A VIEW FROM THE TOP – BY MAI NGUYEN

 

Hamjambo! Greetings from Dodoma, the capital city of Tanzania!

The Research in Improving System of Education (RISE) in Tanzania examines a wide set of issues, including the political economy of education reform, teacher motivation, and education service delivery – many of which I spent last year learning and thinking over in my Education & Development class. At the beginning of internship, the project’s principal investigators and our intern team determined the types of data to be collected throughout the summer related to these issues.  One of my main tasks during the past month is to map out the sector’s data collection and management system and gather as much data as possible from the central government before running the next stage of data collection in a sample of districts. Hence, I have been visiting ministries in Dodoma and Dar es Salaam to collect data and conduct interviews with government officials who are involved in various aspects of the education system.

Interviewing government officials on teacher placement.

Interviewing government officials on teacher placement.

My exposure to government institutions such as the Ministry of Education, the Teachers’ Service Commission, and the central administration of the President’s Office has given me valuable insights on the capacity of these institutions to plan, coordinate, and implement basic education in the country. There are many binding constraints in the system – the most obvious one being the lack of adequate IT infrastructure and human resources to collect and manage education data. Even at the Statistics Office of the central Basic Education Administration Unit, there was only one desktop with access to the data portal and one officer with a deep knowledge of this system. This resulted in missing and inconsistent data as well as hours of my life spent on scanning tables from dusty paper reports since there was no computerized data available for several years. Thinking back on the importance of evidence-based policy that we learned in class, I could not help but wonder how far the government’s capacity is from doing so when even the simplest data such as enrollment was a guesswork for some years.

RISE Tanzania Stakeholder Conference.

RISE Tanzania Stakeholder Conference.

Furthermore, the ongoing decentralization of basic education implementation from the Ministry of Education to the Regional Administration & Local Government authorities have resulted in a coordination challenge, with accountability mechanisms and human resources remaining to be fully rolled out. I got a peek of this when I was trying to collect data from both places – one would say that the other has the data, or that a certain function has been transferred while in fact no role has been created in the new education unit to take over the responsibility. The coordination challenge is not only between these government bodies, but also with development partners. At the RISE Stakeholder Reference Meeting earlier this month, several development partners presented lessons from their projects. It was interesting to note how eerily similar they all are – all focusing on improving learning outcome through teacher trainings, early grade reading, etc. None of them tackled the elephant in the room – which was teacher motivation & absenteeism. I tried to imagine myself in the shoes of the Permanent Secretary of Education sitting in the room at the time. How would I coordinate the efforts of development partners to align with the sector’s vision and work on the most intractable challenges, given their different agendas and pressure to show results in a five-year project? There is no easy answer.

Visiting Ngorogoro Crater with other Georgetown students.

Visiting Ngorogoro Crater with other Georgetown students.

While I was glad to learn that the data collection and management process has been improving over the last two years, I also saw more entrenched constraints that directly affect learning outcomes for students. In particular, the teachers’ incentive structure has led to low motivation and weak accountability in the system. For example, teachers have little choice over where they are deployed and promotions are often not based on performance. The issue of teacher absenteeism is not unique to Tanzania, but I gathered from the interviews a sense of reluctance from officials to acknowledge and tackle this problem. Teacher attendance data is not uniformly recorded across schools or reported up the line of management, and spot checks are infrequent; thus, the extent of the problem is not known to upper management. While recent reforms include disseminating national and within-district rankings of schools based on learning outcomes to the public, many families still do not know about these rankings or do not have the means to act on this information – such as moving their children to private schools or finding a receptive formal channel to make teachers and schools more accountable. Hopefully, one of the outcomes of this research project will be to give actionable recommendations to the Tanzanian government to improve teachers’ motivation and performance.

Visiting Bongoyo Island near Dar es Salaam.

Visiting Bongoyo Island near Dar es Salaam.

Overall, the top government offices that I have been interacting with have been more welcoming and open than I expected. Of course, this was after having to go through a long process of getting a work permit, a formal introduction from Twaweza, a support letter from the Permanent Secretary of Education, and multiple times explaining the aims of our research project so officers would feel more at ease giving answers and data. Even though my Kiswahili ability is limited, I found that opening the conversation with phrases of greetings and introduction in the local language always helped to lighten the atmosphere between us. This experience has allowed me to understand better the management and implementation of the education sector at the top level. I look forward to complementing this perspective with a more bottom-level view from upcoming interviews with district education officers and school visits. In the meantime, I will put my Stata skills to the test by cleaning up the data I recently gathered and use the knowledge that I gained from my research classes to help design a school-based survey.

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