Latin American Children in Public Schools Miss One Day of Instruction a Week

July 24, 2014

New report dissects central role of teachers in raising student learning

LIMA, July 24, 2014—Every week, public school students in Latin America and the Caribbean are deprived of the equivalent of one full day of class, according to a new World Bank report. The source: the low teacher effectiveness.

Based on unprecedented research involving the observation of more than 15,000 classrooms in 3,000 primary and secondary schools in seven Latin American countries, the report, Great Teachers: How to Raise Student Learning in Latin America and the Caribbean, describes how teacher absenteeism, poor preparation, low skill level and pay, as well as weak school leadership, all serve to cheat students. The report is a powerful contribution to the growing body of research on how to improve the quality of instruction and learning results.

The report comes as experts mull over just how Latin America will maintain levels of growth that made recent poverty and inequality reduction possible. Innovation, competitiveness, government reform, and education are typically cited as the requisite economic engines for further prosperity. Yet on the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test in 2012, the 8 participating LAC countries were at the bottom of the scale for middle-income countries -- although a few countries, such as Chile, Brazil and Peru have made important gains from previous years.

The report was launched on Thursday at the Regional Education Solutions Forum, held at the Catholic University in Lima and with the participation of Peru's First Lady, Nadine Heredia.

In her speech, the First Lady noted that "in the case of Peru, we need to find a way to make our growth sustainable, and to do that investing in human capital will be essential as it is the way to develop more innovation capacity, technology, research and productivity.''

Jorge Familiar, World Bank Vice President for Latin America and the Caribbean said that “it is hard to think of a more important element to broaden opportunities for all Latin Americans than a quality education," and he emphasized that "it is hard to think of a more significant player to raise educational quality than the region's teachers."

For a region in need of enhancing student learning, this is a sign that much more needs to be done to recruit, groom and motivate great teachers. According to global research, students with the best teachers advance 1.5 grade levels or more per year, while those with the worst teachers master 0.5 year of curriculum or less. That research also shows clearly that the economic and social benefits of national education spending depends on what students’ learn – and not how many years they stay in school. If Mexico raised its average student performance on PISA to Germany’s level, its annual long term GDP growth could rise by 2 percentage points.

The report sheds important light on who Latin America’s teachers are today:

  • Their pay incentives are low. Their monthly salaries in 2010 were between 10 and 50 percent lower than salaries for other “equivalent” professionals and have been throughout the 2000s.
  • They have more formal education than other professional and technical workers but start out academically weaker than the overall pool of higher education students. 75% are women.
  • Students majoring in education are of lower socio-economic status and are more likely to be first-generation university students.
  • The teaching force in the region is aging. The average teacher in some countries is more than 40 years old.
  • While many countries in the region are producing an excess supply of new teachers, it is still difficult to find adequate teachers for secondary level mathematics, science, and high quality bi-lingual teachers (Spanish/indigenous language) in rural areas.

Virtually all countries in the region appear trapped in a low-level equilibrium of low standards for entry into teaching, relatively low and undifferentiated salaries, weak instruction in the classroom, and poor educational outcomes,according to Barbara Bruns, the author of the report, “Moving to a high-level equilibrium will be difficult but it is an effort that the region can’t afford to postpone.”

At a time of diminished public resources, the report makes a significant contribution in helping identify where priorities should be assigned. Among its striking findings is the fact that teachers in countries with the largest investment on “One Laptop per Child” initiatives actually spent the lowest share of total class time using information and communications technologies.

Challenges ahead for the region are mixed. Over the next decade, the declining size of school-aged population in about half of the countries in the region, notably the Southern Cone, could make it substantially easier to raise teacher quality; in the other half of the region, especially Central America, the need for more teachers will make this harder to achieve.

The report’s good news, however, is that most LAC countries are sharpening their focus on teacher quality.  It distills the global research evidence and latest LAC experience with innovative programs and major reforms in three priority areas:

  • Policies to recruit better teachers.
  • Programs to groom or develop the skills of teachers already in service.
  • Stronger incentives to motivate top performance, which will make the profession more attractive and selective over time.

In analyzing the design and implementation of major teacher policy reforms in Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Mexico, the report chronicles the decisive role of teachers’ unions, the value of finding consensus solutions, and how to build the broad support of civil society that has underpinned successful and sustainable reforms.

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