Education Quality in Latin America Comes Down to Teachers

A better understanding of the central role that teachers play will help us focus reform efforts and target resources more effectively.

A better understanding of the central role that teachers play will help us focus reform efforts and target resources more effectively. It also confronts us with a major challenge: there are some seven million teachers in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to a recent report by the World Bank, representing 4 percent of the region's total labor force and 20 percent of its professional workers, and their combined salaries are equivalent to nearly 4 percent of regional GDP. They work in conditions ranging from open air classrooms in the countryside to plush air conditioned schools in rich urban neighborhoods.

How then, can we improve teacher performance across the region, with all of these local variations?

The World Bank, in their report "Great Teachers: How to Raise Student Learning in Latin America and the Caribbean," tackles this massive question. In perhaps the most comprehensive report on the teaching profession in Latin America, the researchers made more than 15,000 unannounced visits to classrooms in more than 3,000 public schools between 2009 and 2013.

They came to a number of interesting conclusions. As the Economist magazinesummarizes the findings:

The main reason for Latin America's educational failure is simple. The region churns out large numbers of teachers recruited from less-bright school leavers. It trains them badly and pays them peanuts (between 10 percent and 50 percent less than other professionals). So they teach badly.

In fact, the World Bank found that Latin American teachers as a whole spend just 65 percent of their time actually teaching -- compared with the recommended international benchmark of around 85 percent. Nor is this a problem easily solved with new technologies or better materials -- the study points out that even in schools possessing internet connectivity, laptops, or other advanced teaching aids, teachers generally keep using what they know, the blackboard.

Thus the numbers about wasted time in the classroom point to the more fundamental problem: the way that teachers are recruited, trained, and compensated for performance. Unfortunately, making any changes in this area is no easy task, given the influential interest groups with a stake in the status quo -- including teachers unions, university administrations, and teacher training institutes.

However, not all improvements are necessarily complex, according to Javier Luque, one of the authors of the World Bank report and an education specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank. Luque explains:

As we interacted with teachers in thousands of classrooms, we found that often the biggest problems have to do with very simple things: once we have teachers in the classroom, the system has to guarantee that they use that time promoting learning activities for all students. Students can never get back lost time. In many cases we observed teachers not using up to one third of class time just waiting the bell to ring. Just think on all the learning activities that could have taken place!

"Students are at school to learn," Luque adds, "and thus all the actors in the system should align to ensure that learning takes place. This would seem to be a very simple recommendation, but unfortunately it is not happening." That may be because many of the underperforming teachers already possess the necessary technical knowledge or cognitive skills -- but the lack of clear signals related to student learning are holding them back.

At the same time, Luque argues that deeper reforms are also necessary. "These will relate to revamping teacher training and evaluation systems," he says.

Hispanic Council for Reform and Education options (HCREO) | by Luana Goncalves

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