cooperative of national research institutions.


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