Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Accountability in education

by Jeff Hammer.

I was shocked by Lant Pritchett's note on the appalling performance of India's best two states on the international PISA assessment. Actually, I was not really shocked; I didn't expect anything else as I've been listening to Lant for years now. By the same token, I agree with Jishnu Das that we really don't know much about what works in education (other than that good teaching makes a difference) and that our bean-counting of inputs into education may be completely wrong headed. From conversations with him (also over years) I surmise that the only thing we really know about what leads to more learning is that it is correlated with how many years children stay in school. What that suggests, though, is that attention be directed towards the choice of parents and students to stay in school.

In my opinion people choose to do things if it is worth it to them. This is a common assumption for economists. While challengeable in some circumstances, does it make any sense to think that people send their children to school if they don't think it's worth it? If it is compulsory: sure. With compulsion, attention of policy makers and carefully watchful observers such as Pratham should be to make sure school is worth the year of children's attendance since people would not be able to decide for themselves. Until we see compulsory schooling enforced, though, years of education remain a family's choice and we have to understand how and why people make that choice.

Unless we think parents are utterly clueless about the value of education and totally incapable of telling if teachers are doing anything or their children are learning anything, the effectiveness of teaching and the amount of knowledge imparted must be a major factor in their decision as to whether school is worth it. Don't get me wrong, I've met dozens of educators and education officials in India who believe parents are, indeed, clueless and such decisions should be out of their hands. But they are the very people who gave us the PISA ratings and are indeed throwbacks to the License Raj where only bureaucrats were assumed to know anything. Further, with the explosion of private schools, even in rural areas, it is laughable to think that there are so many parents who value education so little. They are willing to forego free public education in order to pay for something more worthwhile.

Which brings us to accountability.

What could parents be looking at, that makes them think school is worth it? It must be based on performance: parents don't really see the inputs, they mostly just see their children learn. Or not learn as is the case. So how can they translate their concern for learning into actual learning? They have to be free to pick the educational context that they see is working for them or their neighbors. That's where accountability comes in.

A provider of any good or service is likely to be most accountable when their livelihood depends upon attracting customers. If what they provide is worth it, people will take the service, and the provider can make a living. If not, parents won't pay and teachers won't get paid. As of now, there is no mechanism to allow families to make that choice. There is no such compulsion for teachers to provide a service worth paying for. No doubt there are many teachers (probably most) who are doing the best they can regardless of how they are paid. But with over 24% absenteeism, large numbers of teachers observed to be doing anything but teaching, and many sub-contracting their position to under-qualified replacements at a fraction of government salaries, there is substantial room for improvement.

Further, if we are going to get more students (and, hence, teachers) into classrooms, the dedicated teachers may be the ones who are already on the job. People induced to enter the profession may not be as dedicated and, hence, need some other way to hold them accountable than internally felt professional ethics.

I am an educator (of sorts) but have no opinion about what the bottleneck in children's learning really is. Jishnu says the most successful headmasters all say different things (after good teachers - but then, don't we judge the goodness of teachers by whether their students actually learn? It's an output based judgment, too.) I know little of pedagogical theory. But I know just as little about the inner workings of most complex things I use -- computers and the Internet, water systems, bicycles. I can tell when they work and when they don't, though. Similarly, I know that my sons learned to read and write, become responsible citizens and to develop and exercise critical intellectual capacities (sometimes way too critical for my taste) even though I have no idea how they learned them. I did know that their teachers were in school almost every day and doing things that sounded like teaching to me. I did not have to be an expert on pedagogy to hold the schools completely accountable for my children's education.

I was also fortunate enough to be able to take (or threaten to take) them out of government schools if I thought otherwise. Funding for government schools (in the U.S.) follows enrollment, if not so directly and obviously as for private schools. So my threats about shifting my children out of government school directly mattered to their teachers.

There is no reason why Indian parents can't do the same. They, on average, may not have my education but after talking to hundreds of families in rural areas, tribal villages, urban slums and SC hamlets, I hear no less concern for their children's future than I have for mine and no less ability to tell if a teacher appears to be doing his job. They may be more capable than me since they are more likely to see the teachers themselves -- I needed to ask my children.

In many rich countries, the issue of vouchers to pay for schools is emotionally charged. Historically, free compulsory public education was a result of fights between church and State (even in Japan where `church' doesn't quite fit -- but religion and State does). Children were already attending school in high percentages and there was a fight for their hearts and minds. In rich countries currently, suggestions to provide vouchers instead of State-run schools re-kindle this old antagonism against religious instruction.

India never had this fight nor this evolution of public provision. Our view of schooling here in India was imposed based on the final result of universal free education seen in rich countries without the history from which that final result evolved.

India needn't go through the phase of fighting over who gets to teach students who are already highly motivated to learn and have seen learning take place. If India wants to see all children educated, she can certainly pay for the cost of education (in fact, the job can be done for much less per student is presently spent) so that families don't have to. But the government doesn't have to provide it directly (though government schools should be free to compete for this money if it can). The fight is the State against society (families), not against the church.

What the State can do is make as much information known to parents as possible. What should children know after how many years of school? How do you know if your child is keeping up? How do you know what you're paying for is worth it? As of now, this information is certainly not given to parents. Maybe State run schools don't want parents to know (and, unfortunately, most Indian parents will not know about PISA). And as of now, there is nothing parents (particularly poor parents) can do about it anyway.

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