Every classroom includes a wide range of students, some of whom are well prepared to understand the material being taught, while others may struggle. Some are avid readers, others are science whizzes, and still others are creative types; many fall into more than one camp. These talents are influenced by upbringing, peers, and opportunities to pursue personal interests, and as a result students may find some subjects easier to learn than others.
In low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), students’ abilities differ much more than in high-income countries. Over the past two decades, LMICs have made impressive progress in expanding access to education. These countries have enrolled more children in school more rapidly than most high-income countries in the past. School construction, scholarships, cash transfers, and many other initiatives have brought children into the classroom who are the first in their families to attend school.
“Over the past two decades, LMICs have made impressive progress in expanding access to education.”
This progress has been rightly celebrated. Yet, it has also made the job of teaching challenging. First-generation students are differently equipped for schooling than those whose parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were able to attend school and pursue further education. Economists, including the 2019 Nobel Laureates in Economics, have documented that many children in LMICs lag far behind curricular expectations, improve less rapidly than expected, and vary widely within each grade. In Delhi, India, for example, the math achievement of students in a single grade-6 classroom, most of whom are 12 years old, spanned six grade levels. No one classroom teacher, no matter how exceptional, can realistically be expected to meet the needs of all these students simultaneously.
Economists have also shown that, in LMICs, families’ behavior and education policies affect how teachers respond to these challenges. Some parents in low-income families underestimate the benefits of school, which leads them to pull their children out of school before graduation. This gives teachers less time to invest in those children. School curricula can be overly ambitious, as they were originally developed to prepare elite children for higher education and government jobs. Teachers therefore have a lot of material to cover, leaving little time to make sure that students understand the material. Finally, high-stakes exams lead teachers to focus on students who are more likely to take and pass those exams. Consequently, low-achieving children get left further behind.
In addition to the factors considered by economists, there is mounting evidence that what teachers know, believe, and can do – which has traditionally been the purview of psychologists – may perpetuate this pattern. In a recent study, we tested students in Bangladesh and India, and asked their teachers to predict the students’ scores. Most teachers guessed incorrectly by a large margin, and their guesses were less accurate than those of teachers in high-income countries. This suggests that despite interacting with students every day and assessing them regularly, they did not have an accurate understanding of their students’ skills. One of our colleagues surveyed teachers in several developing countries and found that many of them doubt that students who struggle with the material will be able to catch up, and believe that it is not necessarily their job to remedy learning gaps from previous grades. Lastly, according to an assessment in Sub-Saharan Africa, many teachers had not mastered the material they were teaching and were unfamiliar with pedagogical approaches that might be helpful. They were also unaware of frequent student errors and underlying misconceptions. Instead of blaming teachers for these failings, we believe that the problem lies with the school systems in these settings. These systems have largely failed to reform the recruitment or training of teachers to prepare them for the challenging task of educating a rapidly growing and diverse student population.
“While we advocate for changes in curricular and exam policies, we must support teachers to become more responsive to students’ learning needs.”
Existing education policies and programs that address students’ varying needs in LMICs have not typically focused on improving teachers’ knowledge and skills. We believe that there should be more experimentation on this front. Specifically, there could be benefits from helping teachers recognize the gaps in their students’ understanding, showing teachers that their low-performing students can improve, and ensuring that teachers have a better grasp of both the subject matter and teaching methods. While we advocate for changes in curricular and exam policies, we must support teachers to become more responsive to students’ learning needs.