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Teacher Absence in the Developing World

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Originally posted on September 23, 2009.

 

In South Africa the problem of teacher absence is so bad that frustrated students rioted when teachers repeatedly failed to show up for class. But the problem is not limited to South Africa, teachers are absent throughout the developing world.  Spot checks by the World Bank, for example, indicate that on a typical day 11% of teachers are absent in Peru, 16% are absent in Bangladesh, 27% in Uganda and 25% in India. Even when teachers are present they are often not teaching.  In India, where a quarter of the teachers are absent on any particular day, only about half of those present are actually teaching.  (These are national averages, in some states the problem is worse.) The problem is not low salaries.  Salaries for public school teachers in India are above the norm for that country.  Indeed, if anything, absenteeism increases with salary (and it is higher in public schools than in private schools, despite lower wages in the latter).  The problem is political power, teacher unions, and poor incentives. Teachers are literate and they vote so they are a powerful political force especially where teacher unions are strong.  As if this were not enough, in India, the teachers have historically had a guarantee of representation in the state Legislative Councils so political power has often flowed to teachers far in excess of their numbers.  As a result, it's virtually impossible to fire a teacher for absenteeism. The situation in South Africa is not that different than in India.  The NYTimes article on South Africa has this to say:

 

“We have the highest level of teacher unionization in the world, but their focus is on rights, not responsibilities,” Mamphela Ramphele, former vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, said in a recent speech.

 

Some reforms are planned in South Africa, including greater monitoring of teacher attendance but this offhand remark suggests the difficulties:

 

“We must ask ourselves to what extent teachers in many historically disadvantaged schools unwittingly perpetuate the wishes of Hendrik Verwoerd,” [President Zuma] recently told a gathering of principals, implicitly challenging the powerful South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, which is part of the governing alliance(!).  (Emphasis added, AT.)
About the Author
Alex Tabarrok is Bartley J. Madden Chair in Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and director of research for The Independent Institute. Tabarrok is co-author with Tyler Cowen of the popular economics blog, Marginal Revolution. His recent research looks at bounty hunters, judicial incentives and elections, crime control, patent reform, methods to increase the supply of human organs for transplant, and the regulation of pharmaceuticals. He is the editor of the books, Entrepreneurial Economics: Bright Ideas from the Dismal Science; The Voluntary City: Choice, Community, and Civil Society; and Changing the Guard: Private Prisons and The Control of Crime. His papers have appeared in the Journal of Law and Economics, Public Choice, Economic Inquiry, Journal of Health Economics, Journal of Theoretical Politics, The American Law and Economics Review, Kyklos and many other journals. His popular articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other magazines and newspapers.