Channels to contribute to education reform - Ensuring a Learning India S6 E.009

[42nd post in the 'Ensuring a Learning India' series. 42 posts in total. One post per day. 0 more to go]

After all the discussion above, the obvious question to ask is – how can I contribute towards the school education reform? This can be approached in two ways – (i) what is needed? (ii) What is that I can do?

What is needed? -  

Reforming any sector is similar to treating an ailing patient. The nature and intensity of treatment depends on the nature of the ailment. In medicine, we have broadly four approaches - (i) Shock Therapy – a short, intense external stimulus given to a patient; (ii) Physiotherapy – low intensity, repeated exercise to strengthen certain body parts; (iii) Surgery – short but requiring high skill and intensity.

The required reforms can also be categorized similarly depending on the nature of efforts required to advocate and implement them.

(i) Shock therapy reforms are the one time-go reforms where one is advocating for the enactment of a new or for amending a particular rule/law. One can advocate for these by being outside the system and get them done by persuasion or pressurizing. Policies like RTI, Lokpal etc. come under this category.

(ii) Reforms requiring physiotherapy approach are those about deepening the procedures. These can be boring, time taking, have no visibility of immediate outcomes, require regularity and patience and can only be done by those inside the governance system. Just like physiotherapy, the net effect of all these will be visible only after certain time, conditional upon the long term practice. Improving the efficiency of systems and changing the culture of an organization best suit this category.

(iii) Reforms requiring surgical approach are those which require high degree of skill to carefully handle the systems to bring them back to the correct position, at the risk of putting the system on hold for certain time. Drafting regulations and laws and other aspects needing technical skill come under this category.

At times, there is an overlap between (ii) and (iii), as one has to amend the regulations but the necessary loopholes and constraints are known when they are in implementation. At any given point of time, required reforms can be in all these three categories and a particular reform can be in any of these categories at different points of time. Depending on the nature of reform that one is convinced about and their skill set, they can choose any of the three paths above.

This framework helps us to put things in perspective. If one is sensitive to a particular problem, the first question to be asked is - What should be done to fix this? If one has a broad idea or pointers to this question's answer, it is useful to think - Is my idea a shock therapy or a physiotherapy or surgical in nature? This helps one to chalk out the strategy for advocacy and also sometimes useful in choosing the career path and so on. In case of education, as of now, since the critical constraint is weak state capacity, second and third categories are prominent, while there are some major reforms of first category. The problem being, even if one advocates for a law and a change in regulation, it again falls back to second and third category, weak implementation capacity, which is the critical constraint.

The Ten Commandments for school education reform in India - Ensuring a Learning India S6 E.008

[41st post in the 'Ensuring a Learning India' series. 41 posts in total. One post per day. 1 more to go]

Vinod Khosla in one of his talks says that leadership is about having an internal compass. One needs to a clear vision of goal and a sense of direction to be able to take decisions in complex situations, else one might just succumb to outside pressure and do what is being asked for instead of doing what is needed. What can be that internal compass for a decision maker in school education?

I. Learning outcomes is the end-goal – One must be clear that learning outcomes is the primary end goal. Everything else should be seen as part of the process of achieving this goal. It looks obvious but it isn’t in reality. It is easy for us to mistake efforts for results, activity for progress and thus become complacent, thus.  If we don’t focus on it, we will end up doing many things but with little effect on the learning outcomes.

II. Weak governance capacity is the critical constraint currently – One must note that weak governance capacity is the critical constraint in public school education currently. If not, it is easy to be misled by other superficial visible issues.

III. Change in education is a long-term process - It might take at least the next 10 years, even if we get everything right. We should act accordingly and not expect to see results in short term.

IV. Comprehensive approach to change - There are broadly five different aspects to education reform. 

  1. Economics of education: How much money is spent? How efficiently is it spent?
  2. Governance: Aspects related to accountability, performance, and infrastructure.
  3. Pedagogy: How do you teach a particular concept? What are the problems that students face? How does one assess a child’s learning?
  4. Sociology: What is the purpose of education? Is it about making better citizens? Is it just about building skills?
  5. Politics of education: Dealing with teacher unions, and other political challenges associated with reforms. 
The initiatives should be spread across all the above five categories. Education is interlinked to several other areas and is a complex function of different sectors. It is important to recognize that the child's health (physical and mental), poverty, perception of value of education etc. also have significant impact on the system. We have to win all these battles to ensure the final victory.

V. Not everything needs to be done by the union or state government - Addressing a problem needn't necessarily be done always through a union or state government. Centrally designed schemes needn't always work.

VI. Close the feedback loop - Often, we aim to design the perfect policy in theory but forget to look at it in action. It is useful to review the initiatives regularly, continuously reiterate the initiative through continuous assessment.

VII. Don't let the best be the enemy of good, play as per your capacity - It is desirable to aspire and achieve high standards but one should act as per current capacity (state capacity should also be a factor in prioritizing policies). Else, we may end up achieving neither the high goals nor the basic ones. Prioritize as per the situation of state capacity. Some initiatives which are good for contexts of weak state capacity needn't be so for contexts of strong state capacity and vice-versa.

VIII. Differentiate between necessary and sufficient conditions - A teacher training alone might not work and similarly the other initiatives. Along with teacher education, a whole range of factors have to work to see improvement in learning outcomes and other results. It is very important to keep this in mind while interpreting evidence and prioritizing policies.

IX. Teachers are partners in the change making process - Most of the blame of our education system is put on teachers. But, it needn't be so. One should make them part of change making process rather than approaching them with a presumption that they are guilty and need to be punished.

X. Engage actively with the non-government initiatives – While the end-goal is to improve learning outcomes, it needn’t mean that government should do everything. It can ensure the same results but with others actively implementing (public funding vs. public provision). Others who are contributing to achieve this end goal should be viewed as partners and be given scope and enabling environment to contribute.

Other important problems - Ensuring a Learning India S6 E.007

[40th post in the 'Ensuring a Learning India' series. 42 posts in total. One post per day. 2 more to go]

The education diagnostics map is a visual form to represent linkages between different aspects of education. The invisible layer behind it responsible for holding everything together and functioning of these can be called as state capacity. A significant section of this series deals with state capacity and laid out strategies to strengthen the state capacity. Once the state capacity is strengthened and while it is in the process of strengthening, it is also important to use it to address the problems. One can pick up all the different aspects in this map (and those which are missing) and work on them. Within each of these aspects, there are specific problems. Listing each of these individual problems and an in-depth analysis of those is beyond the scope of this series. However, this section highlights some of these problems. The idea is again not to prescribe any solutions but to highlight the issue and discuss relevant evidence if any.

Miscellaneous ideas - Ensuring a Learning India S6 E.006

[39th post in the 'Ensuring a Learning India' series. 42 posts in total. One post per day. 3 more to go]

The previous section detailed framework for school education reform and some action points regarding the same. This section lists down few other things that the government could do, in addition to those. There isn’t any empirical basis for these ideas but definitely there is a need and would be worth trying.

  1. Appoint Chief Evaluation Officer and Chief Data Scientist -  Chief Data Scientist and Chief Evaluation Officer will be together responsible for building data systems, procuring and maintain necessary data, assist districts in evaluating some of their initiatives and share inputs for policy making.
  2. Guest lectures in schools – Children love new people in school. Renowned personalities or alumnus can be invited to share thoughts with students, give them guidance and advice etc.
  3. Connecting old students to teachers – Seeing successful students is one of the best forms of satisfaction for a teacher. A simple platform could be built where old students can request details of their teacher and both can be connected.
  4. Chief Minister or District Collector or public representatives meeting teachers regularly – This can be done once in a month where group of teachers get to meet these people and share their thoughts, concerns etc. This can give sense of empowerment to teachers.
  5. Influential people teaching part-time in schools – This can increase the societal value associated with the teaching profession.
  6. Exchange of teachers - Either teachers from other schools for short durations, 1 or 2 days, for a change and also to exchange best practices.
  7. Tie up with junior colleges (+2) for admitting high performing students from public schools – This is to give launch pad to hard working children to get into good undergraduate colleges.
  8. Remaking brand image of government schools – Public schools have a bad image associated with them. A small sort of marketing or PR campaign to rebuild the image of public schools.
  9. Data base of health metrics – Similar to learning outcomes, health metrics of all children can be tracked.
  10. Dashboard with schools and their facilities – A clear dashboard showing the status of infrastructure and other details of school. Volunteers can update these details based on their visits. The idea is to ensure all facilities in a time bound manner so that the attention can be focused on other areas.
  11. Involve university students as volunteers to encourage enrolments in secondary school – Information on returns to education and convincing parents to send their students to school, especially in secondary schools and marginalized communities can be valuable. University students in towns and cities can be involved
  12. Felicitate parents – This is to increase societal value to education and encourage parents.

Framework for school education reform in India - Ensuring a Learning India S6 E.005

[38th post in the 'Ensuring a Learning India' series. 42 posts in total. One post per day. 4 more to go]

This section builds a framework for school education reform in India. In previous sections, we have discussed many issues and possible solutions, then why this? Though it is necessary to know the issues, possible approaches for solutions, it is equally important to look at all of them from a broader perspective, fitting them in to a framework. This gives us a sense of ‘why’, and help us work in the inter linkages of each. As evident, most of the individual aspects mentioned in this sections are discussed elsewhere above where context, evidence and the questions of why & how are answered there. Hence I am assuming that the reader of this section has a background of this.

At times, it appears that the perennial debates on school education reform are struck in a low level and dangerous yet comfortable equilibrium. The public schools aren’t being effective and we don’t seem to have ways to fix them at least in short term but then we don’t want to rely on private schools either. We are in a comfortable situation saying – public schools don’t work and private schools don’t work. Teachers have perfect alibi systems – infrastructure, unmotivated students and parents have perfect alibi – unmotivated and irregular teachers. Any initiative to incentivize students to propel themselves is met with a criticism of pressure on students and any initiative to make teachers accountable is met with criticisms of teaching to the test etc. In contexts of weak state capacity like ours, too much autonomy can turn out to be ineffective but then any efforts to standardize certain procedures are resisted arguing that teaching students isn’t equivalent to producing goods in an assembly line.

In these perennial debates, we neither seem to know how to fix this system nor are we trying out anything. It’s a sad state of pessimistic equilibrium - pessimism about the state of education system and pessimism about the ideas, leading to excessive analysis and paralysis of action. It appears as if Sir Humphrey Appleby of the famous Yes Minister series is manifested in all of us, ensuring that enough hurdles are put so that the status quo is maintained. (Yes Minister is a popular British comedy TV series where Sir Humphrey Appleby is a bureaucrat to a minister. He is known for his bureaucratic arguments and stalling everything that the minister wants to do.)

The opportunity costs of such low-level equilibrium status quo situation are higher. We obviously can’t afford it and we have to do something about it. So, what should be done about it? An obvious guess to this question is – go for a middle path. We need to mend the following approaches in our debates in order to be able to find a middle path.

One, we should stop looking at everything as ‘either or’ situation. If girl students are given bicycles to increase access to secondary schools then the argument is, ‘Oh, but that doesn’t result in outcomes and nothing is being done about teacher absence or pedagogy etc’. Giving bicycles doesn’t mean that others aren’t being done. We need both.

Two, we need to judge initiatives by appropriate. Just like listening to a teacher needn’t improve nutrition, giving nutritious food needn’t improve the subject knowledge. So, instead of arguing that schemes like mid-day meals don’t improve outcomes and hence are useless, one should better ask if midday meals affect enrollments or improve nutrition of children etc. When everything is a necessary condition, all of them can’t be judged by learning outcomes alone. In the absence of effects on learning outcomes, the intermediate effects are the better metrics to be judged up on.

Three, we should stop looking at every initiative as possibly helping everyone. Some argue, intrinsic motivation is needed to learn through technology tools and hence can’t help every student. It’s fine if technology isn’t able to help non-intrinsically motivated students but at least it is bettering the situation of the motivated students. At least, let these kids take an advantage of it. We always keep saying that there aren’t no silver bullets but often forget when comes to judging interventions. This world isn’t in a perfectly ordered state where one intervention or product can be effective everywhere. It is inform of clusters and these products can be effective for some clusters and hence we should let these products better the condition of these clusters and not reject them because they aren’t helping every cluster.

Four, instead of endlessly listing negatives of every idea or dismissing the possibility of negative effects we should acknowledge the genuine negative effects and see if there are ways to cushion them. The typical response to any new idea is to comment on, why it won’t work and the possible hurdles. These turn out to be reasons to reject the ideas. Theoretically, one can give an endless list of hurdles and negative aspects for every idea and in environment of excessive analysis and paralysis of action; it is easy to strike down every idea due to theoretical concerns, some of which may be true and some may not be. On the other hand, the proponents of the idea dismiss every possibility of a negative effect. This also fixes us in another low level dangerous equilibrium. The solution here is not to accept every idea but to intelligently categorize the concerns. In simple words, doing a cost vs. benefit analysis instead of a just cost analysis. If the idea is worth trying out, then we should acknowledge the genuine concerns and think of possible ways to cushion the negative effects instead of burying down the idea due to theoretical concerns.

Hoping that this will at least resolve some part of the dead-lock and budge the status quo, let’s return to our framework. In a detailed discussion over multiple sections, we have realized that weak state capacity is the critical constraint in Indian public school system, as of today. This can be the anchor node for our reform framework. This state capacity can be again defined in several ways – the capability to implement policies, the intent to implement (having capability isn’t enough, one should also have the intent) and the much broader definition being, the capability to identify issues and address them. In whichever way we use it, our framework will be built with this as the anchor node.
Recognizing that weak state capacity is one of the major hurdles. Figuring out what to do about are the next. We then discussed the concept of iterative adaptation and the necessity of focus and execution to successfully implement a policy.

Lessons from evaluations - Ensuring a Learning India S6 E.004

[37th post in the 'Ensuring a Learning India' series. 42 posts in total. One post per day. 5 more to go]

The previous section summarized our discussion till now. In this section, before moving on to build a framework for reform, it is useful to once again recollect the lessons learnt from evaluations[viii]. This will help us prioritize right sets of policies.

All the caveats of evaluations mentioned in section 3.2 apply here. The important one being necessary vs. sufficient conditions. If an evaluation doesn’t show any impact, it necessarily doesn’t mean that that policy should be discontinued. It only means that we may do it but shouldn’t be prioritized in the precious limited discourse bandwidth. For example, if spending on infrastructure doesn’t lead to outcomes, it doesn’t mean that classrooms shouldn’t be renovated or better facilities be provided at the school. It just says that these may be the essential things to be done but one shouldn’t stop by merely providing this, thinking that lots of money and efforts have been put. It also shouldn’t be given priority in the policy discourse. We just need to move onto exploring other things.

The second important caveat being external validity. Some argue that evaluations in one context aren’t necessarily applicable in other contexts. It is true that the outcomes of the intervention may vary across the context, if you just look at the final metric. However, the information on mechanism of impacts can be valuable which can be used across contexts. For example, the evaluation outcome may say that distributing free textbooks may not result in increase in test scores but it may also say that textbooks increased scores of only top 10% children in test score distributions. This suggests that students who already have the ability to read are able to take advantage of the books but others aren’t able to.

If one reads the list of interventions and the results in table format, it may seem obvious and may not seem much useful but one should see it from the perspective of a person inferring data to make policy decisions. The intention of the person is to identify issues and prescribe or act on them. Suppose you are looking at DISE data and find out that there are only 3 teachers per primary school in India (let’s say), the immediate instinct is to say that there are less number of teachers and hence you need more teachers. You get convinced that this is the critical constraint and put all your efforts in recruiting teachers and ensuring that there is adequate number of teachers. It is very much necessary. Of course, who disagrees that there should be at least one teacher per class? After few years, you may end up realizing that this didn’t improve the situation. Similarly, if you visit a school and find that students don’t have text books. You again get convinced that this is the critical constraint and then put all your efforts in ensuring textbooks but you may again end up realizing that this didn’t improve outcomes.

Does that mean that teachers shouldn’t be appointed and textbooks shouldn’t be given? They should be done by all means. The difference here is, whether you consider it as a constraint or critical constraint. If you consider this as a critical constraint, you prioritize it over everything else, devote all your energies, and occupy the precious discourse bandwidth but not improving the outcomes. If you consider it just a constraint you will do it but you wouldn’t focus all your energies on that, you would also explore other root causes and address them. It is easier said than done because visible deficiencies tend to have more effect than the invisible root causes. So, how does one distinguish a constraint and a critical constraint? Data or evaluations help us. The results of evaluation presented below should be looked at from this perspective. 

Recap of issues, nuances and solutions - Ensuring a Learning India S6 E.003

[36th post in the 'Ensuring a Learning India' series. 42 posts in total. One post per day. 6 more to go]

Excerpts from The Education Commission gave us a sense of the problems at that point of time and the progress that we have made till now.  In five themes, we have discussed the status of school education in India as of today, constraints, nuances of issues and some possible solutions. This section recaps this entire discussion, before we move onto discuss a framework for school education reform in India.

The status of learning levels in Indian schools today isn’t encouraging as reported by ASER and other independent studies. More than half of class 5 students of rural India can’t read class 2 text and around 20% students of class 2 can’t recognize numbers. The longitudinal tracking of students suggests that in a typical grade 5 classroom in a government school, 90% students are below the grade level and that 50% of grade 5 students are still at the learning levels of first standard. DISE statistics show that there are still infrastructural gaps remaining to be bridged in public schools. PROBE and Inside Primary schools report that teachers in public schools weren’t actively engaged in teaching activities during their visits. Teachers reported illiterate and unmotivated parents, large classroom sizes, lack of recognition etc. as some of their constraints.

Let us first start the exploration of reasons behind this starting from the classroom. In a typical classroom, teachers teach to an assumed average of the class. They are under pressure to complete syllabus in specified time rather than ensuring learning. Such fast curricular pacing leaves behind students who can’t follow these are permanently left behind, especially in the absence of remedial support. Some studies suggest that all the observed learning differences between poor performing OECD countries could be accounted for only by an overly accelerated curriculum in poor countries – even if the countries have exactly the same potential learning. We can address this by changing the monitoring procedures of teachers – de focusing on syllabus completion, reducing the syllabus in lower grades and easing the criteria for transition between the classes, and teaching to the level of the children. Teaching to the level of children showed encouraging results in several field evaluations but there are operational challenges in implementing it; ease of implementation of the pedagogical process, extent of required teachers’ efforts, teacher belief that students can learn from each other, acceptance in our society that it is ok to learn slowly being some of those.

Teaching to the level of the students needs tools to know the level of student (granular diagnosis) and to help them with their learning difficulties (customized remediation). The conceptions and difficulties faced regarding the same concept may vary across students. This requires assessments designed to test students’ understanding, famously called as formative and summative assessments, which further requires augmenting teachers’ skill to design question papers and frame questions.

Technology can play a great role in administering these diagnostic assessments, which can decipher students’ difficulties based on their responses, thus easing teachers’ load. Traditionally, technology in classrooms is being used to either streamline the administrative functions or to display animations and simulations using smart boards. It is time to focus on the aspects of technology which assist in the learning process of children. Integrating technology in classrooms has been a great challenge, either the teachers aren’t tech savvy, or they believe that students can’t learn through technology, or that technology is perceived to be as a replacement to teachers, increasing the mistrust.

A successful technology tool requires appropriate content, pedagogy and integration in classroom. Most investments made in technology today are on the infrastructure side, with the pedagogy, content and integration in classroom remaining as constraints. The IT equipment being durable goods are damaged after some point of time leading to wastage of resources, thus increasing the skepticism towards the investment in ICT tools. The success of a technology depends on its pedagogy and content, which have numerous possible variants. Thus, the evaluations on ICT tools also can’t shed more light on the macro impact of technology in education.

First generation learners may need after-class academic support, to help them address their difficulties. This has traditionally been through private tuition centers; with around 24% of primary school students in India attending these centers and in states like West Bengal, it is as high as 74%. Evidence suggests that the role of these centers is encouraging, in addressing learning needs of the children. This after-class support system should be accessible to all students so that they don’t fall behind the curriculum. This can be done either in the regular setting of schools by appointing assistant teachers whose mandate is to take of students with remedial needs or by providing vouchers to these students who can use them to attend centers outside the school. Appointing assistant teachers has an advantage that, they can work closely with regular teachers and can be monitored. Along with the usual cited benefits of choice and competition of vouchers, this can be an interesting way to bring innovation into teaching pedagogies, by encouraging outsiders to be part of the system, which usually doesn’t happen.

Absence of teachers and lack of their efforts, low motivation of students etc., are often cited as problems in the public education system. The elite private schools don’t have these issues yet their learning levels aren’t encouraging when compared with international standards. One of the reasons is the low standards of expectations of the system from our students, which set the bar for an average school. Typical board examinations today are known for questions that test memory and rote learning and not real understanding of concepts. These board examinations serve as one of the signals for the expectations of system from students, and also as a signal of students’ capability. As of today, they aren’t doing a good job regarding both. Thus there is a need to reform our board examinations and increase their standards. A single exam however cannot do both the jobs of testing minimum competencies and identifying students with good understanding. Hence, the board exam for each subject can be administered in two parts – basic and advanced, with students having an option to choose for one of these for each subject. Thus, one student can choose advanced version in English but basic version in Math and so on. The basic level version of these exams shouldn’t be below today’s standards, which ensures that students in new system are better than today’s system even if someone chooses basic version in all subjects.

Before moving into the macro issues of school education, we discussed the pitfalls in translating observations into policy. We tend to give disproportionate weightage to those visible to the naked eye, lack of infrastructure, textbooks etc. All these are necessary and are to be done but we are operating under constraints of limited discourse bandwidth. Discourse bandwidth the space available for issues in a particular sector. When we prioritize these issues over other important core fundamental issues, we are delaying the reform process. Randomized evaluations serve as an important guiding light in determining these priorities. The other pitfall is to copy the visible features of other contexts. A fox doesn’t turn into a tiger by getting stripes painted on its body, similarly, merely copying features of other contexts, doesn’t necessarily address the root causes, and can consume the precious discourse bandwidth. The last important point to remember in the debates on policy is to identify the reference frame of frames – this reference frame can be differences in morality, philosophy, the metric being used, the priority being given and so on.

Using cross-country evidence, we discussed that state capacity is one of the important factors determining the learning outcomes of a country. Several studies have shown that in India, regular  teachers perform well outside the system, low paid and under qualified teachers perform as good as regular teachers in the existing system, programs successful outside tend to fail when implemented in the regular system, and there are administrative inefficiencies in fund flow etc. All of these suggest that weak state capacity is the critical constraint in Indian school education system, the ability to implement the policies. Infrastructure, contract teachers, low teacher pay and lack of passionate people are cited as critical constraints which are proven not to be so by several studies. It is time we don’t prioritize this over others saving the precious discourse bandwidth to the core issue of weak state capacity.

Fast pacing of curriculum, text books not being at the level of learning of students etc. are all serious problems but the fundamental question is – why do these problems exist and why haven’t they changed? The reason is the weak state capacity which fails to identify and address the issues.

Fukuyama suggested a framework to think about state capacity and autonomy. He says that, to be effective, one can take a rule-based approach (less autonomy) in contexts with state capacity. As the state capacity increases, more autonomy can be given which will in turn also help in quick resolution of problems and addressing the problems in customized manner.

We then discussed the concept of learning by doing or iterative adaptation, continuously iterating adapting to the changing circumstances. Any idea is as good as its execution. Successful execution of an idea requires focus, skill to perform the task, incentive or motivation to perform and continuously iterate and adapt till the problem is solved (iterative adaptation). When people are overloaded with multiple tasks then they tend to manage the situation by only addressing the urgent issues and prevent the worst from happening in each of those, rather than trying to excel in each of those. In a typical bureaucratic structure, new schemes that have to be implemented pile up on the responsibilities of the officials and over time they are overloaded with multiple tasks, which leads to lack of iterative adaptation. Thus, we need supporting expert structures to perform the tasks and the bureaucrats to only monitor them to induce pressure to perform. This can be done either within the organization or by outsourcing the tasks to others.

We then applied the principles of autonomy vs. capacity and iterative adaptation in understanding the issues in imparting critical thinking or scientific temper in students. The first level of debate is that there is lack of recognition of these skills in curriculum, teaching practices and lack of incentive for schools to do this. These are definitely the problems but the lack of recognition and not addressing suggests it is a problem of weak state capacity. We discussed that teaching concepts using methods of scientific enquiry require lot of autonomy to teachers to address students’ queries of varying nature and adapt accordingly. In contexts of weak state capacity, giving such autonomy isn’t effective as discussed in Fukuyama’s framework. On the other hand, such tasks can’t also be handled by mandating rules. This depicts a classic complexity of situations in systems of weak state capacity where tasks which require autonomy are to be executed. One may change the curriculum and suggest teaching practices but weak state capacity is the core of the problem and hence strengthening this should be the first priority, if we want to instill these qualities on scale.

Referring Justice Verma’s report on teaching training and education, we then discussed that lack of alignment with teachers’ needs and trainings, lack of ongoing support, and lack of long term vision for teachers’ training are some of the core issues in current in-service teacher trainings. These are symptoms of lack of iterative adaptation. We have tried to do this since years through government systems and hence it is now time to involve external agencies in imparting teacher training. Districts of groups of schools below that level can be given appropriate funds and they can use that to get training as per their needs. Some broad terms and aspects of required training can be specified, if required.

We then discussed the issue of teacher incentives. Incentives to teachers are generally classified into monetary and non-monetary categories. We discussed that monetary incentives are complex and tricky. Studies in Africa and US found that when a school is given money to be given as incentives as per performance, then they distributed the money evenly, which in the end didn’t result in any increase in outcomes. On the other hand, incentive systems which gave money based on increase in relative performance of school amongst all other schools also weren’t impactful. Some of the probable reasons could be that the incentives weren’t enough; teachers didn’t know the amount of efforts that they have to put in to be able to get incentive, and many other issues. Study in India which incentivized increase in performance of students over their own baseline scores showed impact.  The issue with this approach being, teachers with students who have high baseline scores are at disadvantage as there isn’t much scope for them to improve. There are also other issues of teachers’ cheating in the exam, not allowing low performing students to take the exam so that the averages go up etc. which are associated with monetary incentives for performance. This can be implemented but should be with high caution and care, and should ensure that precious discourse bandwidth isn’t wasted in debating on the criteria for incentives and dealing the political ramifications.

Coming to the non-monetary incentives, we discussed that one of the best ways to incentivize or motivate teachers is to address the issues that they perceive as problems. As several qualitative studies document, teachers feel the strong need for recognition of their efforts. The unique feature of public teacher service is that there are a maximum of 2-3 promotions in their entire service of 30-35 years which isn’t an ideal situation. Increasing the intermediary levels can be considered as one of the options. Innovative teachers can be rewarded with points which can be used during their transfers; teachers with highest points will be at the top of the list and can get vacancies of their choice. Other possible ways to recognize and encourage teachers’ efforts can be explored.

The issues of pedagogy, administration, teacher training and incentives give us a framework to think about school and teacher autonomy. Decentralization is traditionally argued on the basis of rights of local communities over resources and efficiency. Many arguments regarding the autonomy debates in education are regarding the ease and efficiency.

There are studies which suggest that giving autonomy in contexts of weak state capacity affects negatively, but most of it is due to autonomy in curriculum. This suggests that the aspects to decentralize should be done with caution. Other studies also suggest that if teachers act as a union use this autonomy to reduce their work load, then it affects students negatively. However, there is no other better solution. As discussed, since many tasks require autonomy and iterative adaptation, they are best done locally. When the required autonomy is fixed, increasing state capacity is the only way out. In such situations, decentralized approach in same context will be better or as good as compared to the centralized approach in the same context.

The decision to decide aspects that need to be decentralized have to be taken considering the context, need, state capacity etc. The Education Commission, 1966 had recommended for district and municipal boards. It’s time to actively debate this again. There are certain aspects that can certainly be decentralized.

Teacher training programs – we discussed that the issue with existing teacher training programs is lack of iterative adaptation. This is best addressed by devolving it to the appropriate level. Teacher recruitment and transfers – in some states, teachers are allocated as per home districts and transfers also take place at district level. However, the notification for recruitment and transfers should come from state level for all districts at same time. This leads to inefficiencies and delays. Other aspects like procurement of materials and printing of textbooks can also be devolved to the district level.

The traditional approach to reform schools has been through a fragmented approach of one at a time – infrastructure, teacher training, assessments etc. However, school is the basic unit of operating in the education structure. The problems and hence the development of school have to be seen as a unit to address the situation effectively. This needs autonomy on part of schools to be able to take certain decisions. In aspects that need economies of scale and hence certain amount of centralization is necessary, they can be done accordingly but ensuring that school specific concerns are addressed and the required services aren’t delayed. In other aspects where we feel that there might not be adequate capacity at lower levels to take decisions on those, such as curriculum design etc. the defaults can be given for teachers who want to use them, and then those who prefer to change can be given autonomy to do so.

We then discussed the pre-requisites for autonomy – need for assessments, careful evaluation of aspects that have to be decentralized, norms of decentralization, effective fund flows. We also discussed studies where community based accountability wasn’t effective even after giving information on children’s learning and organizing meetings. Thus, it is better for us to expect only straight forward tasks of ensuring attendance and other aspects and not to rely for all aspects.

We then discussed the need to legalize for-profit private schools in order to reduce entry barriers, so as to increase choice and competition. We then discussed various philosophical arguments on vouchers from proponents and opponents. We then discussed the evidence on global experience regarding vouchers. The global experience is mixed, and in general it is observed that vouchers didn’t turn out to be a reliable way to improve the system as a whole but it helped certain subgroups in certain contexts. Design of voucher scheme – the value of voucher, restrictions on private schools, expectations of system from vouchers, reliable metrics etc. are crucial for the success of any voucher program. In the context of India, we discussed the need for vouchers from the perspective of rights of children – right to education shouldn’t be a right to public education alone, need to re phrase the benefits of vouchers - instead of arguing that it helps the entire system, we should see it as an approach that can work on some contexts and such sub groups should be let to have that opportunity, easing financial stress on parents, and finally it can help some good not for profit schools which are being shut down due to lack of funds.

We also discussed certain costraints that are to be worked upon. In the context of India, we need to reduce entry barriers by allowing for-profit private schools, easing infrastructural norms and have reliable assessment systems, and autonomy to public schools to be able to compete with private schools, in order to make the voucher program successful. We also discussed that due to informational asymmetries, schools can settle in a lower level equilibrium even in the presence of choice and competition. Hence, there is a need to set appropriate standards signaling the expectations from the system. Reforming board examination systems is one of the ways to do that.

We also discussed there is significant political economy associated with the decision of voucher program, it also needs additional costs because majority of expenditure on education today goes towards teacher salaries which isn’t fungible, and due to low-risk approach of our policy makers. In such situations, the second best way to ensure this is to demand autonomy for public schools, train teachers of low-cost private schools (vouchers can be one idea), and implement after-school support systems in form of vouchers to fine tune the implementation systems of vouchers.

Need for assessments was a running theme behind many issues. We need quality and credible assessments for the following reasons. One, when systems approach towards diversity or decentralization, monitoring outcomes becomes essential.  Two, assessments bridge the information asymmetries in education. Three, assessments also signal expectations of system from the schools and students. Four, credible assessments are crucial in initiatives like teacher incentives and school certifications.

Key insights from The Education Commission (1964-66) : Ensuring a Learning India - S6 E.002

[35th post in the 'Ensuring a Learning India' series. 42 posts in total. One post per day. 7 more to go]

The Education Commission (1964-1966) headed by Prof. D.S Kothari also known as Kothari Commission, stands out as one of the important milestones in the Indian Education reform. This commission was appointed by M.C Chagla, the then Minister of Education in the union government. As we move ahead to design a framework for school education reform, recollecting this important report is useful for three reasons. One, it gives a sense of history of the problems and how we progressed. Two, it tells us the progress we have made on the problems that are common today and then. Three, there can be some interesting lessons learnt from this analysis. This section aims to summarize important aspects of the report. Fair justice may not be done while summarizing the voluminous report in few words, and selecting the key aspects to summarize is subject to author’s biases but nevertheless it is a fruitful exercise with its own limitations. One should also note that this report was written in 1960s, and hence reflects the problems at that point of time. Hence, the discussion and recommendations of the commission should be viewed from that perspective. The report deals with both school and college education. Only the sections related to school education are considered for our discussion.

The importance of education as recognized by the commission is reflected in the covering letter that Prof. Kothari has written to Mr. M.C Chagla, while submitting the report. The letter says, “education has always been important but perhaps never more so in man's history than today. In a science-based world, education and research are crucial to the entire developmental process of a country, its welfare, progress and security. It is characteristic of a world permeated by science that in some essential ways the future shape of things is unpredictable. This emphasizes all the more the need for an educational policy which contains a built-in flexibility so that it can adjust to changing circumstances. It underscores the importance of experimentation and innovation.”

The letter further continues to comment on the critical constraint in the then education system – “If I may say so, the single most important thing needed now is to get out of the rigidity of the present system. In the rapidly changing world of today, one thing is certain: yesterday's educational system will not meet today's, and even less so, the need of tomorrow.” The report also comments on it -  “The most important and urgent reform needed in education is to transform it, to endeavour to relate it to the life, needs and aspirations of the people and thereby make it the powerful instrument of social, economic and cultural transformation necessary for the realization of the national goals. For this purpose, education should be developed so as to increase productivity, achieve social and national integration, accelerate the process of modernization and cultivate social, moral and spiritual values.” 

Why is reform difficult in school education? - Ensuring a Learning India S6 E.001

[34th post in the 'Ensuring a Learning India' series. 42 posts in total. One post per day. 8 more to go]

The sixth theme ‘Miles to go’ summarizes the discussion in the first five themes, and aims to create a framework for school education reforms in India. This starts with introspecting the slow progress of reform in education, learnings from experience till now, proposes a framework for reform, and in the end suggests possible channels through which interested people can contribute to the reform process.

6.1 Why is reform difficult in education?

We have discussed the issues in education at length and some possible solutions but why isn’t a public outrage over this? Why isn’t the change happening? Is it because we don’t understand and realize the issues? Is it because the solutions aren’t known yet or something else? Overall, the progress of reform in school education looks slow, compared to its importance and urgency.

The relation between people and government is that of a balancing act between people’s needs and government’s efforts to resolve. We can imagine the problem or an issue (yellow ball) as a ball, being a burden on people. Government is expected to pull the yellow ball up and maintain its position; in the end the pressure from people to address the problem and the efforts of government balancing the yellow ball.

In this framework, there are three possibilities depending on the strength of pressures from both the ends.

Inert systems: Inert system is a stage where there are no or little pressures from both the ends. This can be either because there is lack of recognition of the issue or the loss of hope among people about the possibility of reform coupled with inaction from government. The issue of corruption was at inert stage much before Anna movement due to several factors – acceptance of corruption in daily life, loss of hope about reform etc.

Volcanic systems: Volcanic system is a stage where the issue starts troubling people and they visibly notice it. They are aspiring for reform burdened by the problem but there is lack of action from the government. This will be a boiling pot, which may not be visible externally, only to be burst after some time. Corruption reached volcanic stage just before Anna movement, with the tolerance tipping.

Agitated systems: Agitated system is a stage where the government is in continuous engagement with people, addressing the issues on priority. These are often issues which have visible impact in the daily life like the price of onions, food inflation, interest rates etc. These issues invite immediate protests from people and also the attention of government.

At any given point of time, all the issues can be put in one of the above three categories. Similarly, a given issue can be in one of these three stages at multiple points of time. For example, the issue of corruption was initially at inert stage, then it transitioned to volcanic stage during Anna movement and then to agitated stage when there was nationwide demand to pass the Janlokpal bill. It couldn’t then sustain at the agitated stage and then came back to inert or volcanic state.

As per this framework, education is in inert stage where there isn’t enough pressure from both the sides. There can be several possible reasons behind this.

School Choice - II: Evidence and Way forward - Ensuring a Learning India S5 E.008

[33rd post in the 'Ensuring a  Learning India' series. 42 posts in total. One post per day. 9 more to go]

Our ultimate objective is to improve the learning outcomes of children. If that’s so, who does the job better – public schools or private schools? Some argue that private schools visibly do the job better. The litmus test is the increasing enrolments in private schools. Others argue that private schools do better because the characteristics of students who join private schools are different; may be students (and parents) in private schools are intrinsically motivated, and hence shifted out of public schools, may be they have better support structures at home, may be their parents are more educated and hence take care of their children, may be they have more income to support child in other ways. Thus, it is argued that the claim that private schools can serve all students better, especially the students of low-income communities, is questionable and thereby the voucher system too. It is useful to look at international experience to understand the nuances.

Globally, there are two forms of voucher programs – large scale and small scale. Large scale programs are often run by governments, full-fledged voucher programs covering all aspects of vouchers comprehensively. Small scale programs are either limited to certain set of people or experiments run by researchers to understand specific issues of vouchers. Each of these programs can help us understand different aspects of voucher system. Voucher systems as an idea needs certain dynamics – competition, schools and parents responding to prices, time to deliver results, and so on. We can thus learn the macro level aspects from large scale programs. Small scale programs, especially experiments help us understand and validate specific hypothesis and arguments regarding voucher system.

5.8.1 Evidence on effects of school vouchers 

The effect of voucher system on learning outcomes is typically measured using two approaches – (i) performance of voucher students vs. performance of non-voucher students; and (ii) performance of a country as a whole, as indicated by PISA rankings. The first approach explores if the specific set of students who received vouchers gained in relative to their counterparts who didn’t. The second approach tells us if vouchers helped the system as a whole to improve.

Columbia launched a large scale voucher program in 1991 called PACES. These were targeted at children of low-income communities for students entering grade 6 and they were renewed subject to academic performance. It was found that after 3 years of program, the winners of voucher lotteries scored 0.2 standard deviations higher on achievement tests.[1]

In case of Chile, initial evidence[2] suggests that there is no evidence to say that choice improved average educational outcomes, in the 150 municipalities that were analyzed. Even looking at the aggregate measures, PISA rankings, Chile stands around 50+, out of 70+ countries, though the voucher scheme was introduced way back in 1980s and measures were taken to ease the entry of private schools. Interestingly, there was a dramatic increase of Chile’s PISA test scores from 2003-2011. Evidence suggests that this is due to a 2008 reform in Chile, which increased the voucher amount to poorest 40% by about 40%.[3] It also finds that this targeted voucher increased the average school quality by 0.21 standard deviations and increased average voucher school quality by 0.16 standard deviations. It also suggests that 1/3rd of these gains are from changes in school choice and 2/3rds is due to improvement in school quality. But still, Chile’s PISA rankings aren’t encouraging.

 There are similar debates in Sweden on the effect of voucher programs, after its PISA rankings declined from 7th to 23rd. The PISA report says ‘No other PISA participating country saw a steeper decline in student performance over the past decade than Sweden’. The proponents argue that private schooling constitutes only 15% of enrolment in Sweden and hence voucher system isn’t at fault. However, if one uses the metric of, ability of vouchers to improve the performance of a system as a whole, Sweden’s voucher program isn’t an encouraging experiment.

There seem to be multiple experiences regarding the voucher program. So, what does the experience in general looks like? Survey of the Economics Literature regarding School Vouchers[4] [1] studies major voucher programs across countries and says, “The empirical research on small scale programs does not suggest that awarding students a voucher is a systematically reliable way to improve educational outcomes. Nevertheless, in some settings, or for some subgroups or outcomes, vouchers can have a substantial positive effect on those who use them….().. Evidence on both small scale and large scale programs suggests that competition induced by vouchers leads public schools to improve.”[2] 

School Choice- I: Rationale for Vouchers and Concerns - Ensuring a Learning India S5 E.007

[32nd post in 'Ensuring a Learning India' series. 42 in total. One post per day. 10 more to go.

There are certain visible trends in school education globally, at least in developing countries.

One, increasing role of education - Education has become a crucial factor determining the status and growth of an individual. Economists broadly categorize jobs into three types – abstract, manual and routine. Abstract jobs are high skilled jobs or those which require lots of thinking. Manual jobs are those which involve repetitive actions like assembly line workers. These tasks are relatively easy to automate. Routine tasks are those like house maids, gardeners etc., which can’t be easily automated, at least as of today. This has resulted in three trends – (i) one needs to have good education and skills to be able to get an abstract job. (ii) With the advent of technology, the proportion of manual jobs is decreasing due to automation. Evidence says that at times, like in the recent the recent US recession, the worst hit people were those doing manual tasks, and also it took them more time to recover.[i] So, the best bet for someone who doesn’t want to be at the level of doing routine jobs is to jump to abstract jobs, which requires education, thereby making education an important factor.

Two, increase in demand for education – The increasing need for education is reflected in its increasing demand. With raising incomes, there is an emerging and aspiring section of people, who want good education to their children.

Three, failure of public systems - Government schools aren’t working well (at least perceived to be so) and aren’t able to fulfill parents’ needs.

Four, increasing enrolments in private schools – The increase in need for education to proposer, coupled with its increased demand and failure of public systems resulted in increasing shift towards private systems. It is perceived that going to a private school may not result in success, but going to a government school will almost ensure failure. Private schools also offer variety; English education and other aspects which parents find attractive and valuable.

In India, the percentage of rural children enrolled in private schools in the age of 6-15 has increased from 18.7% in 2006 to 30.8% in 2014. In some states like Uttar Pradesh (52.8%), Rajasthan (43.5%), Haryana (53.6%) and Punjab (49.3%), this share is as high as 50%, which is a significant proportion of the school going children.

5.7.2 School Vouchers and its rationale 

These trends have raised questions on the efficacy, funding and governance systems of school education systems. School Vouchers is the prominent among them. In a traditional public education system; government sets up schools, recruits teachers, provides necessary infrastructure and looks after other related aspects. Parents send their children to these government schools at free of cost. Broadly, this means that government funds schools.

School Voucher system funds students and not schools. The idea is that instead of funding schools, government could give that money (per-child expenditure) to students in the form of a voucher, who would then use it to study in school of their choice. There are five broad arguments in favour of this approach.

The fundamental argument for voucher system is that, if basic education is the right of a child and if it is government’s duty to ensure that, why should students be forced to exercise their rights only through one particular type of schools (public schools)? Why shouldn’t they avail their right in other forms (private schools)?

Two, the current education system is skewed towards the rich. People with higher incomes are sending their kids to schools of their choice, while the poor are being forced to often attend the inefficient schools. Voucher system can bridge this gap to an extent.

Three, the poor today are facing extreme financial stress at times due to out of pocket expenditure on private education. Voucher system would ease this financial stress of these families.

Four, public school systems are marred by weak incentives to be accountable and perform. The voucher system will induce competition between private schools to enroll students (who are potential clients), thereby pressurizing them to perform well. This would also indirectly pressurize public schools to improve themselves in order to retain students.

Five, competition would also result in variety, and parents can choose the school of their choice, instead of being forced to attend only the school in their neighbourhood.

Should schools be allowed to be for-profit? - Ensuring a Learning India S5 E.006

[31st post in 'Ensuring a Learning India' series. 42 in total. One post per day. 11 more to go.]

This section deals with the legal nature of private schools. The word private is generally associated with entities, which are run by individuals (with or without aid from government) with profit motive. Entities running businesses without profit motive are called not-for-profit enterprises. In India, it is illegal to operate for-profit private schools. All private unaided schools are to be registered as a trust in order to get recognized by the boards. It is interesting to note that, for-profit players are allowed in every other aspect but not in school education.

The cited reasons for this are mainly philosophical and not because of any other empirical reason. Hence, this section will also discuss this issue from this perspective. The limitation of philosophical arguments is that is it tough to be on grey areas, and one has to take extreme position to bring back the debate.

1. Nature of education - It is argued that education is a service to the society and such activity can’t be commercialized. There are two issues with this argument.

One, if education as defined by imparting knowledge to kids shouldn’t be commercialized, then the same should apply to private tuition centers, and more importantly the technology learning products. There are many companies providing education services to schools, which are also core part of the education process. But, somehow, these are seen to be different from schools. If these are to be allowed, why not schools?

Two, there are more basic and fundamental needs for survival of human beings, which are being sold by for-profit enterprises. At some point back in time, selling food and water for money was socially wrong but today there are numerous restaurants and bottled water companies in operation, and people are enjoying their services. At even more fundamental level, air is also crucial for humans, and recently oxygen parks are being set up where people pay money for fresh air.

Some argue that these cases are different and that in the context of education, one is arguing for basic minimum education, and not for luxuries like above. This misses a point that, the debate isn’t about ‘what amount of education’ should be imparted to children but it is about the nature of organizations which impart this education.

2. Education shouldn’t be quantified with money – Similar to the first argument, it is argued that education shouldn’t be quantified with money and should be out of intrinsic motivation.

One, it is interesting to note that some of the same people who argue that imparting education should be an activity of intrinsic motivation, also demand for better salaries for teachers. If education is about intrinsic motivation, why isn’t a basic salary enough? Isn’t demanding norms on more basic salary equivalent to monetizing the activity of education? If teachers need money for being incentivized, why shouldn’t the school management also aspire to earn money, in order to be keep up the motivation?

Two, the argument that intrinsic motivation alone should matter relies on the hypothetical extremes to solve the huge problem of need for education. In each sector, there will be people working out of intrinsic motivation and some people working professionally for the sake of money. Should the reasons behind the work matter as long as they are delivering outcomes?

3. Private schools aren’t any better than government schools – It is argued that private schools, especially low cost private schools aren’t any better than government schools.

Low cost private schools may or may not be effective than government schools and it is not relevant to this debate. The point of debate here is not about the effectiveness of private vs. government but about the legal nature of the organizations. If the same school is run with same quality but on a not for profit basis, is that acceptable? It is then argued that this school has to comply with some standards and certifications. If the issue is compliance with norms, then should the nature of school, private or public, matter as long as it is complying with the norms?