India needs to focus on linking funding inputs with learning outcomes
Over the past few weeks, this newspaper (and its online edition) has witnessed a spirited debate on the crisis in Indian schools, focusing on the kind of reforms that can help the country improve its abysmal learning outcomes. Although there is some disagreement on the role of private versus public schools in improving educational attainments of schoolchildren, everyone agrees that learning standards have fallen in India over the past few years even as public spending on schools has increased.
The latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) report released last month by non-governmental organization (NGO) Pratham shows that more than half of children in Class V are unable to read a Class II-level text. Even as enrolment rates have shot up, learning levels have dropped. Studies other than ASER have also drawn similar conclusions about the poor learning levels of Indian schoolchildren. Even students in the relatively better performing states of Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu were placed near the bottom of international rankings in a 2009 study by the Programme for International Student Assessment.
The average reading and arithmetic skills of children have in fact dropped sharply since 2009, when the right to education law was passed, as ASER reports since then show. The rot is deepest in state-funded schools, which have seen an unprecedented infusion of funds over the past decade. In an interview to Mint on 29 January, a key spokesperson of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and the minister for rural development, Jairam Ramesh, acknowledged that learning outcomes in schools across the country had declined over the past few years but held state governments responsible for the decline. Nothing could be further from the truth. The problem with schooling lies not just in the faulty implementation of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). The root of the problem lies in the very design of the SSA programme and its thrust on inputs and quantity instead of the quality of education.
The misplaced thrust of SSA stems from the faulty design of the Right to Education law. Like other key social sector interventions of the UPA, the Right to Education Act has been poorly designed, and has led to a gigantic waste of public resources over the past few years. According to a study by the accountability initiative group of the Centre for Policy Research, an increase of Rs1,000 in per-student allocations raised the proportion of students in Class III-V who can read a Class I textbook by a mere 0.2%. The education law may have been initiated with the noble intention of promoting learning levels but since we measured only enrolment rates, we achieved success only on that score.
Although policymakers pay lip service to measuring outcomes, we still continue to focus largely on inputs. It is the centre rather than states that must bear the blame, given that it is the centre’s thrust on measuring inputs such as school infrastructure and the number of teachers which shape the priorities of state governments. Had the centre initiated rigorous assessments of learning outcomes in each state and district of the country, and had it linked funding to outcomes, states would have focused on delivering quality education.
Building a school system that actually delivers will require us to honestly acknowledge the mistakes of the past; else we will keep throwing good money after bad. In a country such as India, state funding will continue to play a major role in ensuring access to basic quality education. But to make sure that the increased spend is put to good use the school system needs a radical overhaul. Over the past few years, salaries of teachers in public schools have risen substantially. Yet, increasing number of parents in rural India seem to be deserting government schools for more expensive private ones, where teachers are less qualified but work harder. The reason why government school teachers do not teach well, or teach well only in their private tuition classes is the utter lack of accountability in the public schooling system.
A change in school strategy that entails the use of school vouchers funded by the state, and involves private schools, is required to change the status quo. Public funding of private schools and improvement of schooling standards in state-run schools should be seen as complementary strategies rather than mutually exclusive ones. But reforms in public schools will require realigning incentives of teachers, and linking pay to performance. Finally, both public and private schools will be able to deliver better once our education policy starts putting greater focus on improving pedagogy and learning outcomes rather than on just schooling inputs and physical infrastructure.
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