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Silver bullets in education

Government run schools, Learning Achievements, Quality

Last year, Dileep and I were in a cab headed to Columbia University. After the cab driver learnt that we work in school education in India, we were lectured loudly by him. It started with some curt advice to Dileep about his lovely dark blue kurta: unless he dressed properly (in trousers and shirt) no one would take him seriously.

He wanted us to be taken seriously —with a purpose. The Chinese were taking over the world. He didn’t like it. In his assessment the only people who could stop the Chinese were us, the Indians. And we were messing up by not fixing our school system. Our school system could be fixed easily, by being tough with the teachers: we should fire the 20% who don’t show up for work and also those who don’t improve performance in a year.

His face glowed with satisfaction from having given sound advice, as he helped us with our bags. He reminded Dileep about the kurta, and waved a cheerful goodbye.
I go through this kind of a cab driver moment very often. People hold strong views about how to improve schools in India. They expect action to be taken, and quickly. And they get exasperated even by the faintest suggestion that their solutions may be inadequate or that the problems that they are prioritizing may not be so important.

This happens not just with cab drivers in New York, but also in India: with business people, government officials, politicians, harried parents of school-going children, i.e., just about anybody. Many such people are passionate believers in their silver bullets, which are often trivial pursuits. In the 80:20 principle, these will not figure in the vital few.

Such belief in silver bullets is often harmless, but sometimes not. That is because powerful politicians, key bureaucrats, public figures and business people often influence what happens in the education system.

In this piece I am listing the most common five silver bullets, as I have seen. I call them trivial pursuits because of many reasons: simplistic diagnosis, over-estimation of importance, underestimation of complexity of solutions, ignoring the integrated nature of educational and social issues, inadequate from a learning and pedagogical stand-point and just plain wrong.

First: “Let’s fix the policies”. This is the catch-all one. A belief that somehow the ills of our schooling can be fixed by changing policy is widespread. Some policies can certainly be improved, but for the most part, the issue is in the implementation of the education policies. And like all implementation, the devil is in the details, which by its very nature is so diffuse that no silver bullet can fix it.

Second, the enthusiasm of the New York cab driver about fixing education by fixing the teachers who are habitually not in school is shared by many. Whatever the absenteeism number might be, two facts are often overlooked. That a vastly larger number show up to work and teach. And people not showing up to work (or not working) is not just in schools, but in many of our other public systems. It’s a wider issue of governance, with socio-political roots.

Third: “Let’s improve teacher salaries to get better people”. While salaries of teachers in a large percentage of private schools are very poor, government schoolteachers across the country are reasonably well paid; often in the top quartile of their socio-economic milieu. A key issue in “getting teachers” is the kind of places teachers have to live in. We now have schools in 0.8km of 98% of our habitations. It’s the perceived (and real) hardship of living in a particular village, a specific block, a region that is often the big obstacle for getting teachers.

Fourth: “Let’s use technology to improve teaching, address the problem of teacher attendance, to deliver interesting learning material, etc.” The reality is that the vast majority of our schools are amid basic infrastructure which limits the use of technology. This is about availability of electricity and basic service delivery. However, even in the best of circumstances, technology has a limited role to play in the teaching-learning process with children. This is not a limitation of technology, but simply the nature of learning, which is best nurtured for a child by a personal human interaction and relationship.

Fifth: “Let’s privatize the schooling system”. The words chosen may differ, but that is what it means. What it ignores is that our schooling system is already rapidly privatizing, which is not helping matters. Just for now, let’s ignore all other problems of privatizing schooling, the fact is that on learning outcomes our private schools and government schools are alike.

It’s obvious that I have taken the risk of being shot by those whose silver bullets I am calling trivial pursuits. Most of these people are good-intentioned. But these good intentions miss the fundamental issues, e.g., teacher and school leader capacity, school and education system culture, curricular issues, assessment (testing) systems.

It’s the fundamental issues that we need to work on—on a sustained basis for a few decades, and not get distracted by silver bullets.

Livemint, 04 April 2012


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