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Teachers as primary agents of educational systems
Teachers are probably the most important agents in the educational process because they directly organize students’ learning experiences. However, in general, education policies are not informed by a solid body of evidence on teachers and on the impact of their professional practices on the learning experience of students. Without a doubt, it is important to develop that investigative agenda in order to improve the quality of education in Latin America.
Despite the tendency in public policy to represent education as if it were a mechanical production system in which inputs generate results, simple reflection makes clear that the educational experience is rather a process of social interactions between students and teachers in which teachers’ actions hold crucial importance. Good teachers can make their students’ educational experiences successful, including under adverse conditions. Good teachers can help their students acquire fundamental learning even with poor curriculum and limited teaching materials because, after all, it is teachers’ daily work that puts its mark on students’ experiences. Likewise, excellent curricula accompanied by great textbooks and well-equipped classrooms can be completely useless if teachers do not make use of those resources.
Therefore, teachers’ actions are extremely important, but there is little systematic evidence on the subject. Gathering more information about teachers and the teaching profession would be key to formulate policies that take into account the main actors’ attributes and practices as well as foster a much needed dialogue between policy-makers and teachers. The systematic observations of Martin Carnoy and an investigative team published in 2007 analyzing why Cuban students perform better in school than their Latin American peers demonstrated that teacher performance is a key factor in explaining why Cuba, despite its poverty, achieves significant academic results. However, investigations such as this one are exceptions. In general, observations are conducted very infrequently, in isolated cases, or are simply not done at all.
Understanding teacher performance requires studying various key aspects. First, who are the people doing the teaching? It is important to know the social composition of the teaching profession to identify individuals that want to become teachers, understand their perception of their profession, determine their expectations, wishes and frustrations, and highlight the material and symbolic resources that may motivate them in their work. After all, teachers arrive with this baggage when they start in the classroom.
Second, what makes them teachers? It is necessary to know who can and who cannot teach, to know the limits and possibilities of their professional skills to determine what aspects can be entrusted to their specialized knowledge and in what areas it is necessary to provide reinforcement mechanisms or, when necessary, to seek a way of replacing them so that students can count on the educational service to which they are entitled.
Third, what is the institutional framework in which teachers perform? It is important to understand the fabric of social relationships that suggests to teachers what is legitimate and what is not (e.g. how they perceive corruption, what “desirable” service locations are), which aspirations are more realistic than others (e.g. the independent employment stability of teaching), for what things they should be accountable (e.g. for the number of textbooks they receive and then return at the end of the year in good condition, or for their students’ learning) and on what institutional resources they can rely for their work or for other purposes.
After all, it is the combination of these three things that explains what teachers do in their classrooms and that ultimately shapes students’ educational experiences.
However, information on these aspects is very limited and unsystematic. For this reason, knowledge assessment exercises or aptitude tests that lack a definite connection with serious reflection and broader policies are not of much use with regard to learning.
Political discourses on the teaching profession that emphasize a victim or victimizer characterization both contain some truth, but they fail to generate serious understanding of the teaching dynamic and how it strengthens or weakens the educational experience.
Policy formulation requires that we move beyond those stereotypes and develop, with systematic evidence, a healthy discourse on the theme that could be the most important of all those concerning education. If education policy does not understand teachers and teaching, it will not ensure that students are offered the teacher performance level they are entitled to.
Cesar Guadalupe holds a PhD in Education from the University of Sussex, England. He is a Senior Program Specialist at the UNESCO Institute of Statistics. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of UNESCO.