The algorithm that blew up Italy’s school system 

An algorithm was supposed to save time by allocating teachers on short-term contracts to schools automatically. Failures in the code and in the design severely disrupted teachers’ lives.

massimo [notamax] nota on Flickr

Italy has a problem with teachers. The number of teachers on short-term contracts across pre-school and high-school education has doubled in six years. Of a total of 907,929 teachers in the 2020/2021 school year, one in five had a short-term contract, up from one in nine in 2015. Moreover, recruitment is not keeping pace with schools' need for teachers, thus leaving hundreds of classroom positions vacant which is affecting the educational progress of students all over Italy.

Since 2012, several governments have tried to fix the school system and one administration introduced an algorithm. In summer 2020, during the Conte Bis government, the former Minister of Education Lucia Azzolina introduced the GPS algorithm for schools, a digitised and automatic procedure that would simplify and improve teacher recruitment. The algorithm rests on two rankings. The first is the Graduatorie Provinciali per le Supplenze (GPS) specifically designed for substitute teachers. The second is the Graduatorie Provinciali a Esaurimento (GAE) which is for teachers holding a teaching qualification. The algorithm evaluates teachers' CVs and cross-references their preferences for location and class with schools' vacancies. If there is a match, a provisional assignment is triggered, but the algorithm continues to assess other candidates. If it finds another matching candidate with a higher score, that second candidate moves into the lead. The process continues until the algorithm has assessed all potential matches and selected the best possible candidate for the role. 

This procedure replaces the old system of teacher recruitment, which took place in person, convening all the candidates at the school sites. The aim is to speed up the assignment of teaching positions, avoiding unnecessary travels for teachers — school locations are often far away for teachers on the move — and reducing the work of school offices. But according to teachers and school unions, the algorithm is not working properly.

In fact, thousands of teachers all over Italy have been subjected to discriminatory choices by the algorithm. Some teachers have been overtaken in the rankings by colleagues with lower scores or been assigned to support roles for those applying to cover a specific subject. There have been many appeals by teachers penalised by the algorithm, some of which have ended up in court. These errors have caused much confusion, leaving many teachers unemployed and therefore without a salary. Why did such errors occur?

When the algorithm finds an ideal candidate for a position, it does not reset the list of remaining candidates before commencing the search to fill the next vacancy. Thus, those candidates who missed out on the first role that matched their preferences are definitively discarded from the pool of available teachers, with no possibility of employment. The algorithm classes those discarded teachers as “drop-outs”, ignoring the possibility of matching them with new vacancies.

The school trade unions immediately set to work. Gilda degli Insegnanti, the first Italian teachers' union, requested access to the files from the Ministry of Education in order to examine the software, but the instrumental part necessary for the technical analysis of the entire software and the algorithm — that is an integral part of it — was not delivered. Gilda degli Insegnanti has lodged an appeal with the Lazio Regional Administrative Court to defend the rights of the affected teachers.

According to Giuseppe Micciché, general secretary of the Enna (Sicily) section of the school trade union FLC CGIL, the algorithm is only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger phenomenon, as ”'it is the entire process of hiring teachers that needs to be completely revisited. Often teachers input the wrong data on the system because of an interface that is not very transparent, complex and difficult to access. The scores can therefore already be distorted upstream, without taking into account human errors by the school offices.” Aspiring teachers often find themselves alone in facing complex procedures and error is often inevitable and sometimes irreparable. "In addition, the algorithm was not designed with the same rules throughout Italy because the parameters were set at a regional level," adds Giorgio La Placa of the Gilda degli Insegnanti's national office, "so that some administrations were less virtuous than others in the management of the rankings, making the panorama of the entire peninsula even more complex."

As of this year, the new Minister of Education, Giuseppe Valditara, has introduced an increase in the amount of European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) credits required for teaching: from 24 to 60. The path to becoming a teacher will become even more complex and expensive, increasing the number of workers on short-term contracts. Mr Micciché characterises this as "a war waged by the state" against such teachers.

The European Commission itself  has denounced the Italian government's abuse of short-term contract work due to its failure to adopt EU Directive 1999/70/EC, which provides for permanent employment for all those school employees who have completed at least 36 months of service, even if not continuous.

The school trade unions are for a partial return of in-person assignment of candidates for teaching roles. “The algorithm can definitely be a very useful tool, but not under these conditions. In-person assignments, although complex, prove to be much more efficient than a badly designed algorithm that does not take many factors into account,” says Mr Micciché.

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Pierluigi Bizzini

Former Fellow Algorithmic Accountability Reporting

Pierluigi is a freelance journalist and editor. He covers social issues in Mediterranean countries. He’s one of the co-authors of Bagliore (Il Saggiatore, 2020) and editor at The Syllabus, a knowledge curation platform, and Alea, an independent anthropology magazine. With a background in computer science, he has always been interested in the social implications of automated systems, especially those that impact and harm the rights of migrants, minorities, and the poorest.