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Improving teaching standards

April 20, 2018


A LOT of the focus on education, especially in recent times, has shifted to concerns about the quality of education. It is openly acknowledged that the quality of education being given to our children, in general, is quite poor. We have plenty of test scores-based evidence of this.

It seems that we cannot ‘select’ good potential teachers when people apply for teaching jobs. People apply for teaching positions after completing their education, so we have no way of checking their teaching record to see if they will be good teachers or not.

Literature on education shows, quite conclusively, that selection based on other verifiable variables, like educational background and teacher certification, explains little in terms of who would be a good teacher. So, teacher quality cannot be improved, despite testing or increasing educational requirements, through selection.

But we can ‘weed’ out bad teachers two to three years into a person’s teaching career. Again, literature on education shows that we can identify who are good teachers, using various measures, over this teaching period. If we have a two- to three-year probationary period, we could weed out poor teachers. If we are able to do that with every incoming batch of teachers we recruit, we can substantially improve the quality of teachers in a matter of years.

Good teachers matter in student learning, but the question is how to find and train them.

The problem is that Pakistan’s public sector finds it very hard to refuse confirmation to people they have hired, even if they are on probation. Teachers, at least in the Punjab, are ‘confirmed’ as permanent after a three-year probationary period but, irrespective of performance, almost everyone is confirmed. If selection and probation periods cannot be employed to screen out poor teachers, we can only hope to train and motivate people to be better teachers.

The evidence on teacher training does not give any easy solutions. In general, return on investments in teacher training is found to be low and quite inconsistent. We do find that training has the biggest impact when training is customised to the individual needs of the recipient. Generic trainings give poor overall results. How do we customise trainings, then, when employing a large number of teachers? Pakistan employs almost 800,000 teachers in the public sector. How do we create trainings that are (a) standardised at a certain quality, and (b) customised for individual needs?

Traditional teacher training programmes in Pakistan were generic. When teachers joined the public sector, they were given induction training, which had to be standardised to reach all teachers. Induction training still remains fairly standardised.

Provinces have also started continuous professional development programmes to support teachers throughout their careers. These programmes started off being fairly generic. For each subject, common pedagogic and content knowledge deficits would be identified through training need assessments and then there would be attempts, through standard programmes, to address these deficits.

Such programmes have been ongoing for years now. Evaluations, done externally and even internally, have shown limited impact in terms of removing specific deficits, changing classroom practices and/or having an impact on student learning.

To address this issue, Punjab has recently started experimenting with a ‘specialist’ based system, moving towards an even more customised programme. By appointing 20,000-odd subject specialists at the ‘cluster’ level, Punjab is ‘customising’ by bringing experts closer to teachers. The programme is too new to be evaluated, but some aspects need highlighting.

The subject specialists that have been hired come from almost the same talent pool as our teachers, so they might suffer from similar issues. And there will be quality variation across the specialists too. Quaid-i-Azam Academy for Educational Development, Punjab’s teacher training body, is trying to manage this by developing more standardised modules that will then be shared with the specialists. The specialists can then pick and choose which modules to use, depending on the needs of a particular teacher.

Punjab’s programme needs to be carefully observed and evaluated. Will it achieve the necessary balance between customisation and quality standardisation that it is seeking? It is an empirical question that will become clear over time. But, given the investment going into it, it is important to have rigorous and timely evaluations so that the programme can be improved over time.

Technological changes have opened up other possibilities to consider as well. Governments, across provinces, are introducing tablets and computers in schools. This opens up the possibility of teachers having direct access to quality material through the internet. Assessment of individual teacher needs, provision of quality material for remedial work, and assessments to ensure that such interventions have worked could all be delivered through the internet. We could even think of a hybrid model that uses technology to support specialists who, in turn, help teachers.

Literature shows good teachers matter in student learning, but the question is how to find good teachers and/or how to support them to deliver better teaching. Selecting teachers on the basis of quality does not seem feasible: we do not have visible markers through which to identify who has the potential to be a good teacher.

The only option for us, it seems, is to train teachers to deliver better teaching. Given the size of public-sector education systems, this is no trivial problem. How do we deal with the large system, the need for standardisation and the need to customise?

Punjab’s experiment with specialist training has yet to be evaluated, and technological options have yet to be fully explored. So we do not have a working model at present. Until we do, it is hard to see how the quality of education can be improved to any significant degree in the public sector.

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, April 20th, 2018