Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Market no fix for education

It has become clear that there is no difference in the learning outcomes across private and public schools

About a decade ago, the world of education was abuzz with evidence as to how “low-cost" private schools were solving India’s problems in education, and were better than public schools on all counts, including learning outcomes. It was touted as another instance of how markets could serve all needs, and feted in the pantheon of innovations for the “bottom of the pyramid". This was a fine drug for the market addicted; it’s just that it was not true. Private schools were not delivering better learning outcomes as compared to public schools then, they don’t do so now. The claims on other things like infrastructure were equally misleading.

There were many issues with the evidence and the conclusions drawn. To mention some: extreme over-generalization from narrow studies, choice of variables and inadequately disclosed conflicts of interest of some of the evidence gatherers. Most of the so-called evidence also ignored one of the most fundamental of issues. Learning of students across two schools cannot be compared unless the children in the two schools come from similar socio-economic backgrounds. Schools have an impact on learning outcomes for sure, but so do the opportunities and environment provided by the family and close community.

The population of private school students, on average, is from socio-economically better-off families, as compared to public schools. So, unless the impact of socio-economic background is somehow accounted for, it’s not possible to simply compare learning outcomes. As better (and non-conflicted) evidence has gathered in the past decade on this matter, it has become clear that there is no difference in the learning outcomes across private and public schools, and on most other parameters, public schools are better. This is true not just for India, but across the world. I have written many times about this before, including referring to the relevant research papers.

India has now successfully provided for near universal access to elementary education. However, in the past decade, we have acted inadequately in systemically improving educational outcomes. Social and cultural factors (not educational) have driven up enrolment in private schools from about 17% to 30% of the school-going population. But, learning outcomes have not improved; in fact, they have declined on certain measures. This has not diminished the continued chanting of markets-will-fix-education mantra by the faithful. This is really the lost decade for quality in Indian education.

Addictions are hard to cure, especially when there is no intent on the part of the afflicted. So, as it has become clear that there is no difference in learning outcomes across public and private schools, the market-addicted have retreated to building another case. This is a case based on efficiency. They are triumphantly declaring that economic efficiency of private schools is much better, since they deliver similar outcomes (which they were denying till not long ago) at much lower costs; that is, again private schools are the solution. This narrative is as misleading as the one on learning outcomes. But those interested in building such narratives are not interested in reality, especially if it doesn’t fit the narrative. Let’s fleetingly look at the underlying reality.

The efficiency case rests on the lower costs of such private schools, as compared to public schools. This is driven by huge differences in teacher compensation. Private schools pay their teachers one-tenth to half of what is paid in public schools. And teacher compensation is often 70-90% of any school’s cost. Isn’t the most basic next step to try and figure out how this cost structure works and its implications?

Almost all those who become or want to become teachers do so to join public schools. The “teacher labour market" is entirely driven by the public school system. The overwhelmingly large majority of private school teachers consist of those who fail to get recruited in public schools or who are trying to get recruited. If all teacher salaries were to be at the level of that of private schools, it would demolish any incentives for qualified and capable individuals to become teachers, increasing the problems of our school education manifold.

This point hits starkly when the actual salaries in private schools are looked at, which average between 3,000 and 9,000 per month, and the lows are at 1,500 per month. The range of the average is about that of semi-skilled construction labourer; let’s not talk about the lows. Is there any case to pay such salaries to teachers? Is this what should be paid to those entrusted with the future of our children and the nation? And if actually our school system were to pay these salaries, imagine who will become teachers and what will be their lives?

Our curriculum is based on broad and deep aims of education. But even with a narrow definition of learning outcomes, both private and public schools are performing very poorly. This is the problem to tackle, without getting misled by the false argument of economic efficiency. Our energy must be invested on systemic improvement of the fundamentals; there is no other way to improve education.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education. Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com

To read Anurag Behar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/othersphere

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