Teachers are not the problem

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The Economist recently published an article about the promise of technology to improve the quality of education in low- and middle-income countries. It gives a balanced view of technology’s potential: It isn’t “a substitute for well-qualified, motivated teachers” and in order to work, “tech innovations need the acceptance of teachers and administrators.” But it can help teachers to manage classrooms with students at dramatically different learning levels, and it can help administrators to monitor teacher performance. The examples in the articles are backed up by high-quality studies of the impact of educational technology on student learning.

Here’s what I believe the article gets wrong: “The big problem is teachers: often too few, too ignorant—or simply not there.” It goes on to cite evidence produced by the World Bank on high teacher absenteeism and low teacher knowledge. But the problem with this framing is that it casts teachers as the villains, when in fact underperforming teachers are the product of underperforming education systems. (The Economist is not alone in this framing. When the data show teachers underperforming, it’s easy to point to them as the problem.) I explain in more detail in this week’s Economist.

Your article on the promise of education technology asserted that in low-income countries, “the big problem is teachers” (“Teacher’s little helper”, November 17th). But all the examples you provided of effective technology require teachers to get on board. In the account of Kenya’s Tusome programme the teacher is delighted to receive better feedback from a coach. In South Africa a programme using technology to provide coaching to teachers from a distance was effective because the teachers engaged with it.

Moreover, why is it that teacher absenteeism is high? Teachers are not morally different from their peers in other professions. Indeed, many professionals would also register high rates of absenteeism if, for example, they were asked by their supervisors to canvass for political campaigns, or simply if no one cared about their absence. And the answer to why teachers often lack crucial knowledge and pedagogical abilities is that education systems often use criteria other than merit to hire them and neglect to train teachers with serious practical skills. The big problem is not teachers, but rather education systems that fail to select, prepare and support them.

I’m a professional economist, and I studied for years to be able to do the work that I do. If the World Bank had hired me without adequate training, and then I wasn’t qualified to do the job, who would be the problem? If my supervisor never seemed to care if I showed up – or worse, if she sent me to do chores unrelated to my job – and then I wasn’t in my office when inspectors came by, who would be the problem? I am able to do my job because I was trained to do it and then recruited based on that training. I show up to work because I believe I am valued, because I receive support to do my job, and because I know that there are consequences if I don’t.

Teachers have agency. But let’s not call them “the problem” until we’ve trained them well, recruited the best candidates, and provided them with both support and accountability. Otherwise, the problem is much bigger than any teacher.

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David Evans

Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development

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