Making reforms work

Faisal Bari

HERE is an interesting puzzle to consider. There have been, in the last decade or so, literally dozens of reforms, large and small, that have been announced and implemented in the area of school education across all of the provinces of the country. Yet, at the end of it all, learning outcomes of children have virtually not improved. Government schools still have a pretty poor reputation. What could possibly explain this?

Reforms in the education area have been quite significant, deep and in almost all sub-sectors of education. Teacher entry requirements, modes of selection, salaries, posting, transfer and promotion systems have been changed. Teacher and school monitoring systems have been completely revamped. Student testing has been changed. Curriculum and books have been overhauled several times. Education budgets, for all provinces, have more than doubled in the last decade. We have documented more than 70 or 80 major reforms that have been implemented in school education departments across the country in the last decade or so. Think of any recommendation that you could want to make, large or small, and it is very likely that it has been tried in the education sector.

Data from the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), based on testing of children from a very large sample from across all districts of the country, shows that there has been little or no improvement in student learning over the same period. There have been some gains in enrolment, especially at the primary level, but it is not clear if we will be able to sustain these gains as in recent times enrolment gains have also plateaued. It is not just ASER data that shows no gains in learning, even government examination results data, such as matriculation examination results and Punjab Examination Commission results of grade 5 and 8 examinations, also do not show any learning gains.

So, what has all the reform done and what will we have to do to improve learning?

If reforms had not been implemented at all or had not been implemented properly, the above mentioned situation would have made sense. Though it is hard to check on all of the reforms and there is some unevenness in how they have been implemented, a large percentage of the reforms mentioned have been implemented quite well. Teacher entry requirements, recruitment processes and salaries have increased significantly, teacher attendance has improved, school monitoring is better, student testing is being done regularly, and textbooks are being delivered in schools. We need to look elsewhere for a fuller explanation.

It is clear that some of the reform that has been done, across provinces, has little or nothing to do with student learning. There is no evidence, anywhere, that just distributing laptops or tablets to students or even teachers, or opening a small number of very expensive schools for a few children while the majority of children continue to attend regular government schools, improves student learning. But a number of provincial governments have continued with laptop distribution schemes and there are still schemes being implemented that are distributing tablets to teachers.

We need to build a much better feedback mechanism in our policy-making: policies should be based on some evidence and once policies are implemented, we need to know if they are achieving their objectives and if they are not, they need to be altered and/or tailored to ensure better results. Does giving laptops make any difference to learning? If not, should this be continued as an education programme?

Each reform could also have unintended consequences and these could work against getting the results we have been looking for. In the case of some reforms the unintended consequences are quite clear. As we raise teacher entry requirements from matriculation/intermediate and teacher certificate to bachelors/masters with an education degree, the base for teacher recruitment will become more urban, teachers from local community, in some communities, will be harder to recruit and the social distance, between teachers and students who attend government schools, will increase. This could work against the objectives on learning enhancement. As we introduce more tablets and internet-based material, it could work against teacher motivation.

It is, usually, not possible to work out all the consequences of a policy/intervention. We only know about them once an intervention has been implemented and there is data on consequences that can allow us to look at what the results were. The government needs to collect a lot of data on results. Once this data is available, learning from it can be organised. This brings us back to the issue of feedback loop and learning from experience. It does seem that bureaucracies find it difficult to be learning organisations. They need to figure out how to do course correction after initial action.

If raising teacher entry requirements is leading to higher social distance between teachers and students, can we alter pre-service and in-service teacher training to ensure better teacher socialisation and preparation? If traditional models of providing continuous professional development of teachers are not working, how can we re-design them to make them more effective? Policy change is a complex process and needs to be recognised as such. Strong data gathering and monitoring of results, based on initial interventions, is a must for effecting improvements in subsequent rounds.

Reforms have been pretty deep and extensive in the education area, and across provinces. But, so far, we have little to show for all the effort and expense that has gone in. This offers an interesting puzzle for us. It does seem that ‘systems’ level thinking might be a must to unravel this puzzle but this area requires a lot more thinking before we can be comfortable with the answers.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday July 14th, 2017.

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.

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.

Can Education For All Work?


ARTICLE 25-A in our Constitution makes education a basic right for all five- to 16-year-old children. For the last many years, governments have been trying to get all children in this age bracket into schools but have not been successful as yet. In fact, though the article talks about all five- to 16-year-old children, most of the focus of governments has been on getting primary education universalised — and we have not even been successful in that as yet.

Punjab claims that the ‘participation’ rate has gone up to 90 per cent at the primary level. But it is not clear as to what is meant by the ‘participation’ rate, how this is linked to gross and net enrolment rates and what this means in terms of primary-level completion rates. The claims about enrolments, from other provinces, are lower than those for Punjab, so the problem is bigger in other provinces.

It is often argued, in education policy circles, that getting all children into schools is the first priority and once that is done, we can worry about the quality of education and other related issues. And, broadly speaking, this is indeed the policy that the provincial and federal governments have been following. But, there are a number of problems with this perspective.

The quality of education and our ability to get children into schools and, more importantly, to keep them there, are integrally linked. If children do not get a decent quality of education that can hold their interest and harness their ability to read/write, comprehend educational material, engage with the society they live in and provide options for career paths, it would be hard to keep them in schools. It would also be hard, in such circumstances, to try and convince parents and children for the latter to come to or stay in schools. Why should they? Why should a parent spend time and money to keep his or her offspring in school when the child is getting little or nothing out of it? Do we feel there is zero opportunity cost for children’s time?

Not only are we not able to cater to all children through schools (government estimates say some 22 million children from five to 16 years are out of school) we are not even able to impart quality education to the ones who go to school. How are we going to deal with the situation if, by a miracle, all children in this age bracket did end up in schools?

There is plenty of evidence that public-sector schools across the country, by and large, provide poor education. Most of the examinations conducted in the country, irrespective of their level, show poor results. The Punjab Examination Commission results for class 5 show that a significant proportion of students have not even gotten the hang of basic reading, writing, comprehension and mathematics.

Matriculation results show that a significant proportion of students fail the examination, even though it is a fairly simple one for that level, and that the pass percentage is only 33pc. A large proportion of those who pass are still unable to get admission into colleges. The same pattern can be seen at the intermediate level.

The case for education in the private sector is not very different. Barring the ‘elite’ private-education sector, which caters to less than 5pc of enrolled children in the country and charges tuition fees that only the middle- and upper-income groups can pay, most of the private education sector that is popularly known as the low-fee private sector also provides quality that is generally poor.

The examination results that we mentioned here show the poor performance of the low-fee private sector as well. A recent study that we conducted found that the returns of high-fee elite education package (better quality education, exposure to ‘O’ and ‘A’ Level examinations, and facility with English language) explain a lot of the differences in a) what sort of colleges students can enrol in, b) what sort of careers people can choose, and c) the salaries they get.

Given all this, should we still focus on enrolment first as a policy? Are we doing our children a favour by putting them in schools when we are not able to provide even a basic and functional level of educational quality through most of the schools that we have? Should we focus on bringing in reforms that target the quality of education as well?

Some might want to argue that we should be doing both ie getting every child in school and ensuring that they get a decent quality of education. This is a very sensible position to take and a lot of countries, both developed and developing, do focus on both issues simultaneously, but they spend a lot more resources, human and financial, on their education sectors. When the current government spends less than 2pc of GDP on education, how can we achieve universal education of even a minimum quality?

So, should we leave out-of-school children as they are and focus on quality-enhancing interventions only? This is the choice that society should be thinking about.

I might have my preferences on what policies should be adopted but in a democratic society decisions should be taken after an informed debate. The purpose of this article was to raise the issue of the choices before us. What we decide to do, as a society, is something that should be debated.

Whether we keep the focus on enrolment, move to focus on quality, or increase funds for the education sector substantially to be able to do both, should be a thought-out choice and not just a default position. Our collective choice will have significant consequences for our children and the future of this country.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday 5th May, 2017

Governance Reform in Education


KHALID Hussain, a principal in a government high school, is amongst the few school principals and teachers in our public education system who want to deliver good quality education to their students. But, Khalid believes, the education sector governance model, as it was designed and as it has evolved, does not give him the tools or the freedom to deliver on quality education.

When Khalid joined the school where he is principal now, the school was in a bad place. The building needed repairs and a paint job, the grounds were a mess, there were no functional toilets and there was no provision of drinking water in the school. This is an urban government high school that we are talking about. Over the last two years, Khalid has been able to, with help from community sources, take care of all of the above issues. The school, when you enter the place now and though it still needs a lot of work, does look like an institute of learning. But infrastructure, despite cost issues, has been the easiest issue for Khalid to deal with.

His main challenges stem from governance problems. Khalid has not been able to persuade the higher authorities that the school should have its full quota of sanctioned teachers. The sanctioned posts do not fully cater to all teaching needs but Khalid cannot even get the sanctioned posts filled. He does not have teachers for science (for the lower grades), arts and biology. He is an English-language teacher himself but has ended up teaching biology and arts to higher classes in his school.

Khalid has no effective authority to manage his school. He cannot do anything to encourage or discipline a teacher who is out of line. He has no power to make an impact on the curriculum, the books that are taught in class or even the pedagogy used for teaching. He has almost no resources at his disposal, financial or human, to think about adding any ‘extras’ to his school or educational programme. He is told that he can ‘hire’ a teacher on contract but he has to pay for him/her from the meagre non-salary budget he gets for the school. The non-salary budget is so small that if he uses it to hire another teacher, he has no money left for anything else. How is the general upkeep of the school to be managed in this case?

The community in which the school is situated is not a very rich one. There is a commercial area near the school but most of the businesses in the area are also micro enterprises and most of the shopkeepers do not send their children to this public school. Their children go to the low- to medium-fee private schools in the area. Despite these challenges, Khalid has already had the community pay for getting the school whitewashed, making toilets functional, ensuring access to drinking water and seeing that the school grounds are in some order. He feels the community cannot really do more for sometime at least.

Most of the children who are enrolled in the school, though not from the poorest segments, are still from poor or lower-income households. To expect parents to donate for school maintenance or expansion is neither realistic nor fair. Even though the school is formally ‘free’, parents are already paying a lot for their children’s education for transport (where applicable), school supplies, uniforms and various examination fees. Any more demands could lead to parents withdrawing their children from school.

Khalid has had some very poor teachers who have been posted in his school. Some had little content knowledge or did not know how to teach, and some just did not want to teach. It used to be the case that if a principal did not think a teacher’s performance was not up to par, he/she could ‘surrender’ the teacher to the department and get a replacement. But this system seems to have become less functional now. Khalid said that he kept complaining for quite sometime and when the higher authorities persistently kept ignoring his requests, he just gave up. He makes do now. He feels that though the ranking of his school and his performance evaluation suffer, the real losers are the children: they are the ones who end up getting a poorer education.

We have experimented with tightening monitoring and accountability systems for teachers and head teachers/principals to ensure better performance but we have had limited success that way. The simple fact is that a good school and a good classroom require motivated teachers and principals: people who are optimally resourced and have optimal levels of autonomy that go with good accountability systems. We also have evidence that good ‘leaders’ can get schools to deliver decent quality education even in weaker governance systems.

It is high time we experimented with the decentralisation of authority in selected areas and at the school level to see how we can get principals to deliver more. The candidates for more decentralisation will have to have more powers for managing school resources, human and financial. How many teachers are needed, where should a teacher be placed, how should a teacher be motivated/evaluated and how should school budget be made and spent are issues that can be decentralised.

We will need a good accountability system in which such decentralisation is anchored but there does not seem to be an escape from experimenting with effective decentralisation if we want schools to improve. In parallel, as I wrote a few weeks ago, we will need a programme for identifying leaders and training them to enhance their capabilities further. It is high time we focus our attention on making school leaders more effective.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday 10th March, 2017.