"Basic education" should now also include "undergraduate education"

Many wouldn't dispute the fact that everyone should get free quality basic education, irrespective of their income levels. By basic education, people mean school education. It's now time to extend the definition of basic education to include under graduation.

Recollecting the rationale behind current consensus on basic education will help us understand the rationale behind extending the definition to include under graduation.

The question thus is - why should government sponsor basic education of children? Economists will tell that education is a public good, there are huge externalities etc.  But, this is a misleading argument. Historically, this wasn't the rationale behind funding school education. People didn't sit and say "Ok, there are externalities. Let's fund it.". Morality was the fundamental rationale.

Depending on the timescale we want to consider, one can trace the roots of debate way back to Aristotle. Those days, even all humans weren't treated equally in all aspects. It was believed that only some have qualities to vote etc. After numerous struggles, revolutions and debates, people first got rid of divine right theories and got political rights. After political rights, there was new realisation about social rights. After that, slowly other positive rights started emerging - education, health care etc. The strong moral foundations for these were established by thinkers like John Rawls, Amartya Sen etc.

Fundamentally, the point being, the consensus behind government funding of school education is moral. The rationale varies slightly among different thinkers but the basic point is that education and healthcare are crucial to offset inequalities at birth. This argument presumed certain structure of economy, where school education is enough to offset inequalities and give a decent life to a person.

It's now time to revise these arguments because the structure of economy has changed. School education is no longer sufficient to bridge inequalities at birth. In these days, one needs at least undergraduate education.  This is due to what economists call "job polarisation", where more jobs are being automated creating a void in middle skill jobs. Only two categories of jobs remain - routine manual jobs like gardner which are difficult to automate and the high end jobs that require higher cognitive and professional skills. 

In olden days, school education could propel people from routine manual jobs to at least middle skill jobs. With disappearing middle section, school education is no longer sufficient to get decent job. Even 10th graduates have to end up taking up routine manual jobs. The only way out of this is to get into the higher end of jobs, which mandatorily require at least undergraduate education. Thus, undergraduate education has become the new equivalent of basic school education. This calls for more active role of governments in providing undergraduate education to people.

Finances may be an issue here as undergraduate education is costlier than school education. Countries like Germany can afford to make higher education free for everyone. Low income countries may not be able to bear that burden. However, these countries should at least try to reduce the financial burden of undergraduate education as far as possible. If they can't fund all, they should at least fund the top universities and provide scholarships to others.

In summary, bridging inequalities at birth was important rationale for public funding of school education. This presumes that school education gives decent life. But, times have changed. These days, one requires at least an undergraduate education to get a decent job. Hence, our definition of basic education should be extended to include undergraduate education. If governments can't fund it for everyone at the moment, it should at least consider significantly reducing the burden of top few and for others in varying degrees.

Why do IIT graduates quit engineering?

Often, there is a lot of outrage saying that IIT graduates don't pursue engineering careers and hence the money invested on their education is going waste. The question to ask is - is it the mistake of IIT graduates or the economy that doesn't provide enough good engineering jobs.

Pramath Sinha, found dean of ISB has a good interview in Business Standard where he answers this question - why do IIT graduates quit engineering?

Pramath Sinha says that IIT graduates quit engineering because Indian industry is not sophisticated enough to absorb IIT-quality engineer. You can pursue aeronautical engineering from IIT Kanpur but there's no good aeronautical firm in India to attract that talent. The very few existing companies can't cater to all students.

This explanation is bang on the target. Among other things, non maturity of Indian industry is the major reason. Further, non-maturity of Indian industry is because of the structure of India's economy. Many people forget that Indian economy is service based. There's little manufacturing. In such cases, it is natural for people to work in sectors where there are jobs, which happens to be services sector.

If you notice, this is not case just with IIT graduates. It's the story of majority of engineering graduates. There are no core engineering jobs in India (other than IT). Everyone is thus forced to take up service sector jobs.

In fact, it may be better for talented people to pursue non engineering jobs than engineering because the value add to economy by being in engineering may be much less, as compared to the value add by the same person if he/she is in services sector.

It also tells us that one should not narrowly measure the value of money invested in a particular branch of engineering by the value created in the sector related to that particular branch of engineering. One should instead use the value add to the economy as the metric. If we do that, we realise that India has got 100 times more than what it invested in IITs, as per this GoI report.

In summary, we must thus note that outrage over IIT engineers not pursuing engineering is misplaced for three reasons.

One, it's not the mistake of engineers. The real reason is the structure of economy.

Two, it's not case just with IIT engineers. It's the story of majority of engineering graduates in India suggesting that structure of economy is the major driving factor, not the individual preferences.

Three, using narrow metrics of value addition of different branches of engineering to the particular related sectors of engineering is incorrect. We must use the over all value add to the economy.


Other related reasons

As mentioned above, non maturity of Indian industry is one of the major reasons why engineers pursue non engineering careers. The other inter related reasons are:

1. Even if someone is interested in engineering, the relative salary of these jobs is very low. 

2. With the recent hike in IIT fee, good luck to Indian engineering industry. Even those who might have pursued engineering will never even dare to imagine it. There is no other option other than taking up a "non-core" job.

3. One might still say that one should pursue engineering for the sake of interest, ignoring the money aspect.  It might work for financially secure families but not for someone who is born and brought up in an environment of financial insecurity.

India is still a developing country. Money and security are thus the primary motivating factors behind pursuing education in India. Demand for IITs is an outcome of this need. They are essentially seen as ladders towards economic mobility. We haven't yet reached a stage where there's a critical mass of people who are financially secure enough to pursue engineering despite all odds.

Misplaced obsession with RTE in policy discourse

These days, every discussion on education policy in India, invariably revolves only around RTE. It appears as if "Education Policy is RTE and RTE is Education Policy". It has also been demonised to the extent that it is now being made responsible for everything wrong with our public education and its policy.

This obsession with RTE is incorrect. One, RTE is only a small part of education policy. It is NOT the education policy. Two, in case of public schools, RTE is NOT the reason for poor quality. Quality was poor and was declining much before RTE.  

Just think about it. What in RTE is stopping governments from addressing several constraints in education? What in RTE is stopping governments from improving teacher training programmes? What in RTE is stopping governments from strengthening SMCs? What in RTE is stopping governments from improving academic mentorship to teachers? What in RTE is stopping governments from filling up teacher posts? What in RTE is stopping governments from streamlining teacher recruitment? What in RTE is stopping governments from providing career counselling to students? What in RTE is stopping governments from streamlining fund flows? What in RTE is stopping governments from pursuing "outcome" oriented approach?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Nothing in RTE prevents governments from taking steps to address these constraints in education. Instead of focusing on getting these done, we are unnecessarily being diverted by single point agenda of RTE.

The real negative effect of RTE on public schools may thus not be due to the specifics of the RTE. The negative effect of RTE may be due to the fact that it has given rise to a huge new section of activists with a restricted outlook on education policy. By equating education policy to RTE, they are successfully diverting attention from the actual things that are to be done.

In summary, RTE is not the education policy. RTE is neither the cause for existing problems in public education nor does it stop governments from doing what's to be done to improve education. RTE is also NOT the remedy. It only aims to ensure certain basic framework. The real solutions lie outside. Let's focus on getting these done and not be diverted by single point agenda of RTE.

PS1: RTE isn't the source for Right to Education. Article 21A, added to the Constitution through 86th Constitutional Amendment, 2002 is the source for education as a fundamental right. RTE merely provides a framework to enable Article 21A. So, the roots of RTE are in 2002, not in 2010.

PS2: RTE doesn't exclude only Christian Missionary Schools and Madarasas, leaving out Hindu religious schools. It also excludes Vedic Patashalas.

[Stories from ground] Difference between a budget private school and a high-end private school

For long, I have thinking about the differences between budget private schools and high-end private schools. By high-end private schools, I don't mean the exceptions, run by enthusiastic individuals and their schools, known for innovation. The question that I have in mind is - is it a matter of teachers or is it a matter of culture? Obviously, there is heterogeneity in both categories. Any comparison is likely to conceal these differences. But it doesn't mean that no such comparison should be made. People are making such comparisons everyday for various purposes. The purpose of comparison should be to infer some most probable differences that are likely to hold for a significant section of schools.

The first level of analysis is from my personal experience. Personal experiences and anecdotes are useful to generate hypothesis, which are to be fine tuned later. These needn't be conclusive proofs. The purpose of this post is to just generate a possible hypothesis and draw some inferences regarding comparison between budget and high-end private schools.

My hypothesis is that "culture" is the major contributing factor to the difference between budget private school and high-end private school. Teachers are more or less the same, except that those in high-end private schools speak fluent English. This is based on my personal experience.

I studied till my 5th grade in a budget private school charging Rs.30/- per month. Teachers used to make us learn answers, reproduce them in exam. My class mates were from disadvantaged background. Some of them also used to accompany their parents for work, for some days in an year. My experience in the school is marked by my interactions with my friends. We were in our own world of fishing, playing cricket and other activities. We were never aware of the big world outside. No one ever told us about the opportunities in life, the steps that have to be taken to achieve those and so on. In short, it was a mixture of unawareness and a resulting environment of low hopes and expectations.

The transformation came in my 6th grade, when I changed school to a high-end private school. In retrospect, I would say that the teachers are exactly the same, except for an exceptional Math teacher, who is more of an exception rather than the norm. Learning process didn't change even a bit. It was the same process of learning answers to pre-given questions and writing them in exam without missing a word. It is a miracle that I survived the school, without permanently damaging my cognitive functions. The only difference was that teachers taught in Telugu in the English medium budget private school but teachers in high-end private school taught in English. There was also a big ground but of no use. We were allowed to play only 45 minutes per week! We could play after school most kids couldn't as they had to attend tuitions. 

The difference as I said was the 'culture' and 'environment' of the school. The crowd was different. There were no more talks of fishing, playing cricket etc. We got new exposure. I got to participate in inter-school competitions which I was completely unaware of. I came to know about IIT, the steps needed to get into that and so on. This orientation gave me exposure and set a short term purpose to life.

In retrospect, if I think of a counter factual situation of me continuing in budget private school, I think I wouldn't have been any better academically as compared to studying in high-end private school. There was one good Maths teacher in the high-end private school but it was just a stroke of luck. However, I would have lost on the career trajectory because of lack of exposure and unawareness. Many of my friends from primary school, who are equally competent are driving cars, autos and running small businesses. Girls are married off and I have no track of them. They all could have done much better. The only difference was the lack of exposure and a supportive environment.

People think that lack of awareness is no longer an issue in an internet world but it isn't true.  Internet can bridge gaps but not much. Existence of information in web isn't equal to dissemination. More importantly, information isn't mentorship.

To sum up, a significant difference between budget private school and high-end private school may be just because of the crowd, the culture of expectations, hopes, awareness and mentorship. The stories can be different, depending on schools but I can't think of a strong reason why this shouldn't be a key factor across contexts.

Prof. Anirudh Krishna of Duke University found a similar insight in his research on career trajectory of first generation IT employees. He found that 2-3 things were common to all those 1st generation IT employees from villages - a teacher who gave them crucial information about a career opportunity and scholarship at some point of time, an inspiration of success from their local community and some stroke of luck. People find these in different forms. The likelihood of getting these increases if one is in a high-end private school.

This is the story of differences between two types of private schools. Now, to the inferences part.

1. Whenever I see some one arguing that playground is important and they should be criteria for granting recognition to schools, my instinct says - Boss, we had a big playground but we could only play 45 minutes per week. We got nothing significant out of it. It is likely to happen with other schools too. Now, one can't go around ordering schools to stipulate certain time for play. It's impractical.

2. Except for teaching English which is a big deal, I don't think many private schools even in the so called high-end category are doing any thing significantly different.

3. Often people talk about the efforts they have made to reach a goal and thus attribute the reward completely to the effort. There can't be a bigger misconception than this. The surrounding environment plays a crucial role in setting such expectations. The effects of environment created by the kind of crowd that attends the school matters a lot. Raj Chetty finds a similar phenomenon in patent holders. He finds that children of patent holders are more likely to receive a patent in same field as their parents', suggesting clear evidence for role of expectations set by surrounding environment.

Issues with rationalising governments' inaction in education citing lack of electoral incentives

Often, people use standard incentive frameworks to explain governments’ inaction in education. The argument goes that governments don’t put efforts on education because providing education is not a vote winning instrument. In other words, education doesn’t figure in electoral agenda. The inference is that people don’t vote based on education, hence governments also don’t work.
This seems like a intuitively reasonable argument but this is absurd way of thinking.
I had earlier blogged on the trap of judging political parties using standard incentive frameworks. My three arguments were:
1. Standard incentive frameworks optimise for contexts of mediocrity. Anything worth achieving is NOT achievable ONLY with external incentives OR with a low threshold for deterrence. What incentive did Gandhi have to lead freedom movement? What incentive did Elon Musk have to start SpaceX? Remarkable things can’t be achieved with external incentives alone. Internal motivation is crucial here.
2. Standard incentives may be applicable to individuals working for someone, but not to entities that are responsible to do something. Incentives are to address principal-agent situations, where agent is working for someone. This isn’t applicable to cases where there is a moral responsibility on someone to do the task. If parents don’t feed a child, do you justify it saying that there is demand-supply incentives problem?
3. Incentive frameworks are useful to contexts where progress can be tracked regularly and there is a check-list of tasks for which the adherence can be checked. This isn’t the case with education. It involves constantly adapting to context; results are concretely visible only in long term; there are too many variables in action, making it difficult to attribute responsibility. In such cases, even if forced, governments can get away by appearing to do something when pressure builds, without actually doing anything. The stick approach isn't effective in this case.
I want to add two more arguments to this list.
4. Saying that governments don’t focus on education because there are no electoral incentives is a form of victim blaming. Instead of saying that governments are wrong and have to mend their ways, it places the blame on victim — you didn’t vote, hence you didn’t get education. This is a convenient justification and is music to governments’ ears because it helps them evade responsibility. In contexts with numerous other pressing problems, it is illogical to expect that all get attention and that government should work only on those that get attention.
Marx had recognised this long ago when he said that religion is the opium of masses. Religion teaches masses that the cause of their suffering is something else, their karma etc. It stops people from realising the real-word causes for their suffering and prevents them from taking steps to address them. We are also doing something similar here.
Governments are responsible to provide education. It is one of their basic functions. They must do it. Period.
5.  Saying that lack of electoral incentives is the reason for governments’ lack of efforts presumes that election agenda is always set by people’s demands. This isn’t entirely true. Many times, political parties frame the agenda, bring new narratives, make people realise that these are important issues for their life and convince them to vote. These agendas range from doing identity politics or promising to eradicate poverty. If parties can make a ‘new aspect’ that isn’t initially explicitly demanded by people, as an agenda, why shouldn’t they do the same with education too? Why are they allowed to shift responsibility to voters, as if voters alone frame agenda all the time?
One can note that all the above arguments are equally applicable for health care.
It’s time we stop finding metaphysical reasons for governments’ inaction and call spade a spade. Governments’ are not putting enough efforts on education and health care. They alone are responsible for it. Not people.

Of course, it is another matter if governments put enormous efforts to improve education and health care and enhance their quality but still if people vote on caste, religion etc. But governments should first reach that stage and then say this. This is definitely not acceptable when they haven’t put any efforts.

On instruction in mother tongue

There is a general consensus these days that children should be taught in mother tongue at least in their initial years of education. The rationale is that children can comprehend better if they are taught in a language that they already speak at home. It seems intuitively reasonable argument but not without contradictions:
  1. Most people who advocate mother tongue instruction send their kids only to English medium schools.
  2. It may argued that mother tongue instruction rationale is only for 1st generation kids. But, there are examples where 1st generation learners learnt to cope up, even when taught in English.
  3. There’s an emerging trend in US to teach 2 languages to children.
  4. There’s also research suggesting that bilingualism is advantageous, though people differ on the extent of advantage.
  5. Most of all, the mother tongue instruction doesn’t align with the aspirational parents, who see English as a symbol of emancipation. Surely, one shouldn’t be denying some the benefits of English, while sending one’s own kids to English medium schools.

It is important to understand the ‘mother tongue’ issue a bit in detail to address these contradictions.

In simple words, child’s learning in classroom depends on three things
  1. Ease of learning the language
  2. Child’s perseverance
  3. Teacher’s capacity

In high end private schools, children also use English at home, making it easy for them to pick it up. Also, such students have better support systems to help them when they fall back.

This isn’t the case with government schools. Students often don’t have support systems, increasing their probability of falling back and losing interest in studies. Teachers don’t have enough capacity to address this situation. In such context, teaching in non-mother tongue language only increases the difficulty in instruction.

Theoretically, one can address this situation by enhancing any of the three factors listed above. However, the second, child perseverance isn’t in our hands. The lack of support systems at home should only be compensated by teacher. So, ease of language taught and teacher capacity are the only remaining instruments.

The current approach is to deal the situation by changing the language of instruction. There are two issues with this approach.

One, such advocacy has now resulted in perceptions that one should never be taught in foreign language, which is not true, as seen above. One can teach in English (foreign language), if the challenges are compensated by the teachers’ efforts.

The other response of completely changing the language of instruction to English and thinking that the problem is solved, is also an issue. The situation may be worse in such case because it adds another layer of challenge to teachers without adequate capacity.

Two, such approach completely ignores the teacher aspect. One can escape this problem temporarily by changing language of instruction without addressing teacher capacity issues. But, one can’t do this longer because teacher capacity is needed for teaching higher order concepts even in mother tongue, not just for simple concepts in foreign language. There’s no escaping from that.

From a policy perspective, it may make sense to currently teach only in mother tongue, as enhancing teacher capacity takes time. But along side efforts should also be made to enhance teacher capacity and one should aim to teach English alongside mother tongue, few years down the line. We can’t keep denying the privilege English for long hiding behind mandating mother tongue instruction or changing language of instruction to English on paper. Such changes are meaningless without efforts to improve capacity. 

English is too important to be left out of education. Words of a Telangana bureaucrat leading 268 social medium schools illustrate this
English is a language of emancipation. The poor are scared of those who speak English. They feel like slaves. We wanted to bust that stereotype. The parents feel like they have been excluded from the language for 2,000 years, and want their children to occupy that space, which has only been the domain of the ‘elite’.

[UnpackED - 4] Strategy for Indian public education reform

The strategy for Indian public education reform should incorporate the three lessons from previous attempts to reform.

1. No piecemeal reforms. Pursue reforms across wide range.
2. Don't prematurely overload the system. Start simple as per capacity of system. 
3. Don't rely excessively on figuring out workarounds.
4. Think in terms of enhancing capacity, not implementing programmes
5. Don't follow post-office style functioning. Shape norms of education bureaucracy making them conducive to deliver education.

The first step is initiate reforms across wide range. How do we then now the sectors where reforms are to be initiated? We can surely list some of them but listing all may not be possible. Hence, one should use a probe to identify the constraints. This probe should be an intervention aiming at outcomes. On implementing it, we come across the constraints involved in making the system work towards achieving outcomes.

We learnt in second lesson that we shouldn't prematurely overload the system. Hence, this probe should work even in contexts with weak capacity. Pratham's TaRL model suits the specifications of the probe. It's so simple that even 10th grade pass volunteers could use it. Further, it's effectiveness in promoting outcomes is tested and proven by numerous RCTs, satisfying our "outcome" criteria.

The third, fourth and fifth lessons should be kept in mind while implementing this intervention. During the process of implementation, if one realises that textbook delivery is being delayed, one should fix the issues causing delay, instead of resorting to temporary workarounds. If one realises that teachers are not taking this seriously because they are another original mandate of completing the syllabus, such requirement can be done away with. The nature of functioning of academic support personnel can be shaped using this.

If one realises that lack of good role models is the issue, this can be worked out by providing exposure to children. If parent's engagement is weak, efforts can be made to improve the functioning of SMCs and so on.

It should be noted that most of these responsibilities should be devolved to local levels. Ideally, nothing above district level should be involved in this except for overseeing. This has to be coupled with human management strategies. For instance, it's difficult to motivate teachers if they are facing any pressing issues. To bring people on board, one can first talk to teachers, address their problems and thus build a relationship of reciprocity.

Finally, it's important to note that this form of reform is only temporary. It's only till the clogs are cleared in the system, basic things are in place and till the system reaches acceptable levels of capacity. Once that's done, local institutions can be given freedom to pursue their own way. By this time, we would have enhanced the adaptive capacity of the systems. So, the progress goes on.

The advantage of pursuing reform in this manner is that it doesn't leave out any input required for ensuring outcomes. Focusing on the outcome surfaces the constraints and capacity building approach helps people to resolve it in appropriate manner.

Further, this approach disentangles the phrase "focus on outcomes". This phrase has become common parlance these days but it is also being misinterpreted. Some interpret as a recommendation to not focus on any other input to education process. Governments' efforts in infrastructure, motivation building etc. are considered as distraction. The "focus on outcomes" approach interestingly is leading to same age old practices of quest for right pedagogical models and scaling them up. It's because pedagogy is proximate factor in causal link ensuring outcomes. The approach discussed helps us to overcome these traps.

Contrast this with the policy recommendations provided in form of laundry list of tasks to be done. It leaves out many inputs required to ensure outcomes. The diversity of contexts mean that some of these may not be applicable to all cases. Further, resolving individual constraints in silos doesn't channelise the gains into outcomes but focusing on outcomes and resolving constraints faced does.

One can observe that this form of reform doesn't involve specific actionable policy recommendations. It's because the nature of education is such. Recommending bullet points is easy but is misleading. It necessarily needn't lead to outcomes. For a long-lasting reform, one has to essentially pursue own path, continuously adapting in the process, with focus on outcomes.

Having said this, one should also specify four important points. 

One, political will is needed for the reform. Initiating reforms across a wide range of domains isn't an easy task. It can't be driven by top bureaucrat's initiative alone. It's necessary to overcome the political opposition if any. Also, it's required to send a strong message across the bureaucracy to motivate them.

Two, progress fast. The slower one moves, the more complicated things seem. If one's moving fast, then minor deficiencies don't seem prominent. Else, every minor issue gets magnified, seems prominent. The need for most controlled studies aiming to explore individual constraints arose out of slow progress of reform. If reform was fast, questions like should we have toilets or textbooks wouldn't have been a matter of discussion.

Three, basic law and order should be in place. Law and order is a pre requisite for functioning of a civilised society. A poor law and order situation hampers education in numerous ways. It decreases the general seriousness of people towards their duties. It hampers transport of children and so on. Most importantly, a district administration busy with firefighting law and order won't have bandwidth to lead a protracted reform.

Four, this form of reform may not be applicable to tribal areas or violence affected areas. In such cases, bringing all students together to a central place and delivering education through a residential school is the best way forward. Dantewada administration has done excellent work on these lines. It can serve as a basic template and inspiration.

As a citizen, how to know if a government is pursuing right education reform?

In response to criticism on lack of governments' efforts towards reform, governments often lists a set of "schemes" they are pursuing. It is argued that all these numerous initiatives are being taken, displaying their sincerity and commitment. This is not just true for current era governments. Such defence could be put out by any government at any point in time because there will be a set of government schemes at any given point of time. But, as we all know, all of these don't necessarily mean outcomes. How do we then know if a government is pursuing right reform? Here are few metrics 

1. Outcome focused: Governments pursuing right reform will have outcome focused. You can check this in the way they phrase their aims. If their primary initiatives have goals like reducing dropout etc, then they are not pursuing the right path.

You should feel that all the initiatives of government are channelising towards outcomes. If government lists distribution of tablets and computers to schools, construction of xyz schools as their top schemes, without any mention of outcomes, it means that there is no plan to channelise efforts towards outcomes.

2. Reform across a wide range of domains: Governments serious about reforming education will initiate efforts across a wide range of domains. They won't pursue the path of one constraint at a time.

3. Decentralisation: Serious reform involves elements of decentralisation. Without this, a large scale reform of the nature required in education isn't possible.

4. Strong communication highlighting the importance of education and motivating bureaucracy: A serious reform isn't possible with strong communication highlighting the purpose and motivating the employees. You find important political leaders constantly engaging with teacher community, addressing their problems and motivating them.

A strong communication is also important to create a perception of good aura about government schools to break some of the notions about government schools. It also signals the improvement in government schools making people hopeful. Essentially, parents should feel hopeful about sending their kids to government schools.

5. Education reflected in budget priorities: Mere increase in funding may not lead to outcomes. But, money is crucial if one is going for a reform across wide sectors. Allocating significant share of budget for education requires placing education over other priorities of government. It's a signal of the seriousness and intent of the government.

So, is your government pursuing a serious reform? Which state government in India do you think is close to doing the right form of reform?


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[UnpackED - 3] Why do the best of India's private schools fare below average globally?

The first and second posts discussed various issues with the education reform in India. These involved monitoring mechanisms, providing required resources to schools, governance issues etc. All these problems is necessitated because government requires a bureaucracy to administer large number of schools.

Corporate schools don't all these governance and other issues like uneducated parents etc. They should then have been providing the best quality education in the world. But, an assessment finds that students of top Indian private schools are only at an average level on global level (PISA scores). Why is that so?

It's because of two reasons: low expectations from the system and lack of a general environment valuing critical thinking.

Low expectations from system: Good performance can arise in two ways, through self-motivation or through an external pressure. Schools of former category are rare anywhere in the world. Most schools perform as per expectations set for them.

In India, 10th board exams set the expectations of standards for schools. Schools do all that's necessary to enable their students to perform well in these exams. If board exams demand rote learning, schools promote rote learning. If board exam asks questions on critical thinking, schools work on critical thinking. 

Unfortunately, board exams in India are of poor quality, which percolates down to schools through expectations set for them and into teaching practices.

Solution - Reform board exams; introduce basic an advanced version for each subject

The straight forward solution is to then enhance the quality of board exams. Some critics might driving expectations through board exams only institutes teaching to the test and that true learning is not possible through this. This is however not true.  

One, teaching to the test already exists in India. In a developing nation with aspiring parents, there will always be competition to excel well in studies, as board exams signal the capability of the student. This is a stepping stone for future career and is tied up with future significant economic prospects of the children. Hence, parents aren't going to stop doing this. It is impractical in such context to ask people without any security to not focus on marks and study for the sake of pleasure. Instead, we should build on this instrumental purpose of education to imbibe necessarily skills.

Two, if a test is designed properly that doesn't allow people with superficial understanding to get through, the process of preparing for such test itself builds those skills. IIT - JEE exam is a good example for this. The very fact that this exam tests the real understanding of the student, they prepare accordingly.

The other concern with improving quality of board exams is that many students without access to proper resources may fail. This is especially problematic because board exam is used for multiple purposes by the people. Some use it to just get minimum qualifications so that they can pursue some vocational education or alternate career. Some use it to signal their capability, to distinguish themselves from others. Both these purposes can't be solved by the same exam. If we make the exam too tough, people who are using this for qualification purpose lose out. If we make it too easy, every scores high marks and the marks lose the signalling value. 

Additionally, increase in quality can lead to significant resistance from students who lose out.

We can address this issue by conducting two exams for each subject - basic version and advanced version. Students will have choice to choose either of these for each individual subject. One can choose advanced version in Telugu and basic version in Social Studies and so on. Students who want to use board exam for qualification purpose can use the basic version. Others can take advanced version.

There's one issue with this. If passing the advanced version of course is made an eligibility criteria for further education, it leads to sorting at early age disadvantaging people. Hence, it should be strictly mandated that the version of course shouldn't be considered as an eligibility criteria for further education. 

Gradually, as the education improves, one can narrow the gap between basic and advanced versions of the exam.

General environment of society that reinforces conformity and non-critical thinking: Critical thinking, scientific temper etc are not just concepts confined to academics. It's a way of life. Our actions in life outside academics also have impact on the way we think. I don't think this needs to be mentioned but one can easily understand that the current state of society is not conducive to such form of thinking.

Hence, people commanding respect in society have a responsibility to emphasise and communicate the importance of the values of critical thinking and scientific temper.


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[UnpackED - 2] Why do governments do what they do regarding education?

The first post discussed the reasons for unsuccessful translation of governments' efforts to outcomes, in education domain. We discussed that it's primarily due to the way governments pursue reforms. This post discusses the factors that drive governments to pursue those modes of reform.

On Quantity - Reasons for fragmented and piecemeal reform

The first post identified fragmented and piecemeal approach to reform trying to address only one constraint at a time, as one of the reasons. There are several factors that drive governments to pursue this form of reform.

First, a combination of scale of the problem and lack of conducive atmosphere for widespread reforms. Each of the individual constraints in education are significant enough, especially when done at scale. Pursuing multitude of such reforms huge bandwidth of attention. In contexts, where a conducive environment is not present for this, often a result of weak political will, reform is often bureaucrat driven. Given these constraints, bureaucrats choose only one or two things to pursue and focus all their energies on them.

While the first reason has to do with the constraints in the system that lead to piecemeal policies, the other following reasons are to do with the mental models used in analysing reform and language used in communicating reform proposals.

Second, information feeds to policy that use diagnostic framework to analyse education. Have you ever heard of statements like "the main problem is lack of motivation in teachers", "good teacher training and headmaster training are lessons that we can learn from xyz country." This is what I call, a diagnostic framework of analysis. In diagnostic framework, root cause is attributed to one or two specific components (notice the emphasis on "main problem" in "main problem is teacher motivation"). Sometimes, it becomes a laundry list of suggestions that are to be done.

On the face of it, there seems to be nothing wrong with these statements. No one can deny that lack of teacher motivation affects their performance. No one can deny that a good teacher training and headmaster training are essential for a high performing system.

However, the problem with phrasing constraints in this manner is that it leads to piecemeal reforms. If one says that "xyz is the main problem", all the attention in discourse is driven only to this particular issue, leaving other issues unattended. In reality, we need many other along with xyz.

Further, there are two more issues with diagnostic mode of analysis:

i) it emphasises symptoms rather than causes. For instance, diagnostic only points out xyz as a constraint but it doesn't ask, what's the reason for this, why isn't addressed till now? Often the underlying causes for emergence of xyz constraint are also responsible for emergence of many other constraints. By emphasising only this particular xyz, we are crowding out other constraints. 

ii) it communicates necessity to initiate efforts on an issue but conceals the how aspect of it. "We should do teacher training", "we should do headmaster training" etc are the common suggestions, one notices. The point is that the issue is not with the lack of recognition of necessity of teacher training but with the way we do it. If the suggestion is to do teacher training, a teacher training is done to tick a checklist without regards to the way its done.

Thus, by feeding information into policy phrased in a particular manner using diagnostic framework, we are concealing the real issues.

Few other factors make people to phrase policy recommendations in this particular manner. Experts have what I call, expertise bias. It means that experts point only those things as constraints which they are experts in, and suggest recommendations on only those things which they are experts in. Someone tells to do teacher training, some tells to change pedagogy and so on. But no one tells to do everything!

Sometimes bureaucrats also constrain people to recommend policies in a diagnostic framework. Suggestions related to strategy and mental models leading to inappropriate policies is discarded as theory that's not useful for policy purposes. They demand "concrete actionable policy suggestions". It results in a policy recommendations in form of laundry list of individual components of education that are to be focussed upon.

On a related noted, some times the misconceptions regarding policy constraints like teacher salary, guest teachers also feed into policy diverting the attention from others to these specific individual items. Karthik Muralidharan notes that sometimes people just visit few schools and if they notice something like lack of basic things like textbooks, it registers strongly in their memory. A "need for closure" tendency that forces brain to quickly come to a solution aids this process. They then come back and popularise the notion that lack of textbooks is the single biggest constraint in education. Such discourse also drives one piece at a time approach (FYI: Many studies proved that textbooks aren't necessarily the major constraint).

Third, selling problems vs. selling solutions. Lant Pritchett illustrates it using a simple exercise . Simply ask yourselves - "what is the problem you are trying to solve?" Most people come up with statements like "lack of teacher training". Then write down a solution to your problem. If you defined problem as "lack of teacher training", your solution will be "teacher training". Now, write other solutions to your problem. If you have defined teacher training as the problem, you can't write anything else.

Lant Pritchett calls this as selling solutions. You wanted to sell the solution of teacher training, hence you defined the problem as lack of teacher training. The actual problem with education is lack of outcomes. If you define problem in this manner, you can list multiple solutions, apart from teacher training.

One can observe that the solution selling phenomenon leads to emphasis only on few aspects, crowding out others. It finally ends up in fragmented, piecemeal approach to reform.

Four, focus on intermediate outcomes. One of the effects of diagnostic framework of analysis and selling solutions is that governments tend to focus on intermediate outcomes and not final outcome. It is common for many district collectors and state governments to start efforts with "reducing dropout" as final motto. When your final aim is defined as reducing dropouts, it reduces your efforts on all the other things required for final outcome.

Five, misinterpretation of RCTs. The fragmented approach existed much before RCTs but it's getting strengthened due to misunderstanding of RCTs. There are many RCTs in education that consider individual inputs to education (infrastructure, libraries, textbooks, SMCs) and test the effect of addressing them, in a controlled environment. They often don't show positive results. These results are often used by people to criticise efforts on these fronts. It's a misinterpretation of RCT result because the result says that working on libraries alone won't yield results, but it's interpreted as never construct libraries.

The RCT literature is also a part of the problem. Many define the utility of RCTs as follows "governments have limited resources, so we strive to find the initiatives that can maximise the outcome". Framing problems in this manner legitimises the limited resources condition of government. Most often, the limited resources is a function of governments' will and hence can be increased. RCTs take this limited resources as a given and go in search of one particular intervention that yields outcome. Phrasing solutions in form of one particular intervention dilutes the necessity to work on other constraints, leading to fragmented and piecemeal reform.

One piece at a time, diagnostic framework to identify constraints etc. are useful for questions like "What's wrong with my car?", where there are probably only one or two problems. It's not for complex issues like education that involve multiple inputs. Further, there are no meta-problems in cars, meaning there are no such fundamental issues that give rise to numerous other issues. Also, few problems don't mix up to lead to new problems. It isn't the case with education. The underlying meta-problems, a source for the visible constraints exist and few problems can mix up to create new problems. We need a more in-depth analysis here.

On Quality - Reasons for improper implementation 

The first post outlined four reasons for poor quality of reform - i) mismatch between nature of governance required and governance practiced; ii) overlaying scale-ups over weak systems; iii) premature loading of system; iv) focusing programme implementation focus over resolving constraints.

Translating traditional understanding of accountability is the factor that leads to first issue. Programme mode of thinking instead of capacity mode of  thinking is the reason for rest three.

Many problems with government are usually linked to lack of accountability. In daily life parlance, accountability means finding if someone has done something wrong and punishing them for that. This identify and punish approach presumes that we can identify and we can punish. This approach fails when applied to education domain because it's difficult to identify the wrong (outcomes only appear after long time), difficult to monitor because there's no one standard way of teaching against which teacher can be measured. Since this fails, all such dynamic, engagement-intensive tasks are converted to those amenable to rule based monitoring.

Some of this is also reflected in the way some think about the education governance drawing inferences from elections. Some remark that bureaucracy can implement elections because responsibilities are clearly assigned and accountability is fixed. They strive to implement the same in education. As discussed earlier, this usually fails.

All these together lead to a post-office style functioning in education bureaucracy.

The driving factor for the 2nd, 3rd and 4th reasons for poor quality of reform is the programme mode of thinking. Programme mode of thinking is when you immediately think of a programme that can address a particular constraint. This leads to premature loading of systems because this thinking disregards capacity constraints. It leads to repeated imposition of scale-ups because the diagnosis of failure is always attributed to programme. Finally, it leads to temporary workarounds because programme is important here and not resolving constraints.

Instead of programme approach of thinking, we need a capacity approach of thinking. When faced with a constraint, unlike programme approach that thinks of a programme, capacity approach asks the following questions - i) what's the reason behind this problem; ii) what's the nature of capacity required to address this constraint? (increasing SMC involvement requires different type of capacity, teacher training requires different type of capacity and so on); iii) what's the extent of capacity required?

If Finland is revamping curriculum to teach students in terms of themes instead of subjects, before prescribing it, you think of the nature of capacity and extent of capacity required to carry out that reform. While dealing with teacher training, instead of thinking of it in terms of a usual programme implementation, you think of the capacity required and take steps accordingly. This prevents it from being a rule based task.

Thinking in these terms can thus prevent the the trap of programme mode of thinking. Also, read Gulzar Natarajan's insightful post titled "Why do we gloss over state capability deficiencies?" for reasons that span across sectors.

Overall, we can observe that inappropriate mental models and world views are the factors driving the inappropriate nature of reform. Hence, disentangling these models should be the first step towards reform. Unfortunately, this doesn't involve actionable policy recommendations, the only requirement of some, but this is much more powerful than that.

Till now, we have discussed i) why governments' efforts to reform education not yield results?; ii) why do governments do what they do regarding education. Both of these dealt only with public education. The next post will deal with private education. It addresses the question - Why do our private schools not perform better despite not having all the issues of public sector discussed in 1st and 2nd posts.


Read my book: UnpackED  - The black box of Indian school education reform (pdf, free to download)
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[UnpackED - 1] Why do governments' efforts to reform education not yield outcomes?

[This is 200th post on my blog! Came a long way in 1.5 yrs]

This is the first post in the new blog series summarising arguments of my book "UnpackED-The black box of Indian school education reform". [Zeroth post here]

My book is a result of exploration of question "Why do governments' efforts to reform education not yield outcomes?". The standard explanations given to this question like - teacher training is broke, recruitment is broke etc. didn't satisfy me. This is an attempt to give a comprehensive answer to this question.

Governments' reforms to reform education don't yield outcomes because they lack quantity and quality. Quantity is about the "amount of reform", while quality is about the "quality of executing the reform". It may sound intuitive but it isn't. Let's explore each of these.

I. Quantity: Governments' follow a fragmented, piecemeal approach to reform. Only a few constraints are addressed at each point in time. Since, the effectiveness of these initiatives also depends on addressing other complementary constraints (that are left unaddressed), they don't yield outcomes. This is one of the reasons why many controlled experiments seeking to evaluate the effect of adding individual inputs of education (free textbooks, SMCs, infrastructure, diagnostic feedback etc) don't show outcomes.

Reforms, even if incremental, across a wide range of connected domains are essential to translate efforts into outcomes.

II. Quality: Quality of reform is essentially about the "executing" the policy ideas. It is usually termed as "we need to get implementation right" or "we need to implement properly". However, these phrases conceal more than what they reveal. Weak implementation is certainly not the issue with education alone, it's prevalent across many sectors in India. Therefore, one has to identify specific mechanisms that lead to weak implementation and not just simplistically term it as an implementation issue.

The specific reasons for poor quality of reform in education are four fold: 

i) Mismatch between nature of governance required for education and the nature of governance being pursued: In education, the frontline worker (teacher) has to exercise discretion and has to continuously engage with the user (student) for long time. Tasks of this nature aren’t amenable to monitoring through strict rules and rigid mechanisms. This is unlike tasks like delivering post letters with low duration of contact with the user and involves less usage of discretion on postman’s part. Monitoring such tasks is amenable to rigid rules.

Tasks of former nature require fundamentally different form of governance that has more flexible and dynamic forms of bureaucratic interactions, unlike post office or conducting elections where standard operating procedures can be put in place.

The issue with quality of reform in India is that education is being governed with a mindset suitable for post-office like organisations. This primarily involves converting a dynamic, discretion involving, long contact duration task to a rule based task, stripping away the dynamism and discretion. This is reflected in several actions of governments.

For instance, providing academic support to teachers involves continuous long-time engagement with teachers and exercise of creative discretion by mentors in analysing teachers' classroom to provide feedback. Such task of dynamic nature is converted into tasks amenable to rule based monitoring, stripping away dynamism— data gathering, checking compliance of teachers with keeping records updated etc. Similarly, teacher monitoring is reduced to complying with “completion of syllabus”, a metric amenable to rule based monitoring.

It is no surprise that personnel in education bureaucracy feel that they are mere cogs in the wheel and their duty is just to follow instructions from above. There is evidence to suggest that states that enable local initiative and pursue dynamic informal bureaucratic norms at local level are more likely to have higher outcomes. Thus, reforms don’t yield outcomes if people who are supposed to use their discretion creatively are regimented to follow instructions from above.

ii) Overlaying pedagogy interventions over weak systems: Often, reform initiatives in education are reduced to incorporating pedagogy models from abroad or from within India. This presumes that pedagogy is the binding constraint and that if we provide ideal pedagogy to teachers, all problems would be solved.

Pedagogy scale-ups are thus parachuted into classrooms. These mostly fail because the system doesn't have the supporting structures like teacher training capacity etc to enable the intervention. When these scale-ups fail, the particular pedagogy is diagnosed as the issue, ignoring the real reason of the lack of supporting systems. This leads to another pedagogy intervention, which again ends up failing. This cycle goes on.

There is no dearth of good pedagogies. Given a good capacity system, all of them can be made to work out. The issue however is instituting these good capacity systems.

The real question is thus not what pedagogy models are to be parachuted but rather what enables the local systems to come up with methods suitable to them OR why could some local systems come up with innovative models but not others.

iii) Premature loading of system: Weak systems are loaded with programmes that require strong capacity to execute. For instance, CCE is a good idea but it requires strong capacity to execute. When the system is loaded with such complex interventions, it breaks down or doesn't show results. In some cases, such premature loading can lead to negative effects too.

While it's true that we don't always necessarily have the required capacity for interventions and that capacity can be built on the way, care should be taken so that the difference between the existing capacity and capacity required for executing the intervention is not very high. If it's going to take 20 years for the existing system to reach up to the required levels, we are essentially creating destruction during this period. One can rather start slow with simple interventions and gradually build up.

iv) Focus on programme implementation rather than addressing constraints: Often, initiatives to address constraints are pursued in terms of mission mode programmes. If this mission faces any constraints, temporary workaround solutions are employed to just get the task at hand done. For instance, if the programme is to built boundary walls and the money transmission systems are clogged; a temporary special mechanism of transfer is pursued, without addressing the real constraint of clogged money transmission systems. This way, the constraints in system remain forever, necessitating special mechanisms each time.

Overall, governments' efforts to reform education don't yield outcomes because of low quantity of reforms, inappropriate nature of education governance and inappropriate method of pursuing programme implementation with disregard to capacity constraints.

Many others can be pointed out as issues in education but they are symptoms rather than causes. They emanate from these fundamental reasons. There are also issues which are cited as critical constraints but they necessarily aren't - teacher salary, guest teachers etc.

One such often cited constraint, lack of political will, needs particular mention here. Refer the book for details on this. It's often remarked that lack of political will is the fundamental reason for failure of our public education. It's also remarked that it's because education isn't an electoral issue.

While it's true that political will is necessary, as I will argue in my next posts, citing this as fundamental issue brings several issues and doesn't address some questions. One, it attributes reason to something very abstract and unachievable in near future. Two, what happened to those cases when there was a political will? Many of the large interventions had political backup. Three, expecting governments to work on education only if there's an electoral incentive is futile. Election pressure works only in those cases where there exist clear solutions to a problem, government can solve the problems with short-duration reforms, government promises to do these, citizens can feel the change and track it. All these pre requisites aren't satisfied in education. There's no clear one magic wand or few bullet points to address education. It's a long term adaptive process requiring governments' attention throughout the period. Since, electoral pressure is not there round the clock, it requires government to work even in those times when no one cares about it. All of these require self-driven governments and not those who merely respond only when public asks. Such governments who respond only on public demand most probably will appear to do something, without doing the necessary hard work.

Hence, though I believe that political will is a necessary important ingredient, it doesn't completely explain the issues with education reform. One can pursue an inappropriate reform even with political will.

Now that we have established the issues with governments' approach to reform, the next post will deal with "Why do governments do what they do?", outlining the factors that drive this type of reform. Understanding these factors is essential to build strategy for reform.


Read my book: UnpackED  - The black box of Indian school education reform (pdf, free to download)
Follow on Facebook: @iterativeadapt
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