Quality of Teachers Does Matter in Sri Lanka: Lessons from the Best Education Systems

In this special article marking International Students’ Day 2014 (17th November) Nisha Arunatilake takes a look at the vital ingredients for improving teacher quality in Sri Lanka’s schools.


A critical determinant in students’ overall schooling experience in general, and improving students’ education outcomes in particular, is the quality of teachers in schools. The recent budget speech presented in Parliament proposed to “recruit 50,000 teacher assistants to rural schools next year in English, Mathematics, Science, Information Technology, Aesthetic Studies and Sports. Once they complete their specialized subject training and leadership training, they will be absorbed to the respective schools. They will be required to complete the Degree in Education within 5 years before absorption into Sri Lanka Education Service, after which they will be required to serve in the same school for a further five years.” This proposal has many merits. The recruitments are especially targeted at filling the gaps in identified subjects. Also, as they are school-based, they will fill the gaps in teacher shortages in rural schools. But why the recruitments made at the ‘teacher assistant’ level is not clear. Even if appointment of teacher assistants are necessary at the short term, long term strategies are necessary for improving teacher quality and alleviating teacher shortages at different locations and for different subjects in the country.


“Nowhere does the quality of a school system exceed the quality of its teachers,” states PISA (2012), a tool designed to assess 15-year-old students across the globe for their competencies in reading, mathematics, science and problem solving. PISA is different from normal exams, in that, it is not meant to examine how well students know what they have learnt, but it tries to assess how well they can use that knowledge to solve problems situated in unfamiliar settings.


This article compares the policies and practices of the education system in Sri Lanka with that of the best education systems, as measured by PISA, focusing mainly on teacher quality.


Stringent Teacher Recruitment


In the best-performing schools, ensuring teacher quality starts with recruitment. The best performers in the post-senior secondary level exams are chosen for a career in teaching. For example, in Singapore, candidates for teacher training are in the top three percentiles of their graduating classes. Only one in eight applicants are accepted for teacher training. The selection process is rigorous and includes interviews to assess the personal qualities of the candidates, and review of school records to assess contributions to school and community. School leaders are also of good quality as they are chosen primarily from amongst schoolteachers.


The best schools systems use a variety of methods to attract the best to the profession. Teachers are relatively highly paid. For example, teacher salaries in Singapore are comparable with salaries of other professionals. High teacher salaries are an incentive for the best students to choose a career in teaching. Teachers are also highly respected, and teaching is a highly sought after occupation.


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Teacher Promotions as a Means to Improving Performance


In many of the better-performing Asian countries, having well defined career paths, compensations and promotions based on performance, and special incentives to encourage teachers to teach in difficult areas and challenging schools have resulted in encouraging the best candidates to enter the teaching profession, and allocating them across the system in a way that achieves the best results.


In Singapore, teachers can get promoted along three different career tracks – teaching track, leadership track, and specialist track. Teachers in the teaching track can be promoted along their chosen career paths to become principals or master teachers, while teachers in the leadership track can work their way up to becoming the Director General of Education. In the specialist track, teachers are focused on research and teaching policy and can move up the ladder to become a chief-specialist. As teachers move along the career path, they receive salary increases and opportunities to train and develop themselves.


Teacher Training and Development


Quality improvement does not stop with the recruitment of the best candidates. Those chosen are continuously trained and developed to do their best. Throughout the teaching career, teachers are provided guidance and support for their development. Successful teachers can move up the career ladder and expect better salaries and promotions.


In Shanghai, China, teachers are expected to undergo continuous development and given the space to do so. For instance, they are encouraged to allocate a significant proportion of their time for lesson planning. Teachers are provided with multiple avenues for development. Peer support is one of them. Teachers regularly meet in small groups, according to their subject area and grade, to discuss teaching methods, conduct mock teaching sessions, and to comment and learn from each other.


Professional Teacher Service


In China, since the 1980s, teachers are required to get certified in order to become a teacher. A general education certificate at the secondary or tertiary level is not sufficient to become a teacher; they must also pass the National Mandarin Language Test, and qualify in four exams covering pedagogy, psychology, teaching methods, and teaching ability.


In Japan, since 2009, teachers are expected to renew their certification every 10 years, after undergoing professional development. This policy change has encouraged teachers to participate in professional development. Also, schools are able to not renew appointments of teachers who fail to upgrade or renew their certificates.


The nexus of interaction between all the areas highlighted, are shown in Figure 1 above.


Lessons for Sri Lanka


Sri Lanka has already established some of the key features of the best performing school systems. Teacher recruitments through National Colleges of Education and Departments of Education in universities are similar to the way teachers are recruited in the best performing countries. However, the ad hoc recruitment of individuals to the profession through other means has reduced the quality of teachers available in the system.


The education system in Sri Lanka can learn from some of the best practices of the best performing school systems. The system for developing, appraising and promoting teachers in Sri Lanka is not developed well. Maintaining the quality of teachers cannot be achieved only by recruiting the best. Once recruited, the system needs to support and encourage the continuous development of the recruits so that they improve their performance and keep up with changes taking place globally. Although Sri Lanka has a system of teacher appraisal, it does not functioning effectively. This is partly due to financial and time constraints, and partly due to the limited emphasis given for teacher appraisal.


Last September, as usual, when the grade five scholarship exam results were released, the top performers of the exam and their teachers and schools were commended for a job well done. Next year, when the next public examination results come out, let’s celebrate the teachers who improve the results of all their students, and not just the most talented.