Kenneth Arrow passed away

Kenneth Arrow, Nobel Memorial Prize winner of Economics, the one behind the famous "Arrow's Impossibility Theorem" passed away. NYT has an obituary on Arrow.

Arrow was not just a mere economist, he was a great polymath. An interesting anecdote from NYT's obituary.

Professor Arrow was widely hailed as a polymath, possessing prodigious knowledge of subjects far removed from economics. Eric Maskin, a Harvard economist and fellow Nobel winner, told of a good-natured conspiracy waged by junior faculty to get the better of Professor Arrow, even if artificially. They all agreed to study the breeding habits of gray whales — a suitably abstruse topic — and gathered at an appointed date at a place where Professor Arrow would be sure to visit. 
When, as expected, he showed up, they were talking out loud about the theory by a marine biologist — last name, Turner — which purported to explain how gray whales found the same breeding spot year after year. As Professor Maskin recounted the story, “Ken was silent,” and his junior colleagues amused themselves that they had for once bested their formidable professor. 
Well, not so fast. 
Before leaving, Professor Arrow muttered, “But I thought that Turner’s theory was entirely discredited by Spencer, who showed that the hypothesized homing mechanism couldn’t possibly work."

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Nuances of Fukuyama's 'End of History' hypothesis

After the Soviet Union's collapse, Francis Fukuyama had argued that we reached the 'End of History', meaning that the liberal democracy has won as the most suitable form of arrangement of government.

In the age of rising authoritarian tendencies, people have been quick to point out failure of Fukuyama's prediction.  He often tweets about this. The poor Fukuyama might have gotten tired of this.

The point is that there's more nuance to Fukuyama's argument than what's captured by the one line summary. The final paragraph of Fukuyama's book illustrates it better.
The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual care taking of he museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognize its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilization that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.

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Traditional curriculum of first 3 years must be scrapped, if we are to achieve anything significant in improving education quality

I often remark that the following graph must be framed and put in office of every official in education, from that of minister down to the block or mandal level. 

Learning trajectory of students from grade 1 to grade 5.

The above graph is from Karthik Muralidharan's fantastic study in Andhra Pradesh where he tracked a set of representative sample of students from grade 1 till their grade 5. It means it's a 5 year experiment. The graph says that

1. The mean performance in grade 5 is still at grade 1 level. It means that an average kid reaches only 1 level after spending 5 years in school.

2. The learning trajectory of bottom 10 percentile is flat after 2nd grade.

This study is significant because it tracks the same set of students over 5 years, as opposed to ASER which tests different children each year.

These findings should ring alarm bells. Translating this into a classroom, it means that 90% of the students in grade 5 are not following the teacher, who teaches at grade 5 level. Similar effect is seen in other classes too.

Imagine the kids sitting in this class. They aren't able to understand anything and are being forced to sit in these classes for 5 continuous years. It could easily be one of the most horrifying experiences. Remember last time you were forced to sit in a 5 hour class where you understand absolutely nothing.

All of this is because our obsession with 'timely completion of syllabus'. We have become slaves to curriculum and syllabus. Completing syllabus has taken precedence over ensuring that children learn. Where students lack even basics of reading and writing, we are teaching them way above their standard. All these efforts go in vain.

Excessive focus on curriculum has several consequences. 

Lant Pritchett calls it 'over ambitious curriculum'. In a paper exploring the effects of the overambitious curriculum, Lant estimates that 

all of the observed learning differences between poor performing and 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.
That's a dramatic effect.

The overambitious curriculum also has other consequences. Once students fall behind, it demotivates them and it's difficult to bring them back. Two, The IHDS data suggests that the probability of catching up decreases with the income profile of parents.

Further, the practice of overambitious curriculum is a roadblock to every other reform efforts in education. It means that even if governments work on other aspects, including the improvement of government structures, the overambitious curriculum thwarts all those efforts. 

To repeat, all of this is because of our obsession with curriculum and finishing the syllabus. In the context of all this, the first and foremost step that any government has to take is to scrap the existing traditional curriculum for the first 3 years.

For the first three years or at least for the first two years, the focus of the school should be only and only on ensuring reading, writing and numeracy skills to students. Reading is especially more important because without reading and comprehension skills, kids can't attempt even math questions.

All the current efforts of Pratham, Delhi government and governments in other states in using 'teach at the right level' to improve basic numeracy and literacy skills only have limited gains when seen on an absolute scale. 

It's because all such efforts have been along side the traditional curriculum, except in the case of Delhi. Schools were asked to set aside 2 hours per day for 2-3 months. This time is simply not enough. One needs a remediation of at least 6-8 months where students work on improving these skills all the day, setting aside the traditional curriculum.

It needs political will on behalf of governments to stop the obsession with curriculum and syllabus. Delhi government has shown the way by taking such step in organising reading melas where kids were separated from usual classroom daily but it was only for 2 months. Even after 2 months of such intervention, 1 lakh students out of 3.5 lakh caught up with the rest 2.5 lakh students yet to catch up. It clearly demonstrates the need to increase the time period of such interventions. 

It must be noted that the government faced huge resistance from across sections, as the Delhi Minister Mr. Manish Sisodia mentions in his speech during 2017 ASER release. This is not just a political reform but also includes a huge attitudinal and mindset shift because our system is accustomed to a particular way of doing things. Changing it doesn't happen easily.

Though might sound like a radical reform but it's actually not. It's more of a common sense and in fact it's actually the way it should be. For instance, in Finland, the focus in early years of schooling is exclusively on reading, writing and numeracy. They proceed ahead only once students are proficient in these.

Alongside, government must also invest in research that explores the appropriate and effective ways to teach literacy and numeracy to first generation learners, not-so-fast learners and students with dyslexia etc. Curriculum should move away from philosophy to empirics. 

For instance, there is a constructivist philosophy in education that says that children construct knowledge. As per this philosophy, students are to taught using 'whole language approach'. It means that kids are taught words as whole. There's another approach called phonics approach where kids are taught individual sounds instead of whole word. Though recent emerging research has shown that kids learn better when taught using phonics approach, some still cling on to 'whole word approach' because of their belief in constructivist philosophy.

There are many such debates in education. It would be great if these are settled using empirics and teachers are provided a guide. It needs investment in research in pedagogy, psychology and neuroscience. We have not even scratched the surface in this regard. It's better late than never. We need to take steps in this direction.

To conclude, the learning gaps in reading, writing and numeracy skills that arise in early school years is hindering progress. Our obsession with completing the syllabus as per curriculum is one of the major reasons for this. Therefore, the first step that any government serious about pursuing education reform should take is to scrap traditional curriculum for first three years and focus exclusively on reading, writing and numeracy skills. This initiative also complements several other efforts of the governments. To put it more bluntly, without this, there will be no hope for a drastic reform; we can only achieve marginal results despite our huge efforts. Alongside, government must also invest in research to explore appropriate and effective ways to help students improve the literacy and numeracy skills.



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Saving education from "educationists"

In the context of school education, for a vast majority, the term "educationist" means someone specialised in pedagogy or teaching children. This is a parochial view of education. Such parochial view of pedagogists ("educationists") results in faulty policy choices as I argued earlier.

The problem is that pedagogy specialists tend to emphasize more on aspects like philosophy of education. Such parochial view neglects the need to reform governance structures that enable these pedagogy approaches.

As Karthik Muralidharan points out, it's (partly) the reason behind the conventional input-based policy wisdom of the past

the reform agenda being suggested by the quantitative research on the economics of education is seeking to reform the “conventional” wisdom on input -based policies, it is worth thinking about where this conventional wisdom gets formed. At present, it comes from Schools of Education (and related disciplines) where there is a limited amount of quantitative training of students, and where there is a greater emphasis on the history and philosophy of education and of the role of education in shaping society.
In other words, pedagogists argue for more training, parachuting new pedagogies into class room without emphasizing the need to reform the governance structures of training so that the trainings are done better. Without such structures, we are just bombarding pedagogy aimlessly. As I argued in my book, today's problem is not lack of appropriate pedagogies, it's  the lack of supporting governance structures.

The other problem with the pedagogists is their exclusive focus on philosophy of education with utter disregard to the evidence and real life. Consider this example. A typical pedagogist argues that learning is a social process and lists out the virtues of education.

What this means in the real life is that one cannot segregate students who can't read and give them special attention. Dean of Education of a famous university commented the following on special reading programmes in Delhi schools.
“This is not justified. Students will start doubting themselves and their confidence will take a hit. You can’t label students as good at studies or not good at studies and segregate them. Learning is not an individual process but a social one. It has been found that a mixed ability group is always better”
There are two things to be noted from the above comment.

One, the philosophy that learning is a social process. It is perceived to be a sacrosanct principle that's never to be violated. Even if half the class is not able to even read a letter, they are not to be separated for special attention because it goes against the sacrosanct principle.

Two, the disregard for evidence - where the Professor proclaims that mixed ability group is always better. Such arguments are now refuted by a vast body of evidence which says that the 'teaching at the right level' approach, the one followed by Pratham, where students are segregated into groups as per ability, is beneficial to children. This evidence doesn't matter for those emphasizing the philosophy.

Peer learning is definitely important but one should realize that it comes at a stage where everyone is above a threshold to be able to contribute. When students aren't even able to read a letter, it is a crime to stop giving them special attention in the name of philosophy.

Also, the argument of stigma regarding separation has to be thought through. Nowhere in any learning process do people progress homogenously. For instance, in a swimming class or a Chess class, students are grouped as per their ability. They only progress to higher level once they show proficiency. One doesn't make 'stigma' arguments there. Somehow, the 'stigma' line of thinking is seen only within schools. If this approach is beneficial and stigma is the problem, then one is better off working on removing the stigma associated with it.

In fact, the inferiority complex and stigma can increase when children are not even being able to read a single letter and are placed in a context where everything is going over their head. It demotivates them to the core resulting in dropouts.

There is a time and place for every approach. It's better decided by evidence rather than philosophy. Children come before philosophy.

Overall, philosophy focussed arguments with disregard to other aspects of education and evidence, hinder progress in education. They often come from educationists - pedagogists, who unfortunately wield huge influence. Our policies of the past and even today tend to revolve around pedagogy and philosophy of education. It' also seen in teacher training curriculums where there is more emphasis on philosophy of education training as compared to actual teaching techniques. It's time to change this and save education from educationists.


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Development can sometimes deteriorate education

Development in broad sense can be defined as 'increasing incomes of people'. I blogged earlier that the mechanisms of development are as important as the headline numbers. In simpler terms, growth can be jobless.

In an attempt to strive towards job generating growth, construction is being seen as the prime lever. Considering that manufacturing jobs are difficult to generate and are fast prone to automation, construction sector provides an easy temporary mechanism to improve incomes of people.

More jobs in construction, higher and stable incomes to people is a good thing. But, we must also note that construction sometimes has a potential effect to hurt the education of children, the future workers. 

In a normal scenario, one can argue that increasing incomes due to construction puts more disposable income in hands of people. Parents can then educate their kids better. But it needn't be the case always. It sounds counter intuitive but development or job generation through construction accompanied by migration, can adversely affect school education. 

Consider this - a family migrates from rural Bihar to Kerala in search of construction work. Families typically stay closer to construction site. The construction work at a particular site is typically for few months. After completing the work at a particular site, they move to a different location.

Now, think of the kids of their families. They face two problems. 

One, kids of these migrant workers can't speak the same language as that of their surround environment. Considering that first generation learners can learn better in mother tongue, this results in some issues.

Two, kids can't attend a particular school continuously because their parents are always moving.

India Together (IT) has a good story on the challenges being faced by Kerala teachers with respect to migrant children. Some teachers are taking an active interest in bringing these kids back to school but they are unable to converse with these children due to language issues. Naturally, they can't keep kids longer in schools. Added to it is the fact that parents shift locations continuously.

The net effect is that education of the children of these migrant workers is adversely affected due to their parents' profession. In other words, development achieved through job generation in construction sector, accompanied by migration, needn't be 'education neutral'.

This is similar to the phenomenon of disaster risk. It is argued that development isn't 'disaster risk' neutral. It can increase disaster risk. For instance, if people start living in close knit urban communities due to urbanization, and if the buildings aren't planned properly, an earth quake will now result in more casualties than earlier.

Given the massive push for job generation in construction sector, one needs to think through these problems in detail. Stopping job generation in construction isn't a solution. We need to instead work on containing its side effects. We may note that some of these problems are also associated with seasonal migrants.

Policy solutions

Before thinking of new approaches to support migrant children, we may have to first think of existing rules that are ruling out support to these children. 

The India Together (IT) report says that the SSA funds to provide uniforms etc. can only be given to children in school rolls. Given that children of migrant families attend school rarely, they don't even get this support. India Together report says that in some places, teachers are roping in local organizations to support these students. 

The first step can hence be to amend rules giving flexibility to accommodate such cases.

Kerala government on its part has started special centres for migrant children with volunteers to assist children. It may only be a stop-gap solution but still something is better than nothing. One can think of turning these into full-scale centres with adequate support.

The boarding school approach that I discussed in an earlier post is also suitable solution here. In fact, it may be the first-best solution. Given that these students are facing a disruptive home environment adversely affecting their education, all such children can be put in free boarding schools. Since all students are together, one can also recruit special teachers of particular language.

However, one must be careful that the boarding schools have to be planned properly. They have to be proper boarding schools. In order to save costs, some times the government constructs a hostel near a government school and associates all children of that hostel with that particular school. Though this still provides free food and lodging to children, the full benefits of boarding school aren't realized.

In such schools, where a school is separate and hostel is separate, students don't get after-school support. Considering that the migrant children are typically behind the schedule, it's difficult for them to catch up without extra support. 

Added to this is the fact migrant children have to study with other local children in the school. Teachers therefore usually tend to teach in local language. Also, teachers' focus on completing the syllabus, and usually tend to teach at the level of the median child.

These conditions aren't conducive to migrant children who speak different language and are also far behind the grade levels. 

In other words, the boarding schools have to ensure appropriate after-school support to children, along with necessary support in schools in their own language.


Conclusion

Development achieved through job generation in construction sector, accompanied by migrant labour has potential to disrupt the education of children of migrant workers. It's due to the language difficulties faced by the children and also the lack of stable school system.

We need to think through this problem and take appropriate steps to address it. The first step is to amend rules giving flexibility to use SSA funds towards such children. Opening special training centers to bridge the gaps is a temporary solution. On a permanent basis, free boarding schools can be opened for such children. One should also keep in mind that the boarding schools should ensure instruction in language of the children and also provide appropriate after-school support in order to achieve the desired results.


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Boarding schools as a way to overcome challenges of 'home environment'

Learning outcomes in school education can be broadly taken as a function of 'quality of school', 'family characteristics of student', and the 'community'. The school helps the student through teaching. School is the channel through which all efforts of the government are operationalised. Family characteristics and Community shape the motivation and support structures of the student. Thus, school, family, and  community together decide the learning of the children. 

Although, one must note that the lines between family and community are blurred, considering the fact that housing and schooling are stratified as per incomes. May be we can combine these two together and consider only two parameters - school and community.

Now, the problem that follows from the above model is that, even if one improves the functioning of the school, unless the home and community environment is changed, it's difficult to improve the outcomes. This has been widely cited in case of comparison between low-cost private schools and government schools. The argument is that once you control for the socio-economic characteristics of the children, government schools perform no worse than the low-cost private schools. In other words, the better 'accountability' and 'incentive structures' in private schools are off-set by the home conditions.

Finally, it then boils down to improving the home environment of children. One can pursue it in two ways. 

One way to improve the home environment is to engage teachers in community outreach, build relationships with parents and establish mechanisms to provide after-school support to children. It involves huge efforts as one has to reach each individual parent.

The other way is to create an artificially good environment by bringing all the students together and putting them in a boarding school, where students are taken care both during the school and also after the school. Unlike the first approach, this reduces the outreach burden.

The second method of improving home environment by putting students in boarding schools may in fact be the first-best solution in areas affected by left-wing extremis, violence or in areas where it is nearly impossible to improve the home environment. A passionate collector of Dantewada has taken good initiatives on these lines.

The success of Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas has also been an attraction in pursuing the boarding school path to address the challenges of home environment.

The question now is - Is the boarding school path the best way to address the 'home environment challenges'? What trade offs should we make in this regard? Studying some experiments of this nature can shed some light on such questions.

In a recently published paperLuc Behaghel, ClĂ©ment de Chaisemartin, and Marc Gurgand explore similar questions using a lottery experiment in France.

In France, as part of a programme, students were chosen for a boarding school programme through a lottery. It thus gives the perfect setting to study the effects of boarding schools. Behagel et. al found two important results.

1. In the first year, there was no difference in the learning outcomes of students in the boarding school (who won the lottery), and students outside (who lost the lottery).

2. In the second year, there was a significant difference in the learning outcomes of boarding school students as compared to the control group students.

But, much of this difference is due to high-performing students. In other words, the boarding school experience significantly improved the outcomes of students at the higher end of spectrum, while it wasn't of much help for students at the lower end of the spectrum.

These findings throw up two puzzles - i)  the lack of improvement in first year and; ii) the presence of effects only in the students at the higher end of the spectrum.

Behagel et. al collected micro-data on students to answer such questions to an amazing detail. They regularly tracked the time spent by students on homework, play, students' feedback on teaching, students' satisfaction and so on.

Using this data, they conclude that the first year was a disruptive year to students because students had to stay away from home for the first time. They also find that the high-performing students recover faster than the students at the lower-end of the spectrum. These effects were operational in the first year. By the second year, students adjusted to the boarding school and the effects of teachers and 'improved home environment' kick in. These findings thus answer the first piece of the puzzle, the lack of outcomes in the first year.

The second puzzle is tricky - why do we see effects only in students at the higher end of the spectrum?. Putting it in other way - why don't we see effects in students at the lower-end of the spectrum. This is puzzling especially in the context that all students reported to have similar times on homework etc. because all students are supposed to follow same schedule in the boarding school.

'Teaching to the median' strategy is an important potential explanation. It means that in a class with students of diverse learning levels, teacher teaches to the median child. Thus, all those above the median follow the teacher while those below the median fall behind, increasing the gaps between children. After a certain time, the class becomes meaningless to the students below the median. This phenomenon is widely reported in several contexts across the world. Research work of Prof. Karthik Muralidharan and Prof. Esther Duflo document this in great detail.

However, Behagel et al. reject this explanation for the non-improvement of students at the lower-end of the spectrum. They argue that this hypothesis doesn't explain i) lack of outcomes in first year and ; ii) the reported positive feedback of low-performing students on teachers.

After rejecting the 'teaching to the median' hypothesis, Behagel et al. conclude that this experiment resulted in (emotional) disruption of low-performing children with no gains in learning outcomes. In effect, it isn't a value addition. They hence argue that improving home environment by directly addressing challenges at individual homes or at community level may be a better strategy.

I personally don't think that the inferences of the paper from the experiment are the right interpretation of the results. Especially, the arguments against the 'teaching to the median' strategy are weak. 

Positive feedback on teachers doesn't necessarily mean that teachers are doing the right thing. Students' perception of a good teacher might be based on completely different metrics that aren't necessarily related to metrics of a good teacher in the context of helping the children learn.

The lack of outcomes in first year also isn't necessarily contradictory to the 'teaching to the median strategy'. One can look at it alternatively by considering the 'lack of emotional disruption of child' as the prerequisite. For teachers' efforts to be fruitful, child shouldn't be emotionally disrupted. In the first year, children were disrupted. Hence, there was no improvement in students across the spectrum. However, once the students got accustomed, the effects of teacher kicked in building upon the improved 'home environment' (after-school environment).

Since the teacher is teaching to the median, the benefits of improved after-school environment are reaped only by those above the median. In other words, the pedagogy turns out to be the binding constraint for a section of students once the other problem is solved.  The solution then is to change the 'teach to all' approach of teachers.

Of course, this is merely based on deductive reasoning. A better way to establish is to do an experiment that includes teach to the right level intervention to a section of boarding school students. But, that's too much to ask from this paper. So, I won't complain about them but I however do think that the inferences of the authors isn't the fair way to interpret the results.


Conclusion

The straight forward lesson from this experiment is that improving the after-school environment of children has a potential to be a good success in case of high-performing students. However, there are two more important lessons.

1. The optimal value addition strategy is different for high-performing and low-performing students. It means that some students can be improved by merely placing them in better environment.

This is important point to note in the debates on low-cost private schools and government schools. The critics of low-cost private schools argue that these schools aren't any better than government schools.

It is often missed that these are the 'average effects'. As noted in the above experiment, the beneficial intervention for high-performing students doesn't necessarily be the same for low-performing students. In other words, by shifting students from government schools to low-cost private schools, it isn't necessarily the case that no student is learning. It might be the  case that highly motivated students achieves their true potential in low-cost private schools while for others it still doesn't matter.

Hence, the value-addition of low-cost private schools in improving the outcomes of high-performing students, who otherwise wouldn't have realised their potential, shouldn't be ignored. 

I am also speaking this from my personal experience. I studied in a low-cost private school till my 5th standard, where the fee was Rs.30/- per month. If low-cost private school skeptics come and tell me that you would have had the same experience had you studied in a government school, I wouldn't agree. Nor would my mom who is a government school teacher, agree with it. Long story short, the effects change as per the position of the student in the spectrum of outcomes.


2. Boarding schools should be seriously considered as a policy option, at least for the high-motivated students. As mentioned earlier, it's also the optimal strategy in areas affected with left-wing extremism, violence etc. It is also a good way to educate the children of migrants, who constantly move places in search of jobs, especially construction workers.

If given a chance, one could put all students in boarding schools in centralised locations till the end of their schooling. Such system would be easy to monitor and govern as compared to widely distributed schools spreading across a wide area. Despite these advantages, we must note that forcing such interventions isn't the right thing to do, except in extraordinary circumstances, since we are living in a liberal democracy.

Given that we put all students in boarding schools, we should continue working on improving the non-boarding schools.


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The 'near zero' credibility of Indian 'right' economists

"No matter how you slice it, budget 20xx is one of the best content budget of the last two decades"

"Budget 20xx should be regarded as one of the best, perhaps the best, since 1996."

"Budget 20xx is probably the most brilliant economic and political document since the path-breaking budget of 1991."

Can you guess the budget being talked about in the above statements and also the persons who made these statements?

One would expect that the above statements are about the budget of a particular year by 3 different economists. If you think so, then you are wrong. All the three statements above are by the same person about budget of three different years, 2014, 2016 and 2017. In other words, every year, this economist terms the budget as the best in past two decades. 

The names are not important here. This is symptomatic of Indian right economists. I had earlier blogged about the sycophancy of economists supporting demonetisation (here and here). They deliberately cherry pick, force fit and misinterpret data. The same is the case with much celebrated book by the Indian right; I blogged about it here. Nobel Laureate economist Angus Deaton also has written some charitable words on this phenomenon a decade back.

This is not a one-off incident. It's a regular pattern. The popular economist commentators of the Indian right go to large extents to force-fit the data, often exploiting the grey areas. The less we talk about the non-economist commentators writing on economic matters, the better. One can safely say that they now have zero credibility.

One can empathize with their desire to bring emphasis on growth but it doesn't mean that one has to be intellectually dishonest. It isn't expected from anyone, the least from the people in academia, whose job is to search for the truth.

Of course, there are notable exceptions on the Indian right but that's not the point here. There will be exceptions everywhere. We are talking about the most of the Indian right economists who popularly and frequently write in media.

With cheer leaders like this providing cover fire, it may not be a surprise if our governments come up with another dangerous idea like demonetization and again get away with it.


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"What should be" & "What not to be" expected from union government regarding school education?

During every budget, there's a lot of debate on things that the union government could have done but didn't do. In this discourse, there's a confusion in the role of different levels of government regarding school education. We typically tend to put all the blame on the union government for all aspects of education. In this context, I had written an article in 2015 on what exactly should we expect from MHRD regarding school education. Reproducing a slightly abridged version of the old article below.


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The NDA government has completed one year in power, and there has been a great scrutiny of its performance. The comments on the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s work in school education, within this discourse, can be divided into three categories: unrealistic expectations stemming from the belief that the Union government is fully responsible for school education in the country; a sense of disappointment that nothing has been happening; and, a feeling that many initiatives are being taken by the government, which may take time to show results.

To understand the truth, we need to critically examine and understand the nature of the current problems of public school system, the scope of the Union government’s responsibilities, and then come up with a set of expectations from the ministry regarding the same.

The available evidence tells us that the main bottleneck in the Indian public school education is the governance capacity. Many interventions, which were successful when administered by NGOs, failed when implemented in public schools. Lack of teachers and teacher absenteeism are only the visible forms of weak governance capacity, but the problem is deeper and complex. How do we ensure that a teacher not only attends school, but also teaches well?

The state and local governments are best equipped to deal with such problems. Even in the existing system, most of the powers and responsibilities lie with them, but not to the desired extent. This brings us to the question that if the major responsibility lies with the state and local governments, what should the Union ministry do?

In cases where the problem is best dealt locally, the general guiding principles of operation for a central organisation should be to handle those issues that are common to multiple entities  and require a central authority to coordinate, and intervene in areas that can’t be pursued by local entities due to lack of economies of scale.

Under these guiding principles, the role of MHRD becomes evident. Some action points have been listed below, and not in any particular order.

1. Devolve to states

One, devolution and resist the scheme based approach. Reforming education systems is a long-term process. The experience around the world shows that it takes a few decades for the complete transition to take place. Seen in this context, significant results aren’t visible in the five-year time frame that the governments are judged upon. With multiple stakeholders in the system, it is difficult to attribute the success clearly to one particular entity.

The resulting political constraints from this situation often necessitate rolling out schemes to make it seem like the government is working. The union ministry should resist any such temptation.

The first problem with this approach is that it adds to the existing confusion on the roles and responsibilities, often adding parallel structures. Clearing the air on the responsibilities regarding the aspects of school education is in the best interests of both the education system, and the ministry.

The second problem is that, a centrally sponsored scheme adds an additional layer of complexity to the existing structures, and one-size-fits-all policies end up being ineffective in many cases in a nation like ours. Thus, it is best to devolve and leave most decisions to the state. The current consensus on cooperative federalism provides a conducive atmosphere to carry out such reform.

2. Revering Education

Two, set the tone of education discourse in the country. The union government should steer the education discourse towards learning outcomes, and create an atmosphere where education is valued in society. Increasing the societal value of education could possibly reduce dropouts, especially in the case of girls and marginalised communities.

3. Elevating standards

Three, set high standards for education. ASER findings show that learning outcomes are poor in rural areas. Similarly, when compared internationally, the top elite private schools of India don’t perform well. An assessment of 30,000 students conducted in 142 top elite private schools of India across five metros shows that their performance is lower than the international average. These schools don’t suffer from the oft-mentioned problems of public schools, but could still only score below the international average.

One of the reasons for such poor performance is the system’s low expectations from students. When students are tested based on papers that emphasise rote learning in the exams that matter, there is a little external incentive for most of the schools to teach differently. Hence, the union government should reform the 10th standard CBSE board exam, and bring it up to the standards of best quality international end-of-school assessments. The transition has to be gradual though, building the necessary capacity alongside. This takes time, but the ministry can at least start a dialogue regarding this. The state governments can then be encouraged to follow the same.

A related aspect is a participation in international assessments like Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA is an international assessment conducted by OECD, once in three years. India opted out of participating in PISA after it was ranked 72nd out of 74 participating countries. Another study that predicts India's scores in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) says that India would be ranked 46th out of 51 participating countries, had it participated.

Countries like Poland took the PISA results in a positive spirit and are striving to improve, while India opted out of PISA, serving no good. Participating in such assessments gives us a clear benchmark of where we are, where to reach, and how we are progressing over time.

4. Re-evaluate RTE

Four, amend the RTE Act. Some provisions of the RTE Act are creating distortions in the private and public school systems. This needs immediate attention of the Union government. The consultation document prepared by Centre for Civil Society, Delhi, regarding the required amendments can be the starting point. The two guiding principles for revising should be that both private and public schools should be subjected to the same set of rules and regulations, and leave the decision to states and local bodies wherever possible.

5. Get the administration on track

Five, streamline administrative structures. The PAISA study conducted by Accountability Initiative shows that there are cases where some states receive half of their share in the last quarter of the year due to rules and administrative delays.  This demonstrates the need to streamline administrative structures, break the silos, and bring in efficiency.

6. Share data

Six, ensure public access to quality data. Young Lives study conducted by the University of Oxford recently pointed to a decrease in learning outcomes of children. Similar trends were also pointed out by ASER. There is currently little raw, longitudinal data on the learning outcomes of children in India, available to public, to explore the root causes of such serious issues. Some states get third party learning assessments done, but the data is either not public or is scattered across. The Union government should take an initiative to coordinate and collate quality data on learning outcomes from across the states, and make it available to the public. This enables policy makers to make an informed choice.

7. Increase funding - Last but the one that's to be done immediately, increase the funding.

School education, like any complex issue, has several aspects that need to be addressed, ranging from the meaning of education in today’s society, regulation of school markets, to the on-time availability of textbooks to students. We will achieve the end result in the long term, only if we work on all of these.

Thus, the above-proposed reforms are by no means the panacea, nor do they cover the entire spectrum of reforms needed in education, but these certainly are the major aspects under the scope of the Union HRD ministry, that are to be addressed at this point of time. Of these, some of them might already be in place and the work on some might be in the pipeline, but these are the broad expectations from the ministry.

It is these things that the HRD ministry should be judged upon and be made accountable for, not for everything regarding school education. Rest aspects of education like ensuring teacher attendance, teacher training, support, curriculum updation etc. are best addressed by institutions at local level. Central government shouldn't be expected to do these things.  The last thing we would want is centralization of roles that are done best at local level, in an already over centralized context. So, we should be careful of what we wish for.

The nation has been waiting for the transformational change in education since long. One sincerely hopes that the MHRD takes cognizance of this and leads by example, showing the way to the states.

(Views expressed here are personal.)

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Learning Outcomes - The importance of weighing the cow everyday

The union budget has outlined an initiative to regularly measure learning outcomes. This idea was already in process for some time but since it's mentioned in budget, there is some attention on this.

Prominently, there is an opposition to this initiative. "Skepticism" may be a charitable expression to explain the discourse. The arguments are as follows.

The widely repeated argument uses the African adage "Weighing a cow daily doesn't increase its weight". It implies that measuring students' outcomes doesn't increase their outcomes. A similar argument is that one cannot improve outcomes by setting benchmarks without investing in teacher-training systems etc.

Both these arguments are inaccurate.

These arguments confuse the necessary and sufficient conditions. Such confusion misinterprets the evidence. It's also seen in many other aspects of education. For instance, the evidence that investing in infrastructure doesn't necessarily improve outcomes is interpreted as "infrastructure doesn't lead to outcomes. Hence, we shouldn't invest on it." It's incorrect reasoning. Merely investing on infrastructure doesn't lead to outcomes but that doesn't mean that we should stop investing on infrastructure.

Similarly, measuring outcomes doesn't necessarily improve outcomes. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't measure outcomes.

The African adage of "Measuring cow doesn't improve its weight" is a false analogy. An appropriate analogy is that of sports persons. As part of their physical fitness training, their weight is measured regularly, sometimes even daily. It's because the weight measurement guides the further steps. It brings professionalism and some method into the process. Without it, it's just shooting in the dark. 

No one ever tells sports persons "Measuring cow doesn't improve its weight. Don't measure your weight." Measuring weight is only a part of the process and not the end.

Similarly, in Indian education, if anything, the problem is lack of data and not excess of data. Without reliable learning outcomes data, we are shooting in the dark. 

Data inadequacies lead to two primary problems. It constraints our - i) ability to improvise policies;  and ii) ability to understand the challenges.

Four examples in the current discourse illustrate the implications of data inadequacies.

1. The debate on No-Detention Policy (NDP): It is widely argued that learning outcomes declined due to NDP. But how do we know? The true answer is that we don't. The learning outcomes might have already been on a declining trend even before NDP. There might be other reasons. Without learning outcomes data, we are all shouting in the vacuum.

2. Declining learning outcomes: There are states where there is a drastic decline in learning outcomes. As per ASER, the levels have declined from 64% in 2006 to 16% in 2014, in Madhya Pradesh. No one knows why. We can't even know that because we don't have reliable data to explore this. 

3. Do private schools perform better than government schools?: It is pointed out that private schools don't do any better than government schools when the socio economic background of children is taken into account. But is it applicable to all private schools? Not necessarily. It might be applicable mainly to low-cost private schools. High-end private schools might end up producing better outcomes even after socio-economic differences are taken into account.

If only we had the data, we could have studied and understood it better. The 25% reservation of seats in private schools provides us a good opportunity. As per this, students of low-income communities are attending high-end private schools. A good assessment of lottery winners and losers would have thrown light on this aspect. 

4. Are our efforts showing results? Education has many illusive traps. It's easy to get swayed by best practices and good-sounding pedagogies - activity based learning, child centered learning etc. Many initiatives come and go and we don't know whether they are working or not, and why. The least we are able to do is measure process metrics and not outcomes.

Not just outsiders, even teachers don't comprehend the learning levels of their children accurately. Having reliable data is the first step to start engaging the teacher on objective metrics. Without that, it's just tu-tu, mai mai.

All of these illustrate the need for data and shortcomings in the availability of data. We thus need more data and not less. Yes, "many other things" have to be set up apart from measuring learning outcomes, but that doesn't mean that we should stop measuring outcomes.

This brings us to the debate on "many other things". What are these "many other things" that are to be done apart from measuring outcomes? Teacher training and support systems are the commonly pointed out.

There's a confusion on the role of different levels of government on this. The criticism of "merely measuring outcomes doesn't improve outcomes. Systems have to be improved" puts the blame on  the central government for not doing these "many other things". It's unwise to do that.

Improving teacher training, support systems etc. can only be done by the state and local governments and not the union government. Hence, such criticism should be saved for state and local governments, and not for union government. The last thing we want to do is centralize the teacher training.

So, let's be clear. Criticize the union government for not increasing funding but don't criticize it for weak systems at local level. Similarly, don't abdicate state and local governments of their responsibility to improve these systems. We can achieve better results only if we make relevant people responsible for the short-comings. Blaming central governments for things that the states have to do, only affects negatively.

In summary, the idea of systematically measuring and recording learning outcomes is a good one. We should appreciate and welcome it. "Weighing the cow" criticisms don't have any merit. The blame for not doing "many other things" apart from measuring outcomes should be put on state and local governments and not the central government.

Let's weigh the cow everyday!



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Terrence Tao on Trump's visa restrictions

Terrence Tao, the famous mathematician and Fields medal winner says the following on Trump's visa regulations on people from seven countries. 
[earlier] while the process could be slow and frustrating, there was at least an order to it. The rules of the game were complicated, but did not abruptly change in the middle of playing it (save in truly exceptional situations, such as the days after the September 11 terrorist attacks).  One just had to study the relevant visa regulations (or hire an immigration lawyer to do so), fill out the paperwork and submit to the relevant background checks, and remain in good standing until the application was approved in order to study, work, or participate in a mathematical activity held in another country.  On rare occasion, some senior university administrator may have had to contact a high-ranking government official to approve some particularly complicated application, but for the most part one could work through normal channels in order to ensure for instance that the majority of participants of a conference could actually be physically present at that conference, or that an excellent mathematician hired by unanimous consent by a mathematics department could in fact legally work in that department.
With the recent and highly publicised executive order on immigration, many of these fundamental assumptions have been seriously damaged, if not destroyed altogether. Even if the order was withdrawn immediately, there is no longer an assurance, even from nationals not initially impacted by that order, that some similar abrupt and major change in the rules for entry to the United States could occur, for instance for a visitor who has already gone through the lengthy visa application process and background checks, secured the appropriate visa, and is already in flight to the country.   
This is already affecting upcoming or ongoing mathematical conferences or programs in the US, with many international speakers (including those from countries not directly affected by the order) now cancelling their visit, either in protest or in concern about their ability to freely enter and leave the country.  Even some conferences outside the US are affected, as some mathematicians currently in the US with a valid visa or even permanent residency are uncertain if they could ever return back to their place of work if they left the country to attend a meeting.  In the slightly longer term, it is likely that the ability of elite US institutions to attract the best students and faculty will be seriously impacted.
Again, the losses would be strongest regarding candidates that were nationals of the countries affected by the current executive order, but I fear that many other mathematicians from other countries would now be much more concerned about entering and living in the US than they would have previously.
Essentially, Tao is arguing that the Visa regulations have introduced uncertainty in the process, creating ripple effects across a large population, even in those who are not directly impacted by the current decisions.

While there's a lot of debate on whether it's a Muslim ban or a non-Muslim ban, whether it's similar to Obama's similar decision in 2011 etc, Terrence Tao adds a fresh perspective. It's an important argument and many defenders of Trump's restrictions who are downplaying the impact of these orders are missing this point.

On the other hand, it is heartening to see a vibrant democracy in action in US with so many people marching daily on the road, famous academicians openly taking positions against the government, serving diplomats opposing the move, Attorney General taking a stance against the government citing allegiance to constitution and not the government, and big companies issuing statements against the decision. Something like this is completely unimaginable in India.