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The world needs 5.2 million new teachers, and fast.

So says a recent report from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) entitled "Teaching and Learning: Achieving Quality for All," which details the progress made toward the goal of achieving primary education for every child worldwide by 2015. This objective is one of eight Millennium Development Goals outlined by the United Nations for what they call "the most successful global anti-poverty push in history."

Education, it has repeatedly been proven, reduces poverty, improves economic prosperity, leads to better health, and increases empowerment among women.

Since the universal primary education goal was defined in 2000, significant progress has been made across the globe. Gross enrollment of pre-primary education went from 33 percent in 1999 to 50 percent in 2011. Worldwide, enrollment in pre-primary schools grew by 60 million, and primary education enrollment in developing countries reached 90 percent in 2010, according to a United Nations fact sheet.

However, we're still likely to miss the mark by 2015, as the UN reports roughly 57 million children remain out of school. And even after four years of primary schooling, nearly 250 million children around the world have not learned basic skills like reading, writing, and math. Along with a lack of government investment in education and overall focus on student retention, one of the key reasons for these dismal figures is a critical shortage of qualified teachers.

Qualified Teachers Needed Worldwide

The 5.2 million figure derives from a need for 1.58 million new teacher recruits and 3.66 million to replace those leaving the profession, to retire or pursue other careers. In many developing countries, where the living is tough and the pay (when provided) is tougher, attracting and retaining teachers is particularly difficult. Need is most acute in Sub-Saharan Africa, where six of every 10 additional teachers are needed, as well as the Arab States, which make up 14 percent of the global demand.

And it's about more than just filling jobs with bodies. In one-third of countries, less than 75 percent of teachers are properly trained. Part of this problem is that, despite millions of dollars being donated to developing countries, little of that (only about $189 million per year) is earmarked for teacher education. And because of the many challenges of teaching in these locations, teachers must also receive practical classroom training and be prepared to teach with extremely limited resources, often to very large classrooms of diverse ages, and in areas with rigorous attitudes about gender. Those with bilingual education are also key. In countries where teaching is not highly valued or subsidized, and particularly where females are not encouraged to receive an education, getting this sort of preparation can be next to impossible. Teacher education programs are often too costly for people in those countries to attend, or too difficult to access. And while online schools have greatly improved access to teacher training programs around the world, often at significantly lower costs, many people in developing countries don't possess the technological tools necessary to take advantage of these opportunities.

Yet the value of trained teachers is hard to overstate. "An education system is only as good as its teachers," the UNESCO report states. "Unlocking their potential is essential to enhancing the quality of learning."

Numerous studies, including one published in 2011 by EdWeek.org, show that teacher quality is the most important factor in student achievement. And the UNESCO report indicates that female teachers are a crucial factor in drawing girls to school and keeping them there.

Addressing the Shortage

"Evidence shows that education quality improves when teachers are supported -- it deteriorates when they are not," notes UNESCO, adding that such deterioration has contributed to the "shocking levels of illiteracy" seen worldwide. Their report calls for unilateral support from governments and significant improvements to curricula development and assessment.

Around the globe, many nations are hearing the call and taking steps to attract and retain teachers and improve the quality of their teaching. Non-governmental organizations such as UNICEF, the World Bank, the World Food Programme, MDG Advocates, the Global Partnership for Education and UNESCO are partnering and joining forces with private organizations to raise funds for and improve access to quality education around the world.

Governments are exploring innovative methods as well. Countries such as Benin and Indonesia have elevated teachers to civil service status, increasing their pay and thereby creating modest gains in student achievement. In South Korea, experienced teachers are enticed to stay on the career path with salaries that can more than double what new hires earn.

However, UNESCO indicates that recruitment is a serious issue, and one with few solutions. The rewards of teaching -- contributing to the betterment of lives around the globe -- continue to be the primary reason for choosing this vital role in the fight against poverty.

Sources:
"Teaching and Learning: Achieving Quality for All" 2013/14 EFA Global Monitoring Report, UNESCO, January 29, 2014, http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/leading-the-international-agenda/efareport/reports/2013/
"We Can End Poverty: Millennium Development Goals and Beyond 2015" Fact Sheet, United Nations, http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/education.shtml
"Improving Student Learning by Supporting Quality Teaching: Key Issues, Effective Strategies," EdWeek.org, December 2011, Amy Hightower et. al., http://www.edweek.org/media/eperc_qualityteaching_12.11.pdf