In My Opinion

Andres Oppenheimer: The plight of Latin America’s teachers

It’s no wonder that protesters in Brazil are holding signs reading “more education, less soccer,” or that there are constant teacher strikes in Argentina, Chile, Venezuela and Mexico — Latin American schoolteachers are among the most miserably paid in the world.

Last week, as protesters in Brazil complained about their country’s huge expenditures for hosting the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament and held signs with slogans such as “Japan: take our soccer, give us your education,” a new study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) showed that teachers in Latin America earn less, work longer hours and have less time to prepare their classes than their counterparts in other regions.

The report, entitled “Education at a Glance 2013,” also shows that Finland and South Korea, which consistently rank at the top of international student achievement tests, pay their teachers almost twice as much as Latin American countries.

Consider some of the study’s figures:

•  While an elementary school teacher’s starting salary is $64,000 in Luxembourg, $38,000 in the United States, $36,000 in Spain, $30,000 in Finland and $28,000 in South Korea, it is $17,400 in Chile, $16,600 in Argentina and $15,000 in Mexico. The study does not include average teachers’ salaries in Brazil, but OECD officials say they are in line with those of other Latin American countries — at the bottom of the list.

•  Elementary school teachers with the top salaries make an average of $113,000 in Luxembourg, $77,000 in South Korea, $58,000 in Japan, $53,000 in the United States, $51,000 in Spain, $32,000 in Mexico, $31,000 in Chile and $25,000 in Argentina.

• When it comes to hours spent teaching — a measure that is often used to show how much time teachers have left to prepare their classes, review homework or confer with parents — Argentina holds the world record, with 1,450 hours a year, followed by Chile with 1,100 hours, the United States with 1,100 and Mexico with 1,050. Comparatively, teachers in South Korea and Finland spend 600 hours a year in front of their class.

Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s education expert who coordinated the report, told me in a telephone interview that South Korea and China spend less on education as a percentage of their economies than several Latin American countries, and yet obtain much better results.

The difference is that South Korea and China make teaching a very selective and prestigious career: Only the most qualified become teachers, and they are paid according to their performance, he said.

“One of the biggest problems in Latin America is that there almost anyone can become a teacher: there is no rigorous selection process,” Schleicher said. “And the quality of an education system can never exceed the quality of its teachers.”

One way of paying for qualified teachers is by expanding the number of students per class, he said. South Korea and China have larger classes than Mexico, and yet obtain better results in student tests, he added.

“If you have to make a choice between a better teacher and a smaller class, go for a better teacher,” Schleicher said.

Asked about Latin America’s teachers unions, which often demand higher wages but oppose admission tests, evaluations or merit pay for teachers, Schleicher said most teachers can be persuaded to embrace change if it comes alongside a higher professional status.

My opinion: Latin American countries should turn teaching into a glamorous profession, much like in South Korea or Finland.

One of the things that struck me most during the five years in which I traveled to several countries to study their educational achievements for my last book was that, in South Korea, only the top 10 percent of high school students can apply to study teaching careers in college in Finland and South Korea.

In those countries, if you have a neighbor who is a teacher, you tell yourself: “She must be smart, because otherwise she couldn’t be a teacher.’’ In Latin America, if you have a neighbor who is a teacher, you tell yourself, “Poor fellow, he probably couldn’t become a lawyer.”

It’s time for Latin America to change that, by paying teachers better, and at the same time requiring that they accept admission standards, evaluations, and merit pay.

Brazil’s “more education, less soccer” signs could be a great start in that direction.

Read more Andres Oppenheimer stories from the Miami Herald

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