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Teachers and politics

Shanta Devarajan's picture

One of the reasons why schoolchildren in low-income countries, despite being in school most of the time, seem to be learning very little is that the teacher is often not there. In Uganda, for instance, the teacher absence rate in public primary schools was estimated at 27 percent. 

However, the problem may not be the teacher himself, but the political system in which the teacher operates. Many of us have anecdotes about teachers’ being the political operatives in the village: they help the politician get elected, in return for which the politician gives them a job from which they can be absent part of the time. A recent Ph.D. dissertation by Tara Beteille goes beyond anecdotes and provides an analytical framework and empirical evidence (from India) to show that teachers, politicians and government officials depend on each other, sometimes in a “coercive” way that leads to weak teacher accountability and poor learning outcomes. The bottom line is that, if you want to improve students’ learning, don’t just focus on teachers—focus on the politics.



Submitted by Fatimata Sy on
This is a very sad reality. Reversing that situtation would require that Governments invest in teacher's professional growth and that parents form strong alliances to get quality education for their children. As citizens, once we know our rights, we are to learn how to use politics and mobilize to turn schools into places of learning and enjoyment. We expect the best from Governments and much more from educators.

Submitted by Anon on
The problem runs deep. Teachers in some developing countries are often not paid enough to eek out a decent living on their meagre salary. This then creates a cycle of inefficiency whereby teachers only work a few hours in the morning as a teacher and hold a second job to make up their wages - remaining absent from the school. Of course, there is also the informal market in private tuition which some teachers force their students to pay for outside classroom learning time. Accountability should begin with the government.

Submitted by ely on
In many low income countries, people choose to be school teacher because they can't find another "better" job, like politician or government official, or for those lucky young graduates, work in a telecom firm. In many countries being politician - mostly in eternal presidential party - is the best job you can get in the country. Teachers have been unpaid for decades, they become easily corruptible and can be absent in class for anything that can help them to buy a bread with butter.The marginalization of teachers and the civil society is made wittingly to keep the government the only master. Diviser pour mieux regner!

Submitted by bankelele on
Teachers absence or politics is not the problem. About 700,000 12-15 year old in kenya sit for primary national exams each year, and schools and districts are ranked on this. Parents get furious when a school performs poorly, and pressure the politicians & governemnt to search for better teachers or upgrade school facilities.

Submitted by Ahiteme H. on
Besides any moral or professional responsibility consideration, what is the utility a rational teacher enjoys from regularly attending his classes and ensuring high quality education for his students? As long as his wage is fixed or independent from the learning outcome this utility tends to zero. In a high accountability system, the teacher knows he must ensure quality teaching because otherwise he could lose his job or face some other consequences. But in a system of poor accountability (due to lack of control, corruption or interdependence among teachers, parents and government officers as described above by Shanta), there is no such an incentive to "force" the teacher to deliver in quality and quantity the work he's paid for. I know the following might sound hard to implement, but think about it one second, at least conceptually. Imagine a world where a teacher "Scott" has a retirement bonus based on a the number of his students who graduate at different levels (primary school, mid high school and high school). Assume Scott is a primary school teacher. Let x, y and z be the number of students Scott had through his entire career and who graduated respectively from primary school, mid high school and high school. Now let's affect some pecuniary coefficients a,b,c such that Scott's retirement bonus equals ax+by+cz with c>b>a. It makes sense to think that Scott can discount this bonus at any time of his career and have it as a strong incentive to ensure his students succeed, not only in his class but also beyond. And there is no need to argue you that the returns from having better educated population in any developing country would by far cover the cost of this extra retirement plan. We cannot say it enough, we need to create incentive for people to do their job, either by effective control systems or by result driven compensation. I believe that will eventually lead to better accountability. Ahiteme

Submitted by John Wanda on
I was at the Africa Diaspora meeting on Thursday Feb 25 at the World Bank in Washington, DC where Shanta presented some of these statistics on teacher absences. It was embarrasing and shocking. The worst numbers, however, were of those teachers who are present in school, but not actually teaching. In Uganda, for instance, only 18% of the teachers present in the school were actually teaching. Combined with the high absence rate of 27%, it means only about 13% of all teachers at a school are in class teaching at any given time. No wonder Uganda's performance at primarly level is so low. Our governments and policy makers, but most importantly, civil society need to take some action. According to Shanta, teachers in private schools have less absence problems, even when their salaries are lower. I can attest to this. We run a private school in Uganda called Arlington Academy of Hope ( Our teacher attendance rates are closer to 95% every day. Our parents are engaged in the education of their children. They have a PTA that meets monthly. Parents are encouraged to visit the school and sit in classrooms. Teachers have parent teacher conferences with parents. And teachers are evaluated at the end of every year and bonus are paid depending on the results of the evaluation. And because of all these and more, our pass rate is 100%, with over 50% of all students passing in the top most 1st division. The 1st division pass rate for Bududa district where our school is located is less than 2%. Our schools, and our teachers, can do better. We can't always be asking for "motivation" and higher salaries when the evidence suggests those are not the primary drivers of teacher performance. We need to reverse this, and we should not be waiting for the World Bank or studies like these to jolt us to action. John Wanda

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