Are Great Teachers Born or Made?


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)

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