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Teaching degree crisis

Policies designed to improve the attractiveness of a teaching career and reformulate curriculums aim to reverse the teacher shortages in Brazilian primary education

Brazil is grappling with a shortage of qualified teachers across all subjects

Léo Ramos Chaves / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

Public and private schools in Brazil are having to work around a scarcity of subject-specific educators, with many students completing the 2023 academic year without being taught physics or sociology by teachers specializing in these subjects. With not enough candidates to fill teaching positions, schools are having to improvise, assigning teachers trained in other fields to fill gaps in both primary and secondary education. This practice is being replicated in various Brazilian states and municipalities, as revealed by previously unpublished research data from the National Institute for Educational Studies and Research (INEP). For instance, in Pernambuco, only 32.4% of high school physics classes are taught by qualified physics teachers, and in Tocantins, just 5.4% of sociology classes are taught by specialists in sociology. The declining number of teaching-degree graduates in specific subjects, which dropped from 123,000 in 2010 to 111,000 in 2021, is symptomatic of Brazilian youth’s decreasing interest in pursuing a teaching career. The data point to a dire shortage of educators in the near future. To reverse this trend, researchers are advocating for urgent policy reform to make the teaching profession more appealing and restructure the curriculum.

“The gap in teaching degrees is concerning,” says Márcia Serra Ferreira from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), who serves as director of education for primary teachers at the Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES). Teaching degrees in specific subjects are higher education programs that qualify graduates to teach in the later years of elementary school and in high school within their chosen subjects. Data from the latest Census of Higher Education, published last year by INEP, an agency affiliated with the Brazilian Ministry of Education (MEC), reveals a consistent decline in the number of enrollments in traditional teaching-degree programs since 2014. A similar trend is observed in distance education programs since 2021. “The subjects with the largest gaps are the social sciences, music, philosophy, and arts, which saw the lowest enrollment figures in 2021. Meanwhile, physics, mathematics, and chemistry recorded the highest cumulative dropout rates over the last decade,” Ferreira notes.

Alexandre Affonso / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

Data from INEP, accessible through the National Education Plan (PNE) Dashboard, indicate that in 2022 approximately 59.9% of teaching positions for grades 6 to 9 in elementary school and 67.6% of those in high school were being taught by qualified subject-specific educators. Marcos Neira, associate dean for undergraduate affairs at the University of São Paulo (USP), notes that the size of the gap varies across different subject areas. “On average nationally, 85% of physical education teachers are qualified in their respective discipline, while the equivalent percentages for sociology and foreign languages are respectively 40% and 46%. In other words, the gap can be more or less pronounced depending on the subject and the state,” highlights Neira, who is currently conducting a FAPESP-funded research project on curriculum reform in physical education.

The lack of properly trained teachers can have an impact on student achievement, as reported by Matheus Monteiro Nascimento, a physicist at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), in a study published in 2018. In the absence of qualified physics teachers, mathematics teachers are often used as stand-ins, he explains. “As a result, we find that the approach to teaching physics tends to lean heavily on mathematical formalism,” he says. Instead of exploring mechanics, electricity, and magnetism using phenomenological, conceptual, and experimental approaches, teachers often address these topics in the classroom solely through mathematical formulas and equations that lack a direct connection to students’ real-life experiences. “Mathematical formalism in teaching physics is precisely what most hampers students’ interest in this subject,” adds Nascimento.

Léo Ramos Chaves / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP Students in a chemistry teaching-degree program at USPLéo Ramos Chaves / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP 

Researchers from INEP conducted a study in September to assess whether these gaps could be filled by hiring teachers who have earned education degrees in Brazil in recent years. They examined existing deficiencies in both public and private schools in the later years of elementary and high school. “Even if all graduates with teaching degrees from 2010 to 2021 were to teach in their respective subjects in the later years of elementary and high school in 2022, Brazil would still struggle to meet the demand for arts teachers in fifteen states, physics teachers in five, sociology teachers in three, and mathematics, Portuguese, foreign languages, and geography teachers in one,” estimates Alvana Bof, one of the authors of the study. In addition, the study evaluated whether the number of teaching-degree recipients from 2019 to 2021 would be sufficient to replace all teachers without appropriate training in 2022. They found that there would be a shortage of arts teachers in 18 states, physics teachers in 16 states, foreign language teachers in 15, philosophy and sociology teachers in 11, mathematics teachers in 10, biology, science, and geography teachers in 8, Portuguese teachers in 5, history and chemistry teachers in 2, and physical education teachers in one state. “Our findings show a severe shortage of teachers across various states and subjects,” says Bof, who holds a degree in literature and a PhD in education.

Alexandre Affonso / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

Another contributor to the study, sociologist Luiz Carlos Zalaf Caseiro from INEP, notes that the gap in trained teachers is unrelated to a lack of available spots in teaching-degree programs. “In 2021, Brazil had 2.8 million available spots, of which only 300,000 were filled. This means that 2.5 million spots remained vacant, with a substantial portion in the private sector and in distance education programs,” he reports. In-person teaching-degree programs at public universities also had a significant number of vacant spots. “From 2014 to 2019, the vacancy rate in public institutions hovered around 20%, and in 2021, this percentage increased to 33%,” he says. For programs like mathematics, the situation was even more dire. “In 2021, public universities recorded a 38% vacancy rate in in-person teaching-degree programs with a major in mathematics,” Caseiro notes, highlighting that many filled spots are often abandoned shortly after. Furthermore, he adds, only one-third of students who complete teaching degrees opt for a teaching career; the majority pursue alternative professional paths. The study intersected data on active teachers from INEP’s Basic Education Census with data on enrollments and graduates in teaching-degree programs from its Higher Education Census — these census surveys provide an annual snapshot of basic and higher education institutions, students, and educators.

Rubens Cavallari / FolhapressStudents at a school in São Paulo attending an arts class — both subjects have seen a significant shortage of teachersRubens Cavallari / Folhapress

Teaching-degree programs are also grappling with the challenge of modernizing their curricula. Taking physics for example, Marcelo Alves Barros, a physicist from USP São Carlos, explains that physics teaching-degree students are typically not trained to teach the subject in a way that connects to other subjects and is relatable to basic-education students’ experiences. According to Barros, the traditional method of framing and delivering physics content in the classroom is inconsistent with official guidelines, including the National Common Core Curriculum (BNCC) guidelines for secondary education. Issued in 2018, the current guidelines call for a shift from organizing school curricula by subject to an approach that encompasses broader fields of knowledge. Physics classes, for example, could be integrated into the larger realm of natural sciences, including chemistry and biology. Barros notes: “Although this cross-subject approach is certainly an improvement, most physics teachers in Brazil are not equipped to implement it in the classroom.”

He believes the new secondary education framework enacted by Law no. 13,415 in 2017 — which introduces a flexible curriculum in the form of learning pathways (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº  316) — poses a new challenge in training physics teachers. Acting teachers are currently not adequately trained to teach within the new framework. “Teachers without the skills needed to apply the new secondary education curriculum are undermining students’ learning performance. And when students perform poorly in physics, they are more unlikely to pursue a teaching degree in this field,” he notes. The USP Institute of Physics in São Carlos has been an exception, notes Barros. Since the 1990s, students in the teaching program there have received a cross-disciplinary education that has equipped them to teach science, physics, chemistry, and mathematics for grades 6 through 9 as well as high school. To support the new model, the researcher believes physics teaching-degree programs should be revamped to align with modern scientific advancements, covering contemporary fields like quantum mechanics, relativity, and astrophysics while introducing innovative teaching methods. “To implement this approach in classrooms, it’s essential for schools to have experimental laboratories to better capture student interest,” suggests Barros, who is part of a FAPESP-funded project to overhaul science education.

The new common core curriculum and high school reform have also posed challenges for teaching-degree programs majoring in history, says Marieta de Moraes Ferreira, a historian at UFRJ. “The new guidelines have streamlined basic education content in subjects such as sociology, history, and philosophy, shifting to a cross-disciplinary approach. However, teachers have not been adequately trained for these changes,” Ferreira notes. The first degree programs in this field were established in Brazil in the 1930s with a focus on training teachers, she explains. In the 1970s, with the advent of graduate programs in history, higher education institutions began to prioritize research over training history teachers. The debate resurged in the 2000s as institutions began to distinguish between students pursuing a teaching degree and students pursuing a bachelor’s degree to work as researchers. “I disagree with this separation; I believe you cannot be a competent teacher without the ability to do research. To develop better educators, teaching programs should intertwine teaching activities with research focused on issues relevant to the classroom setting,” she argues.

Ez Photos / Alamy / FotoarenaHigh school students in Fortaleza, Ceará, a state that implemented a strategy to improve training for mathematics teachersEz Photos / Alamy / Fotoarena

Jorge Herbert Soares de Lira, a mathematician at the Federal University of Ceará (UFC), agrees that the new core curriculum has the potential to enhance teaching and learning, but says these changes also need to be reflected in teaching-degree programs. Lira, who serves as the chief scientist at the Ceará State Department of Education (SEDUC), believes there is a need to combine in-depth content with effective teaching strategies for mathematics. In the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which assesses student performance in mathematics, science, and reading, Brazil ranked among the bottom 10 countries worldwide in mathematics proficiency.

To determine why student achievement in mathematics stagnates or declines when they enter lower secondary education, a group of researchers from UFC, led by Lira, partnered with SEDUC to conduct a survey in 2018. “School principals and coordinators were puzzled by a distinctive plateau in students’ math performance when transitioning from primary to lower secondary education. This led us to conduct an in-depth investigation to determine the root cause of the problem,” he recounts. The UFC researchers analyzed historical data on school achievement among middle and high public-school students in Ceará, and found that students began struggling on a massive scale during their transition from primary to lower secondary education. Concurrently, they assessed teachers’ pedagogical skills and found gaps in their ability to teach basic concepts since the early years of elementary education — from fractions and understanding graphs and tables to the decimal numeral system and basic arithmetic operations. “Teachers lack an in-depth understanding of basic mathematics and the complex skills necessary to teach the foundational concepts introduced in the initial stages of basic education. Consequently, they are ill-prepared to guide students in applying these concepts in more complex contexts, particularly from the 6th grade onward,” remarks Lira.

Lalo de Almeida / Folhapress A history class at a school in Rio Branco, AcreLalo de Almeida / Folhapress 

Based on the researchers’ report, the State Department of Education (SEDUC) commenced periodic assessments to pinpoint the areas where students were struggling. Based on the findings from these assessments, the department initiated training programs to better equip educators to teach fundamental topics within the curriculum. “We train teachers on revisiting basic concepts and linking them to the more complex ones using teaching strategies that present students with problems based on everyday, scientific, social, and economic contexts,” Lira adds. His project is funded by the Ceará Foundation for Scientific and Technological Development Support (FUNCAP). For Lira, giving students a solid foundation in math throughout basic education can increase their interest in teaching the subject in the future.

Marcos Neira says an overhaul is needed of the 28 teaching-degree programs at USP to avoid the issues Lira identified in Ceará and address those found in São Paulo. The institution, he adds, has launched initiatives to support program coordinators in reformulating the curriculum. “We plan to offer integrated programs, moving away from the notion that bachelor’s and teaching degrees should be pursued separately,” he concludes. USP is exploring a partnership with the São Paulo State Department of Education to offer paid internships in public schools to students studying for teaching degrees.

Researchers are advocating for a reformulation of teaching-degree programs to provide comprehensive training not only in the subject to be taught but also in the practical and educational skills needed to teach it effectively. “Whatever the subject, students in teaching programs should receive specialized training covering areas like educational policies, curriculum theory, planning and evaluation, school management, and pedagogical organization,” says Márcia Aparecida Jacomini, a professor of education at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP). She notes that many teaching-degree courses currently focus heavily on teaching the subject itself, often sidelining crucial practical and methodological aspects essential for a successful learning process.

Physical education in the new secondary education: Translations and potential (nº 22/06919-5); Grant Mechanism Public Education Program; Principal Investigator Marcos Garcia Neira (USP); Investment R$241,790.97.
2. Study of the implementation of curricular innovations, pedagogical strategies, and emerging technologies for quality-equity in primary education (nº 22/06977-5); Principal Investigator Mauricio Pietrocola Pinto de Oliveira (USP); Grant Mechanism Thematic Project; Investment R$1,111,669.40.
3. Curricular changes and improvements in public education (nº 21/11390-0); Grant Mechanism Regular Research Grant; Principal Investigator Márcia Aparecida Jacomini (UNIFESP); Investment R$555,785.29.

Scientific articles
BOF, A. M. et al. Carência de professores na educação básica: Risco de apagão? Cadernos de Estudos e Pesquisas em Políticas Educacionais. vol. 9. Brasília: INEP. 2023, in press.
NASCIMENTO, M. M. O professor de física na escola pública estadual brasileira: Desigualdades reveladas pelo Censo escolar de 2,018. Revista Brasileira de Ensino de Física. 42: SciELO Brasil. 2020.

FERREIRA, M. M. A história como ofício. Rio de Janeiro: FGV Editora, 2013.

Higher Education Census 2021. Brazilian Institute for Educational Studies and Research (INEP). Brasília: Ministry of Education, 2022.