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A Hidden Teacher Shortage in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

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Gita Steiner-Khamsi (Photo courtesy of Ghita Steiner-Khamsi)

Gita Steiner-Khamsi (Photo courtesy of Ghita Steiner-Khamsi)

By Patricia Lamiell

A highly qualified teaching force does not always translate into high-quality teaching. That discrepancy is fueling a previously hidden teacher shortage in six eastern European and central Asian nations, according to new research by Teachers College master’s students led by Gita Steiner-Khamsi, Professor of Comparative and International Education. Steiner-Khamsi and her team recently completed a study of teaching quality in six countries in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Commonwealth of Independent States.

In that part of the world, “even qualified teachers are teaching subjects which they are not qualified to teach,” Steiner-Khamsi says. At the root of the problem, they found, is low teacher salaries.

The project began in 2009 when field staff from UNICEF (The United Nations Children’s Fund) approached Steiner-Khamsi with a conundrum:  Why was there so much public criticism of teachers and debate in the region about the “crisis of the teaching staff” despite a steady output from colleges of teacher-education graduates, ample supply of working teachers, and a generally highly qualified teaching force? Steiner-Khamsi, who had previously done international education research for the World Bank and USAID, first collaborated with UNICEF and local government officials on a pilot study of teacher recruitment, preparation and salaries in Kyrgyzstan to try to understand the apparent discrepancy.

After UNICEF published that report in 2009, Steiner-Khamsi was asked to expand the study to the Central Eastern Europe (CEE) countries of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and the Republic of Moldova; as well as Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). She recruited a dozen TC students—mostly master’s students in the Comparative and International Education and the International Educational Development programs—and under her direction, they each teamed up with a UNICEF researcher and a local government official and began in-depth studies of teacher quality in the specified countries. Under Steiner-Khamsi’s direction, they produced six studies, one for each country, published in its native language, and then synthesized them into one report.

The first thing the teams found was that, although national statistical offices in the region typically report minimal teacher shortages, in fact, there was a serious dearth of highly qualified teachers in some subject areas. “Officially, they say there is only a small teacher shortage—0.2 percent,” Steiner-Khamsi explained. “But if you look more closely at the school level, especially in rural areas, that percentage is much, much higher.”

The TC and UNICEF teams found practices that mask significant shortfalls and end up lowering the quality of teaching and of education. “In total,” the report says, “schools use 10 different coping strategies to deal with teacher shortages.” For example, in attempting to fill vacancies or boost the salaries of poorly paid teachers, school directors redistribute the work from vacant positions among the teaching staff, often to teachers who have no training in that particular subject or who take on the additional teaching hours in excess of their regular teaching load. “The history teacher ends up teaching math. Or the math teacher ends up teaching language arts,” says Steiner-Khamsi.

The problems begin with the recruitment of college students in the region into teaching. The study, published in late 2011 by the regional field office of UNICEF, examined teacher-education programs in all six countries and found they have low admission requirements, attract masses of students, and provide a disproportionately large number of scholarships compared to those in more rigorous academic programs. “It is assumed that a great number of students enroll in teacher-education studies because they were turned down by other degree programs and because funding was available,” the report says. Even students who graduate don’t always end up teaching. Some land higher-paying jobs, and some—especially women of childbearing age—decide not to work. In Kyrgyzstan, only 17 percent of graduates from teacher-education programs—including those who receive publicly funded scholarships—end up in a classroom.

Another problem is the poor quality of teacher preparation, the researchers reported. In all six countries except Uzbekistan, public funding for professional development programs for working teachers has been discontinued and supplanted by private funding from philanthropists such as George Soros. This has improved the quality of training for teachers who are already launched in their careers, but it also has highlighted the shortcomings of publicly funded teacher preparation programs. As a result, universities are under pressure to catch up to professional development programs in the areas of standards, curricula, student assessment and textbook development in teacher preparation programs, the researchers found.

Another area of concern in four former Soviet countries—Moldova, Uzbekistan, Armenia and Kyrgesztan—is the “stavka” system, in which teachers are paid per hour but can earn extra money for doing extra tasks, such as grading students’ papers. This has led to a belief among some teachers that they should be compensated for every task they do, and, indeed, they can often make more money by helping individual students one at a time than teaching to a full classroom.

The root of this problem, the report finds, is that teacher salaries are “not sufficient to make a living or financially support a household. As a result, teachers in the region have developed all kinds of compensation strategies to offset the shortcomings of the [pay] system. They seek additional income from teaching additional hours, collect fees from parents at school, and take on additional work outside of school.” Some teachers even bribe school officials to get jobs, Steiner-Khamsi says. All these strategies lower the quality of teaching in the region.

Even with extra wages paid for additional tasks, in general, teachers in the region are not well paid in comparison to other public-sector workers in their own countries. “The over-representation of women in the teacher labor force is generally associated with the lowered status and salary of teachers,” the report says. But, as in Western countries, the teaching profession is considered attractive for a variety of reasons, including secure income, pensions and social benefits, and the opportunity to work part-time.

The report recommends improving the qualifications of three large groups of teachers:  those who teach subjects for which they were not trained; correspondence students who work as part-time teachers; and teachers in minority schools who teach subjects in a language they do not know. Effective teacher recruitment requires greater concern for admission criteria and university-to-work transition rates. Pre-service teacher education reform, which lags behind innovations in professional development for working teachers, should be accelerated, and teachers’ salaries should be raised, the report concludes.

For Steiner-Khamsi, the UNICEF studies represent a “model of international cooperation” and a natural progression of her studies of school- and teacher preparation reform and education policy from an international perspective. A native Iranian educated in Zurich, Switzerland, Steiner-Khamsi has done comparative education research mainly in Europe, the former Soviet Union and Mongolia. She said the governments of all six of the countries in the UNICDF study are considering follow-up work, and UNICEF “liked the collaboration so much” that it asked her to do additional teacher-quality studies in the African countries of Lesotho, Swaziland and Malawi, and in Mongolia, which are completed.

As for her students, the project represented a two-semester course, "International Education Policy Studies," which provided an unusual opportunity for master’s students to be named co-authors on the regional report as well as on all six national case studies.

“I think Gita did something very, very unique and very special,” says Raisa Belyavina, who worked on the Armenia report and is now a senior research officer with the Research and Evaluation Division of the Institute of International Education. “She worked on this project in Kyrgyzstan and got an opportunity from UNICEF to turn it from a one-country study into six-country study, and turned it into a learning opportunity for her students.”

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