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.

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