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Improving teaching quality in Latin America

Education systems in Latin America face a myriad of challenges, including the challenging conditions encountered by elementary school teachers. The teachers guide their students through a critical stage of development in which everything learned leaves an imprint and opens venues for new knowledge.

The relevance of those first steps into the world of formal education speaks to the need for having good teachers, with solid knowledge as well as pedagogical tools. Education systems depend on professionals who are capable of teaching several and diverse disciplines while supporting and stimulating their students. This is an imperative in the poorer regions, where possibilities for growth are scarce and school desertion a reality.

How can this objective be reached when the teaching profession, once held in high esteem, has fallen into disarray and been discredited? The IDB recently published ¿Quiénes son los maestros? (Who Are the Teachers?). The book contains a detailed and novel analysis based on the premise that quality of instruction is at the core of the school system, and thus determines the type of education that students receive. According to the authors, investing in computer equipment, infrastructure, books, and new curricula would be useless without capable teachers to integrate and adequately use these elements. These are some of the book's findings, based on the authors' studies of teaching professionals in Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

Teacher profile
In Latin America education is a woman's job. In Guatemala 70 percent of the teachers are women; while in the Argentine cities of Buenos Aires and Cordova, the percentage rises to 95 percent. The teachers' average age is between 35 and 40 years, although in some countries, such as Chile, it is slightly higher, 44 years. Another common characteristic is that usually teachers change schools in cycles of three to five years.

The challenges faced by the teachers also unite them beyond their country of origin. Latin American teachers usually graduate without proper training and, in many instances, face a murky selection process in order to find work. Once hired, the teachers lack incentives and are inadequately supervised.

Motivation and incentives
Incentives and supervision can't be underestimated, according to Juan Carlos Navarro, the editor of the book and chief of the education unit at the IDB. “The teachers are neither good nor bad, it depends on the atmosphere; if the teachers' careers are properly handled, we can get good results. It is necessary to fight the fatalism that says that with the current teachers we will go nowhere,” Navarro said.

The incentives in ¿Quiénes son los maestros? are comprised of salaries, benefits, opportunities, and recognition that all educators need in order to be effective in their classrooms. The authors show that modifying weak or scarce incentives would lead to greater satisfaction among instructors and motivate them to adopt better methodologies and practices in their daily work, thus vastly improving the quality of instruction.

The study indicates that most educators teach in two places. In some cases, in one of the schools, the teachers' performance is mediocre, while in the other school much better results are obtained. This suggests that is not the teacher who fails, but the system that should be blamed for not providing sufficient support.

“The qualification of the teaching staff is not an isolated element. It must be placed in a context of appropriate incentives,” Navarro affirmed. Good teachers with good training may not be efficient if they don't have suitable resources. “These may be chalk to write on the blackboard, books to teach, or support from the principal of the school,” said Navarro.

Concrete answers
The authors suggest a number of initiatives to improve education systems in the medium and long term, including reorganizing and optimizing training programs, reinforcing and adapting contents to the conditions in the countries, establishing transparent and professional admissions mechanisms for teacher colleges and universities, and increasing salaries. But a lot can also be done to improve the performance of teachers currently working in schools, such as providing better incentives and new criteria to assess the efficiency of the teaching professionals.

Several nations in the region are searching for ways to improve the elementary education programs. ¿Quiénes son los maestros? is an innovative approach to facing the challenges of schooling, an essential element in the development of nations.

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