Promoting quality education for all.

Teaching Systems must be strengthened for universal schooling to pay off

Santiago Cueto, 

By Santiago Cueto, Guest Post

Poor design of education systems often mitigates against achieving equalized outcomes for children from poor and non-poor backgrounds, says Santiago Cueto, education research and Country Director for Young Lives in Peru.

For a long time educational researchers have found that one of the main determinants of a child's educational success, if not the most important, is the socioeconomic status of their family. For example, Young Lives research in Peru shows that by the time a child reaches his or her first birthday the family´s ‘wealth index' predicts the quality of their schooling as well as their academic achievement ten years on. Our research shows that coming from a poor, indigenous, or rural family, or having a mother with less than primary education - or worse still having all four - is strongly associated with poor educational quality and performance.

Even if they are enrolled in and attending school, poor children often fail to achieve good outcomes because they are victims of poor teaching standards. Our recent school survey demonstrates just what poor teaching means. Typical examples are when pupils were asked to write the word rectangle dozens of times as a way to learn geometry, or to write out lots of long numbers in words. The most common tasks we found in our analysis of pupil's workbooks were exercises in which they were asked to solve hundreds of additions, subtractions, multiplications and divisions. These methods fall far short of the standards called for in national and international evaluations, which require students to solve problems rather than perform memorized routines.

However, this should not lead to a pessimistic conclusion that poverty must be eliminated before educational results can improve. Our research in Peru and the other countries shows a wide variation in scores among children of similar levels of poverty. The explanation seems to lie in what resourceful teachers can do. Good teachers provide their students with more opportunities to learn, for example more challenging explanations and tasks for students to perform as well as more and better feedback. We found that teachers who provide higher opportunities for children to learn reduce the achievement gap between children from poor and non-poor backgrounds.

Our conclusion is that we need better teacher training and in-service training and that textbook selection for schools need to set a higher standard for what students should know and be able to do. It may be that opportunities to learn are especially relevant in impoverished environments, since we know that in non-poor environments several factors - from school and family - interact to facilitate learning.

Peru's education policy is at a cross-roads. After achieving almost universal primary school enrollment and increasing enrolment for other levels, achieving acceptable levels of learning for all pupils should be the next priority. Otherwise the educational system will continue being beneficial only for the better-off few.

Young Lives School Survey in Peru: Design and Initial Findings, by Gabriela Guerrero, Juan Leon, Elizabeth Rosales, Mayli Zapata, Silvana Freire, Víctor Saldarriaga and Santiago Cueto, Young Lives Working Paper 92, 2013


Santiago Cueto is an education researcher at the Grupo de Análisis para el Desarollo (GRADE) in Peru, and country director of Young Lives (Niños del Milenio).

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