Public vs. Private: To discard or to improve?

Education is agreed to be an equalizer of inequalities originating at birth thus putting the government at the central role in ensuring education to all its citizens. The state still remains the service provider of education to the majority of children (65%) thus playing a huge role. However, the quality of this service provided by the governments is seriously questioned, with ASER reports showing that students are much below their grade level in terms of learning and poor performance of India in international assessments like PISA (73rd rank out of 74 participating countries). One can term this as failure of public education.

Failure of public education has made people look for private schools as an alternative. It was traditionally believed that private schools do better than public schools but recent studies have raised questions on this proposition. An important question on private school has been - can private schools deliver education to the profile of students that typically attend public schools? When given vouchers for students of public schools, thus transferring them from public schools to private schools, it is found that they did not learn significantly more on Math and Telugu, as compared to their counterparts who continued their studies in the public school. Another study finds that, after accounting for initial differences in learning levels of students who attend public and private schools, there is no significant difference in value-added per year of education by schools of both types. This suggests that the low-cost private schools as the they are today, may not guarantee quality. This is the case of low-cost private schools but some may argue that the situation is better in elite private schools, which is comparable to the rest of the world. Assessment of 23,000 students of 89 elite schools in metros of India finds that at grade 4, average scores of these children is below the international average of PISA. Citing this evidence, one can argue that private schools are also a failure.

Thus, one can cite evidence and term both government and private  as failures. With this backdrop, the difference in arguments for the way ahead varies depending on the way problem is approached- (i) to discard or to improve, similar to the classic Shakespearean phrase, to be or  not to be;  (ii) substitute or complement. It's explained below.

Those who believe in public education cite the evidence that private schools aren't being effective and hence argue that strengthening public education has to be the way forward. There are two inherent assumptions to this statement. One, private system isn't working and hence, it has to be discarded and the public system should be improved. Two, public education is the reliable way to educate the masses thus putting public education at the forefront and viewing other forms as undesirable substitutes.

Those who believe in private education cite the evidence that public schools aren't being effective and argue that private schooling has to be the way forward, given that public schools couldn't improve even after getting 65 years to do so and parents are increasingly shifting to private schools. There are two inherent assumptions to this statement. One, public system isn't effective and hence, it has to be discarded and the private system  should be improved. Two, private education is the reliable way to educate masses thus putting private education at the forefront and viewing other forms as undesirable substitutes.

The problem with arguments above is the inconsistency in the metrics used to judge and the corresponding inferences. If something that they believe in is found to be ineffective, believers argue for its improvement. On the other hand, if something that they don't believe in is found ineffective, believers argue for discarding it. For instance, given the evidence that public system is ineffective, believers of public education argue for its improvement, while, the same people argue for discarding private system, given the evidence that it isn't effective. The same applies to believers of the private system too.

Given the evidence that  everything is ineffective, the wise thing to do is to improve all, instead of discarding and to perceive public and private as complements instead of either-or systems. I discussed this in my book "UnpackED - The black box of Indian school education reform". Excerpts shared below

"...... it is useful to reflect on the debates of public vs. private systems of schooling. They are often viewed as either-or systems. Differences in opinion seem to be fundamentally about relying on only one of them as means to improving education. Proponents of private schools cite the failure of public schools and increasing enrollments in private schools as reasons to rely on private schools while sceptics argue that most successful countries across the world have improved their education standards through public systems and hence private systems should not be relied upon in India.

While it is true that most countries have relied on public school systems and continue to do so, we should consider the Indian context while inferring from the experience of these countries. The question is not just— what is the solution? It is rather—considering where we are now, what is the best possible solution? Education systems of countries have followed different trajectories. Some countries have relied on public systems since beginning and have managed to make them work and hence have very less dependence on private systems. Currently, India is at a position where there are a significant number of children in both public and private schools and our system is dependent on both. It may thus be unwise to rely on only one path and dismiss others at this stage. We should not have a stigma towards either of these. Countries with strong public systems can afford to have restrictions on private schools because people there have an alternate option in the form of strong public systems. In the absence of such strong public systems, we cannot afford to put restrictions on private schools.

...... environment in which policy is implemented should also be considered as a factor in the debate on public vs. private. Indian context is unique and brings in the challenges of scale and diversity, which must be acknowledged. It is possible that even if the public machinery of successful countries is imported to India, they may end up not being effective in our context. Additionally, education is sensitive to the geographic vicinity. It means that it is not enough to have a few good public schools in a town or city. We need to ensure good schools in each and every neighbourhood. Even if we reach a stage where we can call public systems are being effective, it necessarily need not mean that each and every public school is good. Additionally, preferences on the type of education also differ.

In such contexts, relying on only one form either public or private may not be wise. We need a combination of both to effectively address the challenge of scale and diversity, unique to India.

.....Countries with strong public systems can afford to have restrictions on private system and to not care for them but with our weak state capacity and a significant share of private schooling, we cannot and we should not either neglect or restrict either public or private systems. We need both."

Further, in the Ten Commandments for Reform, I say the following as part of the 10th commandment.

"The trio of strong state capacity, active citizenry, and thriving private sector, together with appropriate policies can help us address the poor state of school education."

In summary, we thus need to shed the false dichotomy of public vs. private, embrace both and improve them in order to address the challenges unique to the Indian context. Neither the evidence of the ineffectiveness of either of these nor the fact that most other countries have pursued a different path can justify this dichotomy.

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