The fault lines in our education systemPoor Economics, co-written by the Nobel prize winners, should by now have been required reading among all the comrades.
The news came in on Monday that three US-based economists had jointly won this year’s Nobel prize for economics. The husband-wife duo of Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo along with their on-and-off collaborator, Michael Kremer, were recognised for ‘their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty’, whereby they used randomised control trials (RCTs), an experimental approach better known for its use in the medical field, to collect data about the everyday concerns of humanity such as health, education and food.
The fact that Duflo is only the second woman to receive the economics Nobel (and the youngest of either gender) has been justly highlighted. By coincidence, like her female predecessor, Elinor Ostrom, she (along with Banerjee), too, has worked in Nepal although not as extensively. Thus, reason enough for us all to feel proud of their achievement—by association, howsoever tangential.
As a result of their combined efforts, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences noted that development economics is now a ‘flourishing field of research’. But, hopefully, the Nobel win will also spur more interest in their work in Nepal as well. For instance, Banerjee and Duflo’s 2011 book, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, has been available in Nepal for years. Despite the text being easily accessible to anyone, without any need for any background in economics, from what I understand it has not really shot off the shelves. And, even though, in the words of the ex-Vice Chair of the National Planning Commission, Swarnim Wagle, Banerjee and Duflo ‘had given a presentation on poor economics and RCT methodology to all government secretaries and the chief secretary,’ we cannot discern any visible evidence that the book or the presentation having had any impact on policy circles in Nepal.
That is a pity since we are the poorer for it, both literally and figuratively. Even though Banerjee is one of its own, India would not have embraced this approach blindly. As Himanshu (who goes by one name only), an economics professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, writes, the use of RCTs has led to ‘improvements in financial management and flow of funds for various government programmes including in the field of education’. Improvements of the kind sorely needed in Nepal if only we were ready to take the plunge into innovation.
Poor Economics is a page-turner and has a lot of gems that I had always wanted to use in this column. Even if years late, in honour of their Nobel and also in the hope of reigniting interest in their work, I cherry-pick a few sentences from the education chapter that would resonate with everyone with some knowledge of Nepal’s education sector.
A large majority of policy makers, at least in international policy circles, have traditionally taken the view that the problem is essentially simple: We have to find a way to get the children into a classroom, ideally taught by a well-trained teacher, and the rest will take care of itself.
The second and third MDGs are, respectively, to ‘ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling’ and to ‘eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015.’
Getting children into school is a very important first step: This is where learning starts. But it isn’t very useful if they learn little or nothing once they’re there. Somewhat bizarrely, the issue of learning is not very prominently positioned in international declarations...just that they should complete a basic cycle of education.
It cannot have been the criticism from their book alone but when the time came to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals after 2015, Goal 4 now said, ‘ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes [emphasis added].’
There are interesting observations on private schooling as well.
It should now be clear why private schools do not do better at educating the average child—their entire point is to prepare the best-performing children for some difficult public exam that is the stepping- stone toward greater things...The school Abhijit went to in Calcutta had a more or less explicit policy of expelling the bottom of the class every year, so that by the time the graduation exam came around, it could claim a perfect pass record...Because parents share these preferences, they have little reason to put pressure on the schools to behave otherwise.
Parents, like everyone else, want schools to deliver what they understand to be an ‘elite’ education to their child—despite the fact that they are in no position to monitor whether this is what is actually being delivered or give any thought to whether their children will benefit from it. For example, English-language instruction is particularly popular with parents in South Asia, but non-English speaking parents cannot know whether the teachers can actually teach in English.
For all the heat private schools in Nepal have received these past two decades, first, from the Prachanda-Maoist students, and now the Biplav-Maoist students, never have I heard of a single instance when arguments such as the above have been used to advocate for more equitable education. All the Maoist students have been interested in is the money—publicly, how much parents are being forced to fork out, and, privately, how much they are able to fork out of the schools for their ‘cause’.
Another relevant example provided in Banerjee and Duflo’s book is about prejudice among teachers in India. Asked to mark exam papers in an experiment, one-half of the teachers were not told the names of the students while the other half were given the full names, including the all-important surname. Not surprising, ‘on average, teachers gave significantly lower grades to lower-caste students when they could see their caste than when they could not. But interestingly, it was not the higher-caste teachers who were doing this. The lower-caste teachers were actually more likely to assign worse grades to lower-caste students. They must have been convinced these children could not do well.’
If only our student-revolutionaries could better spend their time fighting against such mindsets. Or, even questioning the government over the paradox, as a recent report pointed out, of its refusal to provide the required resources to public schools while laying down the constitutional provision of free and compulsory education. Or, by seeking enlightenment through books like Poor Economics, a text that should have been required reading among all the comrades by now.
What do you think?
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