Punishing teachers is often counter-productive

One of the key messages of the Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report 2017/8, Accountability in education: Meeting our commitments is that punishing teachers can often be counter-productive.

Teachers have the primary responsibility for educating students. But in many countries, they face growing pressures. The complexity and variety of their tasks can put conflicting demands on their time, complicating efforts to hold them accountable.

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Punishing teachers for absenteeism

A common reason for teachers to be punished is absenteeism: when teachers don’t come to school, they may face sanctions. A study of six low and middle income countries suggested teacher absenteeism averaged 19%, exacerbating already high teacher shortages.

However, when we delve deeper into why teachers are not in school, a different story may emerge.

‘Sometimes teachers do not show up to class because the school is very far, and there is no road for the teachers to drive on, only a bumpy dirt track. We do not have electricity, and there is no toilet. In the winter, it is very cold, and there is no heating. Even the teachers have no heating in their office. Our teachers are very good, and they try to teach all of us, but we do not have many books, and sometimes we do not even have desks.’


Many factors pull teachers away from their classrooms, only some of which are within a teacher’s control. In Senegal, for instance, reasons for teacher absenteeism outside teachers’ control included school closure due to weather damage, renovations, cleaning, strikes, a lack of materials, or wider system planning issues (for example, primary schools close at the end of June so primary teachers can monitor secondary and technical school final exams in July).


Data on teacher absenteeism pays no attention to why a teacher is absent. In Indonesia, between 2013 and 2014, 10% of teachers were absent from primary school. However, nearly half those absences were excused time for study.


This is not to say, of course, that punitive measures should not be used when teachers routinely arrive late or do not even turn up. Rather, it is important to understand the reasons of absenteeism first before generalizing on what the appropriate response should be.

Certain approaches have been shown to reduce teacher absenteeism. These include giving teachers appropriate and additional support in remote areas, like ensuring the school has a principal and providing an additional allowance to teachers working in these areas. By contrast, policies that have been shown to increase absenteeism, such as those that encourage or even indirectly require teachers to teach at more than one school, must be rethought.

Punishing teachers for poor student results

Many systems also hold teachers accountable for their students’ performance, with student test scores being increasingly incorporated into teacher evaluations and sometimes even playing a role in decisions about a teacher’s salary, promotion, and ongoing employment. However, just as with absenteeism, student performance depends on numerous contributing factors beyond a teacher’s ability, including students’ skills, expectations, motivation and behaviour; parental background and support; peer pressure and aspirations; school organization, resources and culture; and curriculum structure and content. Teachers’ impact on student performance, furthermore, is cumulative; a student is influenced not only by current teachers but also by former ones.

More sophisticated approaches, like value-added models, which draw on longitudinal data to isolate the effect of a particular teacher on student achievement gains, could potentially identify problems. However, they are very costly to implement correctly and are often not sufficiently robust. In any case, there is broad agreement that student test score gains alone are insufficiently reliable indicators of teacher effectiveness. Even if value-added models are applied, they should be used to support struggling teachers and not punish them. They should not be used to determine pay: there is little evidence that they have an impact on outcomes or that they increase motivation.

The problem with blaming, rather than fixing, is that the fear of punishment reduces trust. As far as accountability is concerned, low levels of trust will only lead to more intense forms of accountability, which further decrease the levels of trust, and so on. It is no wonder that teachers are dropping out of the workforce at such a fast pace in some countries.

The solution to removing the feeling of threat is not hard: teachers should be included in working out shared aims, which would increase their motivation and ultimately their trust in the education process.

Download the 2017/8 GEM Report, Accountability in Education: Meeting our commitments.

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  1. The graphic on teacher absenteeism reasons is excellent. But it is good to state that these are self-reported reasons, and it’s useful to question self-serving excuses. Those absent get you to the wrong conclusions, i.e. don’t blame teachers.

    Research shows robust results from significant and enforceable sanctions. UNESCO did not like the idea, but that does not invalidate it. If you don’t show up at your office and don’t do what you are asked, you are like to face some sanctions – unless you are a political appointee.

    Nevertheless, one big reason is missing: cognitive difficulty, inability to deal with the content or manage the class, that may have 70-90 students. Also the boredom of repetitiveness. Teachers in public schools of poor countries often struggle to bring into working memory content to answer questions or ask good ones, to spot mistakes in students’ calculations, or to deal with endless noise. This may be one big reason why teachers get appointed and quickly go on study leave. This learning deficit is perhaps manageable. But someone must spot it and manage it.

  2. Its in the interests of effective teaching and learning that there is common understanding by both on the part of teachers and administrators of why and how frequently teachers are absent . Nobody wants to unduly penalize teachers working under difficult conditions but teacher absenteeism is a critical factor in the education delivery equation untracked by most governments. In Africa, as elsewhere we are aware that teacher absenteeism varies from being manageable (<19%) to being alarming (25-35%) (Mozambique, Uganda among others). These are actually conservative  estimates of absence,as teachers may be present but not actually teaching in the classroom and this would push the rates  considerably higher.  A 2009 World Bank study in Zambia indicates that a 5 per cent increase in the absence rate of teachers reduced learning by 4-8 percent of the average gains during the year . To design policy to improve school quality, it is important to know the pattern of  absences:  who is most absent, and when and for what reason. With these issues in mind, Program4Results with Saltracker, has developed a teacher attendance management system which provides panoptic reporting on both teacher and learner daily attendance via a mobile app designed to be both on and off line. The incentive for teachers to participate is that in addition to this EMIS tool which supports the school head in a variety of ways, the app provides teacher development through an LMS on key subject materials which are conveyed and individually monitored by the time a teacher spends on subject related activities and knowledge quizzes. This builds the teachers knowledge and provides lesson plans for teaching difficult topics. Learning deficits are identified and can be addressed. An additional incentive is that a teacher can earn "factokens" by being registered as in attendance and by time spent on LMS activities which can be exchanged for study leave, performance merits or anything the Ministry decides upon. Promising results are indicated in two pilot studies.

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