106. Published: Monetary incentives to government teachers – a big waste!

Article published on the Kathmandu Post daily on August 8, 2014. I had to squeeze the article down to around 1200 words but here’s the full article with citations.

Kathmandu Post - Money for Nothing

Monetary incentives to government teachers – a big waste!

Umes Shrestha

How much money do you think the government has allocated for education this fiscal year? According the recent budget announcement, it’s a massive 86.3 billion rupees. And here’s what surprised me the most. Out of the total educational budget, almost 70% goes for government teachers’ salary only. This is mind boggling!

Government school teachers have a pretty good salary scale. As per the latest adjustment, it starts from Rs. 15,940 for primary level teachers to around Rs. 36,720 for secondary level teachers. That’s a pretty good salary scale if you compare those figures to what teachers in most private schools get.

In a few ‘rich’ private schools, the salary might be really really good, however most of the private schools are “B” or “C” and even “D” grade schools, and the salary for teachers in those schools is really miserable. In many of these schools, the salary range of teachers is Rs. 6500 in the pre-primary to around Rs. 15000 in the secondary level. These schools employ part-time teachers as well, mainly in the secondary level and their salary range is around Rs. 3500 to Rs. 4500 per class.

Now, one doesn’t need to be a mathematical genius to figure out that government school teachers are paid very well compared to most of the teachers in private schools. In addition, government school teachers get allowances, paid leaves, and facilities like incentive for Teachers’ Professional Development (TPD) trainings. They enjoy comfortable, safe and secured life similar to other government employees.

Now, here’s what I don’t get:

a) Why can’t most of the government school teachers teach as effectively as their counterparts in private schools who work for almost half of their salaries?

b) What’s stopping them from being effective, professional and committed to their work?

Let’s take this year’s SLC result as the barometer of quality education. The community schools are almost on the bottom of the pit with staggering 72% students failing the exam. We know there are other issues too related to the degrading quality of education, like our stupid SLC examination system, lack of course books, lack of teaching materials, lack of infrastructure, plus a multitude of social and cultural dynamics – which are basically out of a teacher’s control. That should not however make teachers come up with ninety nine different excuses.

Year in and year out, private schools have far better results in SLC than the community schools. Is it only because they have good infrastructure? Is it only because the ‘Medium of Instruction’ in private schools is English? Is it only because they have extracurricular activities? I don’t think so.

We know that teachers play a major role in students’ learning success. And it doesn’t have to be about the salary, infrastructure, or materials to play that role. It’s about, first and foremost, the teacher’s attitude, motivation and professional integrity. They should be teachers first, and then government employees – but it seems that their major motivation was just to get a ‘sarkaari jaagir’ and get settled for life. And when it comes to professional development, just like Sharma (2007) wrote, they would say: “Training? I think that’s for technicians. I am already educated and I can teach.” Many sulk away from training programs. And when they do attend such programs, many do it only for the monetary incentives.

In this article, my focus is not on trying to change attitude and behavior of government teachers but my contention is with the monetary incentives given to motivate the teachers to attend trainings. In simple words, monetary incentives don’t work and here’s why.

Presenting hard evidences from social science, American author Dan Pink (during his Ted Talk titled – The Puzzle of Motivation) screams out loud that incentives work well only for routine mechanistic jobs. And that rewards and incentives by their very nature narrow our focus and restrict possibility. Thus monetary rewards and bonuses might motivate bus drivers or waiters or manual laborers but not innovators or teachers or leaders.

Pink cites an experiment conducted by Harvard economist Dan Ariely in which a number of MIT students were offered three levels of rewards according to their performance. The experimented found that “as long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as they would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance”. And here’s the most revealing finding of the experiment – “but once the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward led to poorer performance”. This experiment has been replicated over and over again in different contexts and the results have always been similar.

Let’s connect this revelation with teaching. Naturally, teaching is not a mechanical job. Some part of it may look mechanical (take attendance, wipe the board, conduct exam, etc) but real teaching is beyond that. Real teaching requires a teacher to be creative, innovative and to possess social and cognitive skill. Thus essentially, giving monetary incentives to teachers so that they get motivated to work better usually does not work.

Here’s another report on the correlation between teacher incentives and student achievements. After conducting a study in the public schools of New York, USA, Fryer (2011) emphatically concludes, “I find no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation, nor do I find any evidence that the incentives change student or teacher behavior”. He further argues that teacher incentive is one of the reasons for decreasing student performance.

So, here’s my argument.

There is a huge mismatch between what the government says it is doing to uplift the education and what the years of SLC results say. (I know that exam result does not truly reflect one’s learning but just to be aligned with the government’s policy, let’s say SLC result is the yardstick for quality education.) It’s written in the wall with big bold letters – most of the government teachers have not been effective at all. This implies that the trainings and TPD programs have not been effective. But the government still insists on committing the classic mistake by trying to entice its teachers for trainings by offering them monetary compensation. The government is simply dumping a huge amount of money down the drain.

And here’s one more ugly side of government’s training programs. Ram Abadhesh Ray, an English teacher from Birgunj expresses his disgust over the trend among the government teachers to participate in trainings only when there is “a handsome allowance”. Or if it’s in a star-hotel, with good food and drink. And when there is less allowance or no allowance, the teachers don’t even talk about attending training (Ray, 2012). This is hypocrisy at its best! On one hand, these reluctant, change-resisting teachers are only throwing dust into everyone’s eyes by exploiting trainings as milking cows rather than professional development opportunities. On the other hand, the government is deliberately squandering the money knowing that the desired change is not happening.

Monetary incentive and allowance, which are a form of external motivation, don’t work at all because if they did, the teachers in community schools would be very effective; the schools would be thriving and beating the private schools by a long shot. But, as we can see, the reality is quite depressing. Behaviorial economists, like Dan Ariely, say that extrinsic motivations – money, bonuses, reward, threats, punishment – only boost performance for a short burst of time and then it quickly dissipates. Incentives hence have only made most of the government teachers less effective, less creative, and probably very selfish.

Therefore the government needs to cut down all monetary incentives, especially the allowance for TPD programs, and invest the money on infrastructures or building toilets in the government schools. The government teachers already have a ‘convenient’ pay scale. (I believe that the primary teachers should get paid more; but that’s another issue.) Plus, there are tons of literatures and reports claiming that the TPD program hasn’t been effective. Even the Ministry of Education’s National Center for Educational Development (NCED) acknowledges this fact on its website.

What should the government do then?

The trainings should not be mandatory at all. There’s a saying – you can drag a horse to a pond, but you can’t make it drink the water. Adults are like that. The ‘mandatory’ system coupled with monetary incentive just kills the drive because it somehow feels forced upon. Social science tells us that adults learn or change only when they want to, not when they are forced to. Therefore the trainings should be ‘voluntary’.

But what about the haajir-garera-taap-diney culture? Well, here’s a solution.

The government should make its teachers PAY for the trainings because if the teachers invest on trainings, they will definitely take it seriously. Yes. Make them pay for the trainings. This idea sounds outright blasphemous and there will be a huge uproar initially. But that’s the only way to make the teachers assume ownership of the training and fight the haa-taa culture. As a result, they will show some trace of ethics, integrity, and responsibility.

Next, the government should invest in ‘training follow up’ programs to bridge the gap between the training sessions and classroom teaching, and monitor those programs. A trainee teacher should also, for instance, submit a report of implementation to the ministry within three months. And the policy should favor only these teachers for, let’s say, promotion or salary raise.

Even better, teachers and school districts should compete for government funding with which they can organize professional development events. Such funding should be based on the progress report submitted by teachers and experts from local education offices, and student evaluation. If rewards should be given, they should be given for producing results, such as higher pass percentage in SLC and other forms of evaluation.

Lastly, this is what the policy makers, MoE and other authorities should provide the teachers: autonomy. Autonomy in teaching, in method, in syllabus, in assessment and in deciding how to develop professionally. Only then may the government teachers discover deep intrinsic motivations to get out of the rut, find a purpose and stretch their wings towards professionalism. Intrinsic motivation is the only key. May be… just may be, the teachers then transfer some part of trainings into the classroom and the government education becomes more effective.


Fryer, R. G. (2011). Teacher incentives and student achievement: evidence from New York City Public Schools. Retrieved from http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/fryer/files/teacher_incentives_and_student_achievement_evidence_from_new_york_city_public_schools.pdf

NCED. (n.d.). Effectiveness Study of Teacher Professional Development, 2070. Retrieved from http://www.nced.gov.np/download.php

Ray, R. A. (2012). Teacher training: for money or for professionalism? ELT Choutari. Retrieved from http://neltachoutari.wordpress.com/2012/01/01/are-our-teachers-professional-at-all/

Sharma, S. (2007). Professionalism in Nepal. Retrieved from http://shyamsharma.net/professionalism-in-nepal/

TED. (2009). Dan Pink: The puzzle of motivation. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrkrvAUbU9Y


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