Sunday, 10 February 2013

Teachers and low-cost schools

One of the comments on an earlier post raised the good question of whether under-qualified and under-paid teachers were being exploited by the operators of low-fee private schools.

I can't really comment on whether such teachers are being exploited or not - the fairness or otherwise of wages is difficult to objectively opine on.  Supply, demand, cartelistic regulations, public incentives etc all come into the fray.  You have to assume that people who willingly work are making a conscious rational choice within the limits of the context they find themselves in.

But the question does touch upon some interesting - and fairly consistent - evidence that is emerging on the skills needed to be an effective primary-school teacher in low income settings.

1.  It is possible to take comparatively low-qualified youth and train them to be effective teachers who deliver statistically significant gains in children's learning.  Someone who has completed basic secondary schooling can be an effective first, second or even third-grade teacher.

2.  This creates interesting possibilities for youth employment.  Both by govts struggling with teacher deployment (or persistent absenteeism - and also youth unemployment), or by communities looking to improve their own educational lot.  This also allows for average costs in an educational system to be significantly lowered - providing significant NPV gains for limited resource societies.

The Ghanaian govt is indeed trying a first-phase scale-up of this across 30,000+ children who are provided remedial classes (taught either by teachers or local youth as teacher-assistants under the National Youth Employment Program).  The definitive data are not yet out, but it does look like the youth-led remedial classes are raising quality (it will be interesting to see how the youth-led classes compare to those being delivered by the teachers using the same materials).  Exciting!

3.  The mechanisms for this could be linked to both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  Intrinsically, the qualitative logic is that children and teaching-youth who are from the same communities will be closer (eg, the youth are more motivated to teach their own communities (either for the common good and/or their own profile and sense of agency), and the children find it easier to learn from someone who comes from the same ethnolinguistic milieu as them).  And, intriguingly, there is quantitative evidence as well that suggests the "social distance" between the teacher and the taught is a big factor - the lower the distance, the better the teaching outcomes.

But before getting too rose-tinted about such intrinsic motivation, interim data appear to show that the teaching-assistants in that Ghanaian scale-up have roughly the same level of absenteeism as the professional teachers...(although of course if they deliver better teaching outcomes then...)

4.  Extrinsically, there is also the motivation for a job that could be making the youth teach better.  And there is evidence from Kenya that shows contract teachers as outperforming tenured civil-servant govt teachers.  So extrinsic motivation is a big factor.  Interestingly - and perhaps yet again damningly for the degradation of incentives within govt systems - a follow-up in Kenya scaled up a program in parallel between NGOs and the govt system: the NGOs outperformed the govt...

So, the picture about the most effective types of teachers (at primary level anyway) is complex - wrt the actual level of conventional teaching qualifications needed, intrinsic and extrinsic motivations.

(Note, this doesn't mean such lower-qualified "parateachers" are the panacea.  Perhaps they can have a systemic presence in the early grades of primary schools - if the professional teaching cadres are not performing up to scratch - but as the ability gap narrows between them and the children being taught, their effectiveness will diminish.  So, upper primary grades and secondary schooling would appear to need better qualified teaching mentors.  And how to do that at scale is another matter...perhaps a future post on possible tech-enabled angles).

Complexity notwithstanding, the original question about whether for-profit operators can also exploit this to boost their profits does remain.  And here, it is worth pointing out that such use of parateachers or tighter intrinsic and extrinsic motivating factors can also be done by NGOs.  Who would be able to deliver learning and reinvest surpluses in growing their operations (or lower costs even more).

That does seem to a net-net better value proposition for society than a shareholder pocketing the surpluses from the deployment of parateachers or using better intrinsic/extrinsic motivation techniques.  And indeed two data-points are worth noting:

1.  Even in the UK, for-profit schools are actively discouraged - even the elite boarding schools are non-profits and cannot extract surpluses.

2.  There is an organization called Gyan Shala in India.  I'll post a little more about that another time.  But just to say that it is a non-profit that deliver low-cost education in urban slum settings, and it does a REALLY good job in the lower primary grades.  Set up originally by an Indian b-school professor, it uses some lean and active management techniques, but also combines this with neat pedagogy and paid teachers who are typically mothers from just outside the slums.  Children truly from all socioeconomic backgrounds (so genuine equity) - and outperforming low-fee private schools in quality of education.

What Gyan Shala shows is that low-cost education through active management, good pedagogy can be equitable and outperform wrt quality.  And that it doesn't have to have the incentive degradation of for-profit (or govt civil service tenure) structures.  (The children are paid for through a per-capita allowance from the govt - parents are not charged!).

I will try and write more about that another day but will stop now: this is toooo long a post, and I can feel my bile rising when I contrast the performance of Gyan Shala (and other non-profits like School for Life in northern Ghana) to the ideological boosters of paid-for models as somehow being automatically better (you know who you are, "impact investors" - why don't you invest in platforms that genuinely deliver equity and quality eh?)...

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