10/23/2014 01:46 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2014

Education Quality in Latin America Comes Down to Teachers

It seems like almost every day more evidence comes in showing that teachers are the most important single factor when it comes to education quality. While that makes intuitive sense, it is also critical to have empirical evidence to support it.

A better understanding of the central role that teachers play will help us focus reform efforts and target resources more effectively. It also confronts us with a major challenge: there are some seven million teachers in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to a recent report by the World Bank, representing 4 percent of the region's total labor force and 20 percent of its professional workers, and their combined salaries are equivalent to nearly 4 percent of regional GDP. They work in conditions ranging from open air classrooms in the countryside to plush air conditioned schools in rich urban neighborhoods.

How then, can we improve teacher performance across the region, with all of these local variations?

The World Bank, in their report "Great Teachers: How to Raise Student Learning in Latin America and the Caribbean," tackles this massive question. In perhaps the most comprehensive report on the teaching profession in Latin America, the researchers made more than 15,000 unannounced visits to classrooms in more than 3,000 public schools between 2009 and 2013.

They came to a number of interesting conclusions. As the Economist magazine summarizes the findings:

The main reason for Latin America's educational failure is simple. The region churns out large numbers of teachers recruited from less-bright school leavers. It trains them badly and pays them peanuts (between 10 percent and 50 percent less than other professionals). So they teach badly.

In fact, the World Bank found that Latin American teachers as a whole spend just 65 percent of their time actually teaching -- compared with the recommended international benchmark of around 85 percent. Nor is this a problem easily solved with new technologies or better materials -- the study points out that even in schools possessing internet connectivity, laptops, or other advanced teaching aids, teachers generally keep using what they know, the blackboard.

Thus the numbers about wasted time in the classroom point to the more fundamental problem: the way that teachers are recruited, trained, and compensated for performance. Unfortunately, making any changes in this area is no easy task, given the influential interest groups with a stake in the status quo -- including teachers unions, university administrations, and teacher training institutes.

However, not all improvements are necessarily complex, according to Javier Luque, one of the authors of the World Bank report and an education specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank. Luque explains:

As we interacted with teachers in thousands of classrooms, we found that often the biggest problems have to do with very simple things: once we have teachers in the classroom, the system has to guarantee that they use that time promoting learning activities for all students. Students can never get back lost time. In many cases we observed teachers not using up to one third of class time just waiting the bell to ring. Just think on all the learning activities that could have taken place!

"Students are at school to learn," Luque adds, "and thus all the actors in the system should align to ensure that learning takes place. This would seem to be a very simple recommendation, but unfortunately it is not happening." That may be because many of the underperforming teachers already possess the necessary technical knowledge or cognitive skills -- but the lack of clear signals related to student learning are holding them back.

At the same time, Luque argues that deeper reforms are also necessary. "These will relate to revamping teacher training and evaluation systems," he says. That is critically necessary "in order to get better information about what is working and what is not -- so we can figure out how and where to intervene."

Some countries, like Chile, Mexico, Peru, and Ecuador, have passed legislation to increase evaluations. Elsewhere, major cities like Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires are taking the lead. In each of these cases, improvements faced strong opposition from teachers unions, who are opposed to linking performance reviews with career advancement.

But in my conversation with Luque, he insists that those "signals" are exactly what our education systems are missing. "In Latin America, most classrooms are like a 'black box': the system doesn't really know what is going on internally. That substantially limits the chances of improvement." Making this explicit -- and tying it to a rigorous evaluation process -- could make a big difference.

The report put together by Luque and his colleagues presents not only a bracing picture of Latin American education but also a number of good ideas for fixing it: better principals, more peer-to-peer training, and reducing teachers' administrative workload.

Still, it focuses less on what will be needed on a system-wide level to achieve these classroom reforms. The political arena is where the real challenges are, and with powerful stakeholders ready to oppose any changes, reformers must build political strategies as well as policy recommendations. That, perhaps, is a good topic for the next study.