A Good Teacher is Hard to Find
Good teachers are precious commodities. But according to Claremont Graduate University Associate Professor Tom Luschei, our educational needs in America pale in comparison to those in developing countries. That is why he is leading an ambitious project to create a plan for getting good teachers to the students most in need.
With funding from UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund), Luschei has partnered with his colleague Amita Chudgar, assistant professor at Michigan State University, to figure out why children in developing countries—who already struggle against poverty, poor infrastructure, and often violence—don’t receive quality teachers. And most importantly, what can be done about it. The problem is clear, and solutions have the potential to benefit millions.
“As important as teachers are for average children, they’re that much more important for poor and disadvantaged kids who don’t have resources in the home,” Luschei said. “If these children can receive quality education they will have a better chance to grow up and get jobs, support their families, and participate in civic activity and the democratic process.”
Though he grew up in California, and spent the first decade of his professional career teaching for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), Luschei’s interest in international education can probably be traced back to his birth. He was born in Colombia—though he moved to America while an infant—and is fluent in Spanish. In the LAUSD, he was a bilingual teacher for elementary and high school students who were were learning English as their second language.
“Virtually all of them were immigrants or children of immigrants. I enjoyed talking to them about their experiences and countries of origin,” Luschei said. “I learned that as great as our educational needs are in this country—and we do have profound challenges, especially in educating poor and minority children—schools have such greater needs in developing countries.”
Luschei should know: he’s seen these schools for himself—even before he became a researcher. While still teaching for LAUSD, he used vacation time to travel to developing countries, where he would make a point to visit their schools.
“I would just walk in and find the principal. I would say, “Hi, I’m a teacher in the United States. Can I see your school?’ Imagine doing that here. But they were almost always welcoming,” he said.
What Luschei witnessed was both encouraging and discouraging.
“It was sad to see how little resources these schools had to work with,” he recalled. “But then, at the same time, I got to see some amazing teachers who were doing so much with so little. Visiting those schools was really what inspired me to get into this field.”
Luschei left the teaching profession and would go on to receive an MA in economics and a PhD in international comparative education from Stanford University (where he met Chudgar). His dissertation looked at teacher quality in two different Mexican states. Since then, further research has allowed him to make more trips abroad, see more schools, and find more inspiration.
In fact, he cites a visit to an Indonesian school as being particularly influential. It was a rural, multi-grade schoolhouse with three classrooms. The location was so remote that it could only be reached by walking over hills and through rice fields. Luschei doesn’t speak Indonesian, but he found himself impressed with a young teacher (“probably 19 or 20,” he estimated) leading a class of about 50 third- and fourth-graders. Despite the almost complete lack of materials in her room (“just a chalkboard up front”), she had the students engaged and contributing.
“She brought three kids up to the front of the room: one was tall, one was medium height, and one was short. So I said to my colleague, ‘Is she teaching them about height?’ He said, ‘No. She’s teaching them symmetry.’ I didn’t get it. He said, ‘Look at their hairstyles.’ One kid had a part down the middle, one had a part on the side, and the other didn’t really have any kind of part. And she was using their hairstyles to demonstrate symmetry!” Luschei recalls, still amused and impressed by the young woman’s ingenuity. “If you have almost no resources, you use the resources you have, which is the kids. It was tremendous.”
While working on his current UNICEF project, his thoughts often return to this teacher. “If I had to encapsulate the goal with one vision or image, she would be it. We are trying to find the policies and practices that can ensure kids in developing countries have teachers like her.”
THE NEED FOR THIS PROJECT can be evidenced by Luschei’s own comparative-educational research as well as through facts and figures provided by the United Nations (UN). The most startling number is 69 million: this is how many primary-school-aged children are not being educated, as of 2008. As discouraging as that number might be—larger than the population of the United Kingdom—it represents progress. In 1999, 106 million children were estimated to be out of school. The UN’s Millennium Development Goals, declared in 2000, set the ambitious target of achieving worldwide, universal primary education by 2015. While that now seems unlikely to be met in the next two years, there is reason to be encouraged by the general trend.
However, as Luschei’s own research indicates, getting children to school only solves half the problem. Working with Chudgar and a team of graduate students from CGU and Michigan State, he began this project by reviewing existing data on how teachers are allocated in 24 countries across three regions: Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America. The team is identifying how factors such as teacher experience, age, and training relate to the ways teachers are assigned across rural and urban areas, poor and wealthy regions, and other social and economic boundaries.
Though their findings are still preliminary, there is clear cause for concern. One example: in some regions, new teachers are systematically assigned to work in poor rural areas. Then, as they gain skills and experience, they transfer to more desirable, relatively upscale urban schools.
“We see these types of systematic patterns emerge over and over,” Luschei said. “There is little or no attempt to ensure a uniform distribution of qualified teachers.”
This only accentuates the disadvantages children in rural areas already face (including lack of infrastructure, increased threat of violence, and marginalization of girls and those with disabilities). According to Luschei, a more equitable system would work the opposite way, with salary incentives offered to attract qualified teachers to the least desirable locations where they are needed most.
However, putting that principle into policies that work will require more than reviewing data. As part of this project, Luschei will be taking trips to Mexico and Tanzania, while his research partner Chudgar will be travelling or overseeing trips to the Indian states of Karnataka, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh. For Chudgar, these trips merge her experience growing up in her hometown of Mumbai with visits to far more resource-poor schools in the countryside.
“I went to what I would consider a resource-deprived school myself, but I still had it much better than those growing up in rural areas,” she said. “There are just so many privileges associated with being in a big city and having access to the teachers that just aren’t in rural areas.”
On these trips, the researchers will be meeting with policymakers, teachers, teachers-union officials, and education scholars. There will also be multiple site visits. The goal is to understand how teachers are hired, trained, and assigned to schools, and then how these processes affect learning outcomes. By visiting several states within three disparate countries, they hope to discover the best practices from each region and compile those in a series of reports for UNICEF.
Luschei is aware that good ideas can not always be copied from one country and pasted onto another, or sometimes even amongst states within a country. However, he thinks it can work if he and his team remain aware that the contexts will change and work that into the design of their policies. What gives him hope is that he has seen it work before, in his home country.
In the 1970s, a program called Escuela Nueva (“New School”) was created in Colombia specifically to work with the most disadvantaged schools, often those located in rural areas that face increased threats of violence and diminished resources compared to cities.
“That program has become a world-wide model: it’s been adapted in 15 countries. And now it is even being implemented in Colombia’s urban settings, though it was developed for rural areas,” he said. “So it can be done.”
Additionally, having UNICEF’s support will be an indispensable asset in disseminating and perhaps implementing the policy recommendations in their reports. UNICEF has staff in over 190 countries and territories around the world, and with that, the ability to get information into the hands of those who can put it into practice. The team’s final series of reports and recommendations will be presented to UNICEF in August 2013, though they have already provided early findings.
“We’ve already submitted two reports, and both have been circulated to their country offices,” Luschei noted. “That’s going to create exposure that a couple of researchers from CGU and Michigan State could never do on their own.”
And hopefully do a lot more good than any two researchers from anywhere could ever do on their own.