Imagine that our son or daughter is about to decide which profession to study in a country in Latin America or the Caribbean. Would you recommend that they become a teacher? What factors would we consider? Of course, we would like our son or daughter to study a career related to their preferences and interests (and in addition, their abilities), we would like a profession that provides a good income, that rewards their effort and that, in some way, is valued by the society.
Now let’s think about the teaching profession in the region. Which of these characteristics does it meet? Unfortunately it is very far from that description. It is one of the least valued socially. In comparison with other professions that demand similar educational levels, the teaching salaries of many of our countries are low. In addition, entering teacher training programs is almost guaranteed for anyone (regardless of their skills and vocation) and merit is often not rewarded properly throughout the career. In addition, many schools lack basic conditions to offer a pleasant work environment.
Given these characteristics, it is almost certain that we would guide our own sons and daughters not to work in education. The current devaluation of the teaching profession contrasts with its extraordinary social relevance. As parents, we expect our children to learn the necessary content and develop the skills they need to reach their full potential, actively participate in the labor market, and contribute as citizens. We trust that, by attending school, teachers can play a significant role in these objectives. As a society, we think that by putting teachers in our classrooms, we will achieve more educated societies that contribute to the economic growth of countries and reduce inequality.
To support that responsibility and importance we give to our teachers, we need to transform the profession so that all teachers can be effective, and for this to be an attractive option for motivated and well-prepared candidates. Only then will we change their status permanently and achieve quality teachers that really promote the learning of our children and youth.
But has it always been like this? In clear contrast to the current situation and as some of our parents or grandparents will remember, there was a time when the teaching profession was an attractive option and enjoyed high social prestige.
How did we get to the current situation of low teacher prestige?
The book “Profession: Professor in Latin America, How was prestige lost and how to recover it?” That we just launched, begins by examining in detail the historical processes that explain how we arrived at this situation of low teacher prestige. The focus is on seven countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru.
A first part of the explanation lies in the accelerated educational expansion in the region in the mid-twentieth century, which brought with it the need to train and quickly recruit new teachers. While countries celebrated the growth of the school system and the founding of new schools, the teaching profession was gradually discredited.
Another part of the explanation of the current low teacher prestige is found in the changes for women in the labor market. With the opening of new and better educational and work horizons for women, the teaching profession lost appeal for many talented women.
What are the countries of the region doing to raise the prestige of the profession?
Several countries in the region, such as Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico and Chile, have implemented teacher reforms in recent decades, with the aim of raising the prestige of the teaching profession.
The reforms seek to make the teaching profession more attractive. For this, meritocratic teaching careers have been designed, so that promotions and opportunities are more linked to the teacher’s performance. Likewise, salaries are more competitive, with a structure that rewards more the achievement of teachers than their years of service. For example, in Ecuador, the initial salary of teachers increased by 160% in real terms between 2006 and 2014.
Another line of action seeks to improve initial teacher training. Policies aim at greater selectivity and better incentives when entering education programs, and to implement quality standards for these programs. Thus, in Chile university admission test score requirements will be for education students.
The reforms also aim to select the best candidates for teaching and support new teachers. Educational systems seek to identify the best candidates to become teachers, through demanding selection processes that use different instruments such as written exams, demonstration classes and interviews. In the 2015 contest in Peru, 13% of the candidates approved the national tests and only 4% were appointed as teachers.
The path already traveled by these countries and the lessons learned can be useful for the countries of the region to continue advancing in building more meritocratic and attractive teaching careers. Only in this way can we ensure that our countries are attracting, preparing and selecting the teachers we need so that our children and young people develop the skills they need to reach their full potential.