Let's not keep expanding a failed system

Author: Dr Parth J Shah and Neha Jhingon
Publication: One India One People , 29 April 2007

Since its launch in 2001, SSA has infused substantial new resources into India’s elementary education. In a sense, even before the Fundamental Right to Education became part of the Constitution, SSA has been striving to fulfill that right of the children in the age group of 6-14. Last year the budget allocation for SSA was Rs 7,800 crore, this year it is Rs 11,000 crore. This is on the top of the massive spending on the universalisation of elementary education.

The SSA funds have been used primarily to add infrastructure, new schools, class rooms, and resource centres, to recruit and train teachers and to provide incentives to students to come to schools. By enhancing inputs into school education, SSA has tried to match its slogan of ‘All Learn - All Grow.’

Can scaling up convert failure into success?

There is no doubt that SSA has been very successful in increasing the number of schools, classrooms and teachers in the state education system. We must however ask, what is the state of this state education system that SSA has expanded?

In a recent Pratham survey, ASER 2006, it was found that 45% of children in the age group of 7-10 and 13% of children in age group 11-14 could not read simple words. Even more abysmal findings loom in arithmetic. SSA claims to lay a special thrust on making education at the elementary level useful and relevant for children by improving the curriculum, child-centered activities, and effective teaching-learning strategies. However the number of private schools that server the poor, not the upper classes, has been steadily growing. Just in one year, between ASER 2005 and ASER 2006, Haryana, Punjab, and Karnataka had more than 15% increase in private schools. This was not in urban areas, but rural areas of these states.

SSA thus reflects the mindset that when you fail, do more of the same, and the increase in the magnitude would convert the failure into success. If the existing several lakhs of schools cannot provide meaningful education, then add one more lakh and hope that now they all would provide good education. Common sense suggests that if the current schools are not delivering what is expected of them, then our attention, efforts and resources should be first spent on improving them and not on adding more of the failing schools. SSA trumpets the triumph of faith over reason.

Why is common sense so uncommon in education planning?

A further proof of this mindset, ‘expansion turns failure into success,’ is the recent budget. The Finance Minister announced hiring of 2 lakh more teachers. Shouldn’t he ask whether the current lakhs of teachers are imparting quality education? Does he believe that the failure of these existing teachers would be rectified by adding 2 lakh more of them?

But why just blame the Finance Minister; this is the mindset of the whole education establishment. If the teachers are not teaching, hire more of them! If the textbooks are uninspiring, add or at times subtract more pages from the same! If the curriculum seems irrelevant to the life world of students, ask the same agency to revise it more frequently! If the block resource centres have become just an excuse for a day off teaching, open more of them at a cluster level! If the students are not learning well, declare victory by pushing more of them into schools! If the quality of teaching continues to deteriorate and more and more students fail in the annual exam, announce ‘no-retention policy,’ promote all students to the next class! If the 4% of GDP fails to deliver quality education, increase it to 6! Expand, increase, scale up, and convert failures into successes!

Is there any other area of our life where we follow this logic or rather illogic? Who would ask their cook to cook for 10 when he has consistently failed to cook a decent meal for 4 people? Give more clothes to the dhobi when he has spoiled all the last loads? Put the gardener in charge of the front lawn when he has killed all the life in the back yard? Buy more pens of the same brand, when all the previous ones have left you dry? What is it about education that makes common sense so uncommon?!

What is to be done?

Lenin asked at least one right question in his strategy for the revolution: ‘What is to be done?’

1. Grant managerial and financial autonomy to schools, principals and teachers: The government schools are minutely controlled by education departments. The schools have hardly any autonomy to manage their affairs. They are closest to their customers and they have the necessary freedom to adjust their functioning so that they are better able to meet the changing needs of students and parents. The principals should be education leaders and role models not just older, ossified bureaucrats. They and their teachers must be empowered and given the freedom that their private school counterparts enjoy.

2. Fund government schools through a per-student formula: It is very common that government schools with same number of students get widely different funding from the state. This inequity in funding is inhumane and unjust. This archaic mode of funding must be changed and mandate the state to fund schools based on the number students they have. Obviously it would not be a simple multiplication but would require a somewhat complex formula. The formula would have to take into account the fixed cost, variable cost per child, location of the school, composition of the student body (more challenged students would get higher amount) and other pertinent factors.

3. School vouchers: Fund students, not schools: The current model of guaranteeing education for the poor is for the government to give grants to government schools and the schools then provide education to the students for free. This system of financing education has created a situation where government schools have become a monopoly for the education of the poor. The poor have only one place to go, the government school. Like any monopoly, government schools don’t deliver good education and are less responsive and accountable to their customers.

We must break this monopoly by changing the way we finance education of the poor. Instead of giving grants to schools, the money should be given to poor parents, through a school voucher. The parent would take the voucher and got to any school of their choice. School collects the voucher, deposits in a bank, and the government transfers the equivalent money into school’s bank account. Schools vouchers are a special scholarship that empowers the poor with choice that the rich enjoy.

4. Quality of government schools should set a benchmark for all to emulate: Private schools have to meet stringent standards set the by the government to be recognised. However, the government exempts itself from such standards. The implicit rationale seems to be that it would be too much of a financial burden to require all government schools to fulfill the same standards that the private recognised schools meet. Now largely the children of the poor got to government schools. This means that the government worries about the education quality of the children of the rich by requiring private schools to meet its standards but feels that the poor should be grateful that they at least have a school to go to. The government treats the children to the poor as second class citizens. This inequity must end; government schools must meet the same standards of quality. Every government school should be required to follow the same application process for recognition as private schools and must be formally recognised by the education department. It would be even better if government schools actually exceeded the standards and became role model for private schools to emulate.

5. Link government school grants to performance: Currently there is no link between the performance of government schools and teachers with the grant and salaries they receive. There is no incentive for better performance, whether student learning achievements are good or bad, the schools and teachers get the same funds. It is critical to link the grant amount to performance.

One way to start the process is to link increments in the grant to schools as well as to teacher salaries to performance. The current grant amount can continue but tomorrow’s increment could be tied to their performance. Recent experiments in Andhra Pradesh show that such incentive bonuses do help improve performance of teachers.

6. Give the worst performing government schools on learning achievement contracts: Select a group of worst performing government schools and hand them to other interested and qualified parties to manage them. There are many ways to identify such parties. One could be through tenders, based not on the amount of money the parties would charge, but the degree of improvements they promise in student learning. The government can promise to pay the same amount per child to the new managers as it currently spends. The parties then compete on the degree and type of progress they promise to achieve every year during the period of the contract.

7. Establish independent learning outcome evaluation agencies Except for board examinations, there is no objective information to judge the quality of schools in India. We need to develop more meaningful systems of evaluation, other than annual exams, and implement them at regular intervals. These evaluations should be made public so that parents can make informed decisions. Given the size and diversity of the education market in India, we should have several competing independent agencies to perform this task. Recently financial rating agencies have started rating maritime training institutes under the initiative of the Directorate General of Shipping.

Let’s not keep expanding a failed system, we must try bold and innovative solutions to improve the existing system. Until then, give the extra money that we are committing to education as vouchers to the most underserved communities in the country.