Misconceptions About Schools

Faisal Bari

DOES the private sector deliver higher-quality education at cheaper rates than the public sector? And if so, what implications does this have for public policy on education?

There is a narrative developing around the claim of private-sector efficiency and quality superiority and the idea that with the same amount of public money we are spending at the moment we can educate a lot more children.

Quality of schooling, especially in the public sector in general, is indeed poor. Learning outcomes, measured through various tests and examinations, all show that. This should be a focus of attention for education-sector reforms. But we should be very clear about what this implies and what it does not imply.

The problem of poor quality of education is not restricted to the public sector only. Most of the private schools, leaving aside the small percentage of high-fee private schools, are also imparting poor educational quality. Examination and test results do show, on average, children from private schools doing better than children from public schools, but we have to add a few caveats.

First, the results of low-fee private sector are also quite bad. So both systems are failing our children, though the public sector is doing it by a larger margin. Second, most of this data is about the primary years of schooling. There is evidence of much movement from private to public schools as children get to grade 8 or 9 and the debate on quality differentials thus becomes a lot more confused at higher levels. Third, the differences in outcomes are smaller if effects of other factors like parental income, social status and location etc are controlled for.

So, we need to improve the quality of education for both kinds of schools. Since we do not have a regulatory mechanism that allows us any effective control over private schools, we might have to impact them indirectly through changes in government schools. If government schools are providing the benchmark and minimum quality standards in education in the country and a low-fee private sector pitches itself a little above this benchmark, and if we start raising the quality standard in public schools, it might force the private sector to raise standards as well. It is, as of now, hard to see how we can directly impact quality issues in the private sector.

The issue of cost differentials and efficiency of the private sector as compared to the public, also needs to be unpacked. The public sector spends in the range of Rs1,500 to Rs2,000 per child per month. Most good-quality schools charge pupils a lot more than that. But there are many low-fee private schools that charge a lot less than what the public sector spends. Teacher salaries form a big expenditure head in any educational institution or system; the other main cost is infrastructure. On the one hand, the private sector bears the full cost of infrastructure provision whereas the public sector has the advantage of using state land for building schools. On the other hand, the private sector is paying very low, though market-based, salaries to teachers. Public-sector salaries are three to four times the salaries that low-fee private sector schools pay their teachers.

Interestingly, teachers are not even guaranteed the minimum wage, by law or by default, in Pakistan. Though the Punjab minimum wage law covers all teachers, the provincial government is not implementing the law. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s legislature has taken out private-school teachers from the ambit of minimum wage legislation. As a result, whereas the public sector, by and large, pays teachers more than the minimum wage, the low-fee private sector does not. Herein lies the large cost advantage that the private sector has. But should this be seen as ‘efficiency’?

Is it acceptable to pay teachers even less than unskilled workers? People join a profession on the basis of expected returns. If a teacher is paid Rs6,000 per month or so, how is he/she expected to live and raise a family. Who will join the teaching profession under such conditions? And if only those join the profession who cannot enter any other profession, how will we be able to raise the quality of education?

Currently we are in a position where low-fee private schools have access to a large pool of educated women who, due to social or other reasons, prefer to work as teachers only. Due to their limited options, they cannot demand high salaries from the schools. But do we want to build our education system on the exploitation of this anomalous fact?

The narrative gaining popularity in some circles is that due to the higher efficiency of the private sector, the state should either aim for similar ‘efficiency’ in their schools or consider handing over public schools to the private sector. If gaining efficiency means improving quality, cutting out wastage and eliminating corruption from the system, this is understandable and should be done. But if it means lowering salaries of the public-sector teachers or handing over schools to a private sector that does not even pay minimum wages to teachers, it should be thought through much more carefully.

There are about 21m children out of school still. Even with approximately 100,000 public schools and almost as many private schools in the country, we still have too few schools compared to the number we need to educate every child for 10 years. For example, Punjab has some 37,000 primary schools but only about 10,000 middle and 6,000 high schools. Even if we allow middle/high schools to be larger than primary schools, can all children who come to the 37,000 schools be accommodated in these smaller number of schools while allowing for increased home-school distances as numbers go down? Clearly, an efficiency drive will only take us that far: we will still need major injections of additional money in the public sector to educate all.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday 17th November, 2017.


Thinking Critically – Really?

Faisal Bari

TWO quotes from physicist Richard Feynman set the stage. “There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires doubt.”

“I can live with doubt, and uncertainty. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”

Higher education has been in the news in Pakistan. When rankings of universities are revealed we find none of our universities are in the top few hundred. When CSS examination results are announced, the dismal performance of candidates elicits comments about the poor quality of our higher education. When university graduates are found amongst the ranks of extremists and fundamentalists, questions are raised about what they are being taught, if anything, in universities. When the quality of research publications is talked about, our universities are found to be wanting. When internationally known academics are ranked, we get to know that we do not have even a few working out of Pakistan.

All of the above are true. The real picture is worse than what we see in these news items or analyses. The quality of teaching I see, even in some of the better-known institutions of the country, tells me that it is quite a miracle that we boast of having 200 odd institutions of higher learning ‘functioning’ in the country. An honest quality audit would force a lot of programmes to shut down. But let us leave that debate for another day.

The remedy, for our higher education woes, usually suggested is introduction of critical thinking: students should be able to think and engage critically with what they learn. This is an eminently sensible position to take. If our students did have the ability to engage critically with learning methods and the content of learning, we would indeed be in a very different place today. But there are some larger issues here that need attention.

The Higher Education Commission and the Planning Commission have always taken a very functional approach to what kind of education our children should have. Even a cursory look at HEC’s draft vision 2025 shows that HEC wants to produce the technicians, engineers, doctors and managers of the future. They are not too bothered about what general abilities all students should have.

A corollary of the above is also the general neglect and disdain with which the arts, humanities and social sciences are treated. Planners and policymakers do not see the value that artists, philosophers or social scientists add to society. ‘We need more engineers and not philosophy graduates’ is a popular refrain in these circles. Clearly, few understand the value of critical thinkers in this society. Most policymakers are still stuck in ‘numbers’ and ‘function’ games.

Even if we stay in the domain of the sciences, we can definitely introduce critical thinking there. But do we have the wherewithal to manage that? Feynman thought ‘doubt’ provided the foundation stone on which learning is built: it is only by trying to prove ourselves wrong that we come closer to better explanations. Is that an attitude that we, as a nation, and our policymakers and educationists, can even tolerate?

We live in a society where space, even for conversations and even amongst friends let alone strangers, has shrunk drastically over the last few decades. Censorship has been internalised by most living in this land. How do we, in such a state and society, introduce critical thinking and doubt as a foundational concept?

We cannot talk critically about religion in this society. Every society, howsoever religious its population might be, will have a few people who do not believe in God or religion. Do we have such people in Pakistan? There must be some. Do they dare come out and declare their existence? Could they come forward and have discussions about their point of views and/or beliefs with all the theists who are around? Could they express their ‘doubts’ about the beliefs of others? Could we, the rest, live with their doubts being openly expressed?

How do we do critical thinking here? Let alone, raising questions about faith, at the moment, we also make it difficult for minorities to preach or practise their religions. Even raising the issue of whether the state has the right to determine the faith of an individual is no longer possible in this country. In Lahore, the city administration went to the point of imposing Section 144 for a month to stop people from talking about sensitivities around khatm-i-naboowat.

This is not just about religion’s domain only. Religion is a seen as a way of life for us. So, the domain extends to economic, social, political and even personal space. Land reform debate is out because the Sharia court thinks it is unIslamic. Is the leadership of a woman acceptable? It is not about competence, it is about what religious interpretations are about. Underage marriage cannot be disallowed because the interpretations do not allow it.

We cannot say anything about what the state thinks is the ‘ideology’ of Pakistan. The road from Mohammed bin Qasim to the making of Pakistan is very linear and causal. If you do not believe that, you are in for trouble.

We cannot talk about anything related to the army. Here too it is not about just defence and security-related issues. It is about all other domains as well. We cannot talk about the army and its hunger for land, its commercial interests from fertiliser to cereal manufacture, its interests in banking or insurance and we can definitely not talk about its role in Pakistan’s politics. We cannot talk about its conduct of the anti-terror campaign, the issue of missing persons and/or the harassment that journalists and social media users/bloggers face. We cannot talk of Balochistan and issues of inequity and inequality in the country.

But for all of the above, we still think that introducing ‘critical thinking’ is the answer to our problems in higher education. What are students going to think critically about? There are very few ‘safe’ topics one can have discussions on in Pakistan.

If critical thinking is to come, it has to come in all domains. Are we ready for that? To me the answer is clear: we are not ready at all. If it does not happen in all domains, it is hard to see how it can happen in higher education only.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday October 20th, 2017.

Motivating Teachers

Faisal Bari

SHOULDN’T a school teacher have some power and control over what happens in her class? Shouldn’t she be given the freedom to decide how to pace teaching, how to explain concepts and how to ensure that students understand the material?

But a lot of teachers in Pakistani public schools feel that they do not have such power and control in effective terms. The power might be there on paper, but it is not there in practice.

Teachers feel they are told, in a lot of detail, what they are supposed to do in classes. Curriculum and books do not have the input of teachers. The language of instruction is determined by the provincial government. Teachers get detailed lesson plans and in many cases they are even told what sentences should be said in order to explain concepts to students. The lesson plans are detailed enough in many cases to tell them how to even pace their classes. What they cover in class is also monitored closely. And there is a lot of testing of children by various entities of the education department as a means of monitoring progress. All of the above, directly or indirectly, reduce the space that teachers have for exercising their agency in class.

The same is true, to a large extent, with head teachers in the public system as well. Head teachers do not have the power to hire and fire teachers. They, effectively, do not even have any authority to discipline teachers. They cannot, apart from complaining to the higher authorities, do much in case a teacher’s performance is not up to the mark or if a teacher lacks the attitude needed to perform well. Powers to hire and fire are possibly very hard to devolve to the school level. It is there in the private sector, but given the legal requirements under which the public sector works and bureaucratic developments in the country, it is next to impossible to give these powers to head teachers, headmasters and principals.

Still, even without school managers having these powers, there are plenty of things that can be done to provide the requisite autonomy and authority to principals so that they are able to do a better job of managing their schools. In a number of private- sector school systems, even if principals do not have the power to hire or fire teachers, they do have a significant say in who stays in their school, who gets promoted/ rewarded or punished, and what type of training is imparted to whom. Principals have a significant impact on a teacher’s career path in this system. Even such authority, in many instances, is enough to provide principals with a handle with which to manage teachers effectively.

The public sector finds it hard to do even that. Teachers’ training is very centralised and head teachers have little to no role in determining what kind of training their teachers are going to receive. They do have a say in the performance reports that are written for the teachers in their school, but since they have to work with the same teachers going forward, performance reports tend to not distinguish amongst individuals. Promotions are mostly based on seniority and not performance and hence head teachers do not have a say even here.

Head-teacher incentives are also not stimulating: the teachers are mostly promoted on the basis of seniority. Here, too, we do not have any instruments with which we can motivate and/ or incentivise head teachers effectively.

Given all of this, it is not surprising that the government, across provinces, has found it very hard to motivate teachers and head teachers to do better. There are definitely content knowledge issues amongst teachers: many teachers do not know the subjects they are supposed to teach very well themselves. It is also true that a lot of teachers do not know how to teach effectively.

But that is not the issue I am focusing on here. The issue is that public-sector teachers are much more educated and trained than their counterparts in low-fee private schools. They are also much better compensated than low-fee private school teachers. But, in terms of performance, measured through student learning, most researchers have found that children from even low-fee private schools perform better or at least as well as those from public schools. Even allowing for income and other household characteristics across schools, this conclusion seems to hold.

If this is the case, we need to understand why better-educated, trained and better-compensated teachers are not able to perform better. One possible explanation of this is that we are not managing the human agency of teachers and head teachers well. We are not giving them the requisite environment, career paths, incentives, responsibility and authority to create the optimal motivational environment for them.

If teachers feel they are not listened to, if they feel their environment is being over-determined and/or over-monitored, if they, over time, lose the motivation to teach effectively and well, or if the system cannot create the right motivational environment, even properly educated and trained teachers might not perform well.

Provincial governments across Pakistan have over the last couple of decades spent a lot of money on increasing teachers’ salaries and adjusting their grades; they have also spent significant amounts on creating new, technology-driven monitoring systems. We continue to spend big amounts on teacher training too. But all have ignored looking at motivational issues of teachers/head teachers and of creating effective ways of managing human agency. This should be the next frontier for education-sector reforms.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday 22nd September, 2017.

Information Issues

Faisal Bari

I CAN always tell when Javed, a cook working in our neighbourhood, is worried about something. When I ask him how he is his worry is the first thing he mentions. And a lot of times it is about the health of his very young granddaughter. She is a healthy child. But she does fall sick once in a while. When she does, Javed’s face reveals it before his words do.

“Have you been to the doctor?” I ask. “I took her yesterday. He gave her an injection. She is better now.” Every visit to the doctor involves an injection. “But what did the doctor say? What was wrong with the child?” I ask. “She had fever and loose motions.” “Yes, those were the symptoms that made you consult the doctor. But what was causing the fever and diarrhoea?” “The doctor did not tell us anything. He just gave her an injection and she is better now.” This is more or less the typical exchange I have with Javed when his granddaughter falls sick.

Infant and child malnutrition and stunting rates are worryingly high in Pakistan. Infant and maternal mortality rates have stopped coming down as fast as they used to. The trends in nutrition, stunting and child deaths are even more worrying given that our numbers, across sources, are showing that poverty rates have been declining in Pakistan for the last couple of decades or so. If poverty is coming down, meaning people have more resources than before, what is making the child malnutrition, stunting and ill health numbers so high?

There are a number of hypotheses that are worth looking into. Drinking water quality and lack of sanitation facilities might have the power to explain a lot about health/nutrition outcomes. Reports on water quality, from across the country have recently been quite alarming. Lack of sanitation facilities, mixing of drinking water with sewage, and few toilets for defecation are linked to the spread of diseases as well.

Lack of effective immunisation as well as lack of access to effective medicines might be another issue worth looking into. The immunisation rate is still a problem. But so is the quality of medicines that immunised children get: if medicines have not been stored properly, are past their due date, or are not of the quality they are supposed to be even high immunisation rates are not going to be of much help.

Some of the literature also points towards information gaps and lack of knowledge as a possible explanatory factor. Do parents, especially mothers, know what they need to know to ensure the nutritional needs of their children? Do parents know what to do when their child is not well? Do they know how well their child is doing compared to other children at a similar stage of development and how, if their child is not doing as well, to remedy the situation?

My interaction with Javed points to the issue of poor information. Does Javed’s granddaughter become unwell too often? The doctors Javed visits, and these are usually general physicians in our locality, almost never give any feedback to Javed or the parents of the child. It is almost always an injection and/or some medicines that is administered but without the parents’ knowing what ailed their daughter and what the drugs are meant to cure.

These doctors also do not tell the parents how well or poorly the child is doing compared to other children. Javed and the parents of the child never know if three episodes of fever in 15 days is too much, if the child’s weight or height is below par or not and/or if her cranial circumference is increasing within tolerable limits. If they had this knowledge, if they do not face extreme poverty issues and if other things are constant would they not be able to make better decisions about the health of their child?

Though I have used Javed’s example, I know of too many other cases of a similar nature. Given some of the administrative work I do, I get to see how many days of the week colleagues don’t come in because a child at home is ill. The numbers tend to be substantial especially among blue-collar and unskilled workers.

In some cases, parents even delay treatment of a sick child as they cannot afford to be absent from work. But in almost all these cases when I have talked to parents, the issue of information, according to my reading of the situation, has come up in one form or another. Parents do not get proper feedback from healthcare providers; they do not know what preventive measures they can take, what medicines they can use or are given by caregivers; they do not know why their child got sick in the first place and they are almost never told how their child is doing compared to other children.

There is some research in Pakistan on the impact of poverty on nutritional outcomes and researchers have recently also started looking at connections between public good investments (water, sanitation and immunisation) and health outcomes. But we know very little about the connections between knowledge/information issues and health/nutrition outcomes. Is the last one an important issue or not? We need household-level research to figure this out.

Fortunately, information/knowledge issues can be remedied with low-cost interventions. If information/knowledge issues are also contributing to the poor outcomes we are seeing on the nutrition and health side, carefully crafted but low-cost feedback loops for parents can readily and easily remedy the situation. Given the potential, public health researchers should look at such issues on a priority basis.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday 8th September, 2017.

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.