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Preparing great primary school teachers is not so elementary

Betsy Brown Ruzzi's picture
Also available in: Español and Français
High-performing systems set rigorous standards for becoming a teacher in order to ensure that only the most qualified individuals enter classrooms

Ed's note: This guest blog is by Betsy Brown Ruzzi of the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE).

Developing teachers with a deep understanding of the content they teach underpins the success of primary schools in top-performing education systems.  This is one of the key findings in a new report recently released by the National Center on Education and the Economy’s Center on International Education Benchmarking, Not So Elementary: Primary School Teacher Quality in Top-Performing Systems.

Weekly wire: The global forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

World of NewsThese are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.


World Humanitarian Summit: three tests for success
Thomson Reuters Foundation
After months of feverish consultation, preparation and speculation, the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) will finally kick off in Istanbul on May 23. The two-day Summit will convene 6,000 aid leaders to decide on how better to respond to today’s defining crises. So, what will mark the difference between an anti-climactic letdown and a rallying achievement? Here are my three measures of success.

World Employment and Social Outlook
Over the past two decades, significant progress has been made in reducing poverty in the majority of countries. In emerging and developing countries, taken as a whole, it is estimated that nearly 2 billion people live on less than $3.10 per day (adjusted for cost-of-living differences across countries). This represents around 36 per cent of the emerging and developing world’s population, which is nearly half the rate that was observed in 1990, when the initial international commitments to reduce poverty were undertaken. During the same period, extreme poverty – defined as people living on less than $1.90 per day – declined at an even faster rate to reach 15 per cent of the total population of emerging and developing countries in 2012, the latest available year

How students in Uruguayan schools are being taught English over the Internet by teachers in Argentina -- and in the UK & the Philippines

Michael Trucano's picture
viewed from afar, some things seem sort of strange
viewed from afar, some things seem sort of strange
Recognizing its relevance in the global marketplace, the small South American country of Uruguay has placed increasing emphasis on improving the abilities of its schoolchildren to speak English. In trying to achieve this objective, however, it has faced a very acute resource constraint: There just aren't enough qualified teachers of English working in Uruguayan schools.

What to do?

How do you strike a balance between the immediate needs of students *right now* and an education system's requirements to train teachers to help meet such needs over the long term?

The traditional approach to dealing with such a challenge in many places has been to focus primarily on pre-service training, gradually introducing new teachers into classrooms over many years who have prepared to teach the subject through dedicated courses of study at teacher training colleges, together with occasional in-service professional development activities for existing teachers (normally during holiday breaks). In Uruguay, it was recognized that the gap between the abilities and capacities of many teachers to teach English, and student needs to learn English (which became compulsory in 2008) was so huge in many parts of the country that they needed to do things differently than they had done in the past. Instead of having teachers learn English separately, might it be possible to have them learn alongside their students, in their own classrooms?

As it happens, almost a decade ago Uruguay began its ambitious and innovative Plan Ceibal, which (among other things, and as profiled in a number of previous posts on the EduTech blog) made this small South American nation the first country to connect all of its schools to the Internet and provide all primary school children with a free laptop.

Given the technical infrastructure and know-how that was developed under Plan Ceibal, Uruguayan policymakers asked themselves: 
Now that all of the schools are connected to the Internet,
and all students have their own laptops,
might it be possible to offer high quality 
English language instruction live over the Internet, 
connecting to teachers many miles away from the schools?

The answer to this question, it would appear, is 'yes'. Working out of its remote teaching center in Buenos Aires, its global digital learning hub in the neighboring country of Argentina, the British Council is beaming out English lessons to children in hundreds of individual classrooms across Uruguay, complementing and supporting the work of local teachers in these same classrooms. This is not a 1-to-many broadcast of the sort commonly done in many countries through the use of broadcast television, but rather connects individual classrooms in Uruguay with individual teachers sitting in other places. Some of these English teachers are based in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo, many others next door in Argentina, and still others much further afield -- including halfway around the world in the Philippines and the UK! Along the way, the capacity of local teachers, who continue to lead English classes on their own other days of the week, is developed, through their interactions with and observations of the remote teachers.

Philippines: Education that Knows No Boundaries

Nicholas Tenazas's picture
Filipino pride and boxing champion Manny Pacquiao completed highschool
under the Alternative Learning System, after taking the required exam in 2007
Photo by the DepEd

My relationship with the Philippine Department of Education’s (DepdEd) Alternative Learning System is one of ignorance, humiliation and inspiration.

As a young economist joining DepEd back in 2002, I was full of ideas on how to improve the country’s education system. I was coming in as a junior staff for a World Bank-funded project focusing on elementary education in poor provinces.

At around the same time, I had been hearing about this ALS program, which was providing basic education to out of school youth and adults, but I really paid no mind to it. All I knew about it was that it was largely non-formal, that it was conducted periodically through modules and that it was too small to make any significant statistical impact on globally-accepted education performance indicators.

Using video to improve teaching -- and support teachers

Michael Trucano's picture
smile and say 'PISA!'
smile and say 'PISA!'

Much of the discussion related to how new technologies can be used in classrooms in low and middle income countries focuses on the use of PCs, desktops and tablets. Less discussed, I often find, is the strategic potential of various so-called peripheral devices, which are (in my experience) typically only considered within the context of how they can be used to enhance or extend the functionality of the 'main' computing devices available in schools.

Many education systems (for better or for worse) have specific 'hardware' budgets, and, when they are looking to tap these budgets to introduce more hardware into schools, in my experience they often look to buy more of what they already have, supplemented in places by things like interactive whiteboards, or networked printers, as a complement to what is already available in a school.

When talking with educational planners contemplating how to use funds specifically dedicated to purchase computer hardware, I often counsel them to think much more broadly about what they may wish to buy with these monies, within a larger context of discussing things like how such equipment can be utilized to meet larger educational objectives, what sorts of training and maintenance support may be needed, and how the use of this technology can complement other, non-technology-enabled activities in a classroom. As part of such discussions, I often find myself attempting in various ways to challenge policymakers and planners to think beyond their current models for technology use.

One general type of gadget that I only rarely hear discussed is so-called 'probeware', which refers to set of devices which are typically used in science classes to measure various things -- temperature, for example, or the pH level of soil, or the salinity of water. Despite the increasing emphasis in STEM subjects in many countries, and what is often a rhetorical linkage between the use of computers in schools and STEM topics, I rarely find that World Bank client countries are considering the widespread use of probeware in a strategic way as part of their discussions around ICT use in schools. That said, one suspects that such an interest is coming, especially once the big vendors direct more of their attentions to raising awareness among policymakers in such places (much like the interactive whiteboard vendors began to do a half-decade or so ago).

While probeware is a new type of peripheral for many education policymakers, there is another peripheral that policymakers are already quite familiar with, and which is already used in ad hoc ways in many schools, but which rarely seems to be considered at a system level for use in strategic ways. Once you have a critical mass of computers is in place, and in place of buying one additional PC, might it be worth considering (for example) utilizing video cameras instead? Video can be put to lots of productive uses (and some perhaps not-so-productive uses). Considering three concrete examples from around the world may shed some light on how video can be used to improve teaching -- and support teachers.

A strong leader and a good idea!

Cristina Santos's picture

Maria Ines, Head teacher of Tchinducuto, and Director of ZIP 6, Namibe, AngolaLeadership can be exercised in many ways and a lot has been written about leadership and empowerment, and about the need to strengthen both in Africa. Very recently, I came across a true female leader, a simple woman with a strong personality, excellent communication and problem-solving skills, and great determination. In sum, all the things we consider to be the basis for good leadership.

She is not a politician or the head of a big company. She is a school teacher in a poor area in the southern province of Namibe, Angola. Her school is part of a group called ZIP (zone of pedagogical influence), and although her school is the poorest among the three in the group, she was chosen as the group’s leader.

In Angola and many places in Africa, parents must purchase report cards which teachers then fill in to send home. In the following account Maria Ines, Head teacher of Tchinducuto, and Director of ZIP 6, describes how her school revamped the purchasing process and found a way to earn money for the students.

Working Together, Governments and Unions of Top-Performing Countries Show that it is Possible to Improve the Teaching Profession

Emiliana Vegas's picture

Last week, I traveled to New York City to attend the first International Summit on the Teaching Profession hosted by the US Department of Education, the OECD, and Education International, a global teachers union.  Of the 16 countries represented, all were top-performers in the international PISA tests, or rapid improvers, such as Poland and Brazil.  U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the meeting to learn from what other countries are doing to improve teaching and learning, a sign that not only is this task complex and challenging, but that it is critical to countries at all levels of development.

So how do these top-performers and rapid-improvers manage their teaching forces to achieve high learning outcomes? The goal of the Summit was to have frank and open discussions about what works. Each country’s delegation included both government and teacher representatives, thus recognizing from the start the need for collaboration in the design and implementation of teacher policy reforms.

Evidence on Learning Matters: READ Trust Fund

By Emily Gardner, READ Trust Fund


It's been a busy year and a half for the Russia Education Aid for Development (READ) trust fund, since it launched in 2009 to further critical work on quality learning assessments. The program is gearing up for another productive year, working to move the pendulum forward on the global imperative to measure progress in learning. Evidence on learning matters and assessment is central to improving education effectiveness. 

Pakistan Education Reform Programs: Ambitions and Innovations

Ben Safran's picture

These days, that title alone is probably enough to have most of you continue reading.

Pakistan's leap into international news headlines has mostly been a result of a series of unfortunate events. The global spotlight has also extended to Pakistan's education system, and the tone of that coverage has mirrored that of Pakistan’s other problems. A recent New York Times article described the growth of madrassas in southern Punjab, claiming that lack of access compelled citizens to turn to these schools as a last resort to educate their children.

Rather than contributing to this debate, I wanted to discuss education in Pakistan from a different angle by talking about the problem solvers. It seems like an appropriate time to write on these issues considering the recent World Bank approval of the Sindh and Punjab Education Sector Projects, two credits totaling over $650M to support the wide-scale education reform programs in these two major provinces.