Teachers Need Incentives, But Also Better Tools

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Bill Gates has the right ideaIn 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.


We argue that only if parents and communities have school quality information to advocate for better schools, and both schools and teachers are either “named” or “shamed” for their  students’ performance, only then will teachers respond, work more, and focus on what and how much their students learn.

Change? Time is Now - For Incentives

How do we support her to do her job?I am a big believer in the power of incentives and have spent much of my professional life researching the effects of teacher incentive reforms on student learning outcomes, mostly because I too am convinced – even if the evidence is not too solid, that teachers, like the rest of us, must respond to incentives (even the youngest child can change behaviors in response to a frown or a smile from their parent). 


However, I am becoming increasingly convinced that information and accountability alone will not lead to improvements in school quality, especially in developing countries.  This is because, when you go to schools in developing countries, it is easy to see that few teachers deliberately choose to be ineffective.  Teachers in developing countries are often themselves deprived of a high quality education, as they too are products of the systems in which they live. They frequently do not know in what areas their students are performing below standards (if there are standards at all), or how to change their teaching methods in order to improve how much their students learn; they seldom get support from more experienced teachers or school administrators in their classrooms. Such support could entail tips for better teaching or mentoring from others who are better at teaching certain areas.  The reality remains though that, teachers work  for the most part alone, in conditions (in terms of access to water, adequate infrastructure, and teaching materials) that most of us working in developed countries would find completely unacceptable.

Moving Forward.....

Let’s move our focus from only focusing on providing teachers with information that shows how poorly they are doing in their jobs to, instead, focusing on giving them
better tools to improve their work. This will include test score information – not just averages, but detailed information on each and every one of their students, not just on two subjects, but in every subject they teach and many dimensions of these subjects. Let’s give teachers ample opportunities to learn on the job,  by identifying those teachers who are effective in specific subject areas and encouraging –and rewarding them to mentor other teachers. And, finally, let’s pay them well for what they do and achieve, and not only for staying in the profession.

Photo credit - the first image (" Bill Gates has the right idea") comes from the Wikipedian named Kees de Vos. 

Photo credit - the second image ("How do we support her to do her job") was taken by Nick van Praag in the Kyrgyz Republic and comes from the World Bank's Flikr site  .

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