Schooled against innovation

Primary education can only improve if government embraces new ideas

Published: September 20, 2014 1:14 am
 Gyan Shala runs schools for free, and staffs its classrooms at a much lower cost than comparable municipal schools. (Source: PTI/file) Gyan Shala runs schools for free, and staffs its classrooms at a much lower cost than comparable municipal schools. (Source: PTI/file)

By: Rajeev Dehejia & Sujata Visaria

Although the Central government is still in its infancy, there is a renewed sense of energy and urgency in policymaking circles. Primary education, especially for girls and with a focus on remedying the lack of adequate sanitation, has received an infusion of attention and resources. While resources are always scarce, the ultimate bottleneck to solving our many policy dilemmas is ideas, and in particular ideas that work in the real world.

In primary education, the initial emphasis has been on enrolment and the data point to considerable success, with primary enrolment rates having crossed 90 per cent nationally. This is an impressive achievement, but policymakers and education practitioners are now coming to terms with the uncomfortable second half of this equation: that school children don’t seem to learn much.

For example, in Gujarat, the prime minister’s home state and where we have conducted our research, the 2013 Aser report states that in rural Ahmedabad, 41 per cent of children in Classes I and II are unable to read letters or words, and 35 per cent cannot recognise the numbers 1-9, the most minimal standards to measure educational progress.

Aser also finds that private schools outperform government schools: only 13 per cent of Class III children in government schools could subtract numbers, but 34 per cent of those in private schools could (although even 34 per cent is low). However, this comparison may not be fair: private schools have more resources and are expensive, so they attract students from more educated and privileged homes. A fairer comparison can be seen in Educational Initiatives (EI)’s 2009 and 2010 assessments of the non-formal schools run by the NGO Gyan Shala in slum areas of Ahmedabad city. Gyan Shala runs schools for free, and staffs its classrooms at a much lower cost than comparable municipal schools. EI compared the achievement of students in these classes to those from Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) schools.

The numbers speak for themselves. On a standardised 0 to 100 scale, Gyan Shala students were scoring 80-plus per cent on language tests while AMC students on the same test were almost 20 percentage points lower. The same holds true for mathematics scores as well. One of the most telling findings was that Gyan Shala students were able to answer non-standard questions (questions that were less familiar to students and for which they were less likely to have been coached) at 70 to 80 per cent, compared to 20 to 30 per cent for AMC students.
How does Gyan Shala achieve these results? Its innovative formula is to hire teachers with a Class XII qualification, and then provide them with intensive training and a detailed, scripted classroom curriculum prepared by Gyan Shala’s highly trained and experienced “design team”.

Teachers are trained 30 days annually; they are constantly supervised and supported by the design team and the curriculum is continually updated and improved. In the course of our research (conducted jointly with Melody M. Chao and Anirban Mukhopadhyay, both of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology), we have made several visits to Gyan Shalas and found students eager to learn and teachers motivated to teach. Notably, in sharp contrast to government schools, supervisors and substitute teachers cover teacher sick days so that students never show up to an empty classroom.

Gyan Shala students are typically from blue-collar homes. Their parents understand that education could be their pathway to success. It is little wonder, then, that parents prefer to send their children to Gyan Shala over the local municipal school. However, it is disappointing that the AMC school board chairman, Jagdish Bhavsar, sees Gyan Shala as a threat, recommending in a recent report to Gujarat’s ministry of education that NGO schools be curbed (The Indian Express, July 27).

Bhavsar is missing an opportunity. Gyan Shala’s model of primary education is designed to be scalable and can be adapted for the municipal school system. Between 2006 and 2009, Gyan Shala worked with the AMC school board to introduce its teaching materials and teacher training in randomly chosen municipal schools. EI’s analysis shows that municipal school students in these intervention schools performed significantly better than in non-intervention schools, closing about half the gap between Gyan Shala and regular AMC schools in language and mathematics performance.

Since then, the partnership has broken down. Gyan Shala poses an unusual challenge to the AMC school board in that it takes some students who would have otherwise attended municipal schools. If he manages to shut down Gyan Shala, Bhavsar may feel that he has won. But his victory will come at a huge cost to both Gyan Shala’s current students and to children throughout the public school system who could have benefited from its innovative ideas. Imagine, instead, if Bhavsar embraced innovation to improve the quality of AMC schools. The Ahmedabad municipal school system could become a model for other school boards to follow.

There are two lessons in this tale that go beyond Gujarat — indeed, beyond the education system. First, corporate social responsibility can contribute resources and the government can cut red tape, but we also need ideas about how to improve the quality of public services. More often than not, these come from socially conscious innovators trying to make a difference, whether through NGOs or social enterprise. Second,  in contrast to the winner-take-all competition of the business world, for societal challenges like education, health and the environment, everyone could eventually benefit from new ideas incubated in NGOs and social enterprise.

Dehejia is associate professor of public policy at the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, New York University. Visariais is assistant professor of economics at the HKUST Business School, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

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