How poor children are often hurt twice by teacher shortages

Primary schools with vulnerable children are hit harder by the teacher shortage, according to an analysis of Flemish school data by Kristof De Witte and KU Leuven colleagues. This will surprise only a few people, as we’ve seen this to be the case in many countries and regions. Such schools are more common in an urban context, where the teacher shortage is already higher anyway, and teachers sometimes just can pick where to work because of the shortage.

That this does not help equal opportunities should not be surprising either. In this way, these children are taught less on average than other children, while they would benefit twice as much from this time with a teacher.

But there is more to it than that if we look at what education research currently says has the highest learning effect: collective teacher efficacy. This concept, coined by American-Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura in the last century, describes the force of a team having a collective belief in itself. The belief that, as a team, you can make a difference.

Fortunately, there are still a lot of teachers who give their best to these children, but this individual belief, self-efficacy, has only a third of the impact of a team’s collective belief, according to research by Rachel Ells and John Hattie, among others. Thus, these children are hurt twice.

Earlier research (by Belfi and colleagues) already showed that in this kind of school, collective efficacy was significantly lower than in the rest of education. The reason is not far to seek. These were already schools where there was a revolving door for staff, with new teachers coming in all the time and teachers leaving just as often. High staff turnover makes it harder to form a team. Now add to this the fact that more people use the revolving door to leave the school than come in.

What can be done about this? Make the job of a teacher in these schools more attractive, but how? More pay or a bonus is sometimes suggested. This may help living closer to the school, as often many teachers have to commute long distances to teach in these schools. But whether this will be enough remains to be seen. The neighbourhood must also be attractive enough for a family to live in. There are some examples that show that strong school leadership and a strong vision can also help. Personally, I am in favour of recognising the work of these teachers in another way too, with just about the best thing that education people know: time. For instance, let these teachers and teachers’ assistants teach a little less. After all, they have relatively more consultations because there are now more children with problems that require support and, therefore, consultation. More support for these teachers is also badly needed.

It is important to make precisely these jobs more attractive than to hope that, for example, IT will solve this problem as some suggest. An education where the poor kids have to make do with screens while the rich kids get a flesh-and-blood human being as a teacher seems to me to be the McDonaldisation of education rather than a path to follow.

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