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.

Rethinking Zoos

FAISAL BARI

SUZI, the lone elephant in the Lahore Zoo died last week. She lived for only 30-odd years. Even if they have lived in captivity, elephants are expected to have a lifespan of about 50 years. Suzi died early.

For the last two and a half decades, Suzi was the star attraction at the Lahore Zoo. Children love elephants. Even adults do. And by the scores that would throng to see Suzi, it was clear she had a lot of admirers. But Suzi was alone. She had been the only elephant in the Lahore Zoo for the last 25 years or so. Without any other elephants to interact with, could she have been happy? Could her life have been better if she had had someone to live these years with? Or is human admiration and interaction enough for animals to have a good life while being in captivity?

The Islamabad Zoo had two elephants sometime ago. Then one of them died. The behaviour of the other changed significantly after the death of his partner. Zoo officials responded by chaining the surviving male elephant. It took a lot of effort on the part of activists and concerned citizens to secure more humane treatment for him. Companionship and interaction with one’s kind matter for most living things. After Suzi’s death, one of the Lahore Zoo administrators said that they would, from now on, only obtain elephants in pairs.

It is not just about elephants, of course. There have been many instances of deaths in our zoos, across Pakistan, where animals have died due to neglect, cruelty, poor treatment or just poor care. The care that we provide in our zoos leaves a lot of to be desired. Do animals get proper sized cages/spaces, is their food nutritious, and are their medical needs taken care of? For those animals that need it, are proper temperature controls available? Knowing all the problems public-sector departments have, it would be a miracle if zoos had proper services for the care of their inmates. We know how our public-sector educational and health institutions meant for Pakistan’s people are performing. Would our zoos be any different?

Immanuel Kant said: “He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” If humans are judged by this standard, given the way most of us treat animals in our zoos, around us and in our homes, we fall short.

Why do we need to cage animals and put them in zoos? I understand that people, especially children, derive some pleasure from watching animals, but is that sufficient reason for taking away the freedom of a living being? Would these animals not be happier in their natural habitat? There is plenty of evidence that shows animals do not like to live in captivity. So, why have zoos?

It is not the case that our zoos are research institutions where we conduct any work on understanding these animals and their lives so as to improve the lives of other beasts. Some people argue that zoos are safe environments for many of these animals and they would not survive if they had to live in their natural habitats. This too is a very tenuous argument. Clearly, zoos have not been made for the benefit of giving animals a safer environment: all zoos together have a minuscule proportion of animals of the total that exists. Zoos are also not for endangered species only. Most of the zoos in Pakistan, in fact, do not have any endangered species.

Even if we want to provide safer and more controlled environments for animals to survive and thrive in, cages seem to be a bad idea for doing that. We need to create more protected nature reserves, safari parks and so on. We need to protect our jungles and the environment in general so that animals can survive the human onslaught on nature. We need to create spaces that are for the benefit of animals. Zoos seem to be places that have been created for human pleasure and satisfaction and most of them have not been designed to be optimal environments for the animals we confine in them.

I have not invoked the issue of animal rights at all so far and have, purposefully, talked only of what is good for animals. But, the issue of rights is a serious one. Do we think animals have direct or derivative rights? If they do, and irrespective of whether these rights are direct or derivative, surely having the right not to be caged would be a part of any bill of rights. Clearly, humans should not be able to confine and cage animals just for their voyeuristic pleasure.

Most of the zoos that we have today were made a long time ago. Thinking, as to why we need zoos or why they might be good to have, dates back from that time too. But our thinking about how we can learn more about animals, about what is good for them and about animal rights has evolved a lot over the intervening period. We should have a dialogue on the need for having zoos again in our society.

Do we need zoos? If we do, what sort of zoos should we have? Are cages in the middle of the city, as is the case in Lahore, the right way to have a zoo or should we be thinking about nature reserves and safari parks? Just because we have zoos already is no reason to continue with them as they are. Suzi’s death, I hope, will trigger some debate on the issue in public as well as amongst policymakers. It should definitely happen before we get another elephant or a pair of elephants.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday 19th May, 2017.

Can Education For All Work?

FAISAL BARI

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