Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Horror Stories In Education: A Cautionary Tale

From the World bank blogs (excerpts; emphasis added):

Seeing a child like a state: Holding the poor accountable for bad schools
Guest post by Lant Pritchett

In the early 20th century Helen Todd, a factory inspector in Chicago, interviewed 500 children working in factories, often in dangerous and unpleasant conditions. She asked children the question: “If your father had a good job and you didn’t have to work, which would you rather do—go to school or work in a factory?” 412 said they would choose factory work. One fourteen year old girl, who was interviewed lacquering canes in an attic working with both intense heat and the constant smell of turpentine, said “School is the fiercest thing you can come up against. Factories ain’t no cinch, but schools is worst.”

The recent expansion of the “ASER-like” simple assessments of literacy and numeracy skills of all children in a village based approach provides an accurate, and chilling, picture of just how little learning is going on inside schools in many poor countries…Take Uttar Pradesh in 2010. By the end of lower primary school (grade 5) only one in four children could divide. Even by grade 8, the end of upper primary only 56 percent could. Similarly, by grade 5 only 44 percent could read a level 2 paragraph and by grade 8 still only 77.6 could. A large plurality of children, even of those that had persisted and been promoted through eight full grades or primary school—roughly 8000 hours of available total instruction—were either illiterate or innumerate or both.

Even these children can however see the disparity in accountability between them and their teachers. The regular civil service teachers in Uttar Pradesh are massively privileged: making over three times the market wage, no accountability, not even to show up for work, and able to mistreat students with impunity. Data from the 2005 India Human Development Survey (Desai, Dubey, Vanneman, and Banerji 2008) show that 29 percent of parents report their child was “beaten or pinched” in government schools in the previous month. Worse, a child from the poorest group of households is almost twice as likely to be beaten or pinched in a government school than a child from the richest group of households. This is in contrast to private schools which show no income favoritism in beating. Studies consistently find absence rates of regular teachers in government schools in UP around 25 percent—not to mention low rates of effort when in attendance…

…But wait. The development technocracy with its latest rigorous research methods and can-do, expansion of “what works” attitude has the solution to your drop-out problem: they will threaten your mother. This is a wildly new popular class of programs called “conditional cash transfers” which has spread from its origins in Mexico and Brazil to over 30 countries. The design is simple, use some targeting method to determine eligible households and offer the eligible households cash (often paid to the mother of the household) but only if all their school aged children stay in school. These conditional cash transfers, to no one’s surprise, have been rigorously proven to reduce child drop-out.

For the state and those that see for the state and like the state, see the problem of child drop-out is a problem of the household not complying with the state’s objective to universalize enrollment. The obvious solution is to make the poor child and poor households more accountable to the state’s narrowly drawn objective of increasing enrollment. That the real goal was to properly educate the child gets lots [sic] in the counting

…Of course when CCTs force children back into school the children might not learn to read and might not learn to divide, but they will learn an important, if tragic, life lesson: when you are poor the state has power and you do not.

I thought CCT’s were a good idea, by providing the proper economic incentives towards achieving a policy goal. Now I’m not so sure – if we were to implement it here, the policy goal has to be properly framed. Otherwise we’ll get…again…more schooling and less learning.

To be fair, I don’t think we’re as badly off as Uttar Pradesh. Nor does Malaysia need to make much more progress towards universal schooling, except at the extreme ends of the scale in pre-school and at tertiary level. But the lesson here needs to be heeded – it’s not all about attendance or grades, it’s about forming and guiding our children in preparation for a fruitful and fulfilling adulthood.


  1. Hi Hisham, if my experience is anything to go by, we have similar problems of sub-par teachers in govt schools even in urban centers.

    I once had a Chemistry teacher for an entire year that didn't teach. She'd come into class, sit herself down and do nothing to instruct/teach. She would ask us to read this or this chapter on our own, clip nails/look pretty, even doze off sometimes. Just plain not interested in teaching. I failed this subject consistently.

    Downward up appraisals of teachers, or remuneration based on student's performance would be fresh. But if we can't even build our roads right, I don't expect we'd be able to pull off something like that.

  2. I'm working on a new post which you might like to see. Might take a while.

  3. You sir, are a teacher. And a gem ;-)