Are Great Teachers Born or Made?


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Did you have a favorite teacher at school? What made that teacher so special? Teachers are the single most important resource we have to ensure that children learn. But the reality is that many kids across the world don’t get a good quality education.

The role of teachers has changed. They are no longer just a source of information and knowledge available to students. The core role of teachers today is to equip students to seek, analyze, and effectively use information. Their role is to help them become better citizens and develop competencies for today’s global economy, such as critical thinking, problem solving, and team work.
Teacher quality is a topic dear to my heart. Until about three months ago, I was responsible for Brazil’s biggest municipal education system, including 660,000 students and 45,000 teachers in the city of Rio de Janeiro. There, I met many great teachers and principals committed to changing the lives of children.
In the World Bank Group, where I now lead the Education Global Practice, we know that countries with higher student achievement in international exams also achieve faster economic growth. In other words, as students absorb more learning, economies can become more productive. Teachers are at the center of this striking correlation, and their effectiveness is the single most important predictor in the school environment of how much students learn. 

I just had the opportunity and the honor to help launch in Lima, Peru, the Bank’s newest piece of research on the subject, titled “Great Teachers: How to Raise Student Learning in Latin America and the Caribbean”, which distills the latest evidence and practical experience with teacher policy reforms from both within and outside the region.

Recent data, especially from the United States, shows that teacher effectiveness is so powerful that students with a weak teacher only learn 50 percent or less of the curriculum for that grade, while students with a good teacher get an average gain of one year, and those with great teachers advance one-and-a-half grade levels or more. Further, consecutive years of outstanding teaching can offset learning deficits among disadvantaged students.
Plenty of global data are also available that show that three things are very important in building a highly effective teaching force—recruitment, grooming, and motivation.

  • High-performing education systems such as Singapore, South Korea and Finland use a very competitive process to screen applicants and so recruit the very best into the teaching profession.
  • Japan and Korea have effective systems for assessing teacher performance and progress; while Singapore and Ontario (Canada) pay close attention to how school directors are selected and trained, with a special focus on how well they can assess and develop the quality of their teachers. These systems focus on grooming the talent.
  • There are also important nuances that surface from global evidence. Incentives matter. One study shows that linking pay to attendance can reduce teacher absenteeism, but how this is done matters. Attendance bonuses are least effective when principals grant them and most effective when combined with other measures such as changes in monitoring systems. In other words, it is important to find effective ways of motivating teachers.
Let me give you an example of how the findings and recommendations in this book have already been used. I worked with the Bank in the city of Rio de Janeiro at the time this research was being done, and I can vouch for the degree of rigor with which it was conducted. Later, thanks to the results that emerged, we made some important changes in teacher training.
  • First, we put in place a platform with digital lessons that ensured more interaction and learning in the classroom.
  • Second, we observed classroom management as part of the teacher selection process and trained both new and existing teachers in the use of better classroom techniques.
  • Finally, we put in place a system that measured school quality using a composite index of learning, based on the national external assessment plus the student progress rate, which reflects whether students were dropping out or being held back to repeat a grade.
I refer to the Rio experience not just because I am familiar with it, but because it is an example of how evidence can help craft solutions that really work. It is possible to bring about rapid change when there is political will, determination, persistence and a solid technical base.

Great teachers are neither born nor made. Great teachers are the product of a combination of both, supported by the right structures, training and incentives. I invite you to take a look at the report and let me know what you think.

Follow the World Bank education team on Twitter @WBG_Education



Claudia Costin

Founder, Innovation and Excellence in Education Policies (Think Tank)

Tim Emmett
July 25, 2014

All the analysis and conclusions about the effectiveness of great teachers holds true. Motivations and incentives also matter as does the overall efficiency of the system in which teachers are obliged to operate. Teacher quality addresses the "standards not structures" argument beloved of the public sector, but the real challenge is the structural modernisation of school systems that can then address and embed the appropriate use of technology, but more importantly re-engineer employment structures and school organisation for teachers in the public sector. To attract,secure and sustain the best people in the teaching profession, governments should consider new types of structure such as Teacher Professional Practice Organisations where teachers themselves take responsibility for recruitment, quality, performance and remuneration of their peers

Pauline Rose
July 25, 2014

Many thanks, Claudia, for this informative piece. The way in which evidence has helped to inform reforms in Rio is very instructive. Many of the issues you raise here resonate with ones in the 2013/4 Education for All Global Monitoring Report on teaching and learning that I recently directed (…).
There could be a couple of divergences though. On teacher absenteeism, it is good to see you stress the need to make sure linking pay to attendance is achieved in ways that does not undermine teacher motivation. However, it is also important to make sure we properly understand the reasons for teacher absenteeism and tackle those directly. Is it because of inadequate healthcare which means that teacher might have to travel a long way either for their own healthcare or to support that of relatives? Or is it because teachers are not being paid reguarly, and have to travel a disance to receive their pay? Perhaps these sorts of issues are less prevalent in Rio than in some other parts of the world, but need consideration in setting policies. I would, therefore, agree with you on the need for nuances in learning from global evidence.

Claudia Costin
July 30, 2014

Thank you Pauline for your comment. You make a very valid observation regarding the complexity of the issue.

Antoine MIAN
July 25, 2014

We are not born great teacher but become. That is why it is important to organize a good initial teacher training but also continuous training throughout life

Claudia Costin
July 30, 2014

Thank you Antoine. Very well said. 

Tamo Chattopadhay
July 30, 2014

Dear Claudia, Thank you for sharing your insights on this important study. Having studied first-hand the dynamics of teaching and learning in Rio de Janeiro’s public schools during 2006-2007, and later during your leadership at the Secretariat (summer 2010 ) – I have nothing but sincere congratulations to you for what you had accomplished and (most importantly) initiated in terms of transforming the teaching profession in a large and complex system like Rio’s.
With regards to the current WB study (Great Teachers) – it is a comprehensive research that would prove helpful for policy makers and practitioners engaged in teacher education reform everywhere.
However, it is my opinion that the study could have gone further with regards to Teacher Educators and Teacher Education Institutions. While clinical / residency models and TFA like classroom management methods are all increasingly appearing (in varied degrees) in pre and in-service programs – there seems to be little knowledge about the Teacher Educators (Mentors / Coaches) themselves, their classroom practices (with aspiring / in-service teachers) and the institutional contexts within which they operate. While initiatives like NCTQ (National Council of Teacher Quality) in the US are looking at the overall institutional quality of teacher preparation colleges / universities, there is a real need to extend the same rigorous analytical lens (that the World Bank study has applied to LAC teachers) to teacher educators. We are currently considering this as one of our new research projects at the Center for Policy Research in Higher Education, National University for Educational Planning and Administration, India). Would welcome your thoughts and suggestions.

Claudia Costin
July 30, 2014

Thank you Tamo for your recommendation. I agree we also need to analyze the quality of teacher educators.