Published on Development Impact

Successful Teachers, Successful Students: A New Approach Paper on Teachers

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ImageTeachers are crucial to the learning process. Every year, we get new evidence from a new country on how much value an effective teacher adds. This is one area where the evidence lines up with intuition: Even without a bunch of value added measures, most of us would readily admit that without good teachers, we wouldn’t be where we are today. 

We’ve both done some research on teachers – Tara with her work on managing the teacher workforce in India, Dave with his work on teacher professional development, and both contributing to the World Bank’s World Development Report 2018 on learning. Over the last several months, we reviewed the latest evidence on how to attract the best candidates into the teacher profession and then how to prepare them, select them, support them, and motivate them. The result of that review is the new World Bank policy approach to teachers: Successful Teachers, Successful Students: Recruiting and Supporting Society’s Most Crucial Profession. We know this is a crowded field: There are lots of reports on how to help teachers to be as effective as they can. Our objective was to make the most recent evidence accessible, drawing on dozens of studies out in 2017 and 2018 as well as much of the accumulated work to that point.

Here are five principles that we draw from the literature, with a taste of the evidence underlying each.

Principle 1: Make teaching an attractive profession by improving its status, compensation policies and career progression structures. Teaching isn’t the hottest profession these days.  The Global Teacher Status Index Survey interviewed 1,000 people in each of 35 countries (including middle- and low-income countries), and teachers came out just ahead of web designers in social status. In the countries where students learn a lot – Finland and Singapore, for example – teachers are well regarded. We find evidence to support a range of factors that diminish the professional status of teachers: teacher salaries, lowering of qualifications, poor working conditions, expansion of the teaching force and limited opportunities for learning and career advancement. In some contexts, these conditions form a vicious cycle with teacher behaviors – such as high absenteeism or expending more effort as private tutors. In the paper, we provide examples of countries addressing these problems.

Principle 2: Ensure pre-service education includes a strong practicum component to ensure teachers are well-equipped to transition and perform effectively in the classroom.  There is less rigorous evaluation evidence on different models of pre-service education, but countries with high-performing education systems — such as Finland and Singapore — train their teachers well before they enter the classroom. In countries where teaching is a sought-after career, entry into pre-service training is selective. Effective pre-service education curricula contain an extensive practical teaching component, closely linked to what happens in schools.

Principle 3: Promote meritocratic selection of teachers, followed by a probationary period, to improve the quality of the teaching force.  We often hear policy makers complain that they are unable to hire the best students to become teachers. This starts with attracting good candidates, but it also means selecting great candidates. Good teacher working conditions attract not just effective teachers, but also ineffective ones! In many countries, teachers are selected for political reasons or based merely on a certification rather than an actual test of skill or a demonstration class (or a combination). In Mexico, moving from a political teacher selection process to a test-based selection process was associated with a boost in student learning. The striking element here is that the test itself wasn’t great at predicting teacher effectiveness (and we’ve observed the same phenomenon in Ecuador). But just having a test deterred many low effectiveness candidates from applying.

Once teachers are on the job, using a probationary period to allow them to improve, combined with sound evaluation procedures to verify their fitness for the task, can ensure that only the best teachers are retained, as proposed for India by Muralidharan. Teachers need to be supported, but there it also needs to be possible to ultimately dismiss those who do not perform and do not improve.

Principle 4: Provide continuous support and motivation, in the form of high-quality in-service professional development and strong school leadership, to allow teachers to continually improve.  A lot of teacher professional development is ineffective. But we have evidence that practical, repeated learning opportunities can help teachers to improve. Coaching and mentoring are a big part of that. For teachers who don’t have strong skills in the classroom, detailed teachers’ guides can help them deliver, especially for foundational skills like basic literacy and numeracy.

Management also matters. Better managed schools deliver better results, and there is growing evidence that it is possible to help school leaders be more effective.

Part of the motivation of every professional is accountability. We show up to work mostly because of our passion for our jobs (of course!), but also because we receive support to do our jobs, respect from our peers, and we’d get in trouble if we didn’t show up. Teacher accountability includes a wide array of tools – like peer observation, recognizing success, and coaching – not just performance pay or dismissing low-performing teachers.

Cross-Cutting Principle: Use technology wisely to enhance the ability of teachers to reach every student, factoring their areas of strength and development.  We don’t know of a Ministry of Education that isn’t making some investment in education technology. And that makes sense: we live in a technological world. But repeated experience has shown that technology is no magic wand. It’s the answer to very specific challenges. Preliminary evidence shows that technology can enable distance teacher coaching in South Africa, can provide learning targeted to the level of the child in India, and can make school inspectors more effective in Kenya. But to do this responsibly, policymakers have to remember that technology works best when it complements teachers rather than trying to substitute for them, and that solutions need to be tested locally before scaling.

In case you want to hear more, we will be presenting this paper at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, January 31 (tomorrow), at 10am (Washington, DC time)! Register here if you’re interested in joining in person. If you’re not based in Washington, D.C., the event will be live-streamed and archived here.

If you want to read more about teachers…


David Evans

Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development

Tara Beteille

Senior Economist in the East Asia Pacific region

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