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Teachers: A Fundamental Factor in Student Learning

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By Federico Sucre and María Oviedo

On July 30th, the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (OREALC/UNESCO Santiago) launched the second release of results from the Third Regional Comparative and Explanatory Study (TERCE). Administered in 2013 to students in 15 Latin American countries and the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, TERCE assessed the performance of third and sixth grade students in mathematics and language (reading and writing), and of sixth grade students in natural sciences.

This second stage of result dissemination presented two new reports: one on the learning achievements of students in the region by levels of performance, and another on the factors associated with learning achievement. In other words, it emphasizes what students know and are able to do, and which elements and contexts affect student learning. The second report analyzes the effect of three types of factors on student learning: (a) the characteristics of the students and their families; (b) the characteristics of the teachers, pedagogical practices, and classroom resources; (c) and the characteristics of the schools.

In an attempt to further analyze the findings from the second report, we summarize five of the factors that most influence learning among children and youth, and assess the crucial, cross-cutting role of teachers across these areas. Teachers are the foundation of a quality education system. Therefore, it is essential to design policies that can assist them in establishing good learning environments.

  1. Teacher policies to reduce inequality

According to the study, between 14 and 68% of disparities in achievement are caused by differences between schools. A large part of these disparities can be explained by differences in students’ socioeconomic backgrounds. The report suggests that countries should establish policies and practices that promote equality among students from different socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnic origins, improve gender parity, provide increased access to schooling, and offer more support for students from vulnerable populations. TERCE results show, for instance, that girls score higher in language while boys score higher in math and science, and that students from indigenous and vulnerable populations have consistently lower scores. Teachers must actively level the learning environment for all students by organizing their classrooms and assigning student leadership roles in ways that promote integration and serve to break stereotypes. They must also promote the inclusion of culturally and linguistically diverse students. To achieve this, teachers must receive initial and in-service training on topics pertaining to social inclusion. Also, given the geographic concentration of students living in poverty, education systems must design mechanisms to attract and retain effective teachers in vulnerable areas. Recent publications by UNESCO, the IDB, UNICEF, OEI and the Inter-American Dialogue have addressed the issue of inequality and teaching, providing relevant data for policymaking.

  1. Teachers can help prevent grade repetition

The report finds that, after the student’s level of socioeconomic status, grade repetition is the second variable that most influences learning. A student that has repeated a grade scores between 15 and 74 points lower than a student who has never repeated a grade, possibly because retention causes stigmatization and low motivation, which hinder performance. The report suggests that countries must look for alternatives to repetition and must design and implement measures to prevent it. High-quality teacher training can help to detect and support students who are falling behind. For instance, teachers must know how to interpret the results of student evaluations to identify students who need greater attention, and to diversify their teaching methods to meet the learning needs of all students, especially those who are at risk of having to repeat a grade. Other preventive measures include accelerated learning periods during the school day, as well as enrichment and tutoring sessions after school or during the summer. (Jimmerson, Pletcher y Kerr, 2005).

  1. Teachers trained specifically in preprimary education

Attending preprimary education is one of the factors that most influences learning, given the positive long-term effects of early socio-cognitive stimulation. Students who attended preprimary school between the ages of 4 and 6 obtain between 9 and 30 points more than those students who did not. On average, only a third of students who took the TERCE exam went to preschool, which suggests that expanding coverage at this level should be a priority. While many countries have already made significant strides in increasing preschool enrollment (see Oviedo, Fiszbein and Sucre, 2015), the report cautions that increasing enrollment is not enough if high-quality education is not guaranteed. Starting with teaching practices, policymakers must formulate policies that can produce effective preprimary school teachers. For instance, they must design and implement highly selective entrance mechanisms and performance-based salary incentives, as well as evaluate and certify training institutions and revise early-grade teaching methodologies following international best practices.

  1. Teacher attendance, punctuality, and effective use of class time have a strong impact on student achievement

According to the report, the use of class time for instruction is one of the factors that most influences learning (see also Bruns and Luque, 2014). Teachers’ absences and lateness mean students get less hours of instruction, which negatively affects learning and performance. In fact, improving the index of teacher attendance and punctuality by 1 point improves student performance by between 6 and 34 points, after controlling for socioeconomic levels and school variables. Several countries, such as Guatemala, have begun citizen-led initiatives to monitor the fulfillment of school days, including the participation of teachers and principals.

  1. The guided use of educational resources has a positive effect on learning

The report shows a negative correlation between the use of computers in the classroom and learning levels, though there are exceptions depending on the context and frequency of use. However, an IDB study found that guided-use programs, that is, “programs that provide clear guidance on the frequency and type of expected technology use,” improve academic achievement up to four times more than nonguided-use programs. In fact, compared with other educational interventions, guided-use technology in education programs was the most effective in raising academic achievement among ten types of programs considered. Education systems must train teachers to use information and communications technologies (ICTs) effectively, so that they may implement guided-use programs successfully (see Swig, 2015).

Based on the evidence on the factors that affect student performance, it is clear that teachers can be a valuable asset to improve learning levels in Latin America. Public policies must design new strategies for teacher training and professional development that can strengthen pedagogical and didactic practices across all grade levels and disciplines.

Image credit: Colegio Municipal Marcela Paz, La Florida, Santiago de Chile / Oficina Regional de Educación / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (with modifications).

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