As anyone who has ever struggled in school can attest, an excellent teacher can make all the difference in a student's learning outcomes. The story is no different in the Eastern Caribbean (Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), where teacher ability is at the heart of both serious problems and potential solutions. Evidence shows dramatic learning deficits in the region: Nearly three in four students fail the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC), with the pass rate in some countries below 12%. Similarly, nearly one in 10 students in some countries end up repeating grades.
Many factors are at play here, including economic and social inequalities. However, one key issue is a lack of quality initial teacher training. It is estimated that 70% of preschool teachers in the region have not received any training (in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, only 18% of primary school teachers have received training). The requirements to become a teacher have been drastically reduced – in some countries, a secondary school certificate is sufficient. Among those who do get pre-service training, the instruction offered is often inadequate, mainly due to undertrained faculty and obsolete programming.
Reforming the teacher training curriculum
In response to these challenges, the University of the West Indies (UWI) is undertaking comprehensive and ambitious reform of its bachelor's and associate degrees in education programs. The University is not only the leading institution of higher education serving the English-speaking Caribbean, but it is also the main – almost only – provider of pre-service teacher training in the region.
Therefore, the institution knows that the impact of a project like this can be significant and immediate. The numbers back them up: at the current coverage rate, with 275 students graduating each year from the different onsite colleges in each country, in 10 years, almost 20% of the nearly 14,000 professors who make up the region's teaching force will have passed through UWI's classrooms. In addition, one out of every five teachers could go through renewed, updated training, becoming leaders and mentors for less trained colleagues.
Calling on partners to innovate and collaborate
When Professor Joel Warrican, Director of the School of Education at the University West Indies in Cave Hills Campus, Barbados, took the leadership of this endeavor, he understood that a task of this magnitude needed to draw on the experience of others.
UWI needed assistance in accessing and mobilizing the evidence among their faculty, connecting with good practices at the regional and global levels, sharing the knowledge among relevant stakeholders, and providing a framework to monitor and evaluate the impacts effectively. So Warrican turned to SUMMA – the first Education Research and Innovation Laboratory for Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as a grantee of the GPE Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX) and the Regional Learning Partner for KIX's Regional Hub for Latin America. SUMMA, through its director Javier Gonzalez, extended the partnership request to the KIX team at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the grant agent and a co-investor for KIX, to make the collaboration possible, with dedicated professionals and concrete objectives.
In a matter of weeks, this willingness to innovate in an open and informed manner became a concrete collaboration between the University of West Indies and SUMMA, supported by KIX. The rich debate and reflection undertaken among UWI faculty has been informed by the best available international evidence through an active process of listening, consultation and participation of professors, students, faculty, and managers through surveys, interviews and focus groups. The new curriculum that is emerging in line with some of the best international practices – synthesized and documented by SUMMA – will mark the initial teacher training in the sub-region for decades to come. Likewise, a capacity-building process based on training and workshops for faculty members ensures that what is on paper becomes a genuinely transformative practice.
Solutions tailored to country contexts
This collaboration between the University of West Indies, SUMMA and KIX is aligned with the principles that guide the work that KIX promotes in the region: the generation of knowledge adapted to the local reality, based on high-quality evidence translated to clearly identified users, with a concrete scaling strategy that targets teacher training institutions and a systematic monitoring practice capable of delivering useful feedback in real time.
But this effort goes beyond the Eastern Caribbean. It provides valuable and rigorously systematized knowledge that allows the replication of similar efforts in other parts of the world.
Overall, it reminds us that when the willingness to change meets evidence, along with technical capacity and the possibility to leverage support to take advantage of windows of opportunity, building on trust of stakeholders, the change can be real and impactful.