Curry School Research on Teacher Quality Goes International

February 02, 2015

The quality of interactions between teachers and students – a current focus in improving grades of U.S. children – also seems to be pivotal in supporting students’ learning and development in Latin American countries.

The Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C. has commissioned education researchers at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education to analyze and report the classroom experiences of kindergarten, first- and second-grade students in Brazil, Chile and Ecuador.

The bank seeks to use research and targeted investments to reduce poverty and inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean. Recently, the bank’s research arm sought a glimpse of how Latin American children spend their time in the classroom and how well their teachers perform.

They found that although Latin American countries have made heavy investments in education over the last decade, increases in student learning have remained poor. While children are attending school on a regular basis, they are not gaining the knowledge they should be.

An initial study in Ecuador attempted to understand this problem by examining whether students learned more in classrooms rated as more effective using the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, an observation tool of teacher-student interactions developed at U.Va. by Curry School faculty members Robert Pianta, Bridget Hamre and Karen LaParo. The Inter-American Development Bank study found that students in Ecuador classrooms performed better when the quality of their moment-to-moment interactions with their teachers, as measured by CLASS, were higher. Based on these findings, the bank’s researchers realized they needed a better understanding of what was happening between teachers and students in classrooms across the Americas and turned to leading researchers in the field of teacher-student interactions at the Curry School’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning.

Jennifer LoCasale-Crouch, research assistant professor, is leading the team of researchers in Latin America, examining what children are doing in classrooms across the Americas and how teachers help improve their learning outcomes.

“The initial study conducted by the Inter-American Development Bank in Ecuador was not a surprise to us,” LoCasale-Crouch said. “Across the globe, we see that the quality of interactions between teachers and students are pivotal in supporting students’ learning and development.”  

To begin to understand better what students in Latin America classrooms are experiencing, a team of researchers from CASTL and the Inter-American Development Bank -- led by Yyannú Cruz Aguayo, the bank's lead economic researcher -- visited 78 classrooms in Brazil, Chile and Ecuador, where they interviewed teachers, spoke with principals and observed classrooms.

The team found students spent classroom time differently across countries. In Ecuador, writing was the predominant activity, often taking the form of students copying sentences from the chalkboard. In Brazil, reading aloud and learning sounds were the most common activities, while in Chile, children spent most of their time doing math.

In all three countries, the research team observed that teachers predominantly talk and children listen. “Most teachers in these schools are working very hard, but they’re not always engaging with students in the most effective ways,” LoCasale-Crouch said. As such, some teachers were not often engaging with children about their learning, and that, according to CASTL researchers, is one of the keys to success.

“We observed some teachers who were not sure how to react to a child who had a question or who was proactive and wanted to learn,” LoCasale-Crouch said. “On the other hand, we also observed teachers who were completely engaged with the children and able to stretch their thinking in new and creative ways. That’s what we would like to see happening across the board.”

Researchers found that in some cases, teacher workload may be a barrier to promoting effective classroom experiences. In Ecuador and Brazil, teachers work two four- or five-hour shifts a day, forfeiting time with children to complete administrative tasks.

Through interviews, researchers learned that teachers regularly shared that an ideal class should be fun and have playful activities, but that they were not always sure how to make that happen. Similar to U.S. findings, teachers and headmasters in all three countries reported the lack of parental support and challenging socioeconomic situations as the most common problems.

“What we know, though, is that in these situations, teachers’ effective interactions with students become even more important,” LoCasale-Crouch said. “So helping teachers be able to do the most in the time they have with students has to be the priority.

“The next step is to work with our partners to design a set of supports that would be useful to teachers that takes into consideration their culture and context,” she said. “We also want to take a close look at the role of principals and how we can help them identify and support quality teaching within their schools.”

CASTL researchers also recommended professional development opportunities for teachers to learn more about what effective teaching is, what it looks like and how they can engage with students in ways that have a direct, positive effect on student outcomes.

“We don’t have a clear-cut solution yet, but we do know now more than ever what is important for children to experience in classrooms,” LoCasale-Crouch said. “We have to figure out how to make that happen in Latin America, making sure that eager learners across countries get what they deserve: a quality classroom experience.”

CASTL’s research will be featured in the 2015 edition of the bank’s publication, “Development in the Americas,” due out later this year.

Media Contact

Audrey Breen

Curry School of Education