About a month ago, the Uganda National Examinations Board (UNEB) reported that as many as 80% of teachers in Uganda lack basic literacy and numeracy skills. The results come from assessments conducted in the country’s Primary Teacher Colleges (PTCs), and indicate a decline in performance from previous years. In the newspapers and online, people expressed their surprise and concern and engaged in debate about the causes of this issue.
It is likely that the 80% statistic is a bit exaggerated, and I will maintain some skepticism until UNEB releases a full report on their methodology and findings. Institutions like UNEB tend to be a bit alarmist with such announcements.
However, teaching quality in Uganda, among other countries, is not a situation to be taken lightly. A limited supply of trained teachers remains a significant challenge to education systems in the global south. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, in one third of all countries, only 75% of teachers are trained according to their national standards.
Governments like Uganda and Kenya, which both introduced universal primary education in the early 2000s, continue to face the immense challenge of keeping up with increased enrolment. It is estimated that to provide every child with primary education by 2030 (one of the UN’s lofty sustainable development goals), the world will need to recruit 25.8 million teachers. Communities in remote and/or conflict-affected areas, where the majority of out of school children reside, face an even greater difficulty with recruiting and training teachers.
Many international organisations have responded to the issue of education quality. But which of their approaches are the most effective? How can the international community best support countries to develop a strong supply of teachers?
When it comes to teacher professional development, most international agencies rely on the obvious solution to the problem of teacher quality: more training for teachers. Often, these donor-supported activities take place outside of existing teacher education institutions (like Uganda’s PTCs).
Anyone who has worked in international development, or any civil society or government organization anywhere, can picture what one of these trainings look like. Participants spend the day sitting at a table in a bare room. A facilitator, armed with chart paper and markers, leads some activities. After an hour or two, participants’ attention is focused more on the tea and coffee on the back table than the content of the training. At the end of the day, participants sign an attendance sheet and, if the facilitator is keen, a survey to monitor their learning outcomes. The facilitator and NGO staff leave hoping the training content will stick with the participants.
And sadly, too often, the effort ends there. No matter how engaging or relevant the material presented to the participants, true professional development for teachers cannot end with a 9-5 training.
Effective monitoring of teacher professional development at the school and district levels is crucial. Donor agencies should support school administrations to develop strategies for teacher support in their schools. This includes regular observation and assessment, open classrooms, and educational of practice. Effective school-based monitoring is also key to improving teacher motivation. Weak renumeration schemes are not the only barriers to retaining teachers in schools (although they certainly help: in Uganda, teacher attrition dropped by 24% between 2005 and 2006 after a 33% pay rise). Teacher motivation is also improved when teachers are actively supported by their head teacher, other teachers, and their district education offices. They are also more likely to stay when they are involved in decision-making and school development plans.
Donors should also consider ways to build the capacity of local governments to monitor teacher quality, and track teacher attrition and movement between schools. This could also involve supporting governments to develop their own locally relevant professional development programs for teachers in their districts or counties, in partnership with institutions like Uganda’s PTCs.
School administrations are also beginning to consider approaches that blend online coursework or videos with in-person instruction. Videos may be used to prepare teachers for in-person trainings, or as supplements during or after the trainings. Research has shown that a blended approach to professional development is more effective than single-mode trainings. It may also reduce the costs associated with scheduling multiple trainings with a consultant when information can instead be disseminated electronically.
Finally, we need to improve our understanding of teacher professional development globally. This includes improving our data on teacher qualifications in general – a messy endeavor given the range of different national standards across and within countries. It also means supporting research institutions to investigate issues affecting teachers in their respective regions, and thus developing a stronger base of evidence on the most effective professional development strategies in different contexts.
Donor-funded professional development programs, and their many trainings, will continue to be part of how organizations seek to improve education quality in the global south. And they are certainly an important place for sharing knowledge and best practices in teaching and learning. But they must be considered one part of a more systemic approach to education quality, that includes school-based support, communities of practice, and district-level monitoring.
The availability of well-trained, motivated, and supported teachers is key to positive learning outcomes among students. We frequently hear stories of how a single teacher can change the lives of his or her students, so just imagine how powerful an effective teaching force and transform a community or country.