Better Teachers, Better Schools

Dr. Paula Armstrong

 “Attracting qualified individuals into the teaching profession, retaining those qualified teachers, providing them with the necessary skills and knowledge, and motivating them to work hard and to do the best job they can is arguably the key education challenge”
          - Vegas & Umansky, 2005

This prioritization on qualitfied teachers is particularly true in poorer schools as there are much fewer tools and resources available to aid teachers in their job. In many cases, the teacher is the only “resource” that students have access to.

The performance of the South African schooling system has been extremely poor. At primary school level, South Africa has performed much worse than other, much poorer African countries. Studies conducted at high school level show that South African grade 9 students are 2 to 3 grade levels behind the grade 8 students in countries with similar levels of income. Teachers are believed to be one of the key drivers behind South Africa’s weak education performance, with many arguing that low levels of teacher effort play a greater role than low levels of teacher skill. This suggests that the policy response with regards to teachers should focus more on incentivizing higher levels of teacher effort rather than on providing in-service training for teachers.

Although this piece deals with financial incentives, incentives need not be exclusively financial. Numerous factors contribute to level of effort and interest that teachers put into their job, a substantial number of which are not necessarily quantifiable. These may include (but are not limited to) working conditions, supervision or support and mentorship within schools, and a sense of connection to the community in which they teach. Financial incentives is one option but by no means is it the only tool available.

From an economic perspective, the need for incentives arises because an employer is not able to observe the behaviour of their employee. Incentives therefore aim to ensure that the employee behaves in way that ultimately achieves the objectives that the employer would like to have achieved without the need for constant supervision. Therefore, as long as the employee achieves a certain level of performance or a certain outcome, they will be rewarded with the incentive.

In the case of education, teachers are awarded an incentive based on the performance of the students they teach. The objective of the introduction of incentives for teachers is therefore the improvement of student outcomes. Incentives may be based on many measures, but the most widely used is student performance on standardised tests. Incentives are awarded for improved performance on these tests.

Incentivizing student performance does however have risks. If it is possible to influence student performance on tests without actually ensuring that they are learning more, it is able to “game” the system. If teachers “teach to the test” for example, by ensuring that students are able to answer questions without ensuring that they understand how to arrive at the correct answer, there is no guarantee that student educational outcomes are improving despite the fact that their scores on standardized tests are improving.
In South Africa, no formal financial incentives for teachers exist. In terms of the wage incentive to enter teaching in the first place, this is very unattractive in South Africa. Teacher pay can be considered “front-loaded” as the increase associated with remaining in the teaching profession longer is very small. The result is that individuals who perform well at secondary school and university and may therefore secure employment in high-paying industries have very little incentive to become teachers. Furthermore, no explicit pay-for-performance type incentives exist. Outside of the Integrated Quality Management System (IQMS) according to which teachers are evaluated (which includes self-evaluation and evaluations by a Development Support Group, chosen to some extent by the teacher being evaluated), very few opportunities exist for teachers to be evaluated and to be rewarded for good performance and to sanction poor performance.

Fostering better performance among South Africa’s education sector will require a diverse set of policy tools and reforms. It is clear that the intersecting issues of teacher compensation, effort, and competency must be addressed for significant progress to be achieved.

To read the full CEI South Africa Education Brief on Teacher Incentivization, click here.

Dr. Paula Armstrong has a PhD in Economics from the University of Stellenbosch. She has also consulted for the Department of Basic Education (DBE) around issues pertaining to teachers in the South African education system.

Photo Credit: Training and Resources in Early Education (TREE)

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