One of the key messages of the Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report 2017/8, Accountability in education: Meeting our commitments is that punishing teachers can often be counter-productive.
Teachers have the primary responsibility for educating students. But in many countries, they face growing pressures. The complexity and variety of their tasks can put conflicting demands on their time, complicating efforts to hold them accountable.
Punishing teachers for absenteeism
A common reason for teachers to be punished is absenteeism: when teachers don’t come to school, they may face sanctions. A study of six low and middle income countries suggested teacher absenteeism averaged 19%, exacerbating already high teacher shortages.
However, when we delve deeper into why teachers are not in school, a different story may emerge.
‘Sometimes teachers do not show up to class because the school is very far, and there is no road for the teachers to drive on, only a bumpy dirt track. We do not have electricity, and there is no toilet. In the winter, it is very cold, and there is no heating. Even the teachers have no heating in their office. Our teachers are very good, and they try to teach all of us, but we do not have many books, and sometimes we do not even have desks.’
MUHAMMAD REZZA, GRADE 10 STUDENT, AFGHANISTAN
Many factors pull teachers away from their classrooms, only some of which are within a teacher’s control. In Senegal, for instance, reasons for teacher absenteeism outside teachers’ control included school closure due to weather damage, renovations, cleaning, strikes, a lack of materials, or wider system planning issues (for example, primary schools close at the end of June so primary teachers can monitor secondary and technical school final exams in July).
Data on teacher absenteeism pays no attention to why a teacher is absent. In Indonesia, between 2013 and 2014, 10% of teachers were absent from primary school. However, nearly half those absences were excused time for study.
This is not to say, of course, that punitive measures should not be used when teachers routinely arrive late or do not even turn up. Rather, it is important to understand the reasons of absenteeism first before generalizing on what the appropriate response should be.
Certain approaches have been shown to reduce teacher absenteeism. These include giving teachers appropriate and additional support in remote areas, like ensuring the school has a principal and providing an additional allowance to teachers working in these areas. By contrast, policies that have been shown to increase absenteeism, such as those that encourage or even indirectly require teachers to teach at more than one school, must be rethought.
Punishing teachers for poor student results
Many systems also hold teachers accountable for their students’ performance, with student test scores being increasingly incorporated into teacher evaluations and sometimes even playing a role in decisions about a teacher’s salary, promotion, and ongoing employment. However, just as with absenteeism, student performance depends on numerous contributing factors beyond a teacher’s ability, including students’ skills, expectations, motivation and behaviour; parental background and support; peer pressure and aspirations; school organization, resources and culture; and curriculum structure and content. Teachers’ impact on student performance, furthermore, is cumulative; a student is influenced not only by current teachers but also by former ones.
More sophisticated approaches, like value-added models, which draw on longitudinal data to isolate the effect of a particular teacher on student achievement gains, could potentially identify problems. However, they are very costly to implement correctly and are often not sufficiently robust. In any case, there is broad agreement that student test score gains alone are insufficiently reliable indicators of teacher effectiveness. Even if value-added models are applied, they should be used to support struggling teachers and not punish them. They should not be used to determine pay: there is little evidence that they have an impact on outcomes or that they increase motivation.
The problem with blaming, rather than fixing, is that the fear of punishment reduces trust. As far as accountability is concerned, low levels of trust will only lead to more intense forms of accountability, which further decrease the levels of trust, and so on. It is no wonder that teachers are dropping out of the workforce at such a fast pace in some countries.
The solution to removing the feeling of threat is not hard: teachers should be included in working out shared aims, which would increase their motivation and ultimately their trust in the education process.
Download the 2017/8 GEM Report, Accountability in Education: Meeting our commitments.
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