Achieving quality education in Latin America & Caribbean

If it hadn’t been for my sixth grade teacher, I probably would have never spelled correctly in Spanish. But when I quietly confessed to her one afternoon that I had never learned the rules that govern where and when to apply accents, those diacritical marks that can change the meaning of a word and even a sentence, she made a special effort to make sure I did.

In Latin America, many children are not as fortunate as I was to receive such attention. According to a new World Bank report, Great Teachers: How to Raise Student Learning in Latin America and the Caribbean, Latin American public school children are cheated out of a full day of instruction every week due to teaching practices. Teacher absenteeism, poor preparation, low skill level and pay, as well as weak school leadership, all play a role.

Based on unprecedented research involving the observation of more than 15,000 classrooms in 3,000 primary and secondary schools in seven Latin American countries, the report is a powerful contribution to the growing body of research on how to improve the quality of instruction and learning results.

The report comes as experts mull over just how Latin America will maintain levels of growth that made recent poverty and inequality reduction possible. Innovation, competitiveness, government reform, and education are typically cited as the requisite economic engines for further prosperity.

Yet on the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test in 2012, the eight Latin American countries participating were at the bottom of the scale for middle-income countries.

Latin American and Caribbean leaders, supported by institutions like the World Bank, have placed great emphasis on education. Most middle-income countries of Latin America spend the same proportion of GDP on education than OECD countries. During the last 50 years, the region has achieved the same level of expansion of educational coverage that took a century or more to perform in many OECD countries.

Coverage, of course, does not ensure quality instruction. In countries such as Finland, being a teacher is a prestigious occupation, sought after by the best high school graduates. Not so in Latin America. The region needs stronger incentives that reward the best teachers and give others a chance to improve. Systematic teacher evaluation, with cooperation from teachers unions, will help make such reforms viable, to generate result-based systems and to improve teacher status in society.

While the importance of good teaching is obvious intuitively, the truth is that only in the last decade have we begun to measure the economic cost of low teacher quality. Governments are paying much closer attention to the issue of teacher quality and performance as factors triggering a virtuous circle. The well-publicized reforms in Chile, Mexico and Peru are examples of transformational efforts that seek to move toward a merit-based educational career and to give opportunities for professional development and advancement of teachers based on their performance.

These reforms are closely followed by a population that demands more and better public services. People know that having children learn — and not just attend school — is necessary to ensure the socio-economic progress of the next.

Providing opportunities for all can no longer rely solely on achieving inclusion, but on achieving quality — a relevant type of learning that will help Latin American students succeed. Quality will grow in proportion to the quality of the teachers entering our classrooms.

Jorge Familiar Calderón is vice president for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank.