Journal Issue: Excellence in the Classroom Volume 17 Number 1 Spring 2007
Some Lessons for the United States
Although developing countries differ in many ways from the United States, the inequality and poverty in some of their schools closely resembles conditions in some hard-to-staff U.S. schools. Because of their widely varying circumstances, these countries have tried many and varied reforms, often on a large scale. Their experiences with reform may provide insights for U.S. policymakers.
Clearly, educational reforms of many kinds can affect teaching quality and student learning. Research evidence supports the intuitive notion that teaching quality and student achievement are sensitive to the level and structure of teacher compensation. For example, as average teacher salaries in Chile more than doubled over the past decade, higher-quality students entered teacher education programs.33 Similarly, when FUNDEF increased educational resources in Brazil and distributed them more fairly, school enrollment increased and the gap in student test scores narrowed.34
Once a country makes teacher salaries competitive, it can link teacher performance to pay increases to improve teaching quality. Although Chile’s school-based teacher bonus for student performance did not initially affect average test scores, it has now begun to increase them modestly, under some circumstances.35
The specific design of teacher incentives can have important consequences for teaching quality and student outcomes. Even in the case of nationwide performance-based-pay programs, such as those in Mexico and Chile, few teachers are likely to receive awards and thus few have any real incentive to improve student performance.36 Effective incentive schemes must be tightly coupled with the desired teacher behaviors and generous enough to give teachers a reason to make the extra effort.
A key lesson from research both in the United States and in developing countries is that teachers do not always respond to incentives in predictable ways. Sometimes, programs designed to reward teachers who adopt specific behaviors or achieve higher student achievement fail to generate the desired behavioral response.37 Bolivia’s bonus for teaching in rural areas, for example, failed to produce higherquality rural teachers.38 And Mexico’s new teacher career system, designed to reward teachers for improved student outcomes, failed to change teacher performance—and thus to change student outcomes.39 These cases highlight the importance of design and implementation issues in teacher incentive reforms.
Finally, reforms that are not specifically designed to affect teachers can nevertheless influence—sometimes even more than changes in compensation can—the characteristics of those who choose to enter and remain in teaching, as well as their work in classrooms. School-based management reforms that devolve decisionmaking authority to the schools, for example, have had important effects on teacher performance and student learning by making teachers (and schools) more accountable to their communities. Devolution of decisionmaking authority to schools in Central America has, in many cases, led to lower teacher absenteeism, more teacher work hours, more homework assignments, and better parent-teacher relationships. These are promising changes, especially in schools where educational quality is low.