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    Structural solutions

    By - 22 Aug 2011

    written by: Jorge Mahecha.

    It’s true: There is an epidemic of “enseñas,” or alternative teacher training programs, in Latin America, as Marcelo Cabrol correctly noted in an earlier blog.

    Enseña por Colombia (ExC), launched early 2011 after a year and a half of initial development, is a young organization going full steam ahead, its first group of teachers set to deploy in needy secondary schools in January 2012. As with all of the enseñas, it is a program in which top-level university graduates spend the first two years of their career teaching in schools that serve low-income populations. In 2011, our start-up year, we are doing many things for the first time. One of thing relating to the selection of teachers for the program is how to build a “selectivity coefficient” for our applicants’ university degree programs.

    What I mean is this: Enseña por Colombia and all the other enseñas must select among numbers of applicants, and in this selection process we must address complex questions such as: Should grades from different universities and different programs of study be considered comparable? Is it the same to receive a grade 4 in university A and in university B? And what about different programs of study in the same university: Should equal grades be treated equally?

    Answering this question required a complex analysis, which is not the subject of this blog. However, it made us think about a number of other factors, one of which is the subject of this blog: How selective are Colombian universities? And particularly in education degree programs?

    A review of the data made me reflect on one of the reasons for the creation of Enseña por Colombia:  Selectivity for education programs is low. It is low in two key respects. The first is in terms of state exam scores for university admission. The problem is simple and serious: Exam scores for entering an education degree program are among the lowest for any course of study.

    Many studies show that effective teachers― whose students achieve a significant degree of learning―have two basic characteristics. On the one hand, they have generally high academic abilities and command of their disciplines, be it science, math, etc. On the other hand, these teachers have interpersonal skills that enable them to lead effectively and empower students to learn. The state exam does not say anything about this last component, but it says a great deal about the first. This is no secret. It is well known that students engaged in top academic programs do not consider teaching as a career option. I would say that they most likely have never have done so.

    The second problem relates to the requirements of the Colombian state entities responsible for teacher training. In Colombia, the National Accreditation Council, which must establish the quality of the country’s academic programs in higher education, released statistics in 2009 indicating that only 6 percent of programs offering training for teachers had achieved this accreditation, which is a minimum requirement.

    The equation is simple: To have good teachers we need to ensure that candidates have two qualifications. One is leadership, which is not a subject of the current selection system. The second is academic ability, for which the present system selects candidates that are from optimal, to say the least. And then these potential teachers take teacher training programs, 94 percent of which do not meet minimum quality requirements. What are the results?

    We know that we don’t get good results in tests such as PISA and TIMMS. And results in changing society? The development of society through quality education? I wonder, given the system we have, where these unrealistic expectations come from. Until we make structural changes in these systems, looking on education as a transformative agent in society will be wishful thinking. We will once again feel the same frustration we have so often felt in the past, and whose reasons seem mysterious and complex, but are not.

    I believe that Enseña por Colombia and other similar programs represent a step in the right direction: We are actively recruiting candidates with the highest academic credentials and a clear profile of leadership to undertake very intensive training in education. Following this training, we continue to provide support to help them become the best teachers possible. If education is so important for societal development, and I truly believe that it is, then we need to make major systemic changes in our countries. One, just for a start, has to do with requirements for entry to the teaching profession: They cannot remain as low as possible. Reestablishing the teaching profession’s high status in society is a complex process that will take a long time. In this process the enseñas and other similar programs have an important role to play by showing that putting together the right pieces in the right way, plus a great deal of work, can produce transformative results for children who need it most.

    * Jorge Mahecha has a Master’s degree in education with emphasis in administration and management of educational institutions from the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogota, Colombia. He also has a degree in microbiology and mathematics from the same university. Jorge has worked for 14 years in the education sector as a primary and secondary school teacher, teaching supervisor, evaluator of educational programs and projects, and an instructor for public sector teachers. As a social entrepreneur he has participated in founding two organizations, the Corporación Educación y Desarrollo, in 2009; and in 2010, together with two other social entrepreneurs, Enseña por Colombia, a program inspired by the successful Teach for America. Contact: jorgemahecha@ced.org.co

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