RTE: Learning outcomes more important than syllabus completion

Meet Dr Parth Shah! He is an economist by profession who taught at the University of Michigan-Dearborn (US) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (India) between 1992 and 1998. In 1997, Dr Shah founded India's top think tank called Centre for Civil Society (CCS).

Ranked amongst the world's top 50 think tanks by 'The Think Tanks and Civil Societies Programme' at the University of Pennsylvania, CCS focuses on policy research and advocacy, with education on top of the list. CCS's other areas of focus relate to economic freedom, livelihood, good governance and environment. The think tank is also credited with the launch of India's first private-sector led education voucher scheme.

Dr Shah was visiting Pakistan on a tight schedule last week, when he managed to squeeze in an interview with BR Research between a roundtable on education voucher held by PRIME institute, Islamabad, sightseeing to Lok Virsa and a flight to Lahore for his eventual way back home.


BR Research: You mentioned earlier at the roundtable that there is no fixed model of having an education voucher scheme. But, what if you were to generalise the factors that made certain programmes successful and others a failure?

Parth Shah: The biggest factor that plays a role in the success is the design of the programme. Voucher schemes are something you have to put in the existing system, so how you design the programme conceptually and how you implement it are critical. Second factor is how it aligns with the incentives of the people who are going to be administrating it. The third thing is commitment from the political system to make the programme successful.

BRR: What are the design elements common to most successful voucher schemes? PS: In general, the vouchers are customised to each area. For example, in some voucher programmes, there is no top-up allowed, which means you can only go to a school that charges exactly what the voucher amount is. And there are quite a few programmes which have no top-up policy.

PS: The voucher design depends on many factors, the primary ones being the type of problem that you are trying to address by introducing vouchers and who is the key beneficiary of the programme. In addition to the design, there are differences in implementation. For example, if you have a robust IT system in the education department, then you don't have to issue a physical voucher; you can just issue a number that can be verified across the terminals.

BRR: One practical challenge has been the identification of the beneficiaries. What has been India's experience in this regard?

PS: Selecting the group of beneficiaries has always been a challenge. You can use the database of those who are pre-qualified as below or around the poverty line. That's the first place to start.

There is a huge debate in India about how to identify the poor. People say if you include the wrong people: that's less of a worry: at least all the deserving people are getting benefits, at the cost of only a few wrong people getting those benefits. But, if you exclude the right people, then it is a perverse system.

India is thinking along the lines that instead of defining who they are: you try to define who they are not. For instance, those who pay income tax are not qualified for the voucher scheme, and those who own a car or have credit cards do not qualify either. So, we keep excluding people from the general population over a period of time, and as these different datasets become better, our targeting would improve, without excluding anyone who is supposed to get the benefit.

BRR: Can private sector philanthropists, foundations and high net worth individuals roll out their voucher schemes in their respective localities? Has there been any experiment to integrate government voucher scheme with private sector philanthropy?

PS: It is a good idea, but it is not being done so far in the education sector. In the US, several privately-funded programmes exist. In India, we have a voucher programme in vocational training for skill development. Currently, this pilot programme is being run by the CCS in the state of Maharashtra. Through this platform you can come as an individual or you can come as a corporate and say, for example, that you run a refinery in this area and you want to ensure that every child in this area over the age of 15 has access to vocational training. You can give money to the voucher platform then that runs the programme on your behalf. A similar programme could be tried in education.

BRR: There are provisions in the Indian right to education law that private schools should ensure that at least 25 percent of their primary class strength belongs to poor and disadvantaged class and that the government will pay for their tuition via voucher scheme. How does this work and what are its intended and unintended consequences?

PS: In a sense, it's the victory of the voucher idea that finally the government has realised that public money can go to private schools and support students. This is what the 25 percent scheme is about.

At the same time, I don't like the idea of making it mandatory. The government should have kept it voluntary by proposing that "we are willing to offer you this much money per student, and from this group of students you can choose which students you want to admit in your school".

When the government made it mandatory, the high-fee schools from around the country went to the Supreme Court and fought a long and hard battle on the premise that this is infringement of the right to practise their trade.

But, the Supreme Court decided that their argument wasn't good enough because the government does require mandatory behaviour by businesses in other areas--such as hiring quotas, or quotas on higher education medical and engineering seats--and, therefore, it was ruled constitutionally valid.

BRR: Tell us a little more about your concerns with this 25 percent mandatory requirement!

PS: The thing is that some schools don't really want it, and neither do rich parents. So, there is a threat to those students who are going to be enrolled in the scheme. The school might take those students because the law says it must, but it can discriminate against these poor students. Who will watch over these millions of students admitted under the scheme? The law is not going to protect all the time. So, a situation has been created where the supposed beneficiaries could inadvertently be harmed--the law of unintended consequences!

Schools need to be pro-active in integrating these students academically and socially. If the school is not pro-active, I really worry that in 2-3 years' time, many of these kids may drop out for one reason or the other. It could be because of the adverse behaviour by the school, or because of the students' realisation of the social gap, or simply because they will not be able to keep up with the remaining students, whose parents are educated, who have extra tuitions at home, etc.

BRR: How would making the requirement voluntary help?

PS: Making it voluntary would have mitigated some of these problems. That way, the school would have aligned itself with the requirements, it would have been ready for the change, the teachers and parents would have been ready, and there would have been a consensus already built within the school that the administration is going to do their best to ensure that these kids do well in their school. The school then works for the poor student, not against her.

Many use the example of forced integration of whites and blacks in the US and argue that compulsion is necessary to change social attitudes and practices. If you look closely, what happened in the US was that when the law outlawed racial selection at the school level, the racial selection changed to the neighbourhood level. People chose neighbourhoods that were white or black, so the discrimination in choosing the school just shifted to the discrimination in choosing the home.

BRR: Both India and Pakistan have passed the right to education laws. Do you consider education a right in the same sense as a right to life and property or would you have a different notion for it?

PS: At the philosophical level, there is an important distinction between rights and entitlements which is getting blurred. I would use the language of entitlements instead of rights for education or healthcare or employment. So, this is an entitlement that you are getting from the society. It's not your right in the sense as is your right to life, liberty and property.

BRR: What does the right imply and where does the responsibility lie?

PS: Normally, it is the parents' responsibility. That is how the world has been, except for the last century or so. But, in the rights' language, it is the state's responsibility.

BRR: Can the state force the kids to school?

PS: In Pakistan, yes. In India we don't have any penalty for parents if their children are not in school. In the first draft of the RTE Act of India, the provision of penalty was there. There were monetary fines followed by prison; but we removed that clause.

If it is the child's right given by the state, then, naturally, it is the state's responsibility to ensure that children are in school--by making the school engaging and meaningful to children and parents.

In Pakistan, the RTE laws of Islamabad and Sindh both have penal clauses--monetary fine of about Rs 50,000. So, you have got to ask yourself: on one hand, the parents are so poor that they can't send the child to school and now you are asking that poor parent to pay Rs 50,000 fine?!

BRR: What are you other findings about Pakistani laws?

PS: I am concerned about the requirement to complete the curriculum by the teacher. Both Pakistani and Indian laws say that the teacher has the obligation to complete the syllabus, which I think is the worst thing one can possibly do, at least in the primary education.

In primary education, the focus should be whether the child is able to read or not, whether she/he can do the maths or not that. Completing the syllabus does not really matter if the child cannot read nor can do elementary maths.

The legal requirements of making sure that teacher completes the syllabus are perverse. They undermine the larger purpose of education. What they should judge instead is the students' ability to read and comprehend. The important thing is learning outcomes.

Then, quality is also talked about in the Pakistan laws. But, there is no independent definition of quality. So, I may guarantee you quality education; but what does that quality actually mean? Defining minimum standards of quality is important--and assessment of students should be based on those standards.

BRR: What does "free" mean and include in Indian RTE laws?

PS: It means that the tuition is free across the board. The rest varies from state to state depending upon their respective fiscal strengths. Some states also provide text books, note books. In addition to that, some states provide midday meals, uniforms and winter jerseys, while some of the states also provide transport.

Read the story in Business Recorder.

Business Recorder (Pakistan)
Publication Date: 
31 January 2014