Managing human agency

Published July 24, 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.

TEACHERS in the public sector are paid a lot more than teachers in low- to medium-fee private schools in Pakistan. Most low- to medium-fee private schools, charging less than Rs2,000 or so per child per month, do not pay their teachers even the ‘minimum wage’ that has been set for unskilled labour across the country. Public-sector teachers also get better benefits, pension facility and a very high level of job security. Public-sector teachers, in general, are also a lot more educated than their counterparts in low-fee schools.

At the same time, the relevant literature has, for a long time, shown that children from low- to middle-fee private schools do better on examinations and tests than children from public schools. The data is mostly about children of primary schools. The gap in test scores is contested and might have narrowed a bit over time but most data sets do show some difference and most researchers who work on education issues in Pakistan will concede that the above holds. Or, at the very least, almost everyone will concede that, despite the salary and qualification differences, children from the public sector definitely do not do any better in examinations than children from low- to middle-fee private schools.

The key question here is: why? Why are children from public-sector schools not performing a lot better than children from these private schools when the teachers are better compensated, better looked after and more qualified?

There used to be large differences in infrastructure and basic facilities at one point. But these have narrowed over time. It is still the case that a lot of public-sector schools are doing multi-grade teaching as they do not have a teacher per class, which the private sector does ensure, but is all of the difference being driven by the multi-grade effect?

It is also likely that some of the difference in performance is stemming from difference in management and administrative practices and differences in governance structures. Is the private sector able to manage the ‘human agency’ of teachers better than the public sector? Does this explain the performance differential?

Is the private sector able to manage the ‘human agency’ of teachers better than the public sector?

A lot of people have argued that teachers in the private sector are monitored a lot more than those in the public sector. The ‘monitor’ is usually the manager/ owner/ entrepreneur. The incentives of the owner/ manager are aligned strongly with school performance. Her monitoring of teachers ensures they perform optimally. If they do not, the owner/ manager can replace the teacher. The power to hire and fire works as a strong disciplinary device.

Public-sector teachers are a lot more protected and though monitoring systems have been introduced and strengthened over time, they are still not as fine-tuned as in the private sector. And principals do not, definitely, have the power to hire and fire in the public sector. In fact, with protected tenures, it is not easy to discipline and/or fire public-sector teachers. As the saying goes: in Pakistan it is easier to get rid of the prime minister of the country than to fire a public-sector teacher. There is a lot of truth in this.

There should be some caveats here. Teacher turnover is fairly significant in private-sector schools across the country. Even one of the best non-profit school systems of the country faces 15 to 20 per cent teacher turnover. With this level of turnover and medium to high private school density in most areas where private schools exist, the hire/fire threat becomes a lot less effective. This is especially the case when the private sector is just paying market wages and not efficiency wages: teachers can get a job in another school at a similar salary fairly quickly.

So the hire/fire threat might not be a very powerful disciplinary device. In addition, some of the practices of the private sector are in violation of basic labour rights, and some of the protections of public school teachers are in line with labour rights. So, even if they weaken incentives, they should not be removed from the public sector.

The bulk of the explanation for lack of optimal effort from public sector teachers might be coming from other monitoring and/or governance issues and not from hire/fire threats. These might have to do with availability of monitoring and support as well as factors that might impact the motivation levels of teachers.

Private and mission-driven not-for-profit schools might have better combinations of teacher autonomy and teacher support in a framework of monitoring that ensures better compliance. This sentence needs a lot of unpacking. Teachers from not-for-profit schools tend to identify with organisational mission a lot more than public-sector teachers. The majority of public-sector teachers I have talked to a) did not want to be a teacher in the first place, b) do not identify with the mission of teaching as much and c) tended to keep a significant social distance, perceived and real, from their students. My impressions from interactions with teachers from not-for-profit schools tend to be the opposite. In for-profit, low-fee private schools, it is usually a combination of the above that I have seen. Is there any explanation of differential performance that can come from these factors? This needs a lot more work.

But we can be sure of the following. Public-sector teachers tend to have a lower morale. They feel the education bureaucracy does not listen to their inputs. They feel that they are not consulted in policymaking and even in policy implementation. They feel they are usually over-monitored, their autonomy is not respected and that they and their profession are also not given the respect they deserve. All of the above corrode motivation.

Good teaching cannot happen without inspired and inspiring teachers. Public-sector education systems have gone through a lot of reforms in the last 15 to 20 years. But we have as yet not started deeper work on issues of motivation and management of human agency. How do we get teachers to be inspirational for their students? This seems to be a significant factor that is holding public-sector performance back. This might be the next frontier for education reforms in Pakistan.

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, July 24th, 2021

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