"One can build schools and clinics and stock them with books, drugs, and equipment, but if the teachers, nurses, and other providers are chronically absent, these investments will be wasted."
In looking at the core issues facing educational development and the reformation/enhancement of educational systems in the developing world, the key issues of teacher quality and teacher attendance are the most critical variables in this complex puzzle. Teachers are the human elements that have the most direct impact on the educational process and the ability to make or break an educational system, bar none. One bad student and a good teacher, no problem. Five bad students and a good teacher, no problem. Thirty great students and a bad teacher, problem. This is an issue that transcends national and demographic barriers; in the richest nations, bestowed with the most efficient educational systems, the heaviest weight and concern goes into ensuring teacher training and quality. Thus, how can quality be ensured in nations where training often doesnt exceed 6 months, and teachers are thrown into foreign communities with little support and little incentive? I have seen these trends over and over again, from the US, where I taught in the inner city of New York for two years, to Africa and Asia, where I have conduced numerous school visitations and evaluations for this project. In addressing teacher quality as the key aspect of educational reform, teacher attendance is a core, vital pillar. When visiting Mozambique this summer, I was told repeatedly by both teachers, community members, and NGO personell in the field that teachers could be, and thus often were, absent for extended periods of time with no penalization and oversight. In one case, the school principal was absent for the better part of a year, leaving the school to wither in her absence, as any hierarchical organization would most likely do, especially in a lax cultural environment. The Poverty Action Lab at MIT has been looking into the issue of teacher attendance, and have come up with some very interesting results after their randomized trials have been conducted and assessed. I am going to be digging into the results of this overall study, first looking at the most effective cost-ratio solutions to teacher attendance and quality http://www.povertyactionlab.org/policy-lessons/education/teacher-attendance (MIT Poverty Action Lab Site:)
Innovations for Poverty Action conducted a successful trial in which supplementary community-based teachers, who make much less than full-sector teachers, were brought into the schools, to be monitored by the local community-boards. The results were positive; these contract teachers had the initial impact of lowering class sizes, which is a huge problem in developing-world nations with large scale literacy and primary education drives, which are often pushed by multi-lateral organizations (and is another subject for discussion in itself...) as well as improving overall test scores.The biggest gains are seen when the local school committees are empowered to monitor the supplementary teachers
The issue of supplementary teachers, as used in this study, brings up some red flags. The first is that the approach seems to be a band-aid; it is not dealing with the actual problem of teacher quality and teacher training, it is, rather, providing an additional fix without curing the root problem. While not negative in itself, if the educational process can be improved in such nations as Kenya where there has been free-universal primary education drives, the fix needs to come from the national level, which needs to be more focused on producing quality teacher training academies and a culture of competition and incentivization. This could be seen as a great model moving forward, a model to be built upon, and works to address two of the most critical areas, in terms of class size and teacher motivation/quality.
In the area of incentives for increasing the educational effectiveness, the randomized trials that were seen in the most positive light by the folks at MIT came in a merit-based girls scholarship program in Kenya: http://www.povertyactionlab.org/evaluation/incentives-learn-merit-based-girls-scholarship-program-kenya Kenya Girls Scholarship Trials:
The researchers in this case looked at student motivations and progress in the classrooms of Western Kenya. In these trials, the researchers were looking to address the key issues of high primary school dropout rates (a result of the push for universal primary education and the lack of local resources to actually implement this) and scholarships to cover the small primary school fees that students must pay to cover educational and classroom expenses, which is often a cause of the high dropout rate as well. The scholarships were merit-based, and given to sixth-grade girls who scored in the top 15% of national tests. The results were skewed, and show the importance of local customs and norms in the implementation of any aid project. In one community where there was a large pool of disadvantaged students and high public skepticism, the program did not show any effectiveness; however, in another community where there was higher rates of receptivity from the onset, the program was shown to both improve teacher effectiveness and attendance, as well as increasing test scores and parental involvement.
What is the takeaway from this set of trials? Community involvement, that old cliche of aid and development, is absolutely essential to effectiveness of any community/school project. However, how to gain this involvement is the great puzzle; motivation must be seen in the structure of the local community, elders and chiefs must be on-board and motivated, and the leadership as a whole must have ownership, as I have seen and stated time and time again. Funding and supervision can easily come from the outside, but if there is no buy-in to the programs, there will be no net impact, which can also further the risk of an increase in future failure rates.