The push for standardized testing around the world as one of the key metrics evaluating student progress, and thus, teacher effectiveness has been in full swing for some time now. In the NYC public schools where I taught for two years, as well as the Pohnpei State School system where I taught in the Peace Corps for two years, teachers were constantly faced with state and national testing for students to determine a wide range of "competencies," with testing becoming so proliferate in NYC that it seemed every other week we had at least one day dedicated to evaluation programs, significantly eroding actual, valuable class time. Although as a teacher I strive to measure progress through alternative means, such as portfolio/project and group/peer assessments, the standardized test always looms large on the periphery. While there are often perils in using standardized testing as a means of incentivising teacher motivations (the largest being that teachers will "teach to the test" and relegate actual learning to the back burner), in some instances, there are few alternatives, and providing incentives for improvements in testing can be a viable way of increasing teacher effectiveness. Thus, the folks at MIT have been looking at, and conducting randomized trials in this focal area in Western Kenya (actually in the same areas where their other work as been held in dealing with increasing teacher effectiveness through community teachers, which raises a bit of a red flag in my mind). 

In Kenya, as in most of the developing world, the teacher absenteeism rate is alarmingly high (over 20%) and although universal primary education has been implemented, the largest hurdle faced is the actual quality of the education that is being offered. In most instances, it is alarmingly poor, and is often a net loss for many students who trade off helping their families with agriculture or in the household for a completely inadequate education. The biggest issue in Kenya is, as stated, "

Khumjung Magic Yeti Library, 2011

Teachers’ salaries depend on their education and experience, with no opportunity for performance-based promotion, which appears to result in a system with no incentives to teach well." 

Merit pay was offered to teachers in the test groups for improvements in their schools as a whole for the national testings. The program ran for two years, and penalized teachers for student dropouts, which is a serious issue in the region, as well.

The result was less than encouraging. Test scores did improve, but not through the means that one would have hoped (such as increased teacher attendance or decreased student dropout rates, the real core issues that were being addressed in the study). What occurred is that schools offered test-prep classes outside of the normal school day to improve the testing scores; additionally, there was no spillover when the project was ended, and thus, the sustainability factor was negligible. 

Thus, there are many issues to analyze with this trial in Kenya and the greater implications of what can be done to improve teacher absentee rates and student performance minus the critical elements of strong supervision, parental involvement, and social drive for educational advancement. Without actual, tangible societal shifts and community focused shifts, any approach will be non-sustainable. Without the larger scope of societal progress being a critical input into the process, incentives will be hollowed out and meaningless for the intended beneficiaries, ie: the students. And so, we are faced with the hard questions yet again. What is to be done? The shift needs to occur at the personnel level of the school bureaucracies; without strong incentives to work, people will not work, it is simple, whether these be intrinsic/societal/cultural or extrinsic/pay factors. Either will do; both are especially advantageous. But the lack of either is crippling, and non-permanent, non-indigenous approaches, as seen in this test case, will only offer temporary solutions, at best, and encourage deviance, at worst. 

The full report can be seen here, courtesy of the MIT Poverty Action Lab Website.