By: Stephanie Simmons Zuilkowski, Florida State University, and Patience Sowa, RTI International //

“We were actually taught in the university before going out on teaching practice, but what I saw out there was completely different from what we were taught; the theory does not match the practice.”[1]

Despite the core role of pre-service teacher education (PSTE) institutions in the provision of quality education in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) these institutions have generally been only peripherally involved in the implementation of foundational literacy and numeracy (FLN) programs that aim to raise the low learning levels documented in many countries. Consequently, PSTE programs are frequently disconnected from what is happening in schools and from evidence-based teaching, resulting in new teachers entering the workforce without the skills needed to be effective teachers of 21st-century learners.

In the words of one Zambian college of education lecturer, “a student teacher who is coming out of the college will look very old, as if they were trained years back.” To help LMICs achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4—the provision of quality education—and improve FLN learning outcomes, donors and implementers need to place more emphasis on preparing successful and effective teachers through PSTE programs.

To this end, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has partnered with RTI International to produce a new how-to guide aimed at improving the quality of PSTE in low- and middle-income countries. It argues that these countries’ FLN outcomes and education systems can be vastly improved through investments in four key areas:

  1. The preservice teacher education curriculum
  2. The pre-service teacher practicum
  3. Teacher educators
  4. Selection of preservice teachers and deployment of beginning teachers

The guide, together with its accompanying literature review on PSTE, is a clarion call to donors, policy makers, and implementers on how to maximize the opportunities provided by the PSTE subsector.

Pre-service Teacher Curriculum

The PSTE curriculum in many LMICs is disconnected from the realities of primary-grade classrooms, focusing on teachers’ knowledge of academic subjects and theory. Critical core content related to FLN is often absent or thinly addressed, leaving teachers with deficits that in-service training in FLN can only begin to address. Additionally, because of the concentration on theory and academic subjects, little emphasis is given to pre-service teachers’ knowledge of general pedagogy, as well as the specialized knowledge they need to teach FLN. Further, the PSTE curriculum is often detached from in-service teacher training programs, including those supporting FLN improvement, leading to dissonance when pre-service teachers move to schools for their practica or take up permanent positions.

The guide shows how countries can remedy this disconnect by ensuring that their PSTE curricula connect theory to practice, emphasize teachers’ mastery of content, prioritize their knowledge of general instructional methods, model how to teach specific academic subjects, and inculcate professionalism. The PSTE curricula should also be aligned with national teaching standards and clearly define what teachers should know and be able to do when they enter the workforce.

Pre-service Teacher Practicum

The pre-service teacher practicum, which is devised to provide pre-service teachers with practical teaching experience, has been recognized by many scholars as one of the important elements of pre-service teacher preparation. In the best-case scenario, it represents an opportunity for pre-service teachers to develop their skills through mentoring from a strong teacher, receiving supportive feedback from multiple sources, and learning to be a self-reflective and confident educator over the duration of a semester or full year[2]. However, such best-case scenarios are rare or nonexistent in many LMICs. Currently, practica can be as short as two weeks, and pre-service teachers are often left alone in classrooms with uninterested mentor teachers and no support.

In this regard, the guide suggests how policy makers and program implementers can help improve pre-service teacher practica in ways that have an impact on the skill levels of beginning teachers. This can be done through intentional planning and the provision of more structure to the practica, including increasing the duration of practica, supporting practicum schools, and training mentor teachers.

Teacher Educators

Teacher educators in LMICs need greater support for programs to improve. They may have been classroom teachers 20 years ago or may have no classroom teaching experience at all. This problem is particularly acute in LMICs. If these teacher educators do not understand new curricula or programs, it is impossible for them to adequately prepare pre-service teachers for their roles.

To ensure that teacher educators are current with the latest evidence-based trends in teacher education and FLN teaching in LMICs, the guide recommends that they be provided with up-to-date training. This includes ensuring their participation in professional development courses and actively including them in in-service trainings provided by implementers that offer practical information and strategies that new teachers need to be able to use in classrooms today.

Selection of Preservice Teachers and Deployment of Beginning Teachers

Enrolling preservice teachers into PSTE programs should be a selective process with entry requirements which consider the academic skills, soft skills, and dispositions of prospective teacher candidates. Every effort should be made by PSTE programs to attract exceptional and diverse groups of teacher candidates. Additionally, high-quality PSTE programs cannot make an impact if new teachers are not quickly and equitably deployed. Some LMICs have thousands of trained teachers who are not employed in the education sector. This is a missed opportunity to more fully staff schools, particularly in rural and other disadvantaged areas, and influences the quality of new applicants to PSTE programs, for whom the low likelihood of finding a teaching job after graduation is a disincentive to enroll in PSTE or to take their training seriously.

In this respect, the guide suggests ways that countries can improve prospective preservice teacher selection and deployment policies. It also shows how equity can be made a central concern in teacher placements—for example, by ensuring that children have teachers who can speak and teach in the local language of instruction and that student-teacher ratios are relatively consistent across subnational regions.

Attaining Teacher Quality and Sustainability

The education sector—including donors and implementers—must pay attention to PSTE for one simple reason: sustainability. If we think of the teacher workforce as a bathtub, warmed to a pleasant temperature by high-quality in-service trainings, ignoring PSTE is like dumping a bucket of cold water into the tub annually, as newly qualified teachers from outdated PSTE programs join the system.[3] In-service teachers are mobile—they retire, leave the profession, and move to other schools. The consistent element in the system is PSTE, which can be a positive or negative factor in the drive for sustainable change in FLN programs.

This guide, as well as the accompanying literature review, identifies the lack of rigorous empirical research on PSTE in LMICs as a severe impediment to progress. PSTE is understudied even in wealthy countries, and in LMICs, administrative data systems are generally unable to track pre-service teachers through their PSTE programs into classrooms years later. In the absence of large-scale administrative data, prospective studies must be designed to identify the teacher- and student-level effects of various components of and approaches to PSTE in LMICs. Great progress has been made in the quality of research related to FLN in primary classrooms in the last 15 years, and the lessons learned from those studies should be applied to research on PSTE. Researchers focused on PSTE might identify areas and methods of improvement that could spur education quality and fill the gap in research on pre-service and in-service education.

This how-to guide emphasizes that more consideration must be given to providing quality pre-service teacher education in LMICs. It is the first step toward developing successful and effective teachers and schools for teaching and learning in the 21st century.


[1] M. B. Yidana and Gabriel K. Aboagye, “A Phenomenological Study of Pre-Service Teachers’ Lived Experiences of Professional Development in Ghana,” International Journal of Education and Evaluation 4, no. 7 (2018): 71.

[2] Mukeredzi, T. G. (2017). Mentoring in a cohort model of practicum: mentors and preservice teachers’ experiences in a rural South African school. Sage Open7(2), 215824401770986

[3] We thank Simon Richmond at the Education Development Center for introducing us to this metaphor.

About the Expert

Julianne Norman's picture
Ms. Julianne Norman is an Education Analyst with the International Education (IE) Division at RTI International who supports early-grade reading projects in Liberia, Tanzania, and Uganda. Ms. Norman serves as a technical advisor for IE’s research, measurement, and programming related to school-related gender-based violence (SRGBV), school climate, and social and emotional learning (SEL) and led the development of the audio computer-assisted self-interview (ACASI) platform to administer surveys pertaining to primary school children’s experience of violence in and around school in Uganda. While contributing to a growing technical portfolio, Ms. Norman provides managerial support to the $28 million U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Read Liberia Activity.