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.


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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