This article was originally posted (in Spanish) by El Comercio in Peru and an English translation was posted by The Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) Programme.
Over the eight years prior to the pandemic, the most respected international tests show that Peru made more progress in education than any other country in Latin America. Over the longer period from 2009 to 2018, global tests show that a 15-year-old in Peru today masters one full year more of math, science, and language content than counterparts in 2009. This is something few other countries have achieved. What is more, research shows that children in Peru’s most remote rural areas—often the poorest—made more learning progress between 2015 and 2018 than ever before. It is no exaggeration to say that for perhaps the first time in Peru’s history, the terrible, persistent, unfair gaps in education for urban and rural children are closing. Sustaining and accelerating this progress is the road to more equal opportunity, incomes, and health for citizens of Peru no matter where they are born.
Raising teaching quality: the single most powerful strategy for improving learning
How has all this happened? A formula that is easy to identify but difficult to implement: raising the quality of teachers. Research across the world shows that how much children learn in school depends more than anything else on how much their teachers know and how effective they are in the classroom. Research also shows that good teachers cannot be guaranteed by their academic qualifications alone, because the quality of teacher training is highly variable. Global experience also confirms that paying higher salaries is a critical element of the strategy, but only if it is part of a rigorous selection process to identify the very best teachers. Indonesia learned the hard lesson that raising salaries for all teachers without making selection more rigorous failed to raise the prestige or excellence of the profession, and even worse: it did nothing to improve student learning. Wasted expenditure.
So, how to select good teachers? A major study by the Gates Foundation concluded, the best way to identify the best candidates for teaching is a three-part strategy combining academic tests of teachers’ knowledge, direct observation of them teaching in the classroom, and interviews to assess their interpersonal qualities and motivation. This has worked in Washington DC where I live. It has worked in Dallas, Texas. It is working in Chile and Ecuador and Colombia. And, until last month, it has been working in Peru.
Peru’s success in improving teaching
In 2012, Peru began a reform of education that has one central, simple goal: to ensure that children in every part of the country have excellent teachers. As in every other country, if teacher quality varies, the worst teachers end up clustered in the poorest schools—often in remote areas or dangerous neighborhoods. Talented teachers always have more options and it’s logical that they prefer to work in nice areas. And schools in those areas, already advantaged, get better while the disadvantaged schools get worse. Children born into families with the fewest resources and opportunities suffer one more blow—losing the chance for a quality education that is the most powerful lever known for developing human potential and catapulting students and their families out of poverty.
I saw this up close in Washington DC in 2007, when a new mayor and innovative chancellor decided to break a pattern of unequal education. Michelle Rhee said, “I am putting my own children in the public schools. If they are in a class with a weak teacher, even one day is too long to wait for change.” So, Washington DC put in place the same policies as Peru—careful screening of teachers before they are hired plus much more attractive salaries for those teachers who pass the exam plus classroom observation plus interviews. Since 2007, these policies have been sustained under several different mayors and the results have been clear; Washington DC has made more progress in improving learning overall and reducing the disparities between black, white, and Hispanic students than any other city in the United States.
The politics of teacher quality reforms
But even though we have evidence from around the world that raising the quality of teachers is the single most powerful strategy for improving education and equalizing opportunity, and that it produces results, it is hard to sustain. Why? Because the teachers who are screened out of the selection process in many countries become a political bloc that attack it. This happened in Mexico, where the reforms introduced by President Peña Nieto were reversed when Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected with the support of Mexico’s powerful teachers’ union. It happened in the states of São Paulo and Rio in Brazil after politicians found it easier to accept union support than maintain reforms that were benefitting the poorest children. And it appears to be happening now in Peru.
The Prueba Única Nacional (PUN)—the first part of Peru’s three stage teacher selection—has been successfully administered nationwide to approximately 200,000 candidates each year since 2015 with careful attention to the integrity of the test distribution and administration. But on November 13, 2021 for the first time, there was a major leak of the test, with candidates in several regions receiving a copy in advance, which compromised the fairness and validity of the selection process.
What happens next will be crucial for Peru’s progress
The source of the leak is being investigated and it is of critical importance to determine what happened, how, and who benefitted. The investigation is especially important because this is the first time in the history of the PUN that it was administered under the control of a Minister of Education who has actively opposed the teacher selection process in the past, as has Peru’s President, Pedro Castillo. In fact, the politically unknown Castillo rose to national prominence in 2017 by leading a strike against the teacher evaluation process and indeed against the very concept of hiring and rewarding the best teachers. Simply put, the goal was to destroy the meritocracy in education that is beginning to benefit Peru’s children.
The PUN is a challenging test; I can confirm this after taking a translated English version. And the annual pass rate is low. The pass rate typically averages less than 15 percent. Candidates who do not pass cannot access the civil service pay scale and benefits, but may continue to work as contract teachers and take the test again in subsequent years. But new research by the Interamerican Development Bank1 provides important evidence that teachers’ scores on the PUN predict their effectiveness in raising student learning. In other words, the high standards of the PUN have a high payoff for education quality.
With the progress Peru has made in raising learning, there is no doubt that the current teacher selection process is benefitting Peru’s children. In this context, the leak of the PUN and rumors that it stemmed from the highest levels of the Ministry are terribly disturbing. Peru’s recent advances in education are the envy of other countries in Latin America. Now is not the time to change the policies that are delivering Peru’s children the opportunities they deserve for better teachers, more learning, and a brighter future.
Post-script: After investigators determined that Education Minister Carlos Gallardo’s daughter had entered the Ministry in the weeks before the PUN was administered without clear authorisation, the Minister was censured by the Congress and resigned on December 23, 2021. The new Minister, Rosendo Serna, has not made a clear commitment to sustaining the teacher selection test.
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.