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Studying the education system, one page at a time

By Ankit Vyas

As we move towards the second decade of the 21st century, there is much to be pleased about. Most countries in the world have made education a human right. In developing countries like India and Brazil, almost all children are in school. That’s something to be happy about, right? Turns out, being in school doesn’t mean much. An evaluation by an NGO in Egypt found that a large fraction of students enrolled in grade 5 could not write a single letter.

Evaluations have produced similar findings in Tanzania, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. It is one thing to talk about the quality of learning. However, the situation we have on our hands is no learning at all. Hence, while the Millennium Development Goals emphasise enrollment, the Sustainable Development Goals have a clear focus on quality.

Multiple theories for increasing learning

Getting kids to school does not imply that they're learning

Getting kids to school does not imply that they’re learning | Photo Courtesy: Visual Hunt

As governments move their focus from schooling to learning, there are a variety of solutions to choose from. They are now relying on RCTs, rigorous evidence and best practices to improve learning. In many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, students don’t have textbooks to learn from. Seems common-sensical to provide textbooks to facilitate the learning process, doesn’t it? However, various evaluations point out that textbooks haven’t contributed to the increase in learning.

Increasing the teachers’ pay is also a popular theory. In Indonesia, the teacher pay was doubled for positive effects. Yet, three years later, the impact on student learning and teacher effort was negligible.

Theories for explaining this failure

Lant Pritchett relates an education system to a car. We would all agree that putting more gas in a car will lead to it going further. However, if one of the parts stop functioning, no amount of gas would make the car work.

There are different frameworks to explain this failure but I will go with an analogy developed by Lant Pritchett. He relates an education system to a car. We would all agree that putting more gas in a car will lead to it going further. However, if one of the parts stop functioning, no amount of gas would make the car work. Pritchett argues that the education system is similar. Inputs like money, teachers’ pay, textbooks etc., will not work in a system that is dysfunctional.

Why are these systems dysfunctional? Pritchett argues that these systems were developed for the purpose of schooling. Most of these were effective in reaching this purpose. However, the mechanisms for accountability required to improve learning are very different from those in improving schooling.

Let me illustrate this with a study from India on frontline education administrators in Bihar (Aiyar, Dongre). The study analysed the work pattern and mindset of Cluster and Block Resource Officers through interview and observations. The time-use showed that these officers spent only 5% of their time in the classroom, while their official job role required them to spend at least 50% of their time observing teaching and giving feedback. They are spending their days reporting the number of toilets, boundary walls, children enrolled, teachers etc.

Children are not learning

Ten years ago, Bihar was doing horribly in providing access to schooling. Nitish Kumar, the Chief Minister took on education as a priority issue. A traditionally corrupt and inept administration in a poor state like Bihar was able to make massive gains over the next ten years in getting kids to school. Unfortunately, this machinery could not lead changes to learning.

Pritchett also explains this failure through the concept of isomorphism. He defines isomorphism as the tendency to mimic successful countries. For example, if academically sound countries have smaller class sizes, let us implement that in our country. If academically sound countries have higher teachers’ pay, let us increase the teachers’ pay.

In a dysfunctional system, these solutions will have the same effect as putting more gas in a non-operational car.

Thus, before we jump into implementing these best practices and solutions backed by rigorous evidence, let us look at the structure of our own system. Analyse the different parts. Start repairing the different parts to make a coherent whole. Once we do that, I think we would be in a better position to ask, what makes education systems succeed?

Ankit Vyas is a Chevening Scholar at the University of Cambridge. He is the Co-Founder of VideosForKnowledge and Programme Manager at STIR Education.

Featured Image Credits: Visual Hunt

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