Did you have a favorite teacher at school? What made that teacher so special? Teachers are the single most important resource we have to ensure that children learn. But the reality is that many kids across the world don’t get a good quality education.
In a bid to provide quality education for all, several programs to increase accountability in schools have been piloted. So far the evidence is sparse. Recent evaluations suggest that even in rural settings, school autonomy and accountability can help improve learning outcomes. This is further supported by a series of evaluations of programs that attempt to alter the power balance between consumers (parents) and providers of schooling services. Recent studies show that autonomy and accountability can improve education outcomes.
I travel to many developing countries in the context of my work for The World Bank. I visit schools that receive financial support and technical assistance from the Bank to improve the learning experiences and outcomes of students. Each time, I ask teachers in these schools what they think would make the biggest difference in the learning outcomes of their students. The most common answer is “better parents.” I often wonder if this response is, in some conscious or unconscious way, an excuse to help teachers explain the poor outcomes of their students (especially those from the poorest households) and their low expectations of what their students can achieve. However, both common sense and solid research indicate that parents matter.
In the vast majority of education systems, there is a well-defined path to become a teacher. In most cases, this path begins early on in an individual’s career choices. At the time of graduation from high school or entrance into higher education, individuals enter initial teacher training programs. When the profession is attractive (based on not just salary but also working conditions and career opportunities), competition into these programs can be very intense, such as in Finland, Korea and Singapore. In these cases, systems can be selective in who they admit into teaching, and new teachers are among the brightest, best educated, hardest working, and most motivated workers in society.
But the profession is very attractive in only a few countries. In most other nations, the number of teacher applicants does not exceed the number of teacher positions by much, and when it does (as in India), selection processes to assign the teacher positions are seldom set up to choose the very best. As a result, in many countries around the world, the best and the brightest are entering professions other than teaching. This is troubling because a substantial body of research convincingly shows that teacher quality is the most important school-based predictor of student learning. Indeed, several consecutive years of outstanding teaching can even offset the learning gaps between advantaged (socio-economically, racially or ethnically, by gender) and disadvantaged students.
Last week, I traveled to New York City to attend the first International Summit on the Teaching Profession hosted by the US Department of Education, the OECD, and Education International, a global teachers union. Of the 16 countries represented, all were top-performers in the international PISA tests, or rapid improvers, such as Poland and Brazil. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the meeting to learn from what other countries are doing to improve teaching and learning, a sign that not only is this task complex and challenging, but that it is critical to countries at all levels of development.
So how do these top-performers and rapid-improvers manage their teaching forces to achieve high learning outcomes? The goal of the Summit was to have frank and open discussions about what works. Each country’s delegation included both government and teacher representatives, thus recognizing from the start the need for collaboration in the design and implementation of teacher policy reforms.
The new buzz words in the World Bank are Open Data. Here, in our blog, we have been championing the cause of Open Data (see New Open Data Initiative Emphasizes Importance of Education Stats) and what it does for knowledge sharing and looking at development solutions for Education systems.
You may know that the President Bob Zoellick (also known as RBZ) recently delivered a pretty inspiring speech at Georgetown University at the end of September. He was advocating for a new perspective for the Bank: “Beyond the Ivory Tower to a New Research Model: Open Data, Open Knowledge, Open Solutions.”
In recent weeks, several articles have appeared in the main U.S. newspapers– including the Washington Post and the New York Times – discussing the potential benefits and pitfalls of the Los Angeles Times’ decision to publish performance data on individual teachers. Together with an economist, LA Times’ reporters used long-existing data on student test scores by teacher over time, to estimate individual teachers’ “value-added”, that is, the change in a student’s test score in the year that they had a specific teacher, attributing this change to the teacher’s effectiveness. They found enormous variation in the change in scores of students of particular teachers, and published the names of some teachers – both the “best” and “worst”. Further, the paper announced that it will soon release the approximate rankings of all individual teachers in LA.
Will public accountability of individual teacher performance contribute to improve education quality in Los Angeles? Is this something that other education systems around the world struggling with finding options to raise teaching quality and student learning outcomes consider?
On Friday, July 23, Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of Washington D.C. Public Schools, dismissed teachers across the city for poor performance. The number of teachers dismissed has yet to be finalized, but at one point, figures were pointing to as high as 240. Other teachers have been placed on probation, and must prove themselves worthy of the high standards Rhee has set for them. She even went so far as to tie teachers’ pay to their performance when negotiating with the Washington Teacher's Union. As a British citizen, I couldn't help but think whether Rhee was taking inspiration from the Iron Lady herself, AKA, Margaret Thatcher - Britain's first female prime minister, who fought many battles against the unions. Whatever the source of Rhee's inspiration, this was an unprecedented step to take. Some may posit that she is addressing what is called, "the widget effect" - the failure to act on differences in teacher effectiveness.
In his 2010 Annual Letter for his foundation, Bill Gates highlighted the need to focus on “helping teachers improve." While many continue to advocate for increased accountability and incentives for teachers, he mentions the need to provide teachers with more and better information on their performance. As he puts it:
“It is amazing how little feedback teachers get to help them improve, especially when you think about how much feedback their students get."
What Are We Doing?
Many of us who work on research and policy advice for developing countries are constantly reminding governments of the need to assess student performance, to improve mechanisms to reward effective teachers and remove those who are not so effective, and to provide information to parents and communities about school quality.