Comments on Prof Nambissan's paper on markets and elementary education in India

Prof Geetha B. Nambissan of JNU has recently given a talk at Center for Policy Research, Delhi on her paper ''Poverty, Markets and Elementary Education in India"

The crux of the argument, as I understand is, powerful for-profit networks are setting the definition of education for the poor and in the name of profit making (reducing costs), the poor are being denied broad based education.

I see the arguments and counter-arguments regarding this paper primarily emanating from the difference in the reference frame of thoughts. These differences primarily arise from difference in perspective on the following three factors.

1) Outcome or Agent of change: What is more important? The final outcome or the agent of change, through which the outcome is achieved? For example: Trains ran on time during emergency, apparently. But, surely we don't want emergency!

2) Definition of quality: When one speaks about quality in education, they are speaking with their own perception of quality. Any debate on the quality should first establish commonly agreed up broad definition of quality.

3) Absolute or relative: What is important? Absolute improvement or relative improvement? The necessity can change depending on the context. For example, one can't say, I am happy because 20% of my fever is reduced. There may be cases where relative approach is preferred.

Thus the response and arguments depend on where one stands on each of the above questions.


Let us come back to Prof Nambissan's paper.

1) Outcome or Agent of Change: Let us suppose there is an agreed upon definition of outcomes. should the agent, private school or public school, matter?

2) Definition of quality: If the metric for quality is conceptual learning, higher order thinking and creativity, then may be both government and private schools don't meet that absolute criteria. If the metric for quality is basic reading, numeracy, then may be private schools are better than government schools.

Even the NGOs which run schools, facing the similar budget constraints of low cost private schools, are no better than the low cost private schools. If not meeting the absolute criteria of quality is the argument, then these NGO schools are also equally culpable. 

Further more, if lack of quality on the metrics of absolute quality is the criteria, then there is evidence to say that almost *all* schools in India are culpable, including the top elite private schools.

3) Absolute or relative: To start with we have a scenario where government schools aren't any value adding. In this scenario, are we ok with students learning at least something? Is it better than learning nothing?

We should also realize that, the low cost private schools and other non governmental initiatives exist in first place is because there is a state failure. If anything, the state should be blamed first for this and not those who are trying to bridge the gap of state failure.

The reason people are preferring low cost private schools over government schools is that, in government schools, students get neither the basic skills nor the higher order skills. In low cost private schools, at least one gets basic skills. If this is enough or not is a separate debate but it is at least better than nothing. If one is not convinced by this, then we should demand the 'same standards' from both the government and private schools and not isolate the private schools. Private schools may not be a panacea but they can be a part of the solution.

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