Expectations from MHRD regarding school education

I have an article in Swarajya titled 'For the sake of schools'. This addresses the most debated and important question - What should the HRD ministry do regarding the ailing public school system?

Instructional time in Indian public schools compared to other countries

David Evans shared this excellent review of effects of increased school hours on learning outcomes. This graph on the comparison of instructional time (time spent on instruction) caught my attention.

The country with highest instructional time is Italy, with 1000+ hours. 

What is it for India? We don't have good data for this but we can get a close approximation. Prof. Karthik Muralidharan's paper on school choice collects data on instructional time of public schools in their sample [Table VII in Appendix]. As per this paper, public schools in their sample from the Andhra Pradesh state in India spend 1796.47 minutes per week on instruction. If we assume that the net academic year is of 8 months, this amounts to nearly 960 hours per year, close to 1000 hours.

With 1000 hours of instruction per year, India stands among the top in the list of countries, as per this metric. The irony being, India comes among the last in terms of outcomes.

Need for comprehensive approach to education

The narrative of education reform in India has seen many changes. After independence, there was a huge infrastructure deficit, which looked like a major uphill. The response to that was that we built schools to enable access. After doing it to a decent extent, we now realized that even though the schools are built, teachers aren't teaching. The paradigm has shifted and now the focus is on 'governance deficit'. 

Once the governance deficit is also resolved, the next problem could be standards of quality. After this is solved, the next one could be appropriate classroom procedures and pedagogical techniques. This can continue for long. 

If we take one generation each for solving each problem, then we might take long time to achieve the final outcome. The simple truth being, outcome is a function of infrastructure, access, governance, pedagogy and many others and the interlinking between them. I blogged earlier arguing for evaluating multiple interventions administered together, similar to the ultrapoor graduation approach. On the same lines, we should take a comprehensive approach to education by confronting all problems at a time. 

A comprehensive approach to education has primarily two benefits (solves two problems). The  first problem is that education reformers currently work in a fragmented approach. Pedagogues are working on the problem on their own, economists are working on their own, each exploring different strands. An integrated approach requires people of varied expertise, thus bringing everyone on a common platform. The second problem is that we don't understand yet understand the issues in education. There are individual issues and the issues arising from the interactions of multiple issues. An integrated approach would unpack this black box, throwing light onto these unknown issues. If not, we would realize these issues much later, losing lot of time. Even if there aren't no existing solutions to these newly found issues, it would at least enhance our understanding of the problems.

A comprehensive approach needs laser focus on the final outcome. Everything that is done should be part of a framework which as this outcome as the final goal.

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.

What are the indicators that a country (India) has developed?

The standard answer is 'GDP'. But, this doesn't give an intuitive sense of the change. Here are the few indicators that depict a country's development.
  1. People don’t see IAS as major path for public service: The narrative of 'implementing the policies well and to touch the lives of the poor' is still the most cited reason of IAS aspirants. You don't hear this in Japan or US. It is sad that even after 70 years, IAS still seems to be the major avenue for bringing change in India. This is partly because there is much left to do here and partly also because it isn’t possible to do much by being outside the system, due to rigid structures and opaqueness in policy making. Things are changing slowly but not to the desired extent.
  1. More people aspire to build products and companies than doing MBAs: The standard path to success (high paying jobs) in India is IIM, even after one goes to top rated undergraduate college. Lot of precious talent from across fields is opting for this path, the opportunity costs being huge for the nation. The students aren't to be blamed here because there are few promising venues outside. A country can be called as developed, when more people see solving problems by building products and companies as a promising career.
  1. More entrepreneurs than NGOs, development organizations, and research projects: Development problems are like a coiled thread. The knots gets complex as it is delayed. This will bring in NGOs, researchers etc. Where do you see scores of development researchers running field trials? US or Africa/India? Even in India, where are the majority field trials run? Bihar, Orissa and Rajasthan. This isn't to mean that one shouldn't carry out research. Special problems, special contexts demand special treatment, but their reduction is an indicator of improvement. In a developed country, one sees more entrepreneurs than NGOs and development organizations running their interventions.

How much rigor is 'rigorous'?

Once a reporter asked Richard Feynman, why do magnets of same poles repel? Feynman then goes on questioning, what does 'why' mean in his usual manner. Read the transcript below.

"Interviewer: If you get hold of two magnets, and you push them, you can feel this pushing between them. Turn them around the other way, and they slam together. Now, what is it, the feeling between those two magnets?
Feynman: What do you mean, "What's the feeling between the two magnets?"
Interviewer: There's something there, isn't there? The sensation is that there's something there when you push these two magnets together.
Feynman: Listen to my question. What is the meaning when you say that there's a feeling? Of course you feel it. Now what do you want to know?
Interviewer: What I want to know is what's going on between these two bits of metal?
Feynman: They repel each other.
Interviewer: What does that mean, or why are they doing that, or how are they doing that? I think that's a perfectly reasonable question.
Feynman: Of course, it's an excellent question. But the problem, you see, when you ask why something happens, how does a person answer why something happens? For example, Aunt Minnie is in the hospital. Why? Because she went out, slipped on the ice, and broke her hip. That satisfies people. It satisfies, but it wouldn't satisfy someone who came from another planet and who knew nothing about why when you break your hip do you go to the hospital. How do you get to the hospital when the hip is broken? Well, because her husband, seeing that her hip was broken, called the hospital up and sent somebody to get her. All that is understood by people. And when you explain a why, you have to be in some framework that you allow something to be true. Otherwise, you're perpetually asking why. Why did the husband call up the hospital? Because the husband is interested in his wife's welfare. Not always, some husbands aren't interested in their wives' welfare when they're drunk, and they're angry.

The effective form of teacher training

Teacher training is the mantra of all educationists. Numerous training programmes are run throughout the country every year, where thousands of teachers participate. Evidence suggests that these aren't effective. These are some times also interpreted as, teacher training isn't necessary, confusing theme of teacher training with the product, the way it is delivered. I call this as intra-hypothesis validity and blogged about this earlier here.

Teacher training is only a label. It can have several forms depending on the content, focus and delivery.

  1. Evocative coaching: This form of training aims to improve the motivation levels of teachers, reignite the passion for teaching, by talking through their problems, hearing them out and responding accordingly.

  2. Pedagogy: This includes ways of teaching a particular concept, accompanied by focus on the underlying philosophy. For example, peer group learning. A mere training on moralities of teaching a concept forming groups of peers, and encouraging learning isn't enough. The teacher should also have the belief that children can learn from each other.

  3. Understanding how children think: One of the important problems with most of our teachers is that they aren't trained to observe, how children think. All incorrect answers are put under one category, mistakes. However, the reason for doing something incorrectly differs from child to child. This form of training includes training teacher on doing granular diagnosis and accordingly giving customized treatment.

Bad policies or bad implementation?

When one wants to make something new, there are broadly two types of approaches that one can take.
  1. Start with extensive research, go on building each part with utmost care and finesse so that the end product is flawless.
  2. Make a quick prototype, minimum viable product, and then keep iterating.

The first approach is like doing a surgical operation. One has to be careful at every moment, each step has to be taken with extreme care. Let us call these as 'research tasks'. Quickly reaching the organ as soon as possible and then taking care of  things later, isn't an option. The mistakes here are costly. 

The second approach is like washing a mark off the shirt. One can quickly try and see which detergent works and get the job done. Let us call these as 'iterative tasks'. Instead if one sits down for in depth analysis of the chemical composition of the detergent, then it is an unnecessary and fruitless exercise. 

With these as the base, there are four categories in which a task can be done, depending on the categorization of the task and its implementation.

Comments on AAP's announcement of autonomy to schools

Arvind Kejriwal, Chief Minister of Delhi, met principals of all public schools in Delhi and made some important announcements/statements. [Link 1] [Link 2]

Key points from the talk
  1. "If we can impart better education then within one generation we can eradicate poverty, unemployment and can develop this city."
  2. There is only one parameter of model school, a government school in which we can send our kids. 
  3. Target is to make Delhi government schools better than private schools in five years.
  4. All school principals to prepare a blueprint to improve their schools.
  5. Principals who can achieve the target will get a hefty amount of double increment as performance allowance each month for a year.
  6. Top 10 performing principals and teachers will be sent to foreign countries for exchange programme and training.
  7. "The government will provide resources, autonomy and powers and in return the principals should ensure a better future for 16 lakh school children of Delhi."
  8. "Health, Education and Anti Corruption are the prime focus areas of our government"
  9. Demonstration of serious commitment to the quality of education, making it the top priority and actually working on it with a timeline in mind.


Attributing accountability: In the status quo - who is responsible/accountable for the education of the child? Teachers? Principals? District level officials? Government? The answer isn't clear. As Bibek Debroy mentions, the situation is same in railways too. Who is responsible for the railway station? Contrary to the belief that it is 'station master', it turns out, it is none! Station master has limited powers. Such systems are ripe for alibis.

In this context, it is good to note that, at least someone identifiable is being made responsible, the principals. Of course, along with the necessary powers, autonomy and resources.

Fixing accountability instead of schemes: I believe, most attempts till date have taken the approach of grand schemes. For the first time, an attempt is being made to approach the problem by trying to fix the core governance issue of fixing accountability.

Parental Choice in Education bill in New York

New York Governor Coumo is proposing a new bill for parental choice in education. The highlights of this bill include
  1. Up to $500 in tax credits for low-income families who send their children to nonpublic and out-of-district schools
  2. $50 million in tax credits to individuals and businesses that donate funds to nonprofits offering scholarships to low-income students attending nonpublic schools.
  3. $20 million in incentives to public schools offering enhanced educational programming, such as after-school programs.
  4. Tax credits of up to $200 for public school teachers who purchase classroom supplies.
Couple of observations on this.
  1. It is interesting to note that, a school student is also part of the campaign team. An 8th grader gives an emotional speech in this video, explaining as to why this provision would be important to him and his family.

Danger of bringing public subsidies into purely private school system

Jishnu Das's recent paper called A Pragmatic Framework for Improving Educationin Low-Income Countries makes these interest comments.

More perniciously, there is a pervasive danger that once public subsidies are brought into the purely private system, the political economy of countries with poor schooling capacity will generate worse outcomes. In India for instance, there is a long-standing tradition of “grant-in-aid” schools that function with public subsidies, usually on land leases. Performance data tend to show little difference between the functioning of these schools and pure public schools; it’s the private sector that receives zero public subsidies where performance is higher on tested subjects. 
After the education is made for profit, as the private market in school education gains prominence, regulation of this market and design of the subsidies, vouchers or others, is going to be very critical.

Without a high standard benchmark for education, the quality in school education might hit a roof, without having any external incentive to push themselves. Reforming board examination system and bringing its quality upto high standard international end-of-school assessments, is also going to play major role in this.

Ultrapoor graduation approach for education

The recent paper in Science magazine on the evaluation an anti poverty programme, famous called ultrapoor graduation has become very famous. The abstract says
Working in six countries with an international consortium, we investigate whether a multifaceted Graduation program can help the extreme poor establish sustainable self-employment activities and generate lasting improvements in their well-being. The program targets the poorest members in a village and provides a productive asset grant, training and support, life skills coaching, temporary cash consumption support, and typically access to savings accounts and health information or services. In each country, the program was adjusted to suit different contexts and cultures, while staying true to the same overall principles. This multi pronged approach is relatively expensive, but the theory of change is that the combination of these activities is necessary and sufficient to obtain a persistent impact. We do not test whether each of the program dimensions is individually necessary. Instead, we examine the “sufficiency” claim: A year after the conclusion of the program, and 3 years after the asset transfer, are program participants earning more income and achieving stable improvements in their well-being.
The important aspect of this programme is an integrated or holistic approach to address poverty. To bring a person out of poverty, one intervention focusing on a specific aspect isn't often enough. One needs to focus on all the constraints. I have earlier blogged on the piecemeal approach to solve a problem, and why it needn't result in results. Gulzar Natarajan also blogged here explaining the nuances of necessary vs sufficient conditions. 

This brings us to the question, can we do such graduation approach experiment in education too? Currently, the approach to education reform is very segmented, doing one thing at a time. However, from the perspective of child, all the necessary factors need to be place for him to be able to learn.

We can consider the following aspects for a graduation approach in education.

  1. Basic infrastructure, including toilets etc
  2. Parental education: This includes educating them about the returns to education. Evidence from Dominican Republic
  3. Teach at Right Level: Evidence from India, Kenya
  4. Training on understanding students difficulties, providing diagnostic feedback: Evidence from India
  5. Child health and nutrition: Evidence from India, deworming.
  6. Reducing barriers in access and other materials: Evidence from India
  7. Counseling to children, role models, aspirations: Evidence from Madagascar
  8. Income support to family so that they don't lose a part of their income by sending children to school.
  9. Motivational training to teachers, to rekindle the flame of energy.
  10. Community participation in school administration
There are other aspects like autonomy to schools to hire and fire teachers, changes in curriculum and so on, but these issues are to be dealt at a higher level and require change of rules and regulations. It may not be feasible to get them changed for the sake of experiment.

Can we pack the above ten together into a mega intervention? This, I believe would be a better way to approach the problem of low learning outcomes.

How did BRAC succeed without evaluations?

Bangladesh Rehabiliation Assistance Committee famously known as BRAC is an NGO in Bangladesh, known for its initiatives in diverse areas of finance, education, health etc. Economist has to say this on BRAC. 

On its scale
BRAC began life distributing emergency aid in a corner of eastern Bangladesh after the war of independence. It is now the largest NGO in the world by the number of employees and the number of people it has helped (three-quarters of all Bangladeshis have benefited in one way or another). 
On its success
In the 1980s it sent out volunteers to every household in the country showing mothers how to mix salt, sugar and water in the right proportions to rehydrate a child suffering from diarrhoea. This probably did more to lower child mortality in the country than anything else. BRAC and the government jointly ran a huge programme to inoculate every Bangladeshi against tuberculosis. BRAC’s primary schools are a safety net for children who drop out of state schools. BRAC even has the world’s largest legal-aid programme: there are more BRAC legal centres than police stations in Bangladesh.

Attacking the policy problem from the wrong side?

"The famous deworming experiment showed that it increased students' attendance. Hence, let us deworm the children to increase attendance." This is a general argument made by many. Prof Deepak Lal questioned this approach. He says "If the students have worms, well first treat for worms. Making the 'increase in attendance' as a primary motive for deworming is attacking the problem at the wrong end."

This is an interesting argument. Irrespective of whether deworming increases or decreases the school attendance, we should first treat the children for worms, because they aren't good for child's health. In that case, why should you do an RCT at all, if you have to anyway deworm the children? Well, to find out its side effects, and to find out the truth in hypothesis that worms are the main constraint for the students attendance!