Incentive alignment


Most of our public schools are not delivering the quality of education we would like them to deliver. Parental preferences for private schooling, if they can afford it, high drop out rates in public schools, and poor performance on tests are all strong indicators of the desperate situation. In addition, millions of children are still out of schools. It is no comfort for anyone that low-fee private schools also deliver a marginally better quality. Simply put, if Pakistan is to have a future in the comity of nations, our education system needs to be improved significantly, and in any such scheme, whatever the size of the private sector, public schools will play a big role.

But there are very serious incentive compatibility and organisational issues in the public sector system. Teachers are hired through patronage-client networks and draw support from and owe allegiance to local politicians. They are posted, transferred, promoted, rewarded and punished on that basis. Why should they be bothered about showing up or teaching or having any enthusiasm for the job? For the richer segments, who do not send their children to public schools, and especially the local politicians, local schools are a way of getting employment for some of their constituents (teachers and other school staff). Most bureaucrats also feel the need to please local and provincial level politicians and other notables. So how can incentives be aligned for teaching and delivering quality or even being enthusiastic about teaching?

Public schools teachers are ‘used’ as a labour force available for any large-scale job that needs to be done. They are involved in election duty, vaccination duties, polio drives, census duty, flood duty etc. Only two days ago when we visited a public school in Sindh the head-teacher was out due to ‘census duty’ and the teachers, taking advantage, had let the children go home at around 11:30 am. Teaching is a full time occupation. Apart from six hours of class time, teachers need time to prepare lesson plans, grade class work and keep the classroom ready for lessons. How can the state deploy teachers elsewhere, and so regularly, and still hope to achieve quality in teaching?

The head-teachers, supposed to organise teaching in a school, its delivery and quality, complain that they have little or no power to hold teachers accountable. They can cajole and plead but not do much else. Teachers complain that head-teachers act as ‘gods’ and if more power was given to them, it would spell disaster. Neither the teacher nor head-teacher is responsible to the parents or students or the communities they work in. The roles of SMCs/PTCs and other such bodies is marginal if any. If enrolments are low, children drop out or do not perform well, there are few or no consequences for teachers or head-teachers. Clearly they should not bother about these things then.

Teachers and head-teachers agree on one thing though: there is too much ‘political interference’ in schools and teaching. My contention is that since public schools are being used as a patronage mechanism, this is not a surprise at all. What is surprising is that even those who come through sifarish complain of political interference.

Teachers complain that their opinions are not taken into account in any policy changes, even curricular and pedagogical ones. They are not treated as an important stakeholder and hence they have no ownership of any policy changes. For example, Punjab government decided to move to English as a medium of instruction without any consultations with teachers and without an appreciation of whether teachers can do it or not. Now teachers are forcing students to ‘rote’ learn things in English. Similarly, when new training programmes are designed, teachers are just told what experts have come up with, rather than having teachers as co-designers of new trainings.

There are, of course, plenty of issues related to poor infrastructure provision and paucity of resources spent in/on public schools and their importance should not be underestimated, but since here we are focusing on issues of incentives, we need not talk of these.

The main issue is of structuring reform in these conditions. This is a major mechanism design issue. The people who are in control of setting incentives and benefitting from them do not stand to benefit from good delivery of education. They actually benefit from using the public education system as a patronage mechanism, for rewarding their supporters/constituents with jobs/postings and in return getting support. How can reform, for improving quality of education take place in such conditions?

Elements of reform have to include making parents and communities more central to the accountability and monitoring/evaluation process. It has to have buy-in of teachers or it has to have the power to move teachers’ actions in the desired direction. The accountability of government officials at the local level and local representatives, to the local people, has to be strengthened. Incentive alignment also requires better monitoring of outcomes and process and linkage of reward/punishment, for teachers and all involved, to these. This last has to be done very carefully as there is plenty of research that shows that blind emulation of incentives from the private sector, for sectors that involve significant externalities, incomplete and asymmetric markets, can be very counterproductive. But these design issues can be left for later articles.

Education sector needs reform, and the key reform is the one needed in the public sector education system. Without successful reform in the public sector, we cannot fix the education system, and without that, it is hard to see us developing sustainably, socially, politically, or economically. But reform of public sector poses a very tricky mechanism design issue. The people who are setting the incentives have no interest in seeing schools give good education, rather, they are using these as patronage systems and/or do not send their children to it. But those who depend on the system are not enfranchised enough to demand and/or force change. How do we introduce change in such a system? What is the entry point? Maybe Article 25A and legal challenges for its implementation, and/or the occasion of the next election can be used as a means to induce the state to take the demand for reform seriously.


The writer is an Associate Professor of Economics at LUMS (currently on leave) and a Senior Advisor at Open Society Foundation (OSF). He can be reached at [email protected]