Carrots not apples for teachers

2015-02-22 15:00

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Giving financial incentives to teachers who produce good results could help to improve pupils’ academic performance.

That’s according to researchers from Stellenbosch University, who analysed studies conducted in India, Brazil, Chile, Israel, Kenya and North Carolina in the US to understand the impact of incentives on academic performance.

Researchers say incentives “explicitly state” to teachers that they are valued and this, in turn, enhances their accountability.

Teacher unions’ bosses have welcomed the paper, pointing out that they have called for such incentives – particularly for teachers in rural areas – for a long time.

The paper, by academics from the university’s research on socioeconomic policy unit, suggests that systems used in Brazil and Chile could work in South Africa because the countries are economically comparable.

“An interesting aspect of incentive systems in place in Brazil and Chile, and one that is pertinent to the South African context, is dividing the education system into subsections in the setting of incentives,” the researchers say.

“The educational and socioeconomic background of both students and teachers renders comparison within socioeconomic groups a much fairer format in which incentives may be introduced in South Africa.”

In 2008, the state of Pernambuco in Brazil introduced an incentive scheme. Officials captured pupils’ performances in grades 5, 9 and 12 in national assessments conducted every two years.

All teachers in schools that achieved 50% of the target set by the state received bonuses proportional to their school’s achievement. Schools that achieved less than 50% did not get bonuses.

Stellenbosch researchers say 64% of principals “indicated the programme was appropriate” and 66% said “they experienced the policy as having a positive impact on their schools, regardless of whether or not they received the bonus. Indeed, learning levels across the state increased substantially.”

They also say schools that narrowly missed achieving the bonus in 2008 improved in 2009, but schools that didn’t even come close to the 50% target did not.

“It therefore appears that not receiving the bonus improved school motivation and performance.

“Finally, schools in which teachers spent a larger proportion of time on instruction had a much greater likelihood of achieving the bonus,” the report says.

An incentive system, researchers found, could push lazy and unmotivated teachers to do well – and, the report contends, could also help identify badly trained and weak teachers. These will be the people who struggle to produce good results even with the lure of bonuses. The researchers speculate that such teachers will either leave the system or reach out for professional-development courses.

However, the system is not without risks.

Researchers found that giving incentives to teachers based on pupils’ output could lead to the problem of “teaching to the test”. This means teachers improve test scores without improving their pupils’ holistic development.

Basil Manuel, president of the National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of SA, says his union has long pushed for incentives for teachers in rural areas.

“Also, [we should] incentivise people in scarce-skills subjects. For us, the issue is the condition under which teachers work,” he says. If physical structures and technology are available and teacher-pupil ratios are good, teachers will do well, he says.

Nkosana Dolopi, deputy secretary of the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union, also welcomes the researchers’ findings.

“That has always been our point. If teachers are taken care of, are happy and can afford life, they are bound to perform.”

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