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  • This blog is written by specialists from the Education Division of the Inter-American Development Bank. Its objective is to provide arguments and ideas that will spark debate about how to transform education in Latin America and the Caribbean. This blog is a call to action for the reader. An idea, a project, or a question can make a difference.

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    Las opiniones expresadas en este blog son las del autor y no necesariamente reflejan las opiniones del Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo, sus directivas, la Asamblea de Gobernadores o sus países miembros.

    The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Inter-American Development Bank, its Management, its Board of Executive Directors or its member Governments.

    Looking at teachers with new eyes

    By - 4 Oct 2016

    Hugo Amado Pinto, from Honduras, Franklin Mejia, from Costa Rica, Lorenzo Vargas Díaz from Peru, and Alessandra Bremm, from Brazil, all share something special. They are the winners of awards that recognize teachers that leave their mark on students and become living proof of the effort of many professionals to provide better opportunities for children and school communities. Millions of teachers across Latin America and the Caribbean have a first-row ticket to incredible experiences such as seeing the face of a student who reads her first word, the joy of the child who overcomes a challenge, or the feeling of ease to know that a student is invested in his future. These experiences are priceless! It is not surprising then that a career in teaching is a popular choice among young people in university, with 20% of students in Honduras, Guyana, Barbados, Brazil, Panama and Argentina going on this path. How can public policies support them in their efforts? 

    The kinds of awards these teachers received are a reminder of how difficult it is to conceive an education system without them. In fact, there is clear evidence that teachers are the most important factor in the learning process and, as a McKinsey report suggests, they are the ones who establish the boundaries of quality in the system. After all, teachers are the human face of the education system, the one with which students and families interact on a daily basis. Moreover, they are the ones who, when effective, can have the most identifiable impact on students over time (Chetty, Friedman and Rockoff, 2012).

    The popularity of the teaching career comes in a context in which teachers face considerable challenges on a daily basis, many of which are not recent. In the 1970s and 80s, the region saw a rapid increase in enrollment rates that, despite being beneficial, was not supported by concrete public policies and resulted in students attending school but not actually learning. Such expansion led to a decrease in the quality of the provision of education services, with consequences that can be felt today. According to UNESCO’s TERCE study, 40% of teachers in the region work in schools without proper sewage infrastructure, and 10% do not have access to chalk or equivalent materials. Adding to that come challenges to school environments as a whole. For instance, 60% of teachers in El Salvador work in communities where organized crime is present. Similarly, low salaries make the situation even more cumbersome: according to Bruns and Luque (2014), the effects of a steep decrease in salaries that took place during the economic crisis in the 80s and 90s can be felt today, with teachers still receiving lower salaries that other types of professionals.

    Even when teachers must deal with considerable challenges on a daily basis, in recent years critical voices have emerged in the region that blame teachers for the low learning outcomes. While teachers are indeed critical to the learning process, understanding and interpreting learning outcomes and metrics also requires a holistic analysis; outcomes are the result not only of the efforts, skills, and knowledge of teachers but also of the public policies that support their work. While some exceptional teachers manage to counter the effects of their conditions, for many, this is quite difficult. Low learning outcomes, criticisms, and the oft-ignored challenges they face have generated a vicious cycle in which the teaching has been striped of its value,thus reducing incentives for high-achieving students to consider going into teaching. In the long run, this deprives future students the possibility of being taught by an excellent teacher.

    Fortunately, countries in the region are making considerable financial and institutional efforts to improve their education systems and revalue the teaching career. Peru and the Dominican Republic, for instance, have increased public expenditure in education significantly with dedicated budgets assigned to improving conditions for teachers beyond simply increasing their salaries. Similarly, Chile has implemented a scholarship program to allow young students to fulfill their dream to become high-quality teachers 

    The combination of targeted policies and the enthusiasm of thousands of young people with the desire to become teachers make us conceive a virtuous cycle of recognition of the teaching career. This process would lay the foundations for improving learning outcomes in the region and, more importantly, a recognition of the vital role of teachers in this objective. Yet, success will only come when we all look at teachers with the same eyes and with the same joy of a student who has read her first word, and when we all aspire to be like Hugo, Alessandra, Franklyn, or Lorenzo.

    Happy Teachers’ Day!

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