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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