Technologies to improve teacher attendance and motivation

Written on 08 Nov 17 by Rachel Cooper, Sharath Jeevan, Catherine Honeyman

Technologies to improve teacher attendance and motivation. Do biometric and audio-visual accountability mechanisms work? Can technological approaches, such as classroom cameras and daily fingerprinting, help to improve teacher attendance?

In many parts of the world, schools struggle to ensure that teachers will attend and actually teach their students every day. The World Bank estimates that in developing countries anywhere from 11% to 30% of teachers are absent on a given day. This represents a huge loss in teaching time and in student learning opportunities.

In response, some education systems have begun to use technologies to hold teachers accountable for their attendance. In India—one country that is leading experimentation on this issue—these technologies have ranged from daily in-class photographs, to setting up video cameras and classrooms, to registering teachers’ fingerprints each day. But do these mechanisms actually work? What are the pros and cons, and are there alternatives that might do the job as well or even better?

The IIEP Learning Portal’s Catherine Honeyman raised these questions with two guests: Sharath Jeevan, Founder and CEO of STiR Education and Rachel Cooper, education policy consultant at the World Bank.

Following is an edited transcript of the discussion.

Welcome to the IIEP Learning Portal. Let's get started with a basic question. Why is the problem of teacher attendance significant, and what approaches have been used so far to deal with it?

Sharath Jeevan: You mentioned in your opening that huge loss in student learning time and teaching time that arises from that. Clearly that's critical. But there is a deeper problem, I think, that's being created as a knock-on effect, and that is a really huge undermining of the value seen in public education as a result. We're seeing for example, in many parts the world such as in India, large numbers of parents—often 30 to 40 percent of parents—pulling their children out of public schools, despite the government investing a lot of money into building new schools, simply because of that lack of accountability. Parents are sending their kids to private schools because teachers just show up in those schools much more regularly. That is one effect. The other side is actually that as a result in the systems they start to question the value of this expenditure, and again that undermines their collective support for public education. And the third area is the teachers themselves—this really shifts the mindset of teachers and it really impedes their own sense of professionalism as well.

Rachel, what can you tell us about the variety of different approaches that have been used to deal with this issue of teacher attendance so far, and the undermining of confidence in the education system?

Rachel Cooper: A lot of approaches have been used, considering the large costs that are associated with teachers in any education system. In India especially, there's been a lot of experimentation, as you mentioned, including biometric monitors, camera monitoring, cellphone monitoring—to other types of interventions to improve teacher attendance, such as improving school infrastructure, having schools near a paved road, increasing inspection and quality assurance mechanisms. There's really a wide variety of approaches that have been and can be used.

I know there are some really basic mechanisms that have been used for years and years, such as just recording attendance in a log, and more recently maybe some systems are using something like a call-in hotline where people could report an absent teacher. But today I want to focus really on these newer technological approaches that you mentioned, such as fingerprinting or photographing teachers in their classrooms. In your experience and research do these actually work to increase teacher attendance rates?

RC: I think that the short answer is yes. These approaches can and often do work to improve teacher attendance rates. For example, in India there was a pilot study of using camera monitoring for teacher attendance, and this was shown to drastically improve teacher attendance within the classroom. It also found that student learning improved with that, because the intervention was linked to financial incentives for the teachers, and that was an important component to it. [But] camera monitoring has also been used in Haiti, for example, and it was not shown to be successful there. In Haiti smart phones were used to take pictures of teachers in the classrooms, and there was just such a limited uptake of the method. It was found to be much more challenging. It wasn't linked to any financial incentives or otherwise, and there was no improvement seen in the teacher absentee rates or more importantly student learning.

Can you tell us also a little bit more about your research on the fingerprinting devices and what purposes those serve and how well they work?

RC: In the case of the bio-metric monitoring, it really varies from school to school. My research took place in Gujarat a couple of years ago, and at that time the biometric mechanisms were being used in all government primary schools, and in tribal residential schools. Some private schools were also opting to use the devices, but it wasn't mandated that they do so. One of the problems that's been attributed, by some of the school heads that I spoke to, was keep up of the biometric machines. When there are technical issues with them in government schools, there's not a person who is able to pay attention to that or to provide the technical expertise to adapt the systems.

Aside from that technical upkeep of the biometric monitors, the resources at the school level in general can either lead to an improvement in teacher accountability, or not. At the government schools, there may be issues of teachers coming to school—but more importantly is [the problem of] teachers that come to school but are not in the classroom teaching at the time that they're supposed to be. There are many reasons for that, but one of them is other official duties that are assigned to teachers. In government schools, there are no administrative staff that are that are assigned to fulfill these functions, so it falls on the teachers.

I’d like to turn to you, Sharath, because of course you have extensive experience working directly with teachers. Do you see that these devices and technologies are actually working to increase teacher attendance rates? Do you see any drawbacks to using them?

SJ: One of the best pieces of advice I've had in my five years of running STIR, is someone who told me to think like a parent, not like an educationalist. It's certainly been very useful advice. I have two young children, my oldest son is six, and I was just thinking—what would I feel if I was told by his school that his teachers were being biometrically fingerprinted, or videoed, or [photographed]? I think we should all ask ourselves that very basic common sense question, because I think it's very disturbing at a number of levels.

Clearly there have been studies done that, such as the J-PAL study, that show there have been gains in attendance. But as Rachel said, I think really, it's been extremely hard to use these mechanisms to increase teacher time-on-task, or teacher time actually teaching, as she mentioned. They're also pretty costly. From my reading of the J-PAL study, that was at about $200 a teacher per year, with the cost of upkeep and so on as well.

But I think the bigger issue is just how it undermines the intrinsic motivation of teachers, and also how it potentially shifts our thinking about the teaching profession. It almost goes back to a manufacturing type of paradigm, of thinking about teachers as factory workers that have to be clocked in and clocked out. So, I think, first of all, of these are very blunt tools. I understand the reasons, because often governments have really been struggling for ways to address this problem, and it’s a very big problem. [But] I think they are blunt and I think they are a little bit of a Band-Aid [a superficial solution]. And I think also have some potentially quite risky side effects, in terms of being prescribed as well.

Now, I know that fingerprinting devices specifically are also used to overcome some of the issues with corruption—for example in paying teachers: making sure that an actual living person is being paid, who is also actually a teacher. Can you either of you speak to the use of those technologies for that purpose and does that help to augment in your mind the usefulness of this approach?

RC: Sure. They can be linked to salary which I think is important and that links to financial incentives as well. So again, that helps to get teachers to school, but it doesn't deal with the broader questions of accountability for student learning, which I think is important.

I think one of the benefits of using these biometric and other technologies for monitoring teacher attendance, is that there's very little room for manipulation. If there's potential for these systems to be hacked, then of course they can be manipulated and that's a much bigger problem and issue. But on the positive side, the fact that they can't be manipulated I think can lead to less corruption within the system as well. And for the principals that are in favor of using it, it provides for them a snapshot of what the issues are at the school level, with teachers’ attendance. It gives them the data to back up decisions that they make at the school level.

Really, it points to the fact that there needs to be accountability at all levels. There was one school head of a private school that I spoke with that opted to use the biometric monitoring—they weren't mandated to use it by the government. But one of the things that they did when they brought in the thumbprinting devices was that they had the school leadership and the school head utilize the biometric mechanisms first, to serve as an example to the teachers. Rather than just placing the onus on teachers and having a system where the teachers were being watched and closely monitored, really there was accountability at all levels, so that the teachers then had the example of the school head to look up to, so that everyone was being held accountable for showing up to school and showing up on time.

Sharath, what do you see as at the root of some teachers’ lack of motivation or lack of ability to attend school in the first place? And then what do you think are the best approaches for addressing those issues, if it's not these technological approaches?

SJ: I think one of the things that we've been struggling with and grappling with as our core mission at STIR is that fundamental question of what really motivates teachers to want to teach, and to teach well? We've been trying a number of experiments around the extrinsic motivators—things like, for example, what happens if a teacher has a positive note from her husband or son, for example, about her career? What happens if she is recognized by someone higher up in the system? Those kinds of things. And what we've learned is that although those extrinsic motivators do play some positive role, really, it's about intrinsic motivation.

Critically, for teachers it's the importance of what we call at STIR those “light bulb moments”. Those moments that a teacher sees the child actually learn, and their teaching improve. That is the deepest and most sustainable motivator. And we found that, if you think of it in terms of that metaphor, the role of a good education system is to provide the ongoing electricity for those light bulb moments to keep on happening. And if you think of it, it's a very obvious point. But everything we do in our education systems is designed to impede that process.

So, for example, we'll often—as Rachel was saying—we’ll take teachers away from core teaching duties, so they can't actually teach as much of the time. Or we ask for data from teachers, and never give it back to them in a format that allows them to understand how they can improve with individual children in their classroom. Or we ask them to cover [all] portions of the curriculum, irrespective of whether the child learns or not.

So, I think that very simple premise—about the lightbulb moments and the role of intrinsic motivation—I think leads to this idea of there being a positive cycle or virtuous cycle between motivation and mastery. So basically, as teachers see positive results in their classrooms, they put more effort in, that leads to further positive results, that improves student learning, and you get onto a virtuous cycle. So, we've been designing our whole process at STIR to take into account that motivation mastery cycle and then build a journey for teachers where they go through a structured development program, they get exposed to key principles that improve their classroom practice, and they work collaboratively with other teachers across local schools in their area to actually look at tangible classroom improvement—and in the process, boost motivation. At the same time. So rather than trying a sort of Band-Aid solution, which sometimes some of these technologies can be, it’s trying to get to the heart of the problem and really try to resurrect intrinsic motivation itself.

One of the things we’ve been seeing, actually, in STIR classrooms with teachers who are more intrinsically motivated, is substantially increased time teaching. We saw from a recent randomized controlled trial we're doing in India, actually an 8 to 9 percent uplift in actual teaching time—as opposed to just showing up to school. So, again, we have more to do here, but it's an interesting reflection on the potential of really focusing on intrinsic motivation.

It sounds like there is still quite a lot of experimentation and research to be done on how to address the real motivations that will bring teachers to school and encourage them to dedicate themselves to teaching students every day. Thank you both for sharing your perspectives with the IIEP Learning Portal.

Additional reading

Teacher absenteeism study: Field Studies in Education. 2017. Research Group: Azim Premji Foundation

Burke, Laura. 2015. Haiti: Can smartphones make schools better? The World Bank, Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund. 

Crehan, Lucy. 2016. Exploring the impact of career models on teacher motivation. Paris: IIEP.

Duflo, Esther and Hanna, Rema. 2005. Monitoring Works: Getting Teachers to Come to School. NBER Working Paper No. w11880.

Muralidharan, Karthik; Das, Jishnu; Holla, Alaka; and Mohpal, Aakash. 2014. The Fiscal Cost of Weak Governance: Evidence from Teacher Absence in India. NBER Working Paper No. 20299

STiR Education. March, 2017. We need to talk (differently) about teachers: Learning and insight from the STIR journey so far.

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