The worst of worlds

Published January 8, 2021
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

A COMMON complaint about public-sector teacher recruitment used to be regarding nepotism and corruption: teaching jobs being given to supporters of elected representatives and/or other influentials. Over the last decade, there has been significant reform in the way that we recruit teachers. Most provinces have increased entry requirements (the minimum level is graduation), clarified eligibility criteria and stipulated specific weights for these, made third-party entry tests a requirement, and reduced the weightage of interviews in the selection process.

The result has been a selection process in which the drawing up of candidate rankings has become a lot more transparent and ‘objective’. A candidate’s academic performance gets her ‘X’ marks, her degree gets her another ‘Y’ marks and then there is a small weightage for interview performance, where almost all candidates score an average, and then the ranking list is worked out. The academic performance of candidates, ie how well they did in their academic careers, drives the rankings.

Post-selection litigation about the process and/or the outcomes has gone down significantly, and this gives us evidence that the process has indeed changed and has become a lot less contentious. Teachers recruited over the last decade or so have gone through these new processes, and this has more or less been the case across all provinces.

But the effort to make the process transparent and based on ‘objective’ criteria, even leaving aside the issue of what is or is not objective about academic performance, has had unintended consequences too.

The quest to make teacher recruitment more objective has had unintended consequences.

Literature on teachers shows that academic performance of candidates does not predict well whether a person is going to be a good teacher or not. It is the more ‘subjective’ and harder to evaluate elements, such as personality type, that offer a better correlation. If we wanted to ‘select’ better teachers, we would need to rely more on interviews, performance on personality tests and evaluations of teaching demonstrations. But our transparency and ‘objectivity’ goals get compromised if we go in that direction, and we once again open ourselves up to corruption.

If the objective is to have good teachers in our public system, yet we cannot select people who have a higher probability of becoming good teachers based on more nuanced evaluations than just their academic performance, then the only other way we can impact the average quality of the teacher pool is by weeding out bad teachers.

We allow people to enter the teaching profession through the ‘objective’ set-up so that there is confidence that their recruitment is ‘merit-based’, but know that this allows no effective selection for good teachers. Then, as their performance becomes clear with time, we try to train those who are not performing well, but if their teaching does not improve over a certain period and up to a certain minimum level, we fire them. That is the only way the pool of teachers can, over time, improve the average quality of teaching.

Again, the literature shows that teachers tend to improve their teaching over the first three years of their career and then they tend to plateau. Three years seems like a long enough period for teachers to come up to a certain minimum standard of teaching quality. If they do not, they get fired.

Some provinces do have a ‘probational’ period of three years before teachers are made permanent. But the probation period is not used to ensure that teachers improve their quality of teaching. At the end of the three years, if a teacher does not have any major disciplinary issues against them, they are confirmed. The quality of teaching and/or improvements in quality are not variables that are looked at when confirming teachers.

This implies that we cannot ‘select’ good teachers and we cannot weed out the weakest ones. How, then, is the teaching pool to improve in quality? We recruit 100 teachers on the basis of their academic performance. We do not know how many amongst these 100 are going to be good teachers. Even with a long enough probation period — long enough to give us a good idea of how good a teacher a person can/will be — we do not use it to either incentivise teachers to learn or to weed out the weaker ones. And since teachers retire at 60, we seem to be saying we are stuck with the pool once we select them.

We also know, from various surveys, that teaching is not the profession of first choice for the majority of people who join the public sector as teachers. Should we not, like in any other profession, have some incentives for making teachers improve their performance and/or have ways of moving out those who do not want to be, or are not good enough to be in the profession?

The quest to reduce nepotism and corruption — much needed and welcome, of course — has had significant unintended consequences. If the selection process cannot be made more discriminatory and selective, and on the right variables, there must be other incentives to ensure teachers improve over time and/or ways of moving them out of this profession and into ones they might be better suited for. But, right now, we seem to be in the worst of all situations: the initial selection, made on variables that are not good predictors of eventual performance, gets locked in.

There is ample evidence that quality of teaching makes a significant difference in student learning outcomes. Over the last couple of decades, given the poor learning outcomes that we have consistently been seeing in our education system, there has been increasing focus on the quest to improve quality of learning and teaching. Teacher salaries, terms of service, in-service training and, as stated, recruitment policies have been changed to address some of these concerns. But the reforms are incomplete. We need to do a lot more — especially in how we manage teacher selection for quality, and how we incentivise teaching-quality improvements.

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

Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2021

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