ASER 2016 - Stagnation of outcomes and enrolment in Indian low-cost private schools?

The much awaited ASER 2016 is now released. Many eagerly awaited ASER 2016 report because it didn't release the report in 2015.

This post discusses the broad findings of ASER 2016, followed by my comments on stagnation of outcomes and enrolment in Indian low-cost private schools. In the end, I also share some of my queries on ASER's methodology regarding the error margin in survey.

ASER 2016's findings on learning outcomes

ASER reports that there's a slight increase in reading levels
The proportion of children in Std III who are able to read at least Std I level text has gone up slightly, from 40.2% in 2014 to 42.5% in 2016.
The same is true for arithmetic too but it's a much smaller increase
In 2014, for the country, 25.4% of Std III children could do a 2-digit subtraction. This number has risen slightly to 27.7% in 2016.
This improvement has come primarily from government schools where the percentage of Std III children who could do a 2-digit subtraction increased from 17.2% in 2014 to 20.2% in 2016

Stagnation of outcomes in Indian low-cost private schools?

ASER 2016 discussed above is only for rural areas. So, we can reasonably assume that a majority of private schools mentioned in the survey are low-cost private schools.

ASER 2016 is the first year that reports increase in arithmetic levels since 2010. Between 2014 and 2016, public schools' arithmetic levels (grade 2 students who can do subtraction) increased from 17.2 to 20.2 as quoted above, while private schools' levels increased only from 43.4 to 44.

Note that the arithmetic levels have fallen from 42.4% in 2007 to 25.4% in 2014.

Similarly, the reading levels (grade 3 students who can read grade 2 text) of public schools has increased from 17.2 to 19.3, while that of private schools has increased from 37.8 to 38 (page 52, ASER 2016)

In other words, we notice that the learning levels in public schools are increasing (both reading and arithmetic), while it has stagnated in private schools.

ASER 2016 also reports that the improvement in arithmetic levels is primarily due to increase in levels of public schools. Result of increased attention to education?

This raises an important question - Have the (low-cost) learning levels in private schools hit a limit?

This is inline with the hypothesis that it is not theoretically possible for low-cost private schools to improve outcomes beyond a point. One can reason it as follows.

Learning outcomes is a function of governance and pedagogy. Public schools lack both governance and pedagogy while the private schools lack pedagogy.

Seen from this perspective, it is argued that low-cost private schools can't improve beyond a point because they already reached maximum levels of governance. Any resulting improvement should be an improvement through pedagogy.

It can be argued that such improvement in pedagogy in low-cost private schools isn't possible due to two reasons. One, teachers in low-cost private schools aren't trained. Low-cost private schools typically recruit grade 10, grade 12 graduates. So, they are less responsive to training. Two, low-cost private schools don't have money to invest in training. 

These limits to governance and pedagogy means that the learning levels (should) stagnate after a point in low-cost private schools.

On the other hand, after fixing the governance issue, government schools can't hit such limits because public school teachers are more responsive to training due to their higher qualifications and pre-job training. Also, government has funds to invest in pedagogy.

If the stagnation in private schools' levels, and the increase in public schools continues as per this year's data, does this support the above argument that low-cost private schools can't improve beyond a point and public schools have more potential to improve?

May be we should wait for 1-2 years more to get a clear picture. Or may be this is just because public schools have a low baseline levels or may be the increments are just a measurement error (more below).

The argument of competition increasing learning levels in low-cost private schools needn't hold true because there's already enough competition in urban areas. A survey in Patna reports that there are 9 and 93 private schools within a 1 km radius of every public school, with the median being greater than 50. If this competition can't result in improvement, then it gives little reason to assume that further competition improves, with other conditions as it is. In rural areas, there may not be great scope for more schools due to limited number of students.

This doesn't mean that one should shut low-cost private schools. One can assist them by training the teachers in these schools. I discussed several possible approaches in an earlier post. For instance, these teachers  can be given Skill India coupons to get training etc.

Since we are struggling a lot to improve governance in public schools, why not utilize low-cost private schools where you at least don't have first order problems like teacher absence etc. Also, the argument that teachers in low-cost private schools can't be trained is too far-fetching. May be they can be trained and may be they will do much better than public school teachers after the training, given their incentives. We have such examples of Shiksha Karmi programme in Rajasthan where 8th grade and 10th grade passed tribal girls were trained and they caught up over a period of time.

We should at least try training teachers in low-cost private schools once. One should not look at it in terms of - why  should government support private schools? One, providing such training has huge externalities. If children outcomes is the one we care about, we shouldn't desist from doing something that could possibly help us achieve that. Two, why not think of this as an investment? Government does give tax incentives to many big industries and corporates. Why not give to low-cost private schools when it may have long-term impact?

In a situation with low-learning levels, we should grab every opportunity that helps us improve the situation. Letting off anything isn't wise.

Stagnation of enrolment in low-cost private schools?

ASER 2016 reports
the proportion of children (age 6-14) enrolled in private schools is almost unchanged at 30.5% in 2016, as compared to 30.8% in 2014
It is commonly believed that there is an increasing shift towards private schools. So, this comes as a surprise.

We may have to wait for at least next year or two more years to say something about this. May be it's just an aberration in this year's data or may be it's the trend. But if it's true, it's a good insight. We need to understand this better. Some possible reasons that I can think of as of now are

1. RTE made it difficult to open new private schools or shut down existing ones, forcing students to join public schools.

2. Quality in public schools has improved, as per parents' perception. So, there is a reverse shift to public schools or it at least stopped the outflow from public schools.

3. We have hit the limit - may be this is the maximum that we can achieve in terms of private school enrolments. The remaining people can't afford to send their kids. 

If this is true, it's also an indication of percolation of benefits of growth. It may be the case that growth hasn't led to increase in incomes of the remaining people (those currently in public schools) and hence they aren't able to afford to shift their kids to private schools. If that's so, then the shift could re-start once people's incomes increase.

Precision of ASER's estimates

There's an error margin in measurement in all surveys and calculations. In crude terms, if the error margin is x%, the results could have been within +/- x% range of the reported figures.

Error margins can turn crucial if one is dealing with numbers less than error margin. For instance, election surveys report error margins of 2% to 3% but the problem is that the election outcomes can drastically change with just 1% difference in vote share.

ASER doesn't report standard errors (error margin) but this year's report quotes an external study 
a study done on the precision of ASER enrolment and learning estimates shows that margins of error are well within 5% at the state level
This just got me thinking - if the error margin is 5% (even if it's 2 or 3), how optimistic should we be of learning level increments that are in the range of 2 to 3%? 

For example, learning outcomes increased 2.3% between 2014 and 2016.  Is the increase just a measurement error? For our understanding, the trend of reading outcomes from 2011 to 2014 is as follows: 40.4, 38.8, 40.2, 40.3. It has now increased to 42.5.

Similarly, can the public-private comparison of increments also be just attributed to measurement error?

Finally, the usual reminder applies. We are talking of basic minimum competencies here and also at a low level. Minor improvements shouldn't hence make us complacent as there's a lot to be achieved.

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