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.

The Powers That Be

Faisal Bari

BORROWING from the example that Kaushik Basu uses in one of his books: imagine that the mother of the prime minister applies for an electricity or gas connection. Imagine that she is told to wait for a few months till it is her turn to get the connection. If the prime minister decides that he or she should not intervene and lets the matter proceed in the way it is supposed to, without strings being pulled, how would our society view him or her?

A lot of people will think that the prime minister is weak and ineffective: if his/her mother cannot be helped, then how can I be helped? And how can the prime minister govern effectively and make tough decisions?

Power is usually defined in relation to someone ie power over someone. It can be persuasive or coercive or both. But there is another way of thinking about power. It is about the ability to defy rules, norms and laws, the ability to not only get away with it but to also signal one’s level of ‘power’. So, defiance is not shown in private or while hiding from the law and society. It is shown, most often, in public with the intention of expressing one’s power and ensuring that all and sundry can see it.

Do we need a convoy of 30 to 40 cars when our prime minister or his family members move in public space? Is it all a security requirement? A few cars might be. But 30 odd cars? Surely not. They are actually a show of power to impress all.

Do police cars, whether or not on official duty, have to defy the traffic rules? Again, clearly not. They are not supposed to do that except in an emergency. But, more often than not, you will see police department cars defying traffic laws. And not only do they defy the rules, they think it is the right thing to do as well as they are members of law enforcement. Reminds one of the dialogue from Judge Dredd: “I never broke the law. I am the law!”

Even institutions have started behaving in this manner in Pakistan. Laws are being drawn up in ways that can be used to show the power of the institution rather than to regulate an area effectively or facilitate certain legitimate activities of citizens.

People who have registered not-for-profit companies under the Companies Act have been asked to have the registration renewed every five years. One wonders why this is needed and why it applies only to not-for-profits, but so be it: the state feels it needs to re-verify everything about a company from scratch every five years even though they get quarterly and yearly updates from each company, but, again, so be it.

What, in fact, might be of more interest is that the Security Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP), the regulator of the corporate sector, requires the interior ministry to give clearance before it can renew the registration of a not-for-profit firm. This has clearly been done with security and control purposes in mind.

And what is even more interesting is that SECP has not imposed, and clearly does not feel it can impose, any timeline on the clearance process from the interior ministry. So, one hears of firms that applied for the renewal of registration a couple of years ago but that are still waiting to hear back from the SECP. In some cases, the SECP has told firms in writing that their clearance is pending with the interior ministry and until they hear back from the latter, they cannot move the case forward. Informally, SECP officials have even told firms that if they have connections in the interior ministry and can get the go-ahead, they should do that.

What sort of a regulatory structure is this? Is all this necessary for security? Or is it about control? And even here is the structure efficient? By not having timelines, the door is opened for arbitrariness. And by allowing the ‘connected’ to get away with so much, power is being exercised by them, indeed, the pursuit of power itself, is being encouraged.

At a different level, and with different and much more serious consequences for individuals and families, the issue of ‘disappearances’ is also related to the exercise of power in terms of flouting the laws and impunity. People disappear; every individual in Pakistan knows that it is the law-enforcement agencies that are behind a lot of the disappearances, but there is nothing that anyone can do about it. The courts cannot do much. The political setup does not want to do anything; in any case, it, probably, can’t do much. This is power in its most naked and fearsome form: the ability to make a person disappear beyond the reach of the law, and with no recourse for redressing the situation. A true claim to absolute power — the kind of power that, in some societies, is only attributed to divinity or nature.

Children, when they want to impress parents with their increasing prowess, will drive a toy car or cycle with their hands in the air instead of being on the handles or the steering wheel and shout ‘look Mummy, no hands’. The way we use the concept of power in Pakistan seems similar. We only believe that a person or institution has power if he/it can break the laws or flout the rules and get away with doing so. And the ‘no hands’ part has to do with being able to violate the rules publicly. If democracy, the rule of law and institutions are going to evolve in the right direction in Pakistan, our notions of power and its exercise will have to undergo a radical change as well.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday October 6th, 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.

Mobility in Urban Spaces

LAHORE’S population is estimated to be about 12 million people. If a third of these are children who go to school, 4m children need to move from their homes to school in the morning and then back again around midday. If about half the population works, around 6m people need to move from their homes to their places of work and then back in the evening. And with 12m people involved in their usual business, there is a lot of movement that needs to be catered for.

A lot of cities of this size have opted for fairly extensive public transport networks to facilitate movement. These public transport networks, usually a mix of trains and buses, provide a grid for ensuring that every part of the city is connected to every other part, directly or indirectly, keeping in mind the volume of traffic that flows and is expected to flow from one particular part to another.

A lot more people are expected to move towards business districts from residential areas in the morning. A reverse flow is expected in the evening. Evening flows might be towards parts that provide entertainment (shopping areas, theatre areas etc) and late night flows would usually be towards residential areas again. Weekend demands for facilities would be different from weekday demands and so on. All of these larger cities have very elaborate load management systems and very well-resourced planning and execution departments to ensure the smooth functioning of these large transport networks. The London transport network provides a good example of what we need to keep in mind.

There are significant differences in how people’s movement is managed in a city like London and in Lahore. Though public transport has been prioritised in Lahore over the last few years by the current government and one large project has been completed and the other, the Orange Train, is under construction, historically the model Lahore has had, by default or by design, was one of relying on private transport and privately provided public transport. Even today, the public system has only one backbone line that is functioning, the other is still under construction, and the network of connecting routes to support the backbone are still under development.

The main change that has happened in transport has not been through the public sector and/or in public transport. The main change has been the decline in the price of motorcycles. Where at one point a 70cc motorcycle was selling for Rs60,000-plus, one can now buy it for under Rs30,000. This has been one of the biggest changes in the transport area in Pakistan over the last decade or so. From selling about a few hundred thousand motorcycles a year, we have now gone to selling a couple of million-plus motorcycles. The drop in prices happened because a clone of the 70cc motorcycle was developed and we had a lot of local and Chinese manufacturers enter the market for producing these clones.

But concurrent with this development we have seen that the government has also moved in the direction of facilitating traffic flows through road broadening and infrastructure upgradation projects. The Lahore signal-free project, construction of numerous underpasses and overpasses, and the broadening of key roads have been key components here.

There are significant and real concerns that have been expressed by various stakeholders about the effects that this model is likely to have on various important environmental, social, and cultural variables. Cutting of trees to broaden roads has an environmental impact. Building concrete infrastructure near heritage sites can destroy them and even if that does not happen, it can change the ‘value’ of the heritage site significantly.

But I want to raise a separate issue too, one that has not been highlighted as much in discussions on the infrastructure development model that Lahore has been following. Signal-free corridors, underpasses and overpasses and broader roads also reshape the urban landscape completely. It has become a lot harder for pedestrians and bicycle riders to move around the city.

If you need an example, try crossing the Ferozepur Road or the Main Boulevard on foot. In some places, overhead pedestrian crossings have been made, but there are too few of them and they are not easy to negotiate. And they are not for bicycle riders. If you have to go an extra kilometre or so to cross a main road, as a pedestrian or cyclist, you are likely to be very discouraged from doing so. Not having lanes/spaces for bicyclists on the main roads is also indicative of the state’s priorities.

If the city plans to have a much larger public transport system eventually — and the bus system, the Orange line and work on support networks that are being operationalised do suggest that — then the developments through the signal-free corridor and underpasses and overpasses might work at odds with the kind of urban spaces that should be thought of, that should accompany the development of the larger public transport system.

Large public transport systems do allow for and make it possible for cities to have spaces where people can walk around or use bicycles and where private transport (cars/motorcycles) are not allowed. And these spaces can be for a lot more people environment- and culture-friendly. Even a city space as built up as Manhattan, and one can hardly think of a more concretised space, decided to close down 20 odd streets on Broadway — one of the busiest roads in the area — to vehicular traffic a few years ago in order to facilitate the development of a bicycle track, walking space and development of street cafés and street culture.

What sort of urban space development model will we go for in the larger cities of Pakistan? I hope there is sufficient debate on this and we do not make decisions by default only.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday 25th August, 2017.