CASTL's Mission to Improve Education in Latin America

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Making the world a better place, eradicating poverty and ensuring that each and every child has access to the quality education they deserve. In a nutshell, that’s the core mission of the Inter American Development Bank headquartered in Washington D.C. Recently, the research arm of the bank wanted to get a glimpse of how children in Latin America spend their time in the classroom and how well teachers are performing. They conducted an initial study in Ecuador, and found that student outcomes were greater when the quality of their moment to moment interactions with their teachers were higher. Based on these findings, the IDB realized they needed to get a far better understanding of what was happening between teachers and students in classrooms across the Americas. So, they turned to one of the leading organizations in research on teacher-child interactions: the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) at the University of Virginia. The result is a descriptive study of children’s classroom experiences in Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade in Brazil, Chile and Ecuador.

Jennifer LoCasale-Crouch is a research assistant professor at CASTL, part of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. She has a world map in her office that she likes to take a look at from time to time.  Not to daydream about her next vacation, but to think about research projects that are currently underway across the globe. Backed by the Inter American Development Bank, her latest endeavor brought her to Latin America. She and her fellow researchers at CASTL are trying to get a clear sense of what children are doing in classrooms across the Americas and how their teachers help improve their learning outcomes.

‘’The initial study conducted by the Inter American Development Bank in Ecuador was not a surprise to us,’’ she states. “Across the globe, we see that the quality of interactions between teachers and students are pivotal in supporting students’ learning and development.’’  In other words, it’s not just about going to school, it’s what happens inside the classroom that defines the quality of an educational system.

That’s why CASTL researchers designed the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) to measure the effectiveness of interactions between teachers and students. The scoring system, which is widely used across the United States and other parts of the world, measures classroom interactions across three areas: emotional support, classroom organization and instructional support.

Although heavy investments were made in the last decade to improve education in Latin America, increases in student learning have remained poor. While children are attending school on a regular basis, they’re simply not gaining the knowledge they should be. So what’s happening in these classrooms?  Shedding light on this question has been a serious challenge because not a single study conducted actually looked at the experiences children were having in the classroom, until now.

With the CLASS in their arsenal, four CASTL researchers and three IDB researchers set off to visit schools in Brazil, Chile, and Ecuador. They interviewed teachers, spoke with principals and, above all, observed what was happening in the classrooms.

The trip lasted three weeks. In Ecuador the team visited 28 classrooms, 24 in Brazil and 26 in Chile.

The research team observed students spending classroom time differently across countries. For example, 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.

‘’What we found was an array of different things. Most teachers in these schools are working very hard, but they’re not always engaging with students in the most effective ways.’’ For instance, in all three countries the research team discovered that the most classroom activities were conducted in a whole-group setting and that teachers predominantly talk and children listen.

In other words, teachers weren’t often engaging with children about their learning, and that, according to research, is one of the keys to success. ‘’We observed some teachers that had no idea how to react to a child that had a question, that was pro-active and wanted to learn. 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.’’

In some cases, teacher workload may be part of the struggle in maintaining effective classroom experiences. ‘’In Ecuador and Brazil teachers get very little break time and work two four or five-hour shifts a day.’’ As a result, teachers need to use time they could be spending with children on managerial and administrative tasks. When researchers observed children engaged in individual tasks, for example, teachers often spent their time grading papers.

As part of the visit, LoCasale-Crouch and her team also interviewed teachers and principals to learn first-hand how they experience the Latin American educational system. ‘’They were very gracious in talking to us,’’ says LoCasale-Crouch. ‘’Although we had permission by the governments and the trip was carefully planned, not all principals were aware of our visit. But they all made time to talk to us.’’ That proved a fruitful endeavor and gave the team some useful insights. 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. And, similar to US findings, teachers and headmasters in all three countries reported the lack of parental support and the challenging socioeconomic situations as the most common problems facing children. “What we know though, is that in these situations teachers’ effective interactions with students become even more important – so helping teachers be able to do the most in the time they have with students has to be the priority.”

And that’s what LoCasale-Crouch and her team are using these study results to do. The project is only just beginning, says LoCasale-Crouch ‘’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. We want to take a close look at the role of principals and how to help them identify and support quality teaching within their schools.’’
Researchers at CASTL also recommend professional development for teachers that help them learn what effective teaching is, what it looks like, and how they can engage with students in ways that have a direct positive effect on future 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. And so we have to figure out how to make that happen in Latin America to make sure that eager learners across countries get what they deserve; a quality classroom experience.’’
CASTL’s research will be featured in the Inter-American Development Bank Flagship Publication on Early Childhood Development in Latin America and the Caribbean, due out this year.