An Educational Chasm

Faisal Bari

I WAS visiting government high schools for girls in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for some research work. At each school, I would ask the head teacher if I could have an opportunity to interact with the students of grades 9/10.

At a Peshawar school, I asked Grade 9 students what they wanted to be when they finished their education. Some wanted to be doctors or teachers, a few wanted to be engineers, and one student wanted to be a pilot. The girls had a fair idea of what they would have to do, beyond school education, to get where they wanted to be.

While we were having this conversation, their teacher, a young and fairly recently recruited science graduate, started talking: “All of these girls come from very poor economic and social backgrounds. Many of them are first-time Grade 9 students in their families, their mothers are mostly illiterate, and even the fathers of many are barely literate.” Then she started pointing to some of the girls — “her father is a daily wage earner, her father sells fruit in the local area and her father is unemployed these days”. I had to quickly find a polite and respectful way of stopping her from continuing.

It was clear from the way the teacher referred to the families and the economic and social background of the students that she felt the students came from a much ‘lower’ background than she did.

This experience, of social distance between teachers and students in government schools, was repeated at a number of schools as I travelled across five to six KP districts. A few months later, I had the same experience when I visited a number of government primary and secondary schools for boys in a couple of districts of Punjab.

Teachers and head teachers in government schools generally believe that their schools get the poorest of poor children, that these children come from households where parents are not likely to be very educated or do not have a good understanding or appreciation of the value of education. They feel the parents, as well as the children, have fairly limited ambitions.

Many teachers also said that their own children were not going to government schools and were enrolled in nearby private schools; some teachers openly stated that they did not want their own children to mix with the students enrolled in their schools.

Our data does show that enrolment in the type of school (public/private) and income levels is highly correlated, and among many people from poorer households it is the first generation that is going to school, especially in the case of women.

As the private provision of schooling has expanded, people who can afford it have chosen to send their children to private schools. The trend of withdrawal from public schools by the rich and middle classes continues and is now reaching the rural areas of Punjab, KP and some parts of Sindh as well.

All provincial governments have changed teacher-recruitment policies in recent times. Entry requirements for the teaching profession have been raised to at least Bachelor’s level instead of matriculation or intermediate, teacher salaries have seen significant increases over the last 10 to 15 years, and salary scales have also been revised.

We are getting more educated and trained teachers who are better compensated and have better career paths. All of this is positive. But there are unintended consequences of policy changes as well. As we get more educated people, the latter are more likely to come from the urban rather than the rural areas.

More educated people are also likely to come from households that had a higher income in the last generation than households with lower educational attainments today. Both these factors are likely to further increase the social distance between teachers and students.

The policy of recruiting more educated teachers and compensating them at a higher level is a good one and should not be abandoned. But the issue of social distance should be addressed. The best way to do this is through changing the content and style of pre-service and in-service teacher training.

The former refers to the Bachelor’s or Master’s level degrees — B. Ed./M. Ed. Courses relating to these degrees should have a lot more content on managing issues like social distance, the needs of children from different backgrounds and students with a diversity of abilities and potential. There should also be courses on pedagogy techniques that should be employed to manage diverse classrooms. These courses will provide teachers who are training some tools to help them relate better to students hailing from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

In-service training, provided by government teachers training departments in all provinces in the form of induction training (at the start of one’s career) and continuous professional development (throughout one’s teaching career), can further consolidate the introduction and ensure we have a way of imparting modern techniques to teachers for the management of diverse classrooms throughout their careers.

Improving the quality of education for our children will require us to get more educated and better trained teachers, to compensate them at higher levels, incentivise and motivate them, and help them manage their careers well. But this can, at the same time, result in an increase in the socioeconomic and cultural distance between teachers and students in public-sector schools, especially in the rural areas.

We have to address this issue as it can undermine, significantly, our ability to reach out to and retain children from diverse backgrounds, especially those from challenging backgrounds or those facing physical, mental or learning problems. While continuing to improve the condition of teachers, the problem of social distance and its consequences should be handled through better pre-service and in-service training.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday 30th June, 2017.

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Is Education A Priority?

Faisal Bari

EVERY year we celebrate the fact that the allocation for education by federal as well as provincial governments goes up by 10 to 15 per cent. This has been happening for quite a few years now. All provinces feel the pressure to raise their education budgets, and they do.

Indeed, some of the increases are substantial — this year, the Higher Education Commission is going to get about Rs5 billion more, while for Punjab the 10pc to 15pc increase means an additional Rs30bn for the education sector.

Even allowing for the fact that the increases mentioned above are in nominal terms, the educational budgets of the provinces have increased by 50pc to 80pc over the last five to seven years. Though we are still only spending about 2.3pc of GDP on education, it is a significant percentage of the provincial budgets.

The government’s own statistics acknowledge that some 21 million-plus five- to 16-year-olds are still out of school.

We have not achieved universal enrolment even at the primary level. In fact, if it were not for the increase in enrolment of children in private-sector schools, the overall enrolment rates would be showing a declining trend. Our high dropout rates mean that out of 100 children enrolling in grade 1 in Pakistan, only five to six make it to college level. Our transition rates, from primary to middle and high school are pathetic.

But, despite these increases in the private sector, there are too many two-room primary schools where basic infrastructure facilities are missing, and we do not have enough middle and high schools to offer a higher transition rate from primary to middle schools.

We do not have enough teachers to ensure that every primary school has as many teachers as classes: multi-grade teaching is quite common. Punjab is promising to recruit some 77,000 teachers this year to ensure that there are at least four in every school. The situation in other provinces is no better.

Meanwhile, examination results at all levels — grade 5 or the civil service exams — show that the quality of education that most of our children, barring the minority that go to high-fee private or elite government schools or universities, receive is quite poor.

Grade 5 children, on average, are one or two grades behind where they should be, and only 2pc or so of the candidates who take the civil service examinations even pass the written test.

Given this situation, what will an increase of 10pc to 15pc in the budgets achieve on the education front? What is there to celebrate in such increases? Will these increases allow us to fulfil our constitutional obligation of providing every child in Pakistan with 10 years of quality education?

Will these allow us to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals that we are a signatory to? Will these increases be able to address the tremendous inequities in our education system and allow every child to explore his or her potential fully?

It is not just about the money. All provinces have, consistently, shown a low use of development funds within the education sector: of the money that is budgeted for the sector at the beginning of the year, only 50pc to 70pc is actually spent. The rest of it lapses.

Non-development expenditures are usually utilised well: these are mostly spent on salary budgets. Teachers’ salaries are indeed the main expense in the education sector so it is not a surprise that most of the money is spent on these. But the poor utilisation of funds for non-salary heads tells us about the kind of priority we attach to development or quality-enhancing expenditures.

It is also about how the money that we actually spend is utilised.

In Punjab, laptop distributions come out of the education budget. Where is the evidence that giving laptops will improve the quality of education in the country? It might be a popular move and an attempt to get votes, but how is it about educational quality or outcomes? Daanish school expenditures are also educational expenses. The spending of billions on a few schools when 50,000-plus schools are still lacking teachers as well as some basic infrastructure facilities needs to be justified.

We have never seen any sound evaluation of the contribution that the Daanish schools are making. All provinces are moving towards distributing laptops, tablets and LED televisions to teachers and schools: do we have any evidence that these are going to enhance quality and improve learning among children?

Do provincial governments see public education as a priority? If we go by the increases in the provincial budgets, we might say yes and this is how many have been interpreting the increases over the last few years.

But there is another way of thinking. The increased expenditures are definitely not going to address the issues in education as a) the increases are small and the problems very large, b) a significant portion of the increased budget is not going to be spent, c) and even if it is, spending priorities have not been thought through and are not going to address the access or quality issues that we face.

Clearly, governments are according low priority to education issues: the increased funding is just for the political appeasement of concerned lobbies. If education was indeed an area of high priority and governments wanted to accomplish something, there would be a lot more debate on educational issues in political parties and government circles — the best of political leaders would be made education ministers, there would be a lot more innovative thinking on how to achieve our educational goals and there would be political consequences for not delivering. We do not see any of the above.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday June 16th, 2017.

Is Cheating A Norm Now?

Faisal Bari

A STUDENT cheated on an examination in a colleague’s course. He was caught and his case was referred to the relevant committees for investigation and action. The family of the student started pestering the teacher of the course. Since I was head of the department, I told my colleague to ask the family to come to me if they had any issues with procedures.

The mother of the student came to meet me. She started off by saying that the student did not know what he was doing. I told her that our university made sure that all incoming students are told that we have zero tolerance for cheating and that all incoming students are given written and verbal warnings about this.

She then said that she had lost her husband very early and had been solely responsible for bringing up the young man and this charge would have a significant impact on the student’s career trajectory. I told her that since the matter was with the relevant committees, the student would have to make his case there for mitigating circumstances and/or leniency.

Half-hearted efforts in the form of more police at exam centres are not going to work.

The mother then went on to tell me that one of the student’s maternal uncle was a senior DMG officer while his paternal uncle was a senior army officer and if I did not help the student, it would have consequences for me. I told her that I would ignore the last bit of what she had said and that she should leave before things got more serious. As she was leaving she said: “Cheating is normal in Pakistan. Don’t you live in Pakistan?”

It does seem that there is a lot more acceptance of cheating in the education system today than was the case a couple of decades ago. All high-stakes examinations have a high incidence of cheating. Matriculation and intermediate examinations have become quite notorious for this. But even grade 5 and grade 8 examinations that Punjab takes are known to have a lot of cheating.

This year, the issue was highlighted in Sindh where the chief minister wanted the department of education to reduce or eliminate cheating. In the end, it seemed the department was pretty helpless in the face of the strong ‘mafias’ that have been formed to facilitate cheating.

Whenever examinations are a high-stakes affair where a lot depends on its outcome, the motivation to use all means, fair or unfair, increases. Matriculation and intermediate examinations shape the career and future of students ie they determine where students can get admission and which professions they can enter. It is no wonder students want to do well in these examinations.

In Punjab, the results for grade 5 and grade 8 examinations are used to grade teachers and schools. Not surprisingly, in many instances of cheating, it is the teachers and school administrations that are themselves involved in facilitating cheating.

If we want to challenge the norm, major changes will be needed. Half-hearted efforts in the form of more police at exam centres and random but very public raids alone are not going to work.

Our examination systems need to change. Instead of relying on exanimations conducted annually or at the end of the respective course, we will need to move to more frequent and formative assessments. These are not easy to conduct when a large number of students are involved, but for better assessments, lowering the stakes attached to a single examination and for getting better measures of student learning, the move to formative and more frequent assessments is very important.

We will need to change the nature of examinations as well. Instead of relying on asking questions that test memory and/or are sourced from a particular textbook, we need to move to questions that force students to think, argue, articulate and exhibit their critical thinking skills. We need to move to examinations that are curriculum- and not textbook-based. Several examinations that I sat for in my academic career allowed us to bring any number of books and other material with us. Such examinations are more difficult to set, but they do test student abilities better.

An examination question from a philosophy paper that I fondly remember was: “The trunk of an elephant looks like a snake. Discuss”. Such a question can be answered, legitimately, from a number of perspectives: perception, language, mind, reality/appearance, and biology. What is at stake is the quality of the argument that the candidate makes, and rote learning is of little help here.

We do need to make sure that the conduct of examinations makes cheating as difficult as practically possible. Random checks by third parties are a must. Teachers should not be the invigilators of their own students. Students who are caught cheating must be punished sufficiently to have some deterrent effect on others.

But all this will not be enough. We have to work on the values in our society as well. Our moral values and norms as a society have weakened over the last three to four decades. In some ways, this is a necessary counterpart to change in societies. We have, as a society, not tried to manage change and understand what it means for our values. How we have an impact here is a longer topic and we will come back to it another day.

Cheating might not be a ‘norm’ in our society yet, but it is close to being one. To challenge it and change the current equilibrium is not an easy task. A multipronged strategy is needed that looks not only at how we set exam papers, what we examine and how we conduct examinations, but also at societal values that are in the process of making cheating normal. One measure is hard enough to implement; to do it all at once seems well nigh impossible for us right now.

From the Dawn, Karachi, published June 2nd, 2017.