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.