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Can Public Accountability Motivate Teachers to Perform at their Best? The Conversation Heats Up

Emiliana Vegas's picture

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?

Public Accountability Of Individual Teacher Performance - The Case

Unfortunately, we don’t have an empirical evidence base to answer this question yet. But there are some legitimate reasons, and a growing body of research, that suggests that public accountability of individual teacher performance may not be conducive to improving teaching and learning.

First, there are concerns that student test scores may not be a fair measure with which to judge teacher effectiveness. Importantly, research evidence suggests that changes in a student’s test scores during one school year may not accurately reflect the effectiveness of a student’s teacher.  While undoubtedly what the teacher knows and is able to do in classrooms can have strong impacts on how much his/her students learn in one year, student learning also results from other factors, including: the previous school experience of the student (did she have a strong/weak teacher in the previous grade, did he have strong/weak teachers in all his previous years in school?); the support he/she receives at home (do her parents encourage school work and support the student by reading, helping out in homework, etc.); what are the other students like who are in the same classroom (are they high-achieving, have discipline issues?). 

Moreover, even if the change in student test scores during one year could be accurately attributed to the effort of his/her teacher, research has shown that a substantial part of the variation in test scores does not reflect what the student truly knows and is able to do, but is affected by random variables, such as construction noise outside the school on the day of the assessment.  A measure is not considered very reliable when the proportion of “true” variation to “error” variation is relatively low. When this is the case, economists speak of the indicator as not providing a sufficiently strong “signal” of the underlying variable being measured (in this case, teacher effectiveness), or that the indicator is “noisy” (and has a low signal-to-noise ratio).  Kane and Staiger, in their 2002 paper “The Promise and Pitfalls of Using Imprecise School Accountability Measures” showed that measures of learning gains, or value-added measures of learning, such as those being estimated by the LA times, are even more noisy than average test scores in one year because the measurement problems described above are compounded when taking the difference between two noisy measures.

In addition, research evidence also indicates that because the classroom composition of individual teachers varies from year to year, teacher effectiveness can vary from year to year as well. Anyone who has been a teacher can probably recall that year in which a student, let’s call him Johnny (they are usually boys), was so disruptive that the teacher could not get as much instructional time as she did in other years.

Does this mean that policy makers should not use measures of student learning to hold teachers accountable?  I don’t think so.  But I do think that caution is warranted.  Because of the high noise in student test score levels and gains, they tend to be more useful for identifying the very worst and best performing teachers. As Joel Klein, the superintendent of New York City’s public schools wisely puts it in a recent NY Times Magazine article, “I wouldn’t try to make big distinctions between the 47th and 55th percentiles.” 

But as in most professions, a great majority of teachers are neither the top-performers nor the bottom-performers.  And these are the teachers that are with our children every day, in most classrooms throughout the globe.  They are the ones who can really make a massive difference in improving the learning outcomes of a majority of students. Using test score gains from several years – instead of only the gains in one year –, researchers argue may help identify the “true” part of student learning that is attributable to one teacher.  Also, making public information on school test scores can –but does not always - act as an incentive for teachers and lead to learning gains. 

Further, if ultimately the policy goal is to improve teaching and learning, then it may be more effective in most education systems to focus on the use of student assessment results to provide teachers with deep and comprehensive information on how each of their students performed on the various contents of a test, and to support them in analyzing the data to acquire specific content and pedagogic skills to work with their students to improve.  But this, no doubt, is a much more difficult task than ranking teachers based on students’ test scores.


Photo credit: Scott Wallace/World Bank


Submitted by Dr. Siripurapu Sankar on
Can Public Accountability Motivate Teachers to Perform at their Best? YES, ACCOUNTABILITY WILL DEFINITELY MOTIVATE TEACHERS. In India, in most of the states, teachers in Institutions of Higher Learning are not called upon to explain the reason for the poor performance of their students. There is no administrative follow up at the level of the Principal, the Management or even at the level of the Government Monitoring agencies. This is more so in the public funded institutions. In the private funded institutions, some may prefer to call them corporate colleges, the moment the percentage of pass drops in a class, a mechanism of action follows.  The teacher is asked to explain the reason/s for the poor performance of the wards assigned to him or in the subject he handled.  Feedback is obtained on him / her from the students.  The teacher may be asked to handle additional remedial classes involving additional work and extra hours without additional pay.  Sometimes the teacher may even be asked to work for a lesser pay package or the teacher may be asked just to quit.  These methods have been bringing better results in these corporate colleges keeping the teachers on their toes and making them feel totally accountable. The pay package of these teachers is quite low when compared to the pay package of the teachers working in Government or Aided Educational Institutions. A motivated teacher can bring about a great change in the teaching-learning process. A teacher should always drive home the point that the students in each class should go out with the feeling of having learnt something. They should make the students have some learning goals towards which both the teacher and the taught must travel each day. In addition to weekly / monthly and annual tests, creative assignments, which instill the research temper in the students, should be introduced. The teacher should make the students aware of the fact that the content of any subject taught in the classroom has an application in real life. While student background, learning conditions, infrastructure facilities are important factors in securing results, it must be borne in mind that these are in no way hurdles for a motivated teacher. India has achieved wonderful results in education even in the absence of amenities and trying to seek shelter under the umbrella of not having the requisite facilities is trying to evade the responsibility. If the policy makers fail to introduce proper measures, at least the teacher unions should strive to instill motivation in to their members and see that better student learning takes place in the institutions where their members are working. We have to bear in mind that “The future of a nation is shaped in her class rooms.” I don’t canvass a Carrot and Stick policy in the field of Higher Education. But I do believe that a motivated teacher can help the students reach their goals. I also believe that when teachers are made accountable they will work better, if not to the best of their ability.

Dear Dr. Sankar: Thanks for taking the time to write this thoughtful comment. As you indicate, I also see the almost complete lack of accountability for public school teachers in India as a huge impediment to improving teaching quality and student learning outcomes. The difference between private and public school teachers' performance in India is quite striking, according to several colleagues including Jishnu Das (from The World Bank) and Karthik Muralidharan (from UC San Diego). For Teacher Policies Around the World, a new initiative that we at the World Bank are undertaking to document and better understand teacher policies across countries, we piloted our data collection instrument in Delhi, and learned about the near impossibility of dismissing public school teachers, even in cases of severe malconduct. We are hoping that this initiative will shed light to policy makers in India and other countries as to what are some policy options to increase accountability to motivate teachers to perform at their best. Thanks again! Emiliana

Submitted by kee on
Thanks for bringing this up!!!

Submitted by Cinthia Chiriboga on
Hola Emiliana, te escribo en español para facilitar la comunicación. Trabajo en el Ministerio de Educación del Ecuador y estamos trabajando en la construcción de estándares de aprendizaje, desempeño docente, desempeño directivo, de gestión escolar y otros. Estoy muy intrigada por conocer si ha habido esfuerzos en el campo de la economía de la educación para construir índices de gestión escolar, que combinando diferentes variables (combinanción que debería fundamentarse en lo que la investigación ha encontrado como conjuntos de variables asociadas a rendimiento escolar: desempeño docente, desempeño directivo, participación de padres, interacción con la comunidad, etc.), permita ubicar la calidad de la gestión de las instituciones en función de dicho índice ¿Suena a delirio o ha habido algo de inicativas en este sentido? Felicitaciones por tu trabajo!

Gracias por escribir con esta pregunta.. no es delirio, varios estados en los Estados Unidos están tratando de desarrollar este tipo de índice de gestión escolar; Chile implementó un instrumento para medir la gestión de la escuela que se llamó Sistema de Aseguramiento de la Calidad de la Gestión Escolar en el 2004, pero creo que fue descontinuado. Lo que pude conocer me pareció bien pensado, porque incluía evaluaciones de liderazgo escolar, convivencia y apoyo a los estudiantes, recursos, y gestión curricular. Además los relacionaba con resultados de aprendizaje. Revisa la información en la siguiente página: Más recientemente, RTI con financiamiento de la USAID desarrolló un instrumento llamado, Snapshot of School Management Effectiveness (SSME) que te puede servir mucho para adaptarlo al Ecuador. En la siguiente página encuentras mucha información: Buena suerte con todos los proyectos! Emiliana

Thanks for bringing this up!!! The difference between private and public school teachers' performance in India is quite striking, according to several colleagues

The teacher should make the students aware of the fact that the content of any subject taught in the classroom has an application in real life. well its nive read and well observed discussion..

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