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Motivating teachers

September 22, 2017


SHOULDN’T a school teacher have some power and control over what happens in her class? Shouldn’t she be given the freedom to decide how to pace teaching, how to explain concepts and how to ensure that students understand the material?

But a lot of teachers in Pakistani public schools feel that they do not have such power and control in effective terms. The power might be there on paper, but it is not there in practice.

Teachers feel they are told, in a lot of detail, what they are supposed to do in classes. Curriculum and books do not have the input of teachers. The language of instruction is determined by the provincial government. Teachers get detailed lesson plans and in many cases they are even told what sentences should be said in order to explain concepts to students. The lesson plans are detailed enough in many cases to tell them how to even pace their classes. What they cover in class is also monitored closely. And there is a lot of testing of children by various entities of the education department as a means of monitoring progress. All of the above, directly or indirectly, reduce the space that teachers have for exercising their agency in class.

The same is true, to a large extent, with head teachers in the public system as well. Head teachers do not have the power to hire and fire teachers. They, effectively, do not even have any authority to discipline teachers. They cannot, apart from complaining to the higher authorities, do much in case a teacher’s performance is not up to the mark or if a teacher lacks the attitude needed to perform well. Powers to hire and fire are possibly very hard to devolve to the school level. It is there in the private sector, but given the legal requirements under which the public sector works and bureaucratic developments in the country, it is next to impossible to give these powers to head teachers, headmasters and principals.

We are not giving teachers enough incentives, responsibility or authority.

Still, even without school managers having these powers, there are plenty of things that can be done to provide the requisite autonomy and authority to principals so that they are able to do a better job of managing their schools. In a number of private- sector school systems, even if principals do not have the power to hire or fire teachers, they do have a significant say in who stays in their school, who gets promoted/ rewarded or punished, and what type of training is imparted to whom. Principals have a significant impact on a teacher’s career path in this system. Even such authority, in many instances, is enough to provide principals with a handle with which to manage teachers effectively.

The public sector finds it hard to do even that. Teachers’ training is very centralised and head teachers have little to no role in determining what kind of training their teachers are going to receive. They do have a say in the performance reports that are written for the teachers in their school, but since they have to work with the same teachers going forward, performance reports tend to not distinguish amongst individuals. Promotions are mostly based on seniority and not performance and hence head teachers do not have a say even here.

Head-teacher incentives are also not stimulating: the teachers are mostly promoted on the basis of seniority. Here, too, we do not have any instruments with which we can motivate and/ or incentivise head teachers effectively.

Given all of this, it is not surprising that the government, across provinces, has found it very hard to motivate teachers and head teachers to do better. There are definitely content knowledge issues amongst teachers: many teachers do not know the subjects they are supposed to teach very well themselves. It is also true that a lot of teachers do not know how to teach effectively.

But that is not the issue I am focusing on here. The issue is that public-sector teachers are much more educated and trained than their counterparts in low-fee private schools. They are also much better compensated than low-fee private school teachers. But, in terms of performance, measured through student learning, most researchers have found that children from even low-fee private schools perform better or at least as well as those from public schools. Even allowing for income and other household characteristics across schools, this conclusion seems to hold.

If this is the case, we need to understand why better-educated, trained and better-compensated teachers are not able to perform better. One possible explanation of this is that we are not managing the human agency of teachers and head teachers well. We are not giving them the requisite environment, career paths, incentives, responsibility and authority to create the optimal motivational environment for them.

If teachers feel they are not listened to, if they feel their environment is being over-determined and/or over-monitored, if they, over time, lose the motivation to teach effectively and well, or if the system cannot create the right motivational environment, even properly educated and trained teachers might not perform well.

Provincial governments across Pakistan have over the last couple of decades spent a lot of money on increasing teachers’ salaries and adjusting their grades; they have also spent significant amounts on creating new, technology-driven monitoring systems. We continue to spend big amounts on teacher training too. But all have ignored looking at motivational issues of teachers/head teachers and of creating effective ways of managing human agency. This should be the next frontier for education-sector reforms.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, September 22nd, 2017