From the learning curve

In every country in the world there is an “access axis” that dominates education policy.

Written by Lant Pritchett | Published:July 6, 2009 3:10 am

In every country in the world there is an “access axis” that dominates education policy. There is a powerful coalition focusing on “business-as-usual” expansion of existing systems. The temptations are near irresistible: politicians get to hire more teachers,contractors get to build more buildings,teachers’ unions get more members,and government officials get more projects to manage. Beautifully,all of this can be wrapped in high-minded rhetoric about human rights for the Left and promoting the economy for the Right. The “access axis” has the additional advantage that those who bear the brunt of its policies are children,mostly of the rural,the poor and the powerless,who are trapped in brutal and ineffective schools without effective alternatives and robbed of their life chances through poor quality education.

India,with its newly elected government,stands at a crossroads on its policies for post-primary education. The expansion in enrolments at the primary level is producing ever greater numbers of primary school leavers,most of whom seek to continue their education. Something should be done about secondary education. India has two choices. India can choose to follow and slavishly copy other “best practices” and serve the interests of the “access axis” by a business-as-usual expansion of the existing public system. Alternatively,India has the capacity to choose its own distinctive path,leapfrog what other countries have done,and become a global leader in building new modalities of support for expansion in secondary education that create an environment for secondary education that encourages real learning,innovation,and accountability.

The access axis presents a simple and seemingly plausible case: “SSA provided money,schools were built,teachers were hired,and enrolments expanded” — since the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan was a success the next logical step is an “SSA-like” programme for secondary schooling. Although SSA was a programme that was admirably led,well managed,and successfully implemented as designed,the argument by analogy of the extension to secondary is deeply flawed,for three reasons.

First,post hoc ergo propter hoc (this after that,therefore because of that) fallacies make for ad hoc (any old thing will do) policymaking. Suggesting that SSA had no enrolment impact might seem like denying facts: the government can count SSA financed schools and count the children in those schools. But evaluation of impacts is always about the counter-factual: not just what did happen but what would have happened without the programme.

A key test of whether SSA caused increases in enrolment is whether the share of primary school enrolment in government schools increased. Why is this important? SSA intended to increase the attractiveness of government schools (lowering travel costs by building schools,hiring more teachers to reduce class sizes,providing better materials to improve quality). If these improvements worked they should have not just attracted children from out of school but also drawn students from private schools into government schools. Alternatively,demand for schooling has been increasing at all levels of society as the result of India’s seismic social and economic shifts. If enrolment increases were caused by increased demand then both private and public should have increased — even if the SSA financing had no impact at all. What do the available data suggest?

The data show the share of primary education which is private has increased substantially. The latest household survey data pegs the share of enrolled children in the private sector at 58 per cent in the urban sector and at 32 per cent in the rural sector. How exactly does SSA claim “success” for the massive increases in enrolments in schools it did not support?

As with everything about India,there are huge differences across states and between rural and urban areas. In some regions public sector enrolment fell in absolute numbers (even when totals were increasing). Obviously these are not SSA successes. In other regions the public sector share fell but public sector enrolments increased,in which case it is unclear how much of SSA “success” was just riding up with increased demand as the incremental share of enrolment in the public sector was often very small. Finally,there are a few regions — mainly the rural areas of the most backward states in which there had previously been very little expansion such as rural Bihar and rural UP — in which enrolments rose,public sector enrolments rose,and the public sector share of enrolments rose. While there was success in expanding education there is no rigorous evidence to suggest SSA played any causal role in the India’s increases in enrolment,it is probably fair to say that SSA might have had some impact in some places,but that most of India’s post hoc increase in enrolments has little to do with the propter hoc (because) of SSA.

A second reason for not drawing on SSA as a model is that it needs too long for educational quality — based on any sense of enhancing students’ capabilities — to even become an issue,much less the driving issue. The “access axis” plays a particularly clever circular trick: they define quality based on the inputs they want to finance — better physical facilities,more teacher training,smaller class sizes,higher wages for teachers — and then show they have been successful in focusing on and improving quality. Again,the only people who do not benefit from this trick are the children whose lack of early acquisition of fundamentals dooms their life chances.

There is a third sense it would be reckless to take all aspects of SSA as a success to be replicated. Costs matter. India has myriad pressing needs and every rupee spent on something is a rupee not spent on something important — more food,better roads,improved health. By all calculations,to produce a lower quality of primary education costs the standard public sector primary,on average,roughly twice as much as it can be done in either the private sector or by community schools. This is primarily because the pay of teachers in government (and aided) schools are enormously higher than in private schools — without any better,and often much worse,performance. So even if SSA did produce additional enrolment,it almost did so at too high a cost.

This is not to say India should not do something about secondary education,it must and should,as it is badly in need of updating to meet 21st-century challenges,but India should not copy SSA and focus on favoured expansion of the public system through a Centrally designed scheme,nor draw on “international best practices” sold to it by education “experts”. Rather India should address secondary education in new and creative ways drawing on the current strengths of the Indian secondary education: a federal system that allows states to take leadership and produce innovations,a mixed system in which an array of providers exist on equal footing (and could receive equal support by making support to students,not schools),and a performance-oriented system in which learning matters.

The writer is professor of the practice of international development at the Kennedy School of Government,Harvard Universityexpress@expressindia.com

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