Education in Latin America: Challenges in quality, performance and investment

Even though education is one of the most important and essential building blocks in life and of a successful future, many countries seem to lag behind or stick with old-fashioned ways of teaching.

But in an increasingly competitive world, education systems must keep up.

Latin Trade spoke with Felipe Barrera,  Associate Professor of Education and Economics at Harvard, for his view on how to identify good teachers, the current discussion about improving methods and incentives, and the changing role of teacher .

Identifying a good teacher

In Ecuador there was an experiment where children entering the system for the first time, kindergarten, were assigned randomly to teachers. That allowed a group of researchers to answer the following: Which teachers would be able to produce the best student achievement? What they found was that first of all, the children who went with a good teacher had higher achievement, more than any other child. What is interesting is that all the children came from the same, low-income family background, but the difference between the teachers made all the difference in their performance.

The second part for the researchers was how to identify a good teacher. They had the assessment of these teachers before the experiment, and they knew which teachers would produce the best results.

Even though it may seem too obvious: That the quality of teachers is very important when it comes to student’s achievement, the problem is how can you identify who can be a good teacher in the future? “That is a very difficult question, and there is a lot of research, but the fact is that the typical characteristics we can see in teachers are not predictors of a good teacher, for example the teacher’s own education, background, experience, all those are not good predictors of a good teacher.”

So what is going on right now? Two main things. Some are doing research in terms of teachers’ performance based on standardized tests of kids, and the second point is classroom observation.

There are different instruments that can capture the performance of the teacher in the classroom. “By using studies based on classroom observation and value-added models of performance of the students, there is a good chance we can detect who is going to be a good teacher or not. In order to catch who will be a good teacher it is essential to observe during the first three years of the teaching profession, because in those three years you can detect who is going to be good and you can support them better and choose the best. The key point is that the first three years of the profession are critical, once you detect the good ones you keep them and provide a lot of support and incentives.”

Developing good teachers

First, it is necessary to separate between those who are in the system, already teaching, and people being training to become a teacher. “What do we know about professional development for people who are in the system? We know the following: Short-term professional development training programs (three to five days) are very ineffective.”

Why? Because what you get from those courses is very little. Basically teachers need two things: Good pedagogy and good content. “Content is something you cannot change in three days, and pedagogy is something you can’t do outside of the classroom.” A lot of systems in both developing and developed countries are investing in quantity over quality via this type of professional development course. It’s a huge investment and very ineffective.

So, what is the investment that should be happening? “Before someone enters the teaching profession, you need to make an impact on them at college, so before they enter the system you need strong pedagogy universities, schools that provide very strong tools for future teachers.”

Strong tools: Teach content (i.e. a math teacher must know mathematics) and secondly, they must learn pedagogy.

Pedagogy has two parts: How to prepare a class, and how to encourage students to unleash all their potential. “Those are the two things they must get in the pedagogy course. But in Latin America and other regions, that’s not happening. Instead they are learning things like philosophy of education, for example, theories by Piaget, development of children, how education will provide freedom to people, etc. But those things won’t help when they get in a classroom and face students. That’s what’s happening in Latin America. Either we change the profession towards really providing tools for pedagogy and content, or we won’t make any difference to the quality of education in the region.”

Changes in the roles of teachers

There is an idea that technology may impact the teaching profession, in the sense that it can help with boosting a lot of the potential of teachers. “But what I’ve seen is that this hasn’t happened. Basically what happens with technology is that usually it first arrives to the kids and the teacher is in more of a support role. The key would be to provide technology that can adapt to the kids’ skills. But it’s quite difficult to assess what the role is between teachers and technology, the area is still nascent.”

“Presumably the highest potential is the role and relationship of technology-teacher-student, but we are still learning.”

What’s next?

The current discussion is: A lot of economies think that more resources in the system will not build better education, because the system as it is has very weak incentives.

For example, in Latin America a lot of teachers have automatic promotion, where teachers’ roles and salaries move up based on experience, but there is nothing attached based on the students’ learning. “What happens is a new teacher arrives to the system, and you stay long enough and then grow in the profession. This is bad because the incentives are weak, you have no incentives to produce good quality.”

One idea is: why not provide teacher incentives based on students’ results? That idea may lead some to think it is the solution, but they have major challenges and the evidence is very mixed.

In Latin America and the vast majority of the globe, there are no assessments that follow the kids on time. “What you have is an assessment for each grade, but the problem arises when a teacher who is say teaching grade 5, receives a new cohort of kids, and they can be very good, or bad or simply very mixed. When you have assessment by cohort, the teacher doesn’t have the incentive to work hard, because this component of the cohort is very random.”

“So basically the problems when you have tests by cohort, the incentive structure is very weak and a lot of systems are thinking about these teacher incentive programs, but I don’t think that will make a big change in the system.”

“Bottom line is I think that the only future of really changing the quality of education in Latin America is to invest in those who are making the decision to become a teacher or those who are already studying to become one. “

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