Is tomorrow's India today's Haiti? Time to build support systems to teachers in low-fee private schools

Haiti is a small country near Caribbean islands. The interesting part of Haiti is that 80% of students in primary school (grade 1-5) attend non-public schools. Non-public schools include private schools, schools run by NGOs, religious missionaries etc though it's mainly low-cost private schools for all practical purposes. 80% of school going children in non-public schools is a huge number. In India, the proportion of school going children in private schools is 35% overall and over 50% in urban areas. At the current trends, this might increase and may reach 80%, assuming the quality of public schools remains the same.

Is 80% enrollment in private schools a good-thing? Is it going to address the problem of quality of education? Does it pose any challenges?

Haiti's experience is useful in this context. The 80% enrollment in private schools is also accompanied by the fact that government subsidizes school fee to reduce financial burden on students. It provides us a sneak peak into what might happen at 80% enrollment in low-cost private schools and the challenges that we may face. The learnings from this context can help in planning for the future.

First things first! Are children learning and completing school? Surprisingly, the answer is NO despite the fact that 80% students attend non-public schools. More than 50% of students drop out before grade 5 and the learning levels are low.

Why is that so? The private schools don't have the oft mentioned problems of public schools - teacher absence, lack of monitoring and accountability. The children still don't seem to be learning as much as they should. Is it because teachers are present but are not teaching in class?

A new study on Haiti's classrooms explores this. It conducts detailed classroom observations of schools in Haiti and finds that teachers spend 76% of time on teaching. It is significantly higher compared to similar Latin American countries, documented by similar studies. If teachers are attending and are teaching, why aren't the children learning? That seems to be the bottle neck here.

The study also finds that the teachers in Haiti's classrooms are poorly trained. Often they are 12th class graduates, untrained in teaching. Understandably the teaching methods in Haiti's classrooms are highly ineffective relying on lecturing, eliciting responses from students in unison, focus on memorization etc. There goes the bottleneck.

There are many hurdles and bottlenecks in the path to quality education. The basic being access to schools, next comes accountability - ensuring that teachers attend school and teach, next is ensuring that teachers teach in a way students understand and so on. In this ladder, India seems to be on the 2nd stage and Haiti on the 3rd. The learning is that even if we cross the 2nd hurdle by increasing enrollment in private schools where there is accountability and monitoring, there's a possibility that we might also face the same 3rd hurdle of lack of teacher professionalism as Haiti is facing now. There are good reasons to think that it might happen in India's case too because most teachers in India's low-budget private schools are untrained, paid paltry salaries. The economics of school also doesn't give bandwidth for management to invest on teacher training. James Tooley's survey of low-fee private schools in Hyderabad finds that low-fee private schools spend precisely 0% of their revenue on teacher training. 

Given that the students are continuously shifting to low-fee private schools in India and the fact that 50% of urban students are already there, it's time to focus on ensuring quality in these schools too because it's too small to ignore. As experience suggests, ensuring accountability needn't necessarily solve the problem. The probability of occurrence of third hurdle is high, so we should plan for it. One of the binding constraints (not the only) in contexts with high enrollment in low-fee private schools seems to be teachers' professionalism and need for investment regarding the same. Evidently, the school managements can't do it out of their own revenue. Even if government can't give vouchers to students for whatever reason, there is a strong case for government to at least support these teachers considering the huge positive externalities.

The government's support to teachers in low-fee private schools can be designed in many ways. One way is to pair up such schools with high-end schools, in which case it might have to be mandated as a rule, similar to CSR. This comes with challenges of ensuring the quality and that what's desired is actually what's happening.

The other clean way to ensure support to teachers in low-fee private schools is to sponsor their training either in form of individual vouchers or for a group. One has to note that teacher training isn't about giving lectures to teachers, a majority of it is about hand holding them in classroom and ensuring continuous support. Teachers can use these  vouchers to avail the required support from the private companies providing such services. This can be part of Skill India programme. The primary challenges with this approach is the availability of high quality service providers. My sense is that we still don't have a robust eco system of private teacher training service providers. Hopefully it gets developed with time and vouchers to teachers can be a trigger that.

Well, all of this is assuming that we address the first order problems before venturing into this, i.e. legally recognizing the existence of private schools!

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