Private Schools vs. Government Schools – Which are better?

(This post was first published in Logos, The Takshashila Institute's blog)

It may seem obvious to some that private schools are indeed better as the phrase ‘private schools’ is considered synonymous with quality education by many, but there is more to the issue than meets the eye. Before choosing one type of school over the other it might therefore be prudent to first answer a few additional questions.
What do we mean by private schools? 
There is a spectrum of private schools that ranges from schools charging Rs.50/- per month to schools charging Rs. 6 lakh per annum. In the debate about private schools vs government schools, ‘private schools’ are generally understood to mean low cost private schools. These are the schools most often chosen by people moving their children out of government schools.

Why is it better?
Determining the superiority of an individual school usually depends upon both the efforts made by the school administration and the nature of students that attend it. One school may have highly talented teachers but students with low motivation while another may have poor teachers but highly motivated students and parents. The latter school may be achieving good results solely due to the efforts of students and not the school. This inability to accurately attribute the success of a school makes it difficult to conduct a full and thorough examination of what type of schools are preferable.
How do we then go about such an examination? The ideal solution for this problem is to have a set of people who are similar in all aspects (income, motivation etc). This set would then be split, preferably in half, where some would be sent to private schools and the others to government schools. If their scores are compared after some time, any differences are, in all probability, likely to have arisen only due to the efforts of the schools.
How is it better?
Another way of phrasing this question is: what do we mean by ‘results’? In other words, what are the metrics used for comparing schools? Is it scores in Math, or the local language? Should scores from the other subjects taught in schools also be included? Are the behavioral aspects of children also measured? The list of questions is endless and this can be a separate debate in itself. That being said, maths and language scores are conventionally used to evaluate learning outcomes in primary education.
So, which is better?
To summarize the previous answers, we are comparing government schools with low cost private schools (which are attended by similar students) on the performance of the students in Maths and the local language. This comparison, thankfully, has already taken place on a small scale; in 2013, Karthik Muralidharan and Venkatesh Sundararaman published their paper entitled “The Aggregate Effect of School Choice: Evidence from a two-stage experiment in India”. Two major findings to emerge from the study are encapsulated in the following quotes:
 “After two and four years of the program, we find no difference between the test scores of lottery winners and losers on Math and Telugu (native language).”
[NOTE: lottery winners here means the group of students who won the lottery to get a voucher to attend low cost private schools.]
The point that has led to more contention was this
“the mean cost per student in the private schools in our sample is less than a third of the cost in public schools.
It is for this reason that some argue that private schools are better as they are more cost efficient. But there are arguments on the side of public schools as well. Government schools often deliver education of a comparable quality with low cost private schools despite functioning in unfavourable and remote conditions with shoestring budgets. It is necessary to separate the outcomes from justifications for an objective comparison.
The conclusions reached in the study might have changed if the words ‘private’, ‘government’ and ‘results’ were defined differently. It would also have changed depending on the value of the voucher given to parents or if private schools had spent more time reaching Maths and Telugu instead of Hindi or English. Both these aspects are subject to further research as the paper mentions. However, with the agreed upon definitions of ‘private’, ‘government’ and ‘results’, we have to face the reality that there isn’t any difference between the government and private schools.
Does this mean that low cost private schools should be closed? No. We need to realize and accept the fact that the education system is broken in both government and private schools to the same extent. Acceptance of the problem is the first step towards addressing it.

Update: In all the discussions about government vs private, the relative outcomes are focused upon. The true picture emerges if the absolute scores, measured on the questions of PISA standard are looked at. If students of  one group perform score 30% and others score 40%, they aren't of any significance in long term, though they might be significant statistically. The school education, especially the primary education is too crucial to settle down to the lower thresholds like 30% or 40%. This is the real elephant in the room that we should be more worried about.

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