Comments on “Education chapter” of Economic Survey Vol 2, 2017 August

It has been my wish to see separate chapters on education and health care in the survey. They only find a brief mention, even this time. The analysis and recommendations are only cursory. 

Broadly, it reiterated the needed to focus on outcomes. It suggests categorizing initiatives into three categories 

  • Green (that can result in outcomes): Mid day meals etc. 
  • Yellow (promising initiatives) 
  • Red (need not result in outcomes): increasing teachers.

We usually hear that teacher shortage is a big issue but the survey recommends not to increase it, at least puts it as the least priority. This is because of misinterpretation of ASER data. 

Looking at ASER and PTR data, the survey says that “States complying with PTR provision of RTE Act have lower learning outcomes” (para 10.11, p 258). Hence, it categorizes “increasing teachers” under Red Box in the recommendations. 

There are several issues with this inference. 

1. “States complying with PTR provisions have lower outcomes” may be a misleading interpretation, as it implies causation

2. Looking only at PTR vs. Outcomes graph [Fig 3, p 259] may not be the correct way to understand the data in this context. It’s because, on a macro level, “no single input” can alone result in outcomes. It needs a combination of several critical inputs. For instance, states with higher PTR might have other enabling factors and so on. 

One needs to have a lower PTR to do anything meaningful. Any good classroom pedagogy is built on this. 

Experimental evidence [paper, ppt] also suggests along similar lines. Lowering PTR alone results in outcomes only when the initial class sizes are high.  For smaller classrooms, PTR reduction results in outcomes when one combines it with other interventions. 

This doesn’t mean that we should keep classrooms large. We should thus be advocating for reducing class size and complementing it with other interventions instead of recommending against lowering PTR. 

3. The Survey’s section on recommendations reflects the issue with comparing Outcomes and PTR to draw insights. Remedial education is one of the recommendations. Remediation is an intensive activity requiring personalized attention, that means a lower PTR. But, the survey categorizes “increasing teachers” under “Red Box”, an inference from comparing PTR and Outcome data, resulting in a contradiction. We can’t both NOT reduce PTR (NOT increase teachers) and also do remedial education. 

There is another minor issue in the survey. It says “While ‘The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act’, 2009 (RTE), has significantly improved the enrollment level in primary schools across the country…..”. I am afraid, this isn’t true because we had already reached near 100% enrollment before RTE came into place. 

Hope the survey dedicates a separate chapter to education, going into more depth, summarizing existing research, putting it in a policy perspective. Currently, no important document does that.

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