Friday, February 27, 2015

Tales from an education bureaucrat

Today, I attended a panel discussion on education for the masses organized by IIM Calcutta. While a large portion of the discussion revolved around the usual platitudes, I was fascinated by the experiences shared by the articulate Mr. M - senior IAS officer and Principal Secretary of the Govt. of Maharashtra.

Mr. M's talk revolved around 3 major themes
  1. The RTE has done more harm than good with respect to learning outcomes. It focuses on only strengthening the hardware, not the software
  2. The education sector needs de-regulation. Competition is the only way to improve quality
  3. The government just cannot do a good job of teaching in a country as large and complex as ours
During his time in the education ministry, he had felt that the government school teachers were extremely capable. The only thing they lacked - accountability. He felt that one way of improving accountability was frequent assessment and so, he decided to pilot a fortnightly baseline test in government schools (run by corporations and zilla parishads) to measure learning outcomes. 

To begin with, he called a meeting of his block level education officers and asked them to test every single student in select schools on a 20 mark baseline test designed by experts to test literacy in math and language. As bogus reporting is very common in the education sector, he warned the officers to report the data as-is. He also assured them that no action would be taken - no matter what the results were. During the first instance of the testing, the average literacy rate came out to be a mind-boggling 90%! Suspecting rampant bogus reporting, he sent out several verification officers to re-test a few students and compare their scores. His hunch was correct.

So he once again called together the block officers and warned them that anyone caught cheating would be suspended with immediate effect. The baseline test was administered once again. This time, only 18% of students passed as literate (scoring greater than 15/20 on the test). The remaining 82% were either illiterate or semi-literate.

Mr. M diligently continued to administer a variant of this test every fortnight and observed its impact on key metrics. Attendance (of both students and teachers) increased dramatically. Dropouts decreased. And test scores improved. In just 1.5 years after launching this rigorous assessment project, over 90% of the 600,000 students under the scheme passed the test as literate.

Buoyed by the success of this initiative, Mr. M tried to roll it out across all government schools in the state. But he faced intense lobbying from teachers. The teachers union challenged the order in court as being discriminatory - if government school students were to take the test, even private schools should be forced to implement it. The union won the case and a stay order was issued against the initiative on the grounds of it being unconstitutional.

After the panel discussion, I caught up with Mr. M over chai. He seemed like an earnest, well-meaning and exceptionally sharp man open to trying new ideas. He once again reiterated the fact that government should de-regulate education and encourage competition. But his years in the bureaucracy seemed to have dulled his optimism. He said that education doesn't seem high on the agenda of any government. So unless there is sustained lobbying led by powerful groups outside the political ecosystem, it is unlikely that this will happen in the near future.

PS: I left the event with mixed feelings. I was encouraged (as I have been on several occasions in the past) by the quality and intent of our IAS officers. But I also felt a sense of helplessness and frustration at where our conversation ended. When will we see such issues being debated on the floor of the Parliament, and not only by a motley group of 20-people at the posh Taj Vivanta?

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