November 21, 2013

Teachers Absent from Analysis of Teacher Absenteeism

Last month, Transparency International (TI) released The Global Corruption Report: Education. A corresponding World Bank blog post, written by one of the report’s contributors, poses the question at the heart of the report’s teacher absenteeism section: How can we help the “real losers…[the] students who yearn for an education but end up receiving no instruction?”

Both the report and the post share findings from multiple countries and discuss increasing monitoring and furthering research to decrease teacher absenteeism, one of the “most serious forms of corruption in education.”

Insights from the TI report include: absences often originate from inefficiency or corruption “upstream”; higher salaries don’t equate higher performance; supervision and disciplinary action could help reduce corruption; and, finally, these systems are failing children.

All of the above are true and worth noting.

But what is less clear in the World Bank post, and underrepresented in the TI report, is the fact that these systems are failing teachers, too.

Teachers stand in the line of fire. They are a highly visible bridge between policy and implementation, an easy scapegoat for underperforming education systems.

Addressing teacher absenteeism requires first understanding the teacher experience. As mentioned in TI’s report, understanding why teachers are absent, and the motivations behind their behavior, is crucial to making improvements. “Sanctioned” and “unsanctioned” absences are less black and white when we understand the pressures teachers face from governments, education boards, inspectors, families, students, parents, and countless others.

So why do teachers choose to not show up?

We recently came across this question within our portfolio of work in Nigeria. Since the 1970s, Nigeria has sought to provide universal primary education. But misalignments in political incentives, inconsistent lines of accountability, and marginal consequences for failed service delivery have all conspired to reduce the impact of this policy aspiration.

To better understand the causes of teacher absenteeism, we employed qualitative methods to understand the historical, cultural, and institutional factors that surrounded the issue. We engaged diverse stakeholders—from teachers and parents to community leaders and policymakers—both in schools and in their surrounding communities.

We found that a range of historical and systemic challenges within the education sector contribute to low teacher performance and absenteeism. These inefficiencies have left teachers as bystanders—instead of active participants—in the education system.

Public perceptions present one disabling cultural norm. Teaching has come to be viewed as an ‘all-comers job’, widely perceived as a career for second-rate civil servants. Those that choose it do so not out of desire, but out of necessity or convenience. Many teachers feel disrespected and unsupported, and they believe the education system places unrealistic expectations on them.

In terms of technical enablers for performance, teacher training—both preparatory and in-service—is ad-hoc, uncoordinated, and perceived as inequitably distributed. There is a gap between theory and practice in the responsibility for training, leaving teachers scrambling for information, resources, and organized support. The result is low morale among teachers. Combined with a lack of effective teacher management and oversight, these factors lead to high absenteeism and subpar performance.

The policy environment is also understood to place constraints on teacher performance. School assignments are perceived to be opaque and inequitable. When teachers are required to take postings in rural regions far from their families, this lack of inclusion and openness generates frustration and backlash. As one secondary school teacher told us, “I’ve been posted to this village for 14 years, but I know a teacher in [a city] that’s been able to hold on to her post for 24 years! Why can’t I request a similar posting or at least have the chance to rotate among areas?” Once assigned to a new posting, teachers must report for duty within one week, even if the new posting is in a distant, unfamiliar location. It is up to them to determine how they manage the impact of reassignment on their personal life. As a result, they feel powerless and demoralized.

The impacts of inconsistent public financial management also influence the classroom environment, a key aspect of the learning experience. Variable access to key resources poses challenges to teachers that constrain their technical ability to deliver and degrades softer aspects of performance accountability. When payroll is inconsistently met, some local administrators opt for staffing plans that optimize consistency over quality, resulting in some schools having student-teacher ratios as high as 100 to 1. When resources aren’t available for school inspectors, the dis-incentive for absenteeism is also reduced. It’s a two-way street: absences on one end influence performance on the other.

This is not to say that teachers hold none of the responsibility for teacher absenteeism. But our look at absenteeism in at least one region of Nigeria suggests that the accountability systems and improvements to institutional discipline desired in these reports are not addressing the nuanced drivers of this complex problem. While penalizing teachers may yield short-term improvements in teacher attendance, our research found that teachers actually perform better when they feel respected by their administrators and public audiences. Improving teacher performance is likely to require administrative systems that value the inputs of teachers as much as third-party evidence on their performance.

The TI report also acknowledged this viewpoint. Though it did not prioritize it against considerations of corruption, it noted:

“The social role and value of the school and teacher must be placed at the forefront of education policy and anti-corruption efforts. Teachers are often the first targets of corruption allegations, but this is often the result of corruption at the higher level and nonpayment of salaries or simple undervaluation of teachers. National policy-makers should understand the teacher as a role model and the school as a microcosm of society and train teachers to teach by example.”

If we want to help the students, we’ll need to understand and value teachers just as much.

If this is a defensible policy position, perhaps the question we should be asking is: how can our education systems positively reinforce responsible behavior among teachers and motivate them based on personal incentives? Initiatives focused on improving the performance of the education sector would do well by identifying interventions that: i) support teachers’ access to professional development; ii) inclusiveness and participation in key administrative decisions regarding assignments and tenure; and iii) levels of cultural validation for the importance of quality education in local communities. An approach that values the service providers as much as the service beneficiaries may provide unexpected gains to the opportunities presented to willing learners.

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