Comments on RS TV discussion on education reform

RS TV has conducted a TV discussion on education reform, in the context of government’s decision to reduce the syllabus by half.

The ideas and analysis presented in the discussion is symbolic of everything that’s wrong with the education reform discourse in India.
Consider two key points raised the discussion — “low salary of teachers” as the binding constraint of teacher quality, and a “library movement” as “the solution”.
The reasoning is that talented people aren’t becoming teachers because of the low pay, as compared to the corporates. It seems an obvious reason, so obvious that it clouds our vision preventing us to look beyond. But if we take a step back and probe this further, a different picture emerges.
As I have argued in my book, one needs to ask three questions
  1. If teacher salary is the issue, what’s the “comparative outcome” of teachers of different grades, receiving different salaries?
  2. In a counterfactual scenario, if teacher salary is the binding constraint, then increasing teacher salary should have significant effect on the outcomes.
  3. Finally, what’s the teacher salary in India, compared to our per-capita income?

We now have a strong research evidence that none of the answers to the above questions support the hypothesis of teacher salary as a binding constraint — there is little difference in outcomes of teachers with different grade pays, increasing teacher salary doesn’t have impact on outcomes, and teacher salary of India is higher than per capita in terms of the ratio as compared to other countries.
The problem instead is, as rightly pointed by Prof. Anita Rampal in the discussion, “what’s happening to the passionate that are entering the system?” It’s the question that needs to be asked. Instead, if we end up at superficial diagnosis of “teacher salaries”, it clouds our vision, preventing us from exploring deeper issues and addressing them.
The second idea of “library and poetry movement” as “the solution” is also on similar lines as the first, a seemingly obvious and intuitive idea, but a superficial one preventing us from exploring the depths of the issue.
Lack of libraries has long been cited as solution for poor learning outcomes. The idea was so strong that some of the early controlled studies in education were done on this idea. We now have a wide range of evidence across different contexts, saying that providing libraries in schools does nothing to outcomes. The reason being, the problem is not lack of books, it’s because of myriad other issues like lack of teacher attention, not teaching to the level and so on.
Citing lack of libraries as the prime reason clouds attention over the other myriad deep issues in education. It is one of the classic examples of how a diagnosis based on mere school visits leads to superficial insights and conclusions.
The above two ideas reflect a fundamental problem with the discourse on education reform on India — the curse of expertise. It goes as follows:
  1. An expert “chooses” to observe only that which he/she has “expertise”.
  2. Expert finds something lacking in what he/she observes.
  3. Expert comes to conclusion that the problem he/she identified is “the major reason” for poor quality of education.
As one can see, there are serious problems with this approach to analysis. It has selection bias, identifying only those things that one is comfortable talking about. The bigger problem with it is that such ideas percolate into mainstream discourse and if they gain momentum, they crowd out other deeper and important issues.
The curse of expertise bias is across the spectrum of educationists but historically, the education reform has been dominated by “pedagogy & curriculum”, “sociology of education” kind of experts. It has been always about idealistic form of content delivery, philosophically. It entirely crowded out the deeper issues of governance, so much that it took decades to realize that governance is the fundamental problem and that parachuting pedagogy solutions isn’t going to work. Even now, ideas are floated around with disregard to our governance capacity, and anything short of ideal form is treated with disdain by the pedagogy experts.
A similar phenomenon can be observed in bureaucrats too. They conflate information/exposure and expertise. Having exposure to education system doesn’t necessarily mean that one’s ideas are insightful. If the insights one derives from exposure aren’t situated in the broader research evidence, and lack analytical rigour, those are just “feelings”. But, the problem is that bureaucrats consider such “feelings” as “insights”, just because of the fact that they have exposure. In other words, familiarity gives the illusion of expertise.
There are now only two ways out — either have a deep comprehensive and analytically rigorous understanding of the issues so that one is aware of what’s being done OR at least pursue the reform so swiftly that all necessary pieces fall in place within short span of time. For this to happen, we should stop acting based on our narrow biased vision and also doing something just to appear to be doing, which often takes the form of grand quick-fix solutions.

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