May 1, 2010

Beyond the right

One of the more enduring puzzles of education in developing countries has been the persistence of a questionable quality of education among government schools, relative to their private counterparts.

Conventional wisdom would have it that government schools fail because they are severely deficient in basic infrastructure, suffer from teacher and student absenteeism, and bureaucratic lethargy leaves supervision inadequate. While these are all accurate representations of government schools and contribute to their poor quality, it is an over-simplification to reduce the challenge to these popular stereotypes.

The success of the recently implemented Right to Education (RTE) Act will depend to a large measure on its ability to address the issue of quality of education in government schools. The RTE, which promises “free and compulsory admission, attendance and completion of elementary education” as a fundamental right for children aged six to 14, is expected to bring approximately 9.2 million out-of-school children across the country to schools. It is therefore an opportune moment to examine two important proposals in the Act and its possible impact on government schools.

One of the most interesting features in the RTE Act is the mandatory provision of reserving 25 percent of seats in private schools for children from economically and socially deprived sections. If implemented in true spirit, this will provide a great opportunity for a larger number of poor children to access better quality education provided by the many good private schools. However, its impact on the local government school need not necessarily be benign.

There is enough evidence—pioneered by Thomas Schelling and popularised by Malcolm Gladwell—to suggest that government and private schools may be subject to the same societal forces that underpin the economics of social segregation. These suggest that the dynamic interplay of various socio-economic forces invariably leads to an emergent situation wherein the private schools end up getting enriched and government schools impoverished.

Prevailing conventional wisdom considers private schools as superior to government schools, and parents therefore generally prefer to send their children to the nearby private institution if they could afford it. Further, even among the poor who cannot afford private education, the parents of better-performing children are more likely to send their children to private schools, despite their financial problems.

A combination of the poor quality of government schools and the widespread preference for private schools, would therefore result in the better students leaving government schools for private ones, especially in the urban areas. It is but inevitable that the flight of good students to a specific category of schools not only enriches that school, but also impoverishes the quality of the school from where the student is leaving. In other words, private schools exercise a “crowding out” effect on government schools by cherry-picking on the better students and, in the net, leaving government schools even more impoverished.

There is the possibility that the 25 percent reservation provision in the RTE Act could end up increasing the divide. Presumably, the private schools will have in place screening mechanisms to select from among the best talent of poor children applying for these seats. By attracting the best talent, they would become even more segregated (performance-wise) from the government schools, and a two-track schooling system, with even greater outcome disparity, could emerge.

This possibility only underlines the increased importance of strong administrative and regulatory oversight on maintaining standards in government schools.

Second, the RTE Act requires that schools conform to a 30:1 student-teacher ratio. The 523,000 vacant positions for teachers (and 510,000 new ones) mean that all state governments will have to appoint a large number of teachers to achieve the stipulated ratio. But given the considerable political goodwill to be capitalised and regular practice, it is inevitable that all states will undertake massive direct recruitments to fill these vacancies.

Strong resistance by powerful teachers unions across states has been a major stumbling block in the implementation of reforms that could improve quality in government schools. The proposed additions to the teacher workforce to meet the RTE norms will only increase their negotiating power.

Further, it has been found from recent research—for instance, by Karthik Muralidharan from the University of California, San Diego, who examined the relative performances of regular and contract teachers—that increased flexibility to hire and fire teachers positively impacts on teacher performance. Conversely, job security engenders complacency and lowers learning outcomes. It is therefore important that this dimension be factored into the recruitment policies for new teachers across states.

In light of all this evidence, a more appropriate strategy would be to have a mix of both direct recruitments and contract appointments, with the contracts structured to achieve a performance-based progression to permanency. Vacancies in primary schools, especially in rural areas, could be filled up with contract teachers, who after appropriate contract tenure could be either absorbed or relieved off, based on their performance.

Given the fact that the RTE Act lays down standards for various things including school infrastructure, teacher training and curriculum, it may have been prudent to clearly specify the modalities for recruitments also. State governments on their own may not be able to structure such incentives given the strong resistance this is likely to generate from the unions.

Even with all the interventions proposed under the RTE Act, the fundamental issues of ensuring teacher and student attendance, and the quality of teaching will remain largely unresolved. Creation of demand-side pressures by more active role for school management committees are necessary to increase teachers’ accountability to the local community and improve the quality of education.

The critical link between poverty and student absenteeism cannot be easily broken. Therefore complementing existing schemes like mid-day meals with modest conditional cash transfers to incentivise parents to send their children to school could improve school attendance and even learning outcomes.

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