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Head Start, Meet Accountability

Education

24-04-2014

The Atlantic

BALTIMORE—St. Jerome’s Head Start, a plain building in a gentrifying Baltimore neighborhood, looks as solid and unchanging as a block of concrete. It’s an unlikely setting for a big shift in how early-childhood education is provided. But here and across the city, Head Start teachers are grappling with new rules for educating children. Staffers are under pressure to make sure program finances are airtight. And centers are waiting to hear the final details of a plan to change the way early-childhood services are delivered citywide.

Head Start, the federally funded preschool program for low-income children, has experienced more change in the past three years than in the previous 40. After years of debate about the program’s quality and value, there’s an accountability revolution coming to preschool.

Operating under authority from a 2007 law signed by George W. Bush, the Obama administration has started requiring Head Start providers that perform poorly on federal audits to compete against other local providers—and win—to keep their grants for the next five years. If all goes according to plan, by the end of 2014 the federal government will have reviewed every Head Start program under new performance criteria. So far, more than 350 of some 1,700 Head Start grant recipients have been forced to compete for their funding, and many more will be required to do so in the years ahead.

For Head Start programs that have faced barely any requirements to demonstrate their effectiveness, this counts as a revolution. “It has had a huge impact on every single program in Maryland. They really completely redesigned the way programs have to look at the way they are operating,” says Linda Zang, the Maryland State Department of Education official in charge of collaborating with Head Start. It seems like every year at least one grantee in the state has been required to compete for funding, Zang says. More important, the threat of competition is pushing teachers across the state to become better educators.

Head Start has always inspired high expectations. “We set out to make certain that poverty’s children would not be forevermore poverty’s captives,” President Johnson said when he announced the creation of the program, in 1965. Johnson envisioned a network of neighborhood organizations that would educate young children, ensure that children get medical care, and teach parents about child development.

Today, the Administration for Children and Families in the Health and Human Services Department funds a sprawling network of about 1,600 local governments, school systems, and private organizations, many of which delegate funding rather than operating programs themselves (St. Jerome’s is one of the city of Baltimore’s 11 delegate organizations). Providers must abide by some 2,400 federal standards that dictate everything from how toilets are cleaned to the size of facilities. There’s also an additional, smaller program called Early Head Start that serves pregnant women and toddlers.

Head Start served about 8 percent of American 3-year olds and 11 percent of 4-year olds in 2012, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Families must be living below the poverty line, or hovering just above it, to apply for a spot in a program. Last year, 42 percent of all children served were white, 29 percent were African-American, and 37 percent were Latino. In Baltimore, almost two-thirds of Head Start parents hold a high school diploma or less.

Federal lawmakers increasingly want to see proof that Head Start prepares low-income children for kindergarten. By age 5, affluent children tend to show greater cognitive development than their low-income peers, mostly because affluent, well-educated parents have more conversations with their babies and use longer words when they do. President Obama often points to research showing low-income children receive lifetime benefits from attending a high-quality preschool program, including better academic performance all the way through high school.

But many Head Start and state-run prekindergarten programs aren’t high quality. National studies of public pre-K programs have found that children spend most of their time playing, eating, and waiting around, and that instructional quality is generally low. A federal impact study, released in 2012, found that while Head Start children experience initial gains in health, language, and reading skills, those gains usually disappear by third grade. House Republicans use that study to argue that Head Start is a failure and not worth the $8.6 billion taxpayers will spend on the program this year.

Historically, Head Start grants were awarded continuously, meaning that barring a major violation of federal standards, providers could expect to keep receiving money year after year. The Bush administration and a Democratic-controlled Congress used the 2007 reauthorization of the Head Start Act to bring more competition to the program and raise the stakes of federal monitoring.

Eventually, the system will work like this: All Head Start grants will be five years long. Providers will request renewed funding at some point before the fifth year of their grant. If they have met certain performance criteria while holding the grant, funding will be renewed. If not, they’ll have to compete to maintain their funding.

It took until December 2011 to finalize the rules for this process, and the new system is still being implemented. At least in theory, by the end of this year, HHS will have reviewed data on every Head Start provider and transitioned every provider to a five-year grant, either through renewing funds or subjecting it to competition.

“Many of the grantees have been funded since the ’60s and ’70s, and there weren’t a lot of opportunities for new approaches into the programs,” says Roberto Rodriguez, President Obama’s White House education adviser. “We have said, ‘If you are a grantee that does not measure up, you will face an open competition.’ ”

HHS has only released the results of the first round of competition, which took place in 2012. The results of the 2013 round will be announced later this year, and providers have already been notified if they’ll have to compete in 2014. 80 of the 125 providers that competed in 2012 kept their grants, and the rest lost either part of all of their funding to another organization, according to HHS.

In their assessments, Head Start providers must now meet seven performance criteria. Five are administrative—things such as having the right licensing and being financially solvent. Providers must also set goals for preparing children for kindergarten, and take steps to achieve them. The last and most important change is a requirement that programs meet minimum thresholds on the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, a privately developed tool that assesses how teachers and staff interact with children.

CLASS doesn’t measure learning outcomes, per se, but high scores are correlated with better learning. “It’s been used in a lot of research and has been validated—meaning that those who have developed this tool have found in numerous research studies that when teachers interact in these richer ways with children, that leads to better outcomes,” says Lisa Guernsey, director of the New America Foundation’s Early Learning Initiative.

Monitors use the CLASS tool to rate programs in three areas: emotional support, classroom organization, and instructional support. Teachers get high scores for instruction if they seize on teachable moments all day long: asking children questions, responding with more than one-word answers, and introducing new vocabulary words even in casual conversation.

To receive funding renewed without competition, providers must surpass minimum scores set by HHS set for all three areas. They also must avoid falling into the bottom 10 percent of CLASS scores for Head Start programs nationally. CLASS scores weren’t used to identify low-performing programs in the first round of competition; instead, providers were asked to compete if they had administrative problems noted during earlier federal reviews. But in the second round, about 40 percent of grantees required to compete for funding had to do so at least partly because of low CLASS scores, says Sara Mead of Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit consultancy.

Moving forward, experts say low CLASS scores will likely be the main reason programs are forced to compete for funding. Of 388 Head Start providers the federal government assessed with the CLASS tool in 2012, the average instructional support score was a 2.98 out of a possible 7; 2 is the minimum acceptable score set by HHS. Of 359 providers assessed in 2013, the average instructional score was 2.72.

It’s not yet clear whether the competitive process will encourage new organizations to challenge existing providers for Head Start funding. John Holland, a former Head Start teacher and a Ph.D. researcher, calculated that in 2012 most of the reassigned money went to existing Head Start providers. “From a kids-eye perspective, there may not have been a lot of change,” says Mead. “Kids ended up in the same settings, it’s just that the money flows slightly differently.”

In Maryland, the first round of competition caused one nonprofit in the southern part of the state to lose two of its three grants to local public school districts. The city of Baltimore, required to compete because of a problem with internal monitoring of finances, was asked to apply for a new type of grant. Together with four community organizations, the city applied and won preliminary approval for a $29 million effort to coordinate early-childhood education citywide.

Gaining a Head Start grant allowed the Calvert County school district to expand its preschool services. “The 4-year-old children have the opportunity to go to prekindergarten half-day and Head Start half-day, to give them a whole day program,” says Cheryl Yates, supervisor of early-childhood and adult education for the district. Children were previously able to attend public school pre-K half-day and Head Start half-day, but not usually in the same location.

If Baltimore’s plan is approved, the city’s public school pre-K programs will expand to serve 4-year olds who would otherwise have gone to Head Start. Head Start will also become a full-day, full-year program for 3-year olds, and Early Head Start services will coordinate with a federally funded home visiting program for pregnant women.

Organizations involved in Baltimore’s plan are under a legal order not to talk about the details until they are finalized. St. Jerome’s, usually open to giving tours of its facilities, declined to let National Journal see the inside of a classroom, let alone speak to teachers and staff members.

“As a result of the triggers for re-competition, it’s changed how Head Start really looks at their operations,” says Shannon Burroughs-Campbell, executive director of Baltimore City Head Start. “The use of CLASS … throughout classes and throughout programs—to make sure that you’re meeting at least the basic minimum level that would not trigger re-competition—is critical.”

It’s not just the Obama administration that’s moving to bring more accountability to preschool and to provide the kind of education to disadvantaged children that can potentially shrink learning disparities. “As states and governments at all levels invest more money in pre-K, you’re going to see more desire for some kind of measurement,” Mead says. The increased federal scrutiny of Head Start programs now unfolding may be only the first tremors of much larger changes ahead as more preschool programs face that simple but powerful question.

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Cheating pervades India’s education system

Education

16-04-2014

LA Times

The voice that answers the number posted on the online ad is polished, confident: No one will suspect anything, he says. The gadget has never failed.

A college senior, he sounds younger on the phone but assures the caller that he speaks from experience. He gives his name as Anil and quotes his price: about $40. Minutes later he texts, offering a 6% discount.

That’s the price to cheat on one of India’s all-important tests, a pressure-packed exercise that holds the key to the country’s most coveted colleges, universities anFd postgraduate programs.

Anil, a medical student in southern India who asked that his full name be withheld, was selling a tiny wireless earpiece, scarcely bigger than the head of a pin. The earpiece receives a signal from a cellphone via a transmitter. During exams, Anil conceals the transmitter under a loose-fitting shirt, texts pictures of the test questions to a friend at home and receives answers over the phone.

“There’s no way anyone can even make out you using the device,” says Anil, who found the earpieces in the United States and imports them in bulk, selling three or four a week on EBay to high school and college students. “I’ve never had any problems. You just need to have some confidence and a good friend who can help you out during the exams.”

India’s schools are renowned for producing hordes of talented math and science graduates, tens of thousands of whom go on to excel at universities in the United States and worldwide. But an emphasis on rote learning and the overriding importance of the exams have also spawned an inveterate tradition of cheating.

In India’s increasingly meritocratic system, good scores in the nationwide tests for 10th- and 12th-graders — known as board exams — determine not only admission to the best schools but also to the most sought-after disciplines, such as engineering and medicine. Likewise, undergraduates compete for limited spaces in elite postgraduate programs. Parental pressure can be overwhelming, students say.

Even for those not attending college, test results are the key to entering job training programs that offer a ladder up to the middle class.

Education officials say they are tackling the problem, but for every comical-sounding contraption like the one Anil was selling, more extreme examples routinely surface in the Indian news media once exam season begins each February.

At a school in Allahabad, in northern India, members of an inspection team were attacked with “crude bombs” last month after catching two students cheating, according to news reports.

At a test center in northern India’s Bareilly district, state-appointed inspectors making a surprise visit last month found school staff members writing answers to a Hindi exam on the blackboard. When the inspectors arrived, the staff members tried to throw the evidence out the window.

Sometimes the stories are horrifying. A 10th-grader in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, accused his principal last month of allowing students to cheat if they each paid about $100. The student’s impoverished family could barely manage half the bribe. Distraught, he doused himself with kerosene and set himself on fire in the family kitchen. He died the next day.

At the well-regarded Balmohan Vidyamandir school in central Mumbai, 10th-grade teacher Shubhada Nigudkar didn’t notice the math formulas written on the wall in the back of the classroom in a neat, tiny script until days after the exams concluded.

“There is nothing we can do at that point,” the matronly, bespectacled English teacher said. “I can’t prove anything. So we move on.”

The problems have prompted education officials to take preventive measures that at first blush might seem worthy of a minimum-security prison. Some schools installed closed-circuit cameras to monitor testing rooms. Others posted armed police officers at entrances or employed jamming devices to block the use of cellphones to trade answers.

Still, India’s national elections, which began this month, billed as the world’s biggest democratic exercise, “are likely to be freer and fairer than the exams,” journalist Mridula Chari wrote on Scroll, a news website.

Teachers and school officials say rogue students make up a small fraction of the millions of those who take the board exams each year. But some say the problem became worse after a 2010 national education policy that guaranteed schooling for all children up to age 14.

Under the law, no student will be left back until the eighth grade or forced to take a board exam until the 10th grade. Teachers say the policy coddles underperforming students and doesn’t train them to take tests.

“They are used to passing. They don’t become accustomed to studying,” said Madhukar Yadhav, the headmaster at Balmohan Vidyamandir, a stately, wood-paneled schoolhouse in the bustling Shivaji Park neighborhood.

For rule-breakers, low-tech methods remain popular. Teachers say that hiding cheat sheets in socks, copying neighbors’ answers and scribbling notes on walls are the most common tactics. Test papers routinely are leaked as well, often by low-level school employees who sell them for the equivalent of a few dollars, and sometimes by teachers or administrators whose professional standing rises if students perform well.

Enforcement during the tests can vary widely. One student who asked to be identified only by his first name, Sarvesh, said that during his 10th-grade exams three years ago in Mumbai, just one supervisor was assigned to stand watch over dozens of students.

“For the major part of the exam, he was not present in the class,” Sarvesh recalled. “There was open passing of information, noise and even discussions. I remember verifying most of my answers with my friends.”

Students and teachers said the anti-cheating measures instituted this year had mixed success. In Mumbai, officials said that installing closed-circuit cameras reduced cheating by 20%, but teachers said students in at least one school in the city’s Parel neighborhood disabled the cameras by pelting them with rocks.

In the eastern state of Bengal, where police stood guard outside test centers and students were checked at the entrance, the measures didn’t stop people from tossing cheat sheets wrapped around small stones through windows into the exam rooms, a local newspaper reported.

“One hundred percent, we can stop this problem,” said Lakshmikant Pande, chairman of the Mumbai division of the board of education in the western state of Maharashtra. “If we continue these types of efforts over two or three years, surely we can stop this.”

Veteran teachers remain skeptical, saying that school principals often are reluctant to report cheating for fear of damaging their reputations. They also said there is little incentive for a teacher to testify to a cheating case, which can trigger a laborious formal investigation.

Nigudkar, the English teacher, said that about a decade ago, the son of a senior Indian Railways official hired a lowly train conductor to take the 10th-grade exam for him. The scam was busted and the student reported to the authorities.

Yet long after his graduation, the case remains before the police, Nigudkar said, with the teacher who nabbed the cheat forced to appear at least once a year at a court proceeding.

“We learned a lesson from that,” said another English teacher, Akhil Bhosle. “If we register a case, it will be a headache for us.”

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An agenda for school education

Education, Quality

20-04-2014

Live Mint & The Wall Street Journal

While school education is largely a state government subject, the centre can do a lot to create an enabling environment for government and private entities, ensure accountability and shape flagship programmes.

Access to and enrolment in school education in India have grown significantly in the last two decades, to over 90% now. This should be celebrated. Quality, however, remains a serious challenge. Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2013 shows 53% of class 5 children in rural India cannot read class 2 text. Two Indian states participating in Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2011 ranked second-last and third-last of 74 countries and states globally. Learning is an issue not only in government schools but also in most private schools (notwithstanding high retention and completion). Lack of training in employable skills during secondary school is another challenge.

As India goes to the polls and political parties visualize the next central government, we suggest a five-point manifesto, focused on school education, with two objectives: significantly improved learning quality (from an average 50 out of 100 to 80 plus on tests of conceptual understanding) and employable skills by the end of schooling.

1. Assess conceptual learning through an independent agency annually and celebrate improvement: Standardized, annual, national assessments are present across the world’s top 20 school systems and increasingly, also in emerging economies such as Brazil and China. India should test a sample of students in classes 3, 5 and 8, across government and private schools, for their understanding of concepts. While these should be low stakes for the student (no pass or fail), they could give the system valuable feedback for improvement, help design initiatives and provide performance transparency. A few state governments are already conducting such assessments through private entities.

The human resource development ministry could understand the needs of each state better and even link part of the funding from programmes such as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) to improved learning levels. It could push the top three states to undergo PISA to understand the global competitiveness of our students. India’s National Assessment Survey could perhaps be refined and evolve into the suggested annual assessments. Over time, board exams also need to be reformed towards greater focus on conceptual understanding.

2. Catalyse teacher education reform through: One, centrally manage B.Ed and D.Ed colleges through outcomes. Accredited private agencies could administer an enhanced version of the Teacher Eligibility Test (TET) to test subject-specific conceptual understanding and practical classroom skills, during recruiting. While 70-80% of candidates may not pass these assessments currently, institutes producing a greater pass rate should get financial and technical support for quality improvement and scale-up. For example, China has over 100 larger-scale teacher training facilities, compared with 14,000 plus teacher training colleges in India with only 1.1 million seats. Managing through outcomes can also allow more flexibility in programmes and alternative accredited certifications, as in countries such as the US.

Second, set up 20 to 30 national institutes, as public-private partnerships, with independent governing boards and high quality CEOs to run benchmark teacher and school leader development programmes. With a collective high quality annual output of, say, 50,000 teachers and 5,000 headmasters, these could be like the IITs or IIMs of education. Once proven, this model can be used to set up future district institutes of education and training and reform existing ones.

3. Integrate employable skills into schooling: Most countries with high quality vocational systems start skills training in school. Vocational skilling across manufacturing, services and self-employment trades, should start in class 8, with a recognised model for passing classes 10 and 12 with a mix of vocational and academic subjects. High quality private entities should deliver the vocational programmes, with students certified by industry-led sector skill councils.

4. Leverage private expertise to run high quality government schools that can be examples and resources for the system: Incentivize and encourage state governments to run, say, at least 20% of government schools in the next five years in public-private partnership mode, combining government infrastructure with select private management bringing their teachers, principal and methodologies. These private entities can be performance-managed through third party tests of learning.

Experience of charter schools in the US, the UK, South Africa and Pakistan show that quality selection and evaluation norms are critical. Equally important is a financially viable model. In cities, an annual payment of Rs.18,000-20,000 per child at 2012 cost, preferably through vouchers to students, can create competition among private schools, leading to quality.

5. Accelerate the use of technology for education: Technology can play several roles in education—interactive and customized learning models, increased reach of high quality teachers in distance mode, tools for supporting teachers and principals, and administrative tools for efficiency. However, the effectiveness of technology in education is not fully proven. The Union government could set up an Rs.500 crore fund to help seed innovations, evaluate effectiveness and scale up high impact experiments.

This five-point agenda could catalyse a school education system that provides India’s children the best learning opportunities and provides the country a skilled workforce.

Ramya Venkataraman is the leader of McKinsey’s education practice in India.

Shirish Sankhe is a director and senior partner, and leads McKinsey’s public sector and infrastructure practices in India.

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Good government data: Is it a myth or does it really exist?

Education

Sana Kazi

Validity, Clarity and Reliability[1]– These were the three ‘ity’s’ of good quality data that Akanksha’s (our research coordinator) presentation to the 2012 batch of CCS’ summer interns focused on. This got me thinking about the public finance data I work with everyday. To give you a little background, I’ve spent the last 10 months working on a project that requires me to explore, understand and analyze the Detailed Demand for Grants -a document that compiles all requests for funding by a government department in a given fiscal year; to specifically calculate how much the government spends on education. Sounds like a simple enough task right?

However, my problems started early on.  Since education is a concurrent subject- not only does the MHRD sponsor some central schemes, but each state government also sponsors their own set of local schemes. Moreover, the Department of Education is not the only department that funds education. As it turns out between 14 to 30 other Ministries and Departments (depending on the state) sponsor various Educational Schemes both nationally and at the state-level.  Some of the larger spenders include the department of Social Welfare and Justice, the Department of Planning and Public Works, the Department of Tribal Welfare, the Ministry of social justice and empowerment, the Ministry of labour and employment, the Ministry of Rural Development, and the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports.   Thus, to get a complete picture of the expenditure on education, one needs to collect the Detailed Demand for Grants for all these 30 Ministries at both the Centre and State level.

My first challenge was finding these documents –most of these documents weren’t available online. If they were, more often than not the links were broken. If I got lucky and did find them online and the links worked, it would only be the most recent document that was available and not the past years’ Demands.  My next stop was the NIPFP library where I spent several afternoons manually going through volumes of budgets to find what I was looking for.

The next step was analyzing these demands and actually understanding the government’s accounting system. This brought with it a new set of challenges:

I assumed that since I had managed to get my hands on the most recent Demands for Grants publically available I would have the latest data on government spending. Turns out that there is a minimum of a 2 year time lag between when these amounts are spent and when these documents are published. Thus, the most recent actual expenditures I had were for the fiscal year 2009-10.

My next challenge was the lack of uniformity in the accounting systems between the Centre and states. The Detailed Demand for Grants uses the standard coding structure as prescribed by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India.  However, there is little or no uniformity beyond minor head level of classification as some States continue to follow the old series of coding structure (as was in use prior to 1st April, 1987). This leaves a lot open to the interpretation of the user and reduces the overall clarity of the document. Additionally, even the unit of reporting i.e rupees thousands, rupees lakhs and rupees crores differs across states which makes standardizing and comparing this data twice as hard.

The Detailed Demand for Grants is a head-wise classification of public expenditure- the Major heads are intended to represent the major functions of the government, the sub-major heads are intended to represent the sub-functions of the government and so on. However, it also includes Major Head 2552: Lump sum provision for North Eastern Areas and Sikkim which in my mind is a geographical classification as opposed to being a functional classification. So how well does the Demand for Grants really measure what it was really intended to measure i.e what is the validity of the data?

Despite all these set-backs, I was excited about finally getting to the bottom of these documents when this made news- the CAG got its crores and lakhs mixed up ! Agreed, the mix up was not in the Demand for Grants. But, this forced me to think- what was the reliability of the numbers in the Demand for Grants? Moreover on a recent visit to the MHRD, I was informed that these Demands used to be typed on MS Word until about 2 years back (which was when they moved to MS Excel) and all calculations were done manually on a calculator and then entered into the Word document! – Which greatly increases the scope for human error.

While tools like the RTI have helped make public finance data more accessible, the concern that it meets Akanksha’s three ‘ity’s’ of good data remains.  Hopefully the new account structure that the Government intends to implement over the next couple of years will be a step in the right direction to good quality data….one ity at a time.

 


[1] Validity: The degree to which a measure reflects the concept it is intended to measure

  Clarity: Is the data sufficiently well defined that all users will interpret it similarly

  Reliability : The degree to which measurement method would collect the same data each time in repeated observations

This was originally posted on Spontaneous Order.

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The Indian education system is broken. A few startups want to fix it

Education, Quality

11-04-2014

ZD Net

It is extremely strange that a country that has produced an avalanche of engineers, many of whom have gone on to start some of the leading tech companies in the world, are CEOs of various multinationals, are heads of M&A divisions on Wall Street and have taken over many of the world’s consulting firms can be accused of coming from an educational system that is fundamentally unsound.

And yet, that seems to be the case. A few years ago, the Economist highlighted a study done by Indian firm Aspiring Minds on a large number of Indian engineering graduates. The firm is run by brothers Himanshu and Varun Aggarwal who had previously collectively received engineering degrees from the temples of global engineering (the Indian Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

What the brothers unearthed was shocking at first, but perhaps not so surprising when you actually think about our educational experiences in India. Aspiring Minds essentially concluded that a large number of Indian engineering graduates are unemployable, with 95.8 percent of them not fit to work in a software product firm and only 17.8 percent employable by an IT Services company. These figures were apparently even more bleak than the 25 percent figure of employability presented by McKinsey around ten years ago. (Aspiring Minds’ test was similar to the GRE and gauged students’ analytical, verbal and quantitative skills). A recent study on current work force skills which I wrote about here pretty much said the same thing.

Many who have navigated the Indian education system as students, even at an elite level, will tell you that one of the evils of our system is the emphasis on rote learning.According to this piece, around 70 percent of Indian principals felt that  Indians weren’t given enough opportunity to develop creative thinking abilities and that the existing system today was along the lines of the ‘factory model’ architected in the 18th and 19th centuries in order to feed the engine rooms of the Industrial Revolution.

Of course, rote learning isn’t all bad. As this article points out, “Without spellings, facts and rules… you’re left floundering in a knowledge-free vacuum,” and that “data leads to – proper, considered thought, rooted in knowledge and the logical jumps and inferences that naturally develop from the simple gift of knowing stuff.” Indians are comfortable around numbers precisely because things like multiplication tables and assorted formulas were hammered into us at a very early age.

Even today, I know all of Newton’s equations for motion. I may have eventually gone on to Trollope and Ginsberg and Amitava Ghosh, but thanks to mind-numbing repetition, I still can’t forget that s=ut+1/2 at^2, where ‘a’ is negative in the case of a falling body that plummets to earth at 9.8 m/s^2 under the earth’s gravitational force. I’m not sure that in my case this would have been possible in the absence of the Indian system of rote. (Or ‘rat-ta’ as we like to call it.)

Off course, if only that were bolstered by a healthy degree of conceptual foundations, I may have enjoyed science instead of eventually analyzing the human condition while stopping by woods on a snowy evening. Instead, today, engineering is simply the means to an end for many Indians rather than an end in itself—and this is doubly dangerous in a cloud-computing, plug-and-play world where engineers are being commoditized and upstaged by vocational students and management graduates.

The inadequacies of the Indian system became apparent to me when I went from a high school (11th grade) in India that was a breeding ground for future IIT engineers and did my 12th grade in a public high school in Queens, New York (my mother was transferred there for work) where I enrolled in the Advanced Placement Calculus class. I had already studied a third of the course work in India but suddenly found a whole universe of practicality opened up to me when I realized, for the first time, that an Integration problem was really about calculating the area under a curvy line that could actually represent a garden or a pathway or a wall and not just some abstract concept that focused on getting the right answer. It was a revelation.

The problem with many of India’s engineers (I am told by many who fit that category)—especially those enrolled at India’s best schools like the IITs of the world—is that they focus mainly on getting in. This usually means thousands of hours (and Rupees) spent on ‘tuition’ classes outside of school. Once in, there’s not much intellectual flexing.

The founder of one of India’s leading indigenous consulting firms recently told me that he got a rude shock when he arrived in the US for a graduate degree in Management after a supposedly top notch Indian engineering education because he was simply unable, at least in the first few months, to cope with the style of conceptual, analytical thinking that was taking place. “We were all so used to being force-fed for years that when the feeding wasn’t there, we became paralysed,” he said.

Indian engineers in the country have it worse because the absence of any liberal arts framework means that elite engineering students often have an elevated impression of themselves but tend to know little of the world around them upon graduation.

But it’s not just engineers who find themselves in peril. This article written by an American who spent time at one of India’s elite colleges, St. Stephens, looks at how he found a profound lack of depth amongst the students there. At least engineers have some kind of foundation in Science whereas these ‘Commerce’ and ‘Arts’ graduates, on average, tend to have a foundation in, well, nothing. Which is why many Indians who do their undergraduate in India tend to repeat many of these years in the US.

What’s worse, Indians in general, post-graduation, have a serious lack of knowledge about their own history and culture. This was certainly the case with me when I was in high school. The upper strata of society tend to be the worst off. Having lived in Delhi for the last seven years, I have found that wealthy children from elite urban high schools and privileged boarding schools are in fact the ones that are the most underequipped with critical thinking or sophistication in formulating a world view compared to those coming out of the more ‘average’ institution. Perhaps, the womb of air-conditioned cars that ferry one back and forth and air-conditioned houses to shield you from the elements and half a dozen staff at home, not to mention ski vacations in Switzerland prevent any kind of realistic examination of life around you.

It is not that Indians are not smart. Anything but, people would argue. It is the education system that has failed them. The profusion of successful Indians in the world is despite the odds of a broken system and thanks to the vast population base that allows for attractive numbers. In reality the majority of Indian children, as Pratham, the country’s foremost education NGO will tell you have a 2nd grade level of reading and proficiency in the 7th grade and only 1/3rd of students in the fifth grade can do simple division problems.

So, it must come as a tremendous source of relief for those wringing their hands at ruins of the educational system in India to read that social venture capital Lok Capital as well as seedfund Chennai Angels has invested close to US$1 million in Everest Edusys, a company that weans children away from rote learning to learning by doing. It plans on setting up science laboratories in schools across southern states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala where “students learn concepts such as force, motion, gravity through touch and feel and activity based tools,” he said.

Everest Edusys’ flagship product Quest Explore Discover (QED) is a mobile interactive exhibit center that teaches students in K-12 science principles in a hands-on way through experiments and other activities.

Apparently Everest has come up with tools that have been used at by over 20,000 children in 100 schools out of which 20 percent are government-run—a category that Everest wants to focus more on in the future by bringing the wonders of a science lab to their doorsteps. The idea is to spur critical thinking at a young age so students by using active learning methodologies. According to research, students using their system enjoyed a 47 percent improvement in their performance. Another outfit Flintbox wants to provide activity boxes on a monthly subscription basis for young children to get their conceptual and creative juices flowing at a young age.

Another innovative enterprise, Skyfi Labs, tries to tackle the problem a little higher up the chain by trying to transform ‘textbook geniuses’ into employable engineers by giving them something Indians don’t really get often (how many Indians do you know had to slave away at summer jobs or internships?)—such as access to practical, hands-on training, on- and offline.

The outfit has trained over 25,000 students from more than 150 colleges according to VCCircle by conducting two to three day courses in areas such as robotics, aeromodelling, web and mobile app development and civil engineering according. Apparently, a Skyfi Evaluation Engine takes a close look at the performance of each student and then feeds this to companies looking for capable recruits.

A few more of these novel solutions and we just may have a shot at reaching our potential in what could be a deluge of graduate talent in the country. Till then, the rot will continue.

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Education and India’s Jobs Crisis

Education, Quality

14-04-2014

The Wall Street Journal

In a page-one story Monday, The Wall Street Journal reports that India’s economic slowdown is giving rural Indians fewer incentives to leave their home villages and farms in search of better-paying work. For some who have already left, it means going back to a way of life they thought they’d left behind.

Specifically, the credit-rating firm Crisil predicts that by 2019, 12 million more people will be working in agriculture than in 2012. Compare this to what happened between 2005 and 2012, when the agricultural workforce shrank by 37 million people, and you get some sense of what a turnaround this could represent for India if Crisil’s forecast bears out.

This stalling of urbanization and industrialization touches on many aspects of India’s extraordinary, if rickety, economic rise. As discussed in the story, part of the problem is the country’s undersized manufacturing sector. In Europe and East Asia, factories have helped bring millions of unskilled workers from farm communities into urban life. In this election season in India, the question of whether the government should prioritize economic growth or the needs of the poorest is again at the center of the policy debate.

But it’s important not to undervalue another factor that is also preventing more people in India’s countryside from finding more productive—and hence more remunerative—work.

School education in India is “abysmally poor,” as one report put it last year.More boys and girls are enrolling than before, but quality hasn’t kept up. In some rural schools, teachers skip class as often as their students. The Right to Education Act, enacted in 2009, guarantees free and compulsory elementary education but has been criticized for setting such unrealistically high standards for quality that schools are encouraged to pay bribes in exchange for certifications from government inspectors.

Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize-winning Bengali poet and polymath, issued this diagnosis many decades ago: “In my view the imposing tower of misery which today rests on the heart of India has its sole foundation in the absence of education.”

That rings true in the village of Morkahi, where we met Ram Singh, one of the people profiled in Monday’s story. Mr. Singh and his brother, Lallan, left home without finishing high school to find work in New Delhi. Today, both men can read and write at a basic level, though they regret they didn’t stay in school longer.

Lallan told us he regularly cut classes. During one of our interviews with him, in the gargantuan Delhi produce market where he loads and unloads trucks, we found him flipping through a Hindi newspaper and asked what kind of news he was interested in. He said he liked the photos but couldn’t really understand any of the stories.

Morkahi is in the poor, eastern state of Bihar, which is one of India’s worst performers, education-wise. The state’s overall literacy rate—64% in 2011—was the lowest in India that year. According to a 2010 study, only 40% of 8- to 11-year-old students in government schools in Bihar could read a simple paragraph. Just 43% of them could subtract a two-digit number from another two-digit number.

The truly depressing thing about that last statistic? The nationwide average in India was also 43%.

At Rajya Samposhit High School, just up the road from Morkahi, there are nearly 1,000 9th-grade students and more than 600 10th graders—but only three teachers.

“You can imagine the kind of situation we are in,” Gopal Prasad Dubey, the school’s geography teacher and vice principal, told us. “The futures of these students are not as bright as the government claims them to be.”

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Achieving Education for All in a ‘Hot, Flat and Crowded’ India

Education, Uncategorized

Uttara Balakrishnan

Recent reading of two seemingly disparate issues made me question if they might be connected after all?  The first was in Thomas L. Friedman’s 2008 book – Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why the World Needs a Green Revolution and How We Can Renew Our Global Future. In his book, Friedman says that the earth is heading towards a new era. We’re no longer in a ‘post’ world – post-colonial, post war, post-Cold War. We’re at a turning point – where the problems of energy demand and supply, climate change, biodiversity loss and energy poverty are no longer those we can return to – at a later date in time. We have to address these now, for there to be a later. The second reading was a news piece which uncovered that in Sasaram in Bihar, children study under the dim lights of the railway station at night. Power in this district of Bihar is erratic and unreliable. A majority of the homes here do not have power for more than ten hours a day and the evenings are the worst.

When I look at these two observations together, it becomes more and more obvious to me that while achieving universal education is India’s goal; what should be our priority is achieving this in an India where the pressures of global warming, globalization and population explosion – are upon us. As I see it there are four important issues that need to be considered.

One, the health impacts that increasing energy stress are causing are reducing the ability of many people to access education. There are two aspects to this. First, indoor air pollution is one of the biggest health hazards in rural India. Biomass cooking, according to the World Health Organization causes around 5 lakh deaths in India, mostly women and children. Second, without access to clean water, parents are increasingly reluctant to send their children to school. This affects young girls disproportionately more. This means that for education to be a choice in the first place, we need to simultaneously (a) ensure clean and safe alternatives to biomass cooking (b) guarantee availability of clean water and sanitary conditions in schools across the country and, (c) provide sustainable, long term alternatives of energy consumption.

Two, in a world that is more globalized and competitive than ever before, being highly skilled is more of a necessity than an option. The RTE Act leaves the education of children post-grade 8 a question mark. This Hindustan Times article makes the point starkly.  For many Indians, education after Class 12 is still inaccessible and unaffordable. There is a massive demand-supply gap in higher education. This makes their ability to contribute and collaborate limited. In such a scenario innovations don’t happen and productivity doesn’t accelerate. Focusing on (a) novel and affordable solutions in secondary and higher education for the poor and, (b) enabling them to access information technology and better wireless connectivity (by providing green sources of electricity) to make the most of these opportunities, must be of our main concern.

Three, to achieve inclusive education and ensure that the real beneficiaries of any policy actually benefit from it means that we need to invest in and develop our villages. Our cities are stretched beyond capacity. Population pressures are leading to crumbling infrastructure and decreasing quality of life. Developing villages by investing in infrastructure and assuring provision of clean, sustainable and long term energy sources will, by creating the necessary supply conditions, encourage the increased proliferation of private schools in these areas. Demand for such schools already exists. This means that everyone, including the economically disadvantaged, will have the ability as well as the choice to empower themselves.

Lastly, the poor – the ones who have contributed the least towards the present unstable climate, are the worst prepared for and most affected by extreme events such as droughts, famines and floods. This constant struggle to battle climactic forces reduces their ability to participate in education. For those who do attend schools, drop outs are common and this is one of the many reasons for poor learning outcomes for India’s school going children. Research has indicated that if the predictions of the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) predictions on global warming were to come true, India’s GDP could decline by as much as 9%. The effects of this on the education sector would be catastrophic.

Thus, while achieving education for all needs to be one of the most important policy focuses, we need to be cognizant of the inter-dependence between energy and education. We are unlikely to truly achieve equitable quality education at all levels without also focusing our attention on green solutions to the energy problems facing us. The question is not whether global warming projections will come true or not. The point is, if they do, we will have the capacity to meet them and if they don’t we will have moved on to a more efficient and sustainable way of living. ‘Energy poverty’ as Friedman terms it, is going to make it much harder for those at the bottom of the pyramid to access educational opportunity and unlock their potential. While we cannot undo the damage that has been done, what we can do – by acknowledging the existence of and acting on this multi-faceted challenge – is ensure a brighter, more certain and more able future for those who need it the most, while innovating along the way. After all, isn’t that what great revolutions are made of?

This article was originally posted on Spontaneous Order.

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Economist identifies useful education reforms in India

Education

03-04-2014

Cornell Chronicle

Jim Berry believes that economics can be a force for good. His projects in India use economic studies and principles to uncover the best ways to alleviate poverty and inform policy. His most recent work shows that although government officials in developing countries tout increases in enrollment as a sign of improvements in primary education, test scores show actual learning hasn’t matched this progress.

Berry, assistant professor of economics, began his work in India as part of his dissertation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with MIT’s Jameel Poverty Action Lab, where he is an affiliate. He lived in India from 2002-03 as a research assistant. His research shows that adding a volunteer teacher outside classroom time or offering teacher training and supervision can make a substantial difference in a child’s learning.For his current research project, Berry considered the many challenges India faced in its educational system: lack of classroom furniture and materials, automatic grade promotion, low parental involvement and poorly trained teachers.

Since past research had shown little educational improvement from infrastructure changes, Berry focused on changing curricula, teacher training and evaluating reforms – originally devised by education-focused nongovernmental organizations – that he and his co-authors call “teaching at the right level.” The method encourages teachers to split classes into smaller groups based on ability and use targeted materials and methods to teach students at their individual level.

Berry conducted randomized evaluations in four rural regions of India. Students were tested before and after each intervention and results were clear: Those in schools with outside volunteers saw a statistically significant increase in test scores, and those who received new materials and were taught by a trained teacher with supervision saw even greater gains.

“We found that you can’t just change the curriculum at the top and expect teachers to be trained and to follow through,” Berry said. “But with additional training and teacher monitoring, we saw higher test scores across all levels.”

Costs of the interventions were minimal, Berry said. Materials were not expensive and teacher monitors already exist in Indian schools, they just needed to be refocused. Local nongovernmental staff members could provide teacher training at a low cost, he said.

“Even with these strong results, the question is still ‘will the government buy in?’“ Berry said. In one region in India, the government chose to expand a different program that had national government backing, even through Berry had tested that program and found it didn’t perform as well as his. In another region, the teaching-at-the-right-level approach is being implemented.

“Evidence-based policymaking is always our goal,” Berry said. “But in a lot of contexts it doesn’t happen. For example, in the U.S., you see a lot of very effective interventions (e.g., universal pre-K) that don’t get scaled up for political reasons.”

Berry said his group of researchers will replicate the study in other countries. He believes the methods provide a promising approach for other developing countries where learning in schools is lagging.

Berry presented his research in March at a lecture sponsored by the South Asia Program of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies. He also presented results from his work in January at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Berry’s co-authors come from Harvard, MIT and ASER Centre/Pratham, an organization working to educate underprivileged children in India.

Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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Why Education Spending Doesn’t Lead to Economic Growth

Education

07-04-2014

Bloomberg Businessweek

It is college acceptance season, and letters with financial aid offers attached are dropping on doormats nationwide. Many students and an even greater number of parents are facing the sticker shock associated with tertiary education. As college prices rise—the average annual cost hit $18,497 in 2010-11, according to the National Center for Education Statistics—the question inevitably arises: Is it worth it? For the average student in the U.S. and worldwide, the answer is affirmative: Education remains a fantastic investment for individuals. The tougher question is whether education at all levels is such a great investment for societies as a whole.

In the U.S., education leads to higher wages. Median weekly earnings in 2013 were $472 for someone with less than a high school diploma, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number rises to $1,108 for those with a bachelor’s degree and $1,714 for those with a professional degree such as an MBA or J.D. A recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper suggested that the educational payoff for “marginal” college students—the ones who might not attend if it weren’t for government support, for example—may be a lot lower. Still, for most students, the high cost of college is well worth it.

That’s true worldwide as well. Recent estimates (PDF) for Ghana, for example, suggest that each additional year a child stays in school translates into an average annual income 7 percent higher. In China, that figure is 12 percent.

But does that private return on investment in education translate into benefits for the national economy? In the U.S., public education expenditure accounts for more than 5 percent of gross domestic product. (Private spending is about the same size.) In developing countries, including Kenya and Uganda, education takes up 15 percent or more of the government expenditures. Public education spending is justified in part by the idea that it has considerable spillover effects—not only the student, but society as whole benefits when a kid goes to school. The data suggest a more complex story, however.

Analysis by Lawrence Katz and Claudia Goldin suggests that increased educational attainment among Americans from 1915 to 1999 might account for 10 percent of the growth in U.S. GDP over that time. Some commentators contend that this an underestimate (PDF). But at the global level, no relationship has been found between a more educated population and more rapid economic development. There has been an explosion in schooling in developing countries, but many show nothing like explosive growth in GDP per person. By 2010, the average Kenyan had spent more years in school than the average French citizen had in 1985. But Kenya’s GDP per capita in 2010 was only 7 percent of France’s GDP per head 25 years earlier.

What explains the limited impact of increased education on economic growth? A possible answer is that education acts as a filter rather than an investment. A recent study (PDF) in Italy found that test scores had a significant impact on the earnings of employees—but none on the earnings of self-employed people. One interpretation of that result is that schooling signals persons with intelligence and ambition, rather than actually imparting or indicating skills that make them better at their jobs over the long term. Signaling helps as a screening tool for employers, but makes no difference to people who work for themselves. Presumably, they already know how smart and ambitious they are. (Think Bill Gates: Harvard let him in, signaling smarts, but he didn’t finish his studies before going off to become the world’s richest man; apparently Gates didn’t feel he needed to complete the course load to succeed).

It looks as if the developing world may may have a similar problem: As primary schooling has become universal and its signaling power has weakened, analysis in the journal Development Policy Review suggests that the returns to primary schooling have dropped since the 1950s from a near 30 percent wage premium toward a 5 percent wage premium today. That’s in part because lots of kids aren’t learning anything at all in school. In India, for example, only around a quarter of children who complete primary school can read a simple passage, do simple math, tell time, and make change.

 

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Common Core Failure

Education

April 2014

Reason

At the beginning of the 2013 school year, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) implemented the first phase of a $1 billion initiative to provide an iPad to every student and teacher in the city’s public schools. The program was intended to help “close the digital divide” between the rich and poor while meeting federal Common Core technology standards. But the project has been heavily criticized, and many of the participating schools have halted home iPad use.

To measure the effectiveness of the project, employee unions conducted anonymous surveys. They found the iPad rollout is unpopular with teachers: Only a third strongly favored continuing the project, in contrast with 90 percent of administrators. Meanwhile, 75 percent reported problems with basic wireless connectivity.

The iPads also ended up costing the district a hefty sum. In June, the LAUSD claimed each tablet would cost $678, but the district ultimately spent $768 on each one. If the district were swimming in money, the additional expenditures might be a mere inconvenience. But many teachers have complained that the project is a poor use of limited resources, given the overcrowded and understaffed classrooms. Robert J. Moreau, a computer animation teacher in the LAUSD, told reporters “we are buying these toys when we don’t have adequate personnel to clean, to supervise.”

Meanwhile Larry Cuban, an education professor at Stanford, points out on his blog that there’s “no body of evidence that iPads will increase math and reading scores on state standardized tests…or that students using iPads will get decent paying jobs after graduation.” He also notes that the district has no plans to measure student outcomes.

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