15 April 2014

Do teachers skip class because of low pay?

Teacher absenteeism is a huge problem in developing countries, wasting up to a quarter of all spending on primary education in developing countries.

The 2014 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, which was launched in London last week, puts the problem mainly down to the low pay and poor working conditions of teachers.
"While teacher absenteeism and engagement in private tuition are real problems, policy-makers often ignore underlying reasons such as low pay and a lack of career opportunities. ...  Policy-makers need to understand why teachers miss school. In some countries, teachers are absent because their pay is extremely low, in others because working conditions are poor. In Malawi, where teachers’ pay is low and payment often erratic, 1 in 10 teachers stated that they were frequently absent from school in connection with financial concerns, such as travelling to collect salaries or dealing with loan payments. High rates of HIV/AIDS can take their toll on teacher attendance."
The report includes this chart, showing that in a handful of countries teachers earn below $10 a day (which they have decided is not enough to live on).

Which seems jarring when the same week there was a conference on the economics of education in developing countries, where much of the literature is focused exactly on this issue of teacher absenteeism, and finds very little evidence that low pay is the main factor (as opposed to, say, weak or non-existent systems of accountability). In India it is well documented that whereas absenteeism is roughly similar in public and private schools, teachers in public schools are paid more than 5 times as much as private school teachers.

(See for example this chart from data from Singh 2013, or similar from Kremer et al 2005Alcazar et al 2006 in Peru, or African data here)

Harry Patrinos of the World Bank writes:
"There is very little evidence that higher salaries lead to better attendance, however. Contract teachers have the same or higher absence rates. Compared to public school teachers, though, private school teachers are absent less, even though contract and private school teachers alike take home much less pay than their regular civil service public school teacher counterparts."
As little as teachers might make in some countries, they are still doing well relative to most other people. In many countries public primary school teachers are the 1%.

I thought I'd take a quick look at the data presented in the GMR and see what those teacher salaries are presented as a % of GDP. In OECD countries, average teacher salary is roughly around the same level as GDP per capita. In African countries, the average teacher salary is 3 - 4 times GDP per capita.

Karthik Muralidharan summarised the state of public schools in India as facing two problems; governance and pedagogy. This probably generalises to much of the developing world. What this GMR comes across as doing is focusing almost entirely on the pedagogy problem, and sweeping the governance problem under the carpet (receiving roughly 10 pages attention out of a 300 page report). Perhaps this is a welcome counterbalance to prominent World Bank research which focuses much more on the governance problem. But really shouldn't a major flagship state of the sector report aspire to properly tackle both? Of course fixing the pedagogy problem means working with teachers to improve their capabilities and not demonising them or calling them all lazy slackers. But neither can we just ignore the reality of skiving on a massive scale (or: Don't hate the player, hate the game). 


PaulineMRose said...

As director of the 2013/4 EFA Global Monitoring Report (GMR) and also having been present at the conference referred to in Oxford last week, I want to correct a couple of misrepresentations in this blog.

First, the report clearly talks about problems about absenteeism - however, it seeks to identify the reasons for why teachers are absent and suggest that this information is needed for policymakers - unfortunately too often it is not. The report also acknowledges the need to address teacher misconduct, but also to know the reasons for absenteeism to tackle those directly. The debate on this issue at the conference in Oxford was partly about whether using terms like 'teacher effort' (which is a common term used by economists in models) is actually unhelpful in ensuring constructive policy debates with teacher unions and policymakers; and the need to go beyond numbers absent to identify the reasons. The presentation by a World Bank representative (based on their Social Development Indicators work) indeed showed a breakdown of the reasons in the case of health workers, identifying that a large proportion of absenteeism is sanctioned. Unfortunately no such information was available for teachers leading to conclusions being drawn of the kind in this blog without sufficient information.

Second, on the issue of salaries, the report does not say that teachers should be paid more per se. It says that teachers should be paid enough to live on - so if they are paid less than $10 per day, it is likely that they need to find alternative sources of income to supplement their salary. And if teachers are paid less than the amount of those with comparable qualifications and experience (as in some Latin American countries) then this sends the wrong signals about the status of teaching.

Third - on a more detailed point, it is misleading to say only 10 pages out of 300 pages of the GMR are focused on this issue. Half of that amount is on monitoring progress towards EFA goals - not on the theme of the Report on teaching and learning. Of the thematic part, the chapter on teachers specifically is around 45 pages long - which includes discussion of policy issues such as recruiting the right candidates into teaching, training teachers appropriately (recognising that current training programmes are not appropriate), deploying teachers to make sure they reach the most disadvantaged learners, and providing the right incentives. So 10 pages of this is quite a large proportion, given everything that there is to fit in!

Ultimately an important policy question is whether teachers should be blamed for the learning crisis - the Report's conclusion is, overall, no. This does not mean that reforms are not needed to address governance problems that are too often prevalent (though these are not unique to teachers or the education sector), but for policymakers to address the problems across the education system which are leaving millions of children not learning.

To find out more about the Report and its recommendations, you can read more here: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/leading-the-international-agenda/efareport/reports/2013/

rovingbandit said...

Hi Pauline,

Thanks for the response. I think we agree that it is important to understand the reasons behind absenteeism. My concern is that the report seems to proclaim that the reason is probably low pay, without providing much evidence to support this assertion, and in contradiction to all the research which suggests that often teachers who are better paid actually have the same or even higher rates of absenteeism than their lower paid colleagues.

I fully agree that we shouldn't blame individual teachers, and we need to understand the issues better, but I do think that on the balance of probability we *should* blame the dysfunctional systems which make it impossible to fire poor performers, mean that salary is totally unrelated to performance, and mean that there is no monitoring of performance.



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