Sociological effects of globalisation and unaffordable housing

This article has a beautiful summary of Christophe Guilluy's sociology work on how globalisation is transforming French society and its repercussions.

The standard narrative of globalisation is that it makes processes efficient, making goods cheaper. The movement of labour to developed countries creates jobs at lower end of the spectrum, that provide valuable services like baby care, house cleaning, drivers etc.

All of this is true but the interaction of these phenomenon with public policies can have different effects. Christophe Guilluy describes these in France's setting as follows:

On victims of globalisation

France’s best-performing urban nodes have arguably never been richer or better-stocked with cultural and retail amenities. But too few such places exist to carry a national economy. When France’s was a national economy, its median workers were well compensated and well protected from illness, age, and other vicissitudes. In a knowledge economy, these workers have largely been exiled from the places where the economy still functions. They have been replaced by immigrants
Paris offers the most striking case. As it has prospered, the City of Light has stratified, resembling, in this regard, London or American cities such as New York and San Francisco. It’s a place for millionaires, immigrants, tourists, and the young, with no room for the median Frenchman. Paris now drives out the people once thought of as synonymous with the city. 
Further, effects of public policies 
......After the mid-twentieth century, the French state built a vast stock—about 5 million units—of public housing, which now accounts for a sixth of the country’s households. Much of it is hideous-looking, but it’s all more or less affordable. Its purpose has changed, however. It is now used primarily for billeting not native French workers, as once was the case, but immigrants and their descendants, millions of whom arrived from North Africa starting in the 1960s, with yet another wave of newcomers from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East arriving today. 
........ A public-housing development is a community, yes, and one can wish that it be more diverse. But it is also an economic resource that, more and more, is getting fought over tribally. An ethnic Frenchman moving into a heavily North African housing project finds himself threatening a piece of property that members of “the community” think of as theirs. Guilluy speaks of a “battle of the eyes” fought in the lobbies of apartment buildings across France every day, in which one person or the other—the ethnic Frenchman or the immigrant’s son—will drop his gaze to the floor first. 
....... even if French people were willing to do the work that gets offered in these prosperous urban centers, there’d be no way for them to do it, because there is no longer any place for them to live. As a new bourgeoisie has taken over the private housing stock, poor foreigners have taken over the public—which thus serves the metropolitan rich as a kind of taxpayer-subsidized servants’ quarters. Public-housing inhabitants are almost never ethnically French; the prevailing culture there nowadays is often heavily, intimidatingly Muslim.

Guilluy makes 4 important points

1.  Victims of globalisation and its sociological effects: As non-natives occupy cities, prices in functional part increase making leading to stratification, making it unaffordable for the kind of people who once used to inhabit the city.

The natives are forced to periphery but immigrants occupy the functional parts of the city, changing its character. This can be mentally difficult for natives to adjust.

This needn't be true for just immigrants and globalisation. This can be true for intra-country migration in countries like India too, in case of cities like Bengaluru, witnessing huge influx of people who speak different language.

2. The importance of housing: Affordable housing is going to be crucial with growing urbanisation. Guilluy points out that in London, the average monthly rent (£2,580) now exceeds the average monthly salary (£2,300).  This has two effects
  • High prices of housing may reflect the market demand and supply but such situation is sociologically difficult to be sustained.
  • High price localities also tend to have good public facilities like schooling etc. Unaffordable price thus has second order effects, where it creates barriers to access such facilities, thus exacerbating inequalities.

3. Ethnic conflict due to globalisation and urbanisation?: Standard models of social capital tell that inter mingling of communities help reduce the "fear of unknown" making people more tolerant of other cultures and traditions. But if this is in a resource crunched context, where there is a tribal competition for resources, ethnic fault lines may deepen instead of reducing, as narrated above.

Such conflicts deepen if public policies advantage one community over the other, like in case of French where affordable housing preferred immigrants over natives.

4. Taxpayer subsidized workers: This, according to me is a novel way of phrasing the argument. Elite can access low-wage services only if the workers stay close to the localities of the rich. The housing of localities where workers stay are either subsidized or tends to be slums.

Thus,  the low-wage services to the elite aren't possible without the subsidized workers. It would be good if the elite who scream at even the whisper of welfare programmes, realise this and be little humble. Elite are also beneficiaries of lot of unseen subsidies.

Affordable housing in urban areas is going to be a big issue in future. We need to be cognisant of not only its benefits but also its sociological consequences.


Follow on Facebook: @iterativeadapt
Follow on Twitter: @iterate_adapt
Email subscription or RSS Feed: Enter id in the "Subscribe" text box, on the top right of the blog.

Achieving outputs may be daunting in itself. Yet, we need to focus on outcomes

Gulzar Natarajan has a post on the limitations of outcome oriented approach of development. Gulzar points out that 

1. Mere financial incentive for achieving outcomes isn't enough to overcome the large process issues.

2. Addressing some critical inputs (teacher attendance) in itself can be a daunting task. So, expecting it to be an incidental benefit to outcome based approach is unrealistic.

3.  It isn't easy to re-allocate resources to achieve the outcomes.

So, Gulzar argues that "it is unrealistic to target outcomes in cases of public production involving engagement intensive activities (education, health)".

There's some truth to this argument, depending on the state of the system. Consider this story of Mr. Manoj, District Education Officer of Deoria, Uttar Pradesh. Mr. Manoj is an upright officer facing all odds to get teachers to school. He gets death threats, his office is vandalized and many other things. He even carries a pistol with him for safety purposes.

In a failed system like that with so many things broken, when Mr. Manoj has to spend enormous energies on just ensuring teacher attendance, it may sound unfair to expect him to focus on other elements or outcomes.

While all the above is true, I argue that there is still value in practising outcome based approach over output based approach, for the following reasons. I put the reasons in two categories - harms of following output approach and advantages of outcome approach over output approach.

Potential harms of output approach

1. Defining outputs in a certain manner and focusing on them can be detrimental: The problem with outputs approach is that it's subject to wide interpretation. Defining outputs in a certain manner can actually be detrimental, especially when it comes to monitoring metrics of personnel. "Completion of syllabus" and "Ensuring all CCE papers are checked" are examples of two such output metrics that have turned detrimental.

Excessive focus on completion of syllabus is taking away the focus from "did the children learn?" to "did the teacher teach?", creating a perverse system. It creates a false illusion that the job has been done when in fact it has not been done (child hasn't learnt), thereby misleading us. It also creates an additional hurdle for reform because one has to first bring people out of such illusion, which is a difficult task.

Similarly, these days, CCE support and monitoring of teachers is reduced to output metrics of "did the teacher enter marks in the register?", taking the focus away from the real essence of CCE. All that the teachers now are worried about it is, whether the marks have been entered in the CCE register, regardless of how the correction is done, whether they learnt something about the children in the process, whether they incorporated these in their next session etc. To make matters worse, sometimes teachers make students correct papers themselves and enter the marks, achieving the "output".

In all these cases, focus on outcomes would have helped to avoid this tragedy.

2Piecemeal approach "undoes" the already achieved gains: Following one output at a time (piecemeal approach) has the danger of undoing the progress made in achieving earlier outputs. For instance, for first 10 years, governments work only to construct schools and ensure schools in all locality. Once that's done, in next 10 years, they work to ensure teacher attendance, in next 10 years, some other issue. By that time, the schools have been damaged and need reconstruction. So, we are back to square one.

Thus, piecemeal approach may not appropriately leverage the gains already made regarding certain outputs as they decay with time.

Advantages of outcome approach

Apart from preventing the two dangers mentioned above and many others, there are four distinct reasons to pursue outcome approach.

1. Cognitive reasons: Lant Pritchett in this short video "Selling solutions vs. Solving problems" brilliantly illustrates the effects of mental models on policy approaches.

At the risk of simplifying, Lant says that when people are asked to write down the problem they want to solve, they often write solution. For instance, in education, people write "lack of teacher training" as the problem. When one defines the problem in that manner, the only solution to that can be "teacher training".

This is in other words defining problem in terms of the solution that one wants to have. Defining problems in that manner hinders our ability to dig deeper.

This mode of thinking is seen across the spectrum from education activists to bureaucrats. Daunted by the experiences of the problem, one specific immediate issue clouds our cognitive space, crowding out other elements.

The effects of such thinking gets amplified when it's prevalent at policy making stage. We end up pursuing a piecemeal approach instead of an integrated approach. The consequences are clear, as the history suggests.

Immediately after independence, the problem of lack of schools seemed so daunting that we defined the problem of schooling as "lack of schools", neglecting all other aspects. After 60 years, we realized that this isn't sufficient. Now, we may realize some other daunting problem, let's say teacher attendance. Now we focus on that for another few decades and so on. I think the point is now clear. 

The lesson is that focusing only on one particular element, even if it's daunting, shuts our attention to other elements of the problem and delays the process.

Thus it is still important to define and approach the issue from an outcome perspective. If not anything, outcome based approach at least keeps all elements required to achieve the outcomes within our cognitive attention space.

2. Outcome approach ensures best possible outcomes at each point of time: Pursuing outputs is a sub-optimal approach, as it fails to extract the maximum possible from the system at any given point of time. Let me explain.

There is diversity in a system. For instance, if we consider a district, when we say teacher attendance is the issue, it doesn't mean that it's the issue in every school and is of same severity. It might be less severe in the schools in the district headquarter. 

The problem for such schools is - conditional upon ensuring teacher presence, how do we ensure outcomes? With further actions, we might leverage the specific advantages of this situation.

An output based approach, let's say ensuring teacher attendance, neglects such schools with enough teacher attendance. It thus costs us the gains that would have been achieved by leveraging the advantages of these schools.

On the contrary, if we follow an outcome based approach, we figure out that the issues are different in each case. While we still pursue the daunting task of ensuring teacher attendance in rural schools, we also try to work on the schools that already have attendance and try to get best out of them. That way, even if it's small, we extract something out of the system, instead of nothing.

3. Outcome approach speeds up the reform by leveraging the institutional knowledge: Outcome based approach in context of diversity builds institutional knowledge that speeds up the reform process in lagging schools.

For instance, in a district, if we improve the schools that are already attendance complaint, it builds institutional knowledge in the system. Such knowledge is useful to improve the current non-complaint schools, that might become complaint in future. It thus saves precious time and energy. 

Else, as discussed above, if we wait till every school becomes attendance complaint, before we take the next step, it might take so long that by that Elon Musk's Neuralink might have developed a device to download data to brain by that time doing away with the need to learn, making schools obsolete. Meanwhile, a generation or several of them would have been denied benefits of education.

4. Outcome approach helps realize the missing elements and creates a demand for them: When one follows an outcome approach, one realizes the need for some elements, which aren't otherwise obvious. One may argue that it costs money to achieve all these and hence is unrealistic. But the point is that there is value in realizing the need for these elements, even if they are not met. Also, such realization helps build pressure, which if not now, may help in long term.

Daunti-ness is a function of "will" also, not just the "nature of task"

Tasks that seem daunting may not be actually so if it's matched with commensurate will. These tasks seem daunting because, till now, efforts to streamline the systems were a result of "bureaucratic will" and not "political will" (recollect the example of Mr. Manoj, DEO, discussed above). When efforts are the result of bureaucratic will, without political will, the limitations are obvious. The task will end up being daunting to the bureaucrats as they are leading it alone.

There is no reason why we should hence accept this context as given and work around it. Instead, we should identify this as the problem and  try to address it.

The argument is that when there's strong political will focusing on outcomes, tasks that seemed daunting once don't seem any more. 

This might seem a nice hypothetical argument that's good for theory but not for practice. But we have examples of not-so developed countries like Poland that once faced similar issues like ours, revamping their systems within a decade. 

One might still point to the Indian exceptionalism but the  recent Delhi experience shows that it's possible in India too. To be fair, Delhi has its own advantages by the virtue of being a city, with closely networked schools, making many things relatively easier. Even then, given this context, consider the amount of work and the range of work that's done in past 2 years in Delhi.

1. Appointing estate managers to schools relieving principals of the administrative duties.
2. New classrooms construction to meet the needs.
3. Large scale learning melas to remediate children in higher classes.
4. Teacher training
5. Principal training
6. Building strong SMCs

... and so on, with a strong focus on outcomes. Once the outcomes were the focus, it was realized that many other things are to be done in order to achieve it. Thus, the individual outputs that would have been an individual scheme in themselves, became incidental to the overall goal of outcomes. One could thus get a diverse range of things done within short time, instead of doing them one by one.

If these initiatives were to be done together at the same time at scale by a bureaucrat alone, without strong political will, these would have been termed daunting++ and considered out of reach for any bureaucrat. Such cognitive limitation would have settled bureaucrats to pickup only one of these elements and pursue it, delaying the progress.

In short, many tasks may seem daunting to be dealt with "bureaucratic will" but political will can reduce the daunting nature of tasks. Thus, we do have a way out of the limitations of outcome based approach. We therefore need not consider certain constraints as given and settle for sub-optimal output based approach.

Nature of 'political will' and the 'approach' matter

Often, actions taken under compulsion to do something or at least appear to be doing something masquerades as an illustration of political will. It results in interventions that gloss over state capability constraints. It serves the purpose of self-satisfaction as "something is being done", but it's not useful for outcomes. On the other hand, "appropriate will" has laser sharp focus on outcomes and goes to any extent to achieve it. One might argue that such "will" is not possible. We then better forget about addressing issues like education and health care.

Similarly, an appropriate approach is needed because incorrectly spent political will (herehere) only hurts in long term.


Despite the daunti-ness of achieving outputs and limitations of outcome based approach in business as usual scenario, there is still value in pursuing outcome based approach. Output approach creates a false illusion of job done and can undo the gains already achieved. Outcome based approach keeps all the essential elements within our cognitive attention space, extracts maximum from the system at each point of time, and speeds up the reform process. Further, daunti-ness is a function of "will". When a daunting problem is met with a commensurate will, it can and will become the incidental benefit to the final outcome. We thus need appropriate political will and an appropriate approach.


Follow on Facebook: @iterativeadapt
Follow on Twitter: @iterate_adapt
Email subscription or RSS Feed: Enter id in the "Subscribe" text box, on the top right of the blog.

UP follows Gujarat - Regressive laws in education

In an earlier post, I had discussed Gujarat's regressive law to cap private school fees. Now, UP is moving in a similar direction.

Just to recap, cap on private school fee is regressive for the following reasons.

1. Schools are already supposed to be not for profit in India. It means that the excess revenue must be reinvested in schools. 

It therefore follows that current fee of schools should reflect their costs. If schools fudge records, government can audit them.

Imposing fee cap over this rule is self contradictory. If school fee is reflective of costs, what's the need to cap them?

2. There is confusion between tuition fee and fee charged for other aspects like books, bus etc.

As response to not for profit clause, schools instead charge abnormally on bus fee, uniforms etc. Parents complain about this.

In response to parents' complaints government caps tuition fee. In other words, capping tuition fee doesn't solve high fee in other aspects.

In fact, schools might start charging even more to make up for losses.

3. Fee cap regulations hurt schools' innovation and inturn limit the number of choices for people.

To begin with, we pushed people to private schools by not providing quality public education. Now, we are stifling quality in private schools too by strangulating them.

Given that the not for profit clause is a controversial issue and isn't easy to do away with (it needs both state and central governments to change laws and also correct some SC judgments), we need to follow a least destructive path.

Government should instead audit schools to check their claims instead of capping the fee. Needless to mention, this needs political will to break down political economy around it and school-politician nexus. Inability to do this shouldn't be an excuse to cap fee.

Mandating strict completion of syllabus - Yet another regressive step

In addition to all these, UP is thinking of framing strict rules to complete syllabus within time. This rule is equally regressive.

In a world, where people are moving away from syllabus completion to focus on outcomes, from time bound completion to learning as per one's own pace, this is a regressive step. Lant Pritchett has called this over ambitious curriculum, and argued that much of the difference between OECD and other countries can be explained by the negative consequences of over ambitious curriculum. I had earlier argued that the first and foremost step in education reform has to be a shift away from syllabus completion.

UP is key to improve India' s macro situation

UP is the most populous state in India. One can't make any significant dent on India's overall education, without improvements in UP.

UP's learning levels are 13% (percentage of grade 5 students who can read grade 2 text), while the national average is around 50%. It's the one of the lowest in the country. Worse, it has been declining.

In such a serious context, it's just saddening that UP is moving on a regressive path, instead of being on a path of improvement.

Follow on Facebook: @iterativeadapt
Follow on Twitter: @iterate_adapt
Email subscription or RSS Feed: Enter id in the "Subscribe" text box, on the top right of the blog.

Gujarat's regressive law capping private schools' fee

Legislature of Gujarat state in India recently passed a bill capping annual school fee of self-financed (private) schools. As per the new act

  1. The total annual fee, including the admission fee, should not exceed Rs. 15,000/- for primary, Rs. 25,000/- for secondary, and Rs. 27,000/- for higher secondary schools.

  2. This applies to all private schools in Gujarat affiliated to Gujarat State Board, CBSE, ICSE. (It's not clear if it applies to IB. India Times says that IB schools are also included, while some other sites say that it applies only to CBSE, ICSE and State Board, and not IB.)

  3. Schools are to take permission from a government committee before hiking the fee.

  4. The committee will have powers to suomoto action against schools. It can even cancel school's recognition.

Five issues regarding fee cap

There are five issues are to be noted here. One, the sequence of one bad policy leading to the other. Two, the conflict between rationale of not-for-profit clause in education and cap on fees. Three, confusion between different types of fee charged by the school. Fourth issue is the obvious point regarding its effect on schools. Five, the low cap.

1. Schools in India are supposed to be not-for-profit (My book has chapter on various arguments for and against this rule). It means that the additional revenue generated by schools have to be utilised on the school itself and can't be taken out of the school. This constrains managements to utilise profits for other purposes.

In order to get around this policy, schools charge additional fee for textbooks or force students to buy particular textbook, earning commission on such transactions. Charging disproportionate money for school bus is another usual way. These technically don't come under school fee and hence money generated through this is considered as profit earned similar to any other for-profit enterprise.  This is similar to movie theatres in Tamil Nadu charging abnormally on popcorn to get additional revenues, in response to cap on ticket price.

Parents find these additional fee unfair and disproportionate. They are forced to use these services and hence they naturally complain about "high fee".

Thus, constraining schools in one aspect leads to unfair practices in other aspect. In order to regulate this, government is bringing a law to cap school fee, one bad policy leading to another.

2. The logic of fee cap isn't clear when there's already a rule mandating not-for-profit nature. If there's already a rule mandating not-for-profit nature of schools, it means that current tuition fee charged by schools even if it's high, is reflective of the costs, since there's no profit making from that.

What's the point in again capping school fee when the school fee, even if it's high, is reflective of costs? Does it mean to say that government is mandating schools to be not only not-for-profit but also cheap?

If government thinks schools are fudging the accounts to mask the not-for-profit clause, wouldn't auditing them be a way out, instead of capping the fee?

3. There is a confusion between different types of fee charged by schools. Minister's remarks illustrate this confusion.
“Donations are being taken beyond imagination. Schools decide which brand of shoes to buy and from which shop. The sale outlets of these brands are set up within the school compound and the parents are forced to buy uniforms, water bags, shoes, school bags, etc. This is not a good precedent.” 
“A crorepati family once told me that his grandson’s school had asked him to bring Rs 25000 for a celebration of a festival. He said he can easily afford the amount. But what right does the school have to charge such an amount,” Chudasma said adding that the schools across the state have been involved in collecting fees for Holi, Uttarayan and Diwali celebrations. “This is not fees. It is extortion. This has caused personal pain to me. I cannot bear it any more and so we are bring in this legislation,” he added.
If the real problem is the "unfair amount collected for additional services like uniform, books, festivals etc", it isn't clear if regulating the "usual annual tuition fee" stops the unfair practices in other aspects, unless the bill means that the cap also includes fee of the additional services (books, uniform etc).

4. It is argued that only few hundreds of schools are affected by this, that's no reason to support this. One should note that good quality education costs money, even if it is done with not-for-profit motive. It is especially true for schools in cities that have high infrastructure and human personnel costs.

Ahmedabad is home to some innovative schools, part of India's rare species. I suppose most of them will be affected by this new law and if this is implemented strictly, they will suffer.

5. Even if one puts aside all the above arguments and accept the fee cap, for the sake of argument, the stipulated cap is too low for any good school to function.

Good education costs money

While it is true that good private schools are often unaffordable to many, the sad truth is that good education costs money, even if done with not-for-profit motive. The high costs of education aren't usually visible because government usually bears it. There's a reason why governments spend money on school education.

We have created this mess

In an ideal world, most students would be attending good quality public schools and such high-cost private schools are attended only by a select few who have special requirements. By failing our public schools, we have forced people to shift to the unaffordable high-cost private schools and in response to the backlash, we are trying to strangulate private schools.

In the process, we have made parents devoid of good schooling in both private and public sector by strangulating private schools and not taking any significant steps to improve public education.

With the growing significance of private schools, such pressures are only meant to increase. If the past behaviour is any indication, the governments are going to yield to the pressure.

If only our public schools were better, we wouldn't have gotten into this complex mess.

Follow on Facebook: @iterativeadapt
Follow on Twitter: @iterate_adapt
Email subscription or RSS Feed: Enter id in the "Subscribe" text box, on the top right of the blog.

The illusion of expertise - Information is NOT theory

The New Yorker has a wonderful article titled "Why facts don't change mind?", on the cognitive theory behind confirmation bias. This section caught my attention.

In a study conducted at Yale, graduate students were asked to rate their understanding of everyday devices, including toilets, zippers, and cylinder locks. They were then asked to write detailed, step-by-step explanations of how the devices work, and to rate their understanding again. 
Apparently, the effort revealed to the students their own ignorance, because their self-assessments dropped. (Toilets, it turns out, are more complicated than they appear). 
Sloman and Fernbach (researchers who conducted this experiment) see this effect, which they call the "illusion of explanatory depth", just about everywhere. People believe that they know way more than they actually do.
The article continues the reasoning behind the illusory depth but I think there's also a different explanation.

People conflate information with theory. While information comes through the virtue of being in the situation, theory is an explanation of the underlying mechanisms of the system.

Familiarity gives people a false sense of expertise. Consider the following two examples.

Some people think that they know about India more than a foreigner because they actually live in India. Usually, foreign researchers are derided for their lack of familiarity with Indian context. However, in some cases, it's actually the case that foreigners know more about India than those who live here.

Bureaucrats are another example. Just because they are working in the government, they have an illusion that they "understand stuff", which isn't true in many cases.

In both these cases, people conflate information with a theoretical understanding of the cause-effect mechanisms and big picture. 

People may be living in India but it doesn't mean that they have a thorough understanding of the mechanisms and big picture. A foreign researcher who has spent time on understanding this, knows better. But, the ego rooted in the virtue of living in India doesn't help people realise that.

Same is the case with bureaucrats. By the virtue of working in the system, they have experience, which is essentially "information". Possessing such information gives them a false sense of expertise, which they needn't have. On the other hand, researchers or those who see the big picture, process the information and uncover the underlying mechanisms. Only, they can claim to have "understood stuff". 

In other words, bureaucrats often conflate information (about the system) with theory (of underlying mechanisms). Even if they have some understanding, often it's fragmented and half-baked, because most don't make an effort to systematically process the information. Only a few of them and researchers do that job and thus have greater understanding of the system and its mechanisms.

But like everything other person residing in India who claims to have expertise on India by the virtue of living in India, bureaucrats also claim expertise by the virtue of being in system. At the risk of repetition, both conflate information with theory.

If one observes closely, this is also reflected in the way bureaucrats' discourse on policy. The analysis of bureaucrats is on the lines of 'xyz scheme' has come, 'abc' were problems (most administrative related) etc. It's not the true analysis and understanding of the system. True understanding requires systematic thinking to differentiate proximate and root causes. Often, this isn't the case with bureaucrats. Probably, it's also the reason for their approach of coming up with another scheme in response to failure of the earlier, without realizing that the problem may not lie in the particular schemes but somewhere else.

Same can be extended to teachers, doctors and others as well. A usual teacher in a government system has information, gained through experience but may not have a theoretical understanding of root causes. One can extend this in several other dimensions but hope these examples illustrate the point.

Most people deride theory but the above discussion illustrates its importance. Theory essentially imposes some order on the information. It thus helps us join the dots and understand the system better.

PS: Strictly speaking, the term information has a different connotation. Insights obtained by processing data is called information. Without going into those nitty gritties, I suppose one appreciates the context of its usage here. The term information here is used more in the sense of familiarity.


Follow on Facebook: @iterativeadapt
Follow on Twitter: @iterate_adapt
Email subscription or RSS Feed: Enter id in the "Subscribe" text box, on the top right of the blog.

On codifying grade-specific learning outcomes in RTE

Union Government has notified a new RTE rule, mandating state governments to codify grade-specific learning levels. This is a sensitive issue and needs to be dealt with nuance.

One of the primary critiques of RTE is that it focuses on infrastructure and NOT on learning outcomes. The logical deduction of this line of argument is that RTE should (also) use learning outcomes as the metric. While, it's desirable to shape the act in terms of learning outcomes, its effects depend on the way these outcomes are detailed. 

There are genuine philosophical and practical concerns with this approach which have to be taken care of.

One, the approach of codifying grade-specific learning outcomes is against the whole emerging theme of 'learning at one's own pace' and 'teaching to the right level'. If what a student is supposed to learn within specific time (1 year) is fixed, it reduces the flexibility of learning at one's own pace. 

A large number of pedagogy specialists therefore vehemently oppose any such strict mandates. US followed a similar approach with No Child Left Behind Act with not so great success and some in fact call it a failure.  I have detailed the debate regarding assessments in general, in my book, in the Appendix. One may refer to that for a wider context. For the purpose of the post, let's stick to the particular issue at hand.

Two, the act of measuring learning outcomes can lead to other policies in future that make teachers accountable to the learning outcomes of their class. This, many argue, has the potential to have disastrous effects. Teachers teach to the test, encourage cheating, teach only to the top of the class and so on. To those, interested, my book has a separate chapter summarising the insights from literature on teacher incentives.

Three, there are implementation issues and concerns regarding copying etc.

Leaving out the implementation concerns, which are characteristic of any large scale effort, other concerns are genuine and hence have to be dealt carefully. Let us first explore the need for such decision and then come to the concerns regarding the decision.

The need for grade-specific benchmarks

1. To change the "incentive-architecture" of teachers: While opponents of codifying outcomes do have a point that codifying grade specific learning outcomes goes contrary to the philosophy of learning at one's own pace, they are over emphasising it.

If we actually look at the existing scenario, the yearly performance metrics of teachers already exist and teachers are made accountable to them, except that the current metric is completion of syllabus. 

The syllabus completion psychology has deteriorating effects. With the syllabus completion mindset of teachers, even the best efforts to improve the governance systems won't be fruitful because teachers always follow the mandate of completing the syllabus. 

Esther Duflo in her Ely lecture points that efforts to implement pedagogically sound Pratham's Teach at the Right Level in government schools didn't yield much success initially, due to the "incentive architecture" of teachers. In this particular case, a special session each day within school time, dedicated to addressing remedial needs of students was neglected by teachers because teachers' were working with syllabus completion mindset during school time. When the same dedicated session was implemented after school hours, it proved to be successful, because teachers were working outside the 'syllabus completion' framework.

Even the CCE has been reduced to monitoring teachers' compliance with 'correcting assignments' and 'updating marks', with no focus on learning.

Education minister of a state recently remarked that "we have become slaves to syllabus completion".

I had hence argued earlier that traditional curriculum of first three years should be kept aside for some time and schools should focus only on ensuring reading, writing and numeracy. I noted that this should be the first and foremost step to be taken by any government interested in improving education quality.

The new rule codifying minimum outcomes does something to the similar effect. It highlights the need to ensure these minimum outcomes, along side completion of syllabus.

2. To prevent alibi system: While we should let students learn at their own pace, one needs to identify threshold levels. It can't be the case that a student is in school for 5 years and still can't read sentences - learning at own pace.

Outcomes is a function of both teacher's efforts and child's background, along with other things. Over time, children's background has become alibi for teacher's non-performance.

Codifying "minimum expected outcomes" strikes a balance between both factors - child's background and teachers' efforts. It's a way of saying that irrespective of child's background, anything below this is unacceptable. In other words, if the outcomes are below this level, its clearly the issue with teachers' efforts and not the child.

3. To engage teachers in a conversation on learning: Lack of any outcome metrics results in a situation where even teachers making sincere efforts don't have metrics to measure or anchor upon. Outcome metrics are useful to engage teachers in a conversation on learning, moving away from system of completing syllabus.

4. To understand problems better and make better decisions: There's serious dearth of education data in India. This hinders our capacity to understand the problems and pin point the root causes. The huge data generated through this exercise that helps us to understand the context better and help us make informed decisions.

Addressing the concerns

Government needs to ensure the following things to address concerns regarding negative effects of codifying grade specific learning outcomes.

1. Mandate only minimum standards: Note the emphasis on the word minimum. As discussed earlier, one should balance teachers' efforts and child's background.

Such balance can be achieved if we mandate only minimum standards and not absolute standards. Minimum standards mean that they have to be achieved irrespective of the child's background. But, the same thing can't be mandated for absolute standards because effect of child's background comes into play.

2. Minimum standards are to be based on the capacity of the system: For the sake of simplicity, assume capacity of the system is similar to capacity of a person to digest food. A good metabolic system can digest mutton biryani, these are systems that can achieve "absolute standards". A poor metabolic system survives on saline because it can't digest complex food.

We noted earlier that child's background can come into play in achieving absolute standards. Capacity of the system decides the extent of that gap. A high capacity system can make even a child with poor background reach absolute standards. It can digest (teach) even complex food (poor background).

It also follows from this that absolute standards overburden a low capacity system and at the same time, low standards under utilise the potential of high capacity systems.

For instance, consider two extreme cases - a low capacity system, a state where students learn nothing in 5 years of primary school. This system is like a sick person. Their food intake has to start with saline and not mutton biryani. Similarly, in such cases of low capacity systems, one has to start low. Basic reading and numeracy can be the minimum standards to start with.

On the other hand, consider a high capacity system, say Finland. These are the kind of systems that can digest mutton biryani. Just like serving only saline to healthy person leads to under utilisation of their capacity, using standards meant for low capacity systems for such high capacity systems also leads to under utilisation of its full potential.

In short, the minimum requirements also have to be linked to the capacity of the systems to avoid over burdening or under utilisation of the system. Note that one should aim to increase capacity with time and increase the standards slowly.

This also illustrates the need to mandate only minimum outcomes. Our systems are of low capacity. If absolute outcomes are mandated, teachers might resort to other means to reach those levels - copying, teaching to the test etc. Also, it isn't fair if one considers the background of children. Restricting ourselves to only minimum outcomes is a way around all these problems. This sets the minimum bar, irrespective of child's background.

3. Don't conflate grade-end requirements with end of school requirements: People often conflate grade-end requirements with end of school requirements. Both have different purposes.

Grade end requirements are only meant to be of diagnostic nature, indicating the status of progression. There isn't any harm if one can't achieve them within 1 year. There's flexibility to achieve them taking more time.

End of school requirements are different. They signify the expected outcomes at the end of schooling. They have a different purpose - signalling your ability etc. I had earlier argued that end of school exams also have to be bifurcated - exams that test basic proficiency and exams that can be used to signal ability.

Treating grade-end requirements similar to end of school requirements reduces the flexibility that grade-end requirements are supposed to offer. Conflating these two also leads us to tilt towards setting high standards for grade end requirements keeping the end of school requirements in mind. As discussed earlier, such absolute standards for grade end requirements has potential negative effects.

4. Don't use the learning outcomes to take harsh steps on teachers or to provide monetary incentives, until a congenial situation is created: A part of teachers' non-performance is also a result of the rules that shape them and the apathy of the system regarding their problems. There are also socio-economic characteristics of children that come into play.

In such scenario, if outcome data is used to take harsh actions or provide monetary incentives, before addressing teachers' pressing issues, there will be a resistance to such move.

It is thus unwise to spend political capital on it. Addressing teachers' pressing issues should be taken serious to build trust and earn moral authority to demand outcomes. Until then, it's wise to pursue non-confrontational approach.

To those, interested, my book has a separate chapter summarising the insights from literature on teacher incentives.

5. Focus on building academic support structures: One of the great fallacies in education is that teachers know what to do but the problem is that they are not doing what they know. This line of reasoning means that if teachers are forced to work, one can see results. But the reality is that teachers needn't necessarily know what to do.

Along with codifying minimum levels, teachers should also be given academic support, introducing them to techniques like Pratham's Teach at the Right Level, so that they can achieve desired results. Needless to say, it's a great challenge to change the teachers' mindset to move away from 'teaching at the board' to facilitating groups. It's a challenge worth addressing.

If such support structures aren't in place, we will end up in a situation where people might resort to undesirable methods like copying, cheating etc, as a defensive measure.

6. Communicate the essence of minimum outcomes to states clearly: Codifying grade end minimum outcome requirements can only be successful if we take note of five points discussed above. 

The news article says that NCERT has defined the minimum levels and gives scope to states to make them tougher. This discretion, in my opinion is a double edged sword. While the requirement to calibrate outcomes as per capacity means that such decision has to be decentralised, the essence of the decision (five points discussed above) has to be communicated to states clearly


Overall, shift towards learning outcomes is a welcome step because it changes the incentive architecture of the system but should be dealt with caution. Codified learning levels should only reflect minimum thresholds and should not set high standards. These shouldn't be used to take harsh actions on teachers or even provide monetary incentives until an environment of trust is built. Teachers should be given necessary academic support to achieve the desired results. Finally, the essence has to be clearly communicated to the states.


Follow on Facebook: @iterativeadapt
Follow on Twitter: @iterate_adapt
Email subscription or RSS Feed: Enter id in the "Subscribe" text box, on the top right of the blog.

On utility of RCTs, Academic Research, and Development

[Gulzar Natarjan has two posts on RCTs - Academic Research - and Development. I commented on the post and Gulzar has replied. I am posting my response to Gulzar's reply here because the comment box wasn't accepting my comment due to its length.]

1.  There are different types of RCTs and we need to segregate them for analysis. Briefly, they can be categorized as a) RCTs that test hypothesis of binding constraints (Is problem with teachers or the pedagogy?); b) RCTs that test programmes or interventions; c) RCTs that test the cost-effectiveness of programmes.

Each of them have different applications. 

2. For policy making, the first type of RCTs (those which test hypotheses of binding constraints) are extremely useful because they help us do a systematic 'first-principle' analysis to weed out competing hypotheses regarding binding constraints. An individual RCT may not seem useful here but a collection of them can be useful.

A first principle analysis of an education system can look like as follows: 

Let's consider a classroom. What's the issue here? May be the teacher doesn't have information on the level of learning of students. Now you refer RCT (the one done in AP) that does an intervention on this which finds that giving diagnostic information to teachers doesn't lead outcomes. Then you revise your prior - Ok. If this is not the reason, what else is?

Someone might say - may be the technical know how (using Deaton's term) of teacher's pedagogy is the reason. Now, you consider a pedagogy that is good at technical-know-how (proved through an RCT - Pratham's TaRL) and  implement it in a classroom. You find that are no outcomes even with pedagogy that's good at technical know-how.

You then say - may be the binding constraint is NOT availability of technical know-how but with the teachers (human agency). You then refer an RCT (Pratham's Bihar RCTs) where the same government teachers teach using same pedagogy (good at technical know how) in different settings - one within traditional classroom during academic year and one during summer (outside usual constraints). You then find that the same government teachers are being effective outside the academic year but not during usual school time.

With all these, you infer that the binding constraint is neither necessarily with availability of technical know-how, nor with human agency but it has something to do with the structure within which the teachers work.

You thus zero-in the problem to the issue of structures within which the teachers work in - therein comes the argument of state capacity as the binding constraint. (This is the line of argument in my book).

This kind of systematic first principle analysis is useful because it helps us to be clear in our thoughts and understand the context better. It also helps avoid what I called 'experts' parochialist world views'. It often happens that one cites only those things as binding constraints, in which he/she is expert in. For example - a pedagogy expert argues that 'pedagogy' is the binding constraint and so on. They often refuse to look beyond that. In such process, competing hypotheses for binding constraints emerge. (BTW - I used para teachers example because I recently saw two TV debates in Lok Sabha TV where this was repeatedly being pointed out by the panelists. I only intended to use this as an example to point to the phenomenon of false traps regarding binding constraints.)

A systematic first principle analysis as above, facilitated by knowledge of RCT evidence helps us peel off these competing hypothesis and get to the core of the problem. RCTs have made such first principle analysis possible, if not for policy makers but at least for others.

In the absence of such systematic first principle analysis, policy makers end up being victims of pedagogy experts (who are traditionally considered as educationists) and parachute complex pedagogies into classrooms, which only backfire. Unfortunately, this is a recurring phenomenon.

3. Examples of government imbibing lessons from RCTs: At the outset, I would like to point to two examples of Pratham's TaRL scale up and deworming programmes but the issue is deeper.

The 2nd type (RCTs on interventions) and 3rd type (RCTs on cost-effectiveness) of RCTs mentioned above have structural limitations. Only those RCT papers are publicized and taken up with government that have shown results "across contexts".

The messy nature of development by definition means that there will be very few examples of interventions that have worked across contexts.

The USP of Pratham's TaRL is that, even with the given constraints and given level of state capacity, gains are still possible, if you do tweaks to the style of teaching - by grouping kids. Hence, it shows impacts across contexts even within low-capacity contexts.

The other advantage of RCTs on Pratham's RCT is that - for the first time it questioned the arguments rooted in philosophy of education who were vehemently against separating children as per ability even in the initial levels. Even after this evidence, some are still against it but RCTs have certainly weakened their position.

The deworming example is an instance of 3rd type of RCTs which push governments to take up an action by showing a value for money. If we think of it , one can say: giving pills to kids with worms is a no-brainer - if kids have worms, why don't you just give pills? Why do you need RCT? It's not so simple because despite such clear logic, governments hadn't take up such programmes. The cost effectiveness of RCTs encouraged governments to take that up.

4. RCTs vs. other studies: We have to be again careful here. We need to segregate the number of studies and their influence. If we just consider the number of studies - RCTs vs. other types is not a zero sum game. Growth in RCTs needn't necessarily stop people doing ehtnographic studies. RCTs just add to an existing variety of papers and not necessarily displace others.

Duflo also points this in one of her lectures citing numbers on trends in economic papers, that suggests that RCTs did not displace other papers but they just "added on" to the existing research of other variety.

Coming to the influence of the studies, rigour is definitely one aspects that makes RCTs seem popular. But, more importantly, a whole institution is built around RCTs whose only job is to publicize this evidence. Hence, it seems more popular.

5. Though a minor point, RCTs is not a lazy way to publication. There's a huge risk and effort involved in carrying them and there's good probability of failure due to execution issues. In fact, Chris Blatmann advices people not to do RCTs for Ph.D thesis because of the risks involved and good probability of failure.

Though there are many seemingly spurious RCTs coming up these days, the one's addressing fundamental questions involve huge effort.

Summing up, policy making requires wide variety of evidence in the life cycle of a policy. RCTs just filled a gap in this process. RCTs help in doing systematic first-principle analysis while designing MVP. Other types of evidence like dip stick surveys, ethnographies help during iterating the project or for coming up with ideas for interventions. 

Needless to say, it's unrealistic to expect RCTs for everything. Somethings are to be done even if there's no RCT or even if RCTs say otherwise.

Kenneth Arrow passed away

Kenneth Arrow, Nobel Memorial Prize winner of Economics, the one behind the famous "Arrow's Impossibility Theorem" passed away. NYT has an obituary on Arrow.

Arrow was not just a mere economist, he was a great polymath. An interesting anecdote from NYT's obituary.

Professor Arrow was widely hailed as a polymath, possessing prodigious knowledge of subjects far removed from economics. Eric Maskin, a Harvard economist and fellow Nobel winner, told of a good-natured conspiracy waged by junior faculty to get the better of Professor Arrow, even if artificially. They all agreed to study the breeding habits of gray whales — a suitably abstruse topic — and gathered at an appointed date at a place where Professor Arrow would be sure to visit. 
When, as expected, he showed up, they were talking out loud about the theory by a marine biologist — last name, Turner — which purported to explain how gray whales found the same breeding spot year after year. As Professor Maskin recounted the story, “Ken was silent,” and his junior colleagues amused themselves that they had for once bested their formidable professor. 
Well, not so fast. 
Before leaving, Professor Arrow muttered, “But I thought that Turner’s theory was entirely discredited by Spencer, who showed that the hypothesized homing mechanism couldn’t possibly work."


Follow on Facebook: @iterativeadapt
Follow on Twitter: @iterate_adapt
Email subscription or RSS Feed: Enter id in the "Subscribe" text box, on the top right of the blog. 

Nuances of Fukuyama's 'End of History' hypothesis

After the Soviet Union's collapse, Francis Fukuyama had argued that we reached the 'End of History', meaning that the liberal democracy has won as the most suitable form of arrangement of government.

In the age of rising authoritarian tendencies, people have been quick to point out failure of Fukuyama's prediction.  He often tweets about this. The poor Fukuyama might have gotten tired of this.

The point is that there's more nuance to Fukuyama's argument than what's captured by the one line summary. The final paragraph of Fukuyama's book illustrates it better.
The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual care taking of he museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognize its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilization that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.


Follow on Facebook: @iterativeadapt
Follow on Twitter: @iterate_adapt
Email subscription or RSS Feed: Enter id in the "Subscribe" text box, on the top right of the blog. 

Traditional curriculum of first 3 years must be scrapped, if we are to achieve anything significant in improving education quality

I often remark that the following graph must be framed and put in office of every official in education, from that of minister down to the block or mandal level. 

Learning trajectory of students from grade 1 to grade 5.

The above graph is from Karthik Muralidharan's fantastic study in Andhra Pradesh where he tracked a set of representative sample of students from grade 1 till their grade 5. It means it's a 5 year experiment. The graph says that

1. The mean performance in grade 5 is still at grade 1 level. It means that an average kid reaches only 1 level after spending 5 years in school.

2. The learning trajectory of bottom 10 percentile is flat after 2nd grade.

This study is significant because it tracks the same set of students over 5 years, as opposed to ASER which tests different children each year.

These findings should ring alarm bells. Translating this into a classroom, it means that 90% of the students in grade 5 are not following the teacher, who teaches at grade 5 level. Similar effect is seen in other classes too.

Imagine the kids sitting in this class. They aren't able to understand anything and are being forced to sit in these classes for 5 continuous years. It could easily be one of the most horrifying experiences. Remember last time you were forced to sit in a 5 hour class where you understand absolutely nothing.

All of this is because our obsession with 'timely completion of syllabus'. We have become slaves to curriculum and syllabus. Completing syllabus has taken precedence over ensuring that children learn. Where students lack even basics of reading and writing, we are teaching them way above their standard. All these efforts go in vain.

Excessive focus on curriculum has several consequences. 

Lant Pritchett calls it 'over ambitious curriculum'. In a paper exploring the effects of the overambitious curriculum, Lant estimates that 

all of the observed learning differences between poor performing and OECD countries could be accounted for only by an overly accelerated curriculum in poor countries - even if the countries have exactly the same potential learning.
That's a dramatic effect.

The overambitious curriculum also has other consequences. Once students fall behind, it demotivates them and it's difficult to bring them back. Two, The IHDS data suggests that the probability of catching up decreases with the income profile of parents.

Further, the practice of overambitious curriculum is a roadblock to every other reform efforts in education. It means that even if governments work on other aspects, including the improvement of government structures, the overambitious curriculum thwarts all those efforts. 

To repeat, all of this is because of our obsession with curriculum and finishing the syllabus. In the context of all this, the first and foremost step that any government has to take is to scrap the existing traditional curriculum for the first 3 years.

For the first three years or at least for the first two years, the focus of the school should be only and only on ensuring reading, writing and numeracy skills to students. Reading is especially more important because without reading and comprehension skills, kids can't attempt even math questions.

All the current efforts of Pratham, Delhi government and governments in other states in using 'teach at the right level' to improve basic numeracy and literacy skills only have limited gains when seen on an absolute scale. 

It's because all such efforts have been along side the traditional curriculum, except in the case of Delhi. Schools were asked to set aside 2 hours per day for 2-3 months. This time is simply not enough. One needs a remediation of at least 6-8 months where students work on improving these skills all the day, setting aside the traditional curriculum.

It needs political will on behalf of governments to stop the obsession with curriculum and syllabus. Delhi government has shown the way by taking such step in organising reading melas where kids were separated from usual classroom daily but it was only for 2 months. Even after 2 months of such intervention, 1 lakh students out of 3.5 lakh caught up with the rest 2.5 lakh students yet to catch up. It clearly demonstrates the need to increase the time period of such interventions. 

It must be noted that the government faced huge resistance from across sections, as the Delhi Minister Mr. Manish Sisodia mentions in his speech during 2017 ASER release. This is not just a political reform but also includes a huge attitudinal and mindset shift because our system is accustomed to a particular way of doing things. Changing it doesn't happen easily.

Though might sound like a radical reform but it's actually not. It's more of a common sense and in fact it's actually the way it should be. For instance, in Finland, the focus in early years of schooling is exclusively on reading, writing and numeracy. They proceed ahead only once students are proficient in these.

Alongside, government must also invest in research that explores the appropriate and effective ways to teach literacy and numeracy to first generation learners, not-so-fast learners and students with dyslexia etc. Curriculum should move away from philosophy to empirics. 

For instance, there is a constructivist philosophy in education that says that children construct knowledge. As per this philosophy, students are to taught using 'whole language approach'. It means that kids are taught words as whole. There's another approach called phonics approach where kids are taught individual sounds instead of whole word. Though recent emerging research has shown that kids learn better when taught using phonics approach, some still cling on to 'whole word approach' because of their belief in constructivist philosophy.

There are many such debates in education. It would be great if these are settled using empirics and teachers are provided a guide. It needs investment in research in pedagogy, psychology and neuroscience. We have not even scratched the surface in this regard. It's better late than never. We need to take steps in this direction.

To conclude, the learning gaps in reading, writing and numeracy skills that arise in early school years is hindering progress. Our obsession with completing the syllabus as per curriculum is one of the major reasons for this. Therefore, the first step that any government serious about pursuing education reform should take is to scrap traditional curriculum for first three years and focus exclusively on reading, writing and numeracy skills. This initiative also complements several other efforts of the governments. To put it more bluntly, without this, there will be no hope for a drastic reform; we can only achieve marginal results despite our huge efforts. Alongside, government must also invest in research to explore appropriate and effective ways to help students improve the literacy and numeracy skills.


Follow on Facebook: @iterativeadapt
Follow on Twitter: @iterate_adapt
Email subscription or RSS Feed: Enter id in the "Subscribe" text box, on the top right of the blog.