‘People can't believe the same economy that produces 100,000 students a year in global top 10% also churns out millions with zero skills’

P Vaidyanathan Iyer: The point you make is that in Indian schools, the focus is on schooling and on the paraphernalia attached — the building, furniture, playground and works — and not really on learning.

I have worked on a variety of issues on India's economy. I have been working off and on (since I have lived here from 2004-2007), on basic education and I have increasingly come to the view that the agenda that's been largely fulfilled is the schooling agenda: get kids' butts in seats, let's get kids into these buildings we call schools, but in many contexts particularly in India, whether the children were learning anything got neglected. Now there is an increasing array of evidence mostly generated outside the official school system that even on the most rudimentary tasks, like simple arithmetic, only about half the kids by grade 5 can do the simplest possible arithmetic....

What's worse is that conceptual understanding is completely non-existent. So if you present a question to a student in exactly the same way (as) in the textbook, they will give the right answer. If you literally just take an addition problem and change it from columns to horizontal, kids who could answer it in columns cannot answer in horizontal.

I think one of the key features of the Indian economy is between the elite that have a good education and the rest of the population that don't. In the labour market for people with good education, wages are going up... But if you are really going to a school but not getting any education, you are really not equipping these children to work productively in a modern economy.

P Vaidyanathan Iyer: But is this representative of India?

Everyone resists this notion in part because the elite do really get a great education... If you look at which are the countries that produce the most 15-year-olds in the global top 10 per cent, India is right up there. Crude calculations are that they produce about 100,000 students a year in the global top 10 per cent. People are then reluctant to believe that the same economy that is producing 100,000 a year in the global top 10 per cent is also churning out millions with zero skills.

There are three different studies that I rely on: One is a random sample of just rural areas of Andhra Pradesh... this is not Bihar or Uttar Pradesh, this is AP, which people regard as a kind of middle-of-the-road state. Second is the repeated Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) studies, so the NGO Pratham and the ASER centre go out each year and do mainly a rural study and it is completely representative. They produce scores on a very simple indicator of basic literacy and basic numeracy using samples of 500,000 students, so it is huge. And the third is the study by Educational Initiatives which was completed a couple of years ago, which is a more sophisticated testing instrument.

This is really nationally representative... Even the states doing okay, such as Tamil Nadu, when you actually drill down the actual skill sets, they are not that much better.

Atideb Sarkar: The reason for China outpacing India is the strength of human capital, and it goes against the notion that infrastructure and capital are behind the China story. To what extent is this true?

I don't think so... The advocacy behind basic education is super-powerful and I am more than in favour of every child getting basic education. But the world's now run the experiment... Haiti has more schooling today. The average labour force in Haiti has more years of schooling than the average labour force in Germany in 1975... The first issue is we want to be careful about what's really human capital versus schooling capital. In all the empirical work I do, I am very clear that I am talking about schooling capital. And if you just look at schooling capital, everybody just repeats again and again that this is really important for growth but, like I say, we've run the experiment. So we know it isn't true, because lots of countries got lots and lots of schooling, and didn't have any growth.

...India has done the world a favour of having emphasised elite education at the expense of mass education for about 50 years. There is a recent paper showing that it is really the presence of tertiary education that explains growth successes within India, not the extent of mass education....

But the thing about India's distribution of learning is that it is very skewed. In China, learning is more normally distributed in a statistical sense, and yet again nobody really knows because nobody has done comparable tests in China... they got away with just testing kids in Shanghai and reporting that as a China number. There are super-educated Indians and there are completely uneducated Indians, although they are increasingly being schooled but not educated, and that's becoming a problem....

Priyadarshi Siddhanta: Will this contribute to the negative growth of the economy?

Well it will adversely impact because you will have trouble moving into domains in which you require semi-skilled labour. What India doesn't have is any semi-skilled labour, or high school-educated labour, people with basic literacy, basic numeracy but not advanced skills. So essentially, most children emerging from Indian primary education don't actually know anything, they are not skilled, they are not even semi-skilled labour. They are still essentially unskilled labour. So again if you look at industries that require workers to have some degree of numeracy and literacy, India just isn't producing those in the significant numbers, which accounts in a way for the unequal and skill-intensive pattern of India's growth.

Priyadarshi Siddhanta: On educational output, how would you rate India on a scale of 10?

Well it's at both 1 and 10, that is its problem. We don't have any nationally representative tests in Indian skill distribution versus international skill distribution... but a pair of researchers have done a study where they've taken test scores of Indian students from 8th grade in Orissa and Rajasthan and constructed a distribution of those scores... compared the extrapolations to India. It turns out India is one of the top producers of students in the global top 10 per cent... we don't know how many China produces really. But the United States produces about 250,000 a year, Korea 118,000 a year, India about a 100,000 a year according to these crude estimates. So on that score in absolute terms, it's a 10.

But if you look at typical 15-year-olds, India also produces just far and away essentially the world's largest number of uneducated people, because if you look at people just below a threshold like being adequately skilled, something like 50-60 per cent of the Indian kids, even those who are into 8th grade, would fall into that category. So in fact what they found is when they tried to compare India to other OECD countries, the problem is just that so many of the Indian kids in 8th grade couldn't even answer enough questions to be able to distinguish them.

Kirtika Juneja: The Pratham study also says that the quality of learning has not improved.

First of all, I don't think the evidence is consistent with inputs being the main problem. Empirical studies show that learning outcomes with or without good inputs almost are exactly the same. In part, because the inputs are not being utilised in a productive way. The motivation and incentives particularly within government schools are really low. So the levels of absenteeism and lack of effort of government teachers are just horrific. A study comparing absenteeism in India and other countries showed India to be the second worst. Absence rates are in the order of 25-26 per cent. Another 25 per cent were physically present but not teaching. Kids have textbooks, but if teachers are not helping them... the inputs are not going to make a difference.

There are problems that can be solved with logistics and there are problems that require a system to function. What India through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) has been quite good at frankly is logistics. Money has been spent equalising inputs across schools. Ex-ante, based on the scientific evidence about the relationship between inputs and learning, what should we expect from that? Zero. The experience of what we got is zero. The ASER study has been done in a replicable way for five years, no learning at all. For five years, crores have been spent on input expansion thinking that it will work, but it hasn't.

Kirtika Juneja: What will work then?

One of the things that's going on and I think accounts for a lot of the problem is that the teachers and the school system are under pressure to get through a curriculum that really is moving too fast. So what happens is kids fall behind and then they never catch up... Look at the kids who can read or do addition and see if it is improving from year to year. The problem is 20 per cent of the kids can add in grade 2, and it's all like 30 per cent in grade 3 and then it is only 40 per cent in grade 4. Think about what's going on for that child in the classroom experience over those years. The curriculum is moving on, so they are assuming the child can learn how to add and now we'll teach division and adding fractions. By the time the child gets to adding fractions, these kids can't add numbers even... So until you stop the system of teaching to the curriculum, and start the system of teaching to the student, I think it's just hopeless.

One of the things that makes this very difficult frankly is that the Indian schooling system has been geared to producing elite. You stick to this rapid curriculum because in the standard 10 exams, you've got to know all this stuff. So you start at grade 1 on the presumption that you are going to take your grade 10 exams and do well and take grade 12 exams and so the whole system is geared to produce that elite.

Atideb Sarkar: How do we motivate teachers then?

Any system that gives control of the hiring and allocation of teachers to the parents produces much better results than the current system at much lower costs. The private sector can hire teachers at Rs 2,000 a month, a semi-educated teacher, and they do just as well as a trained teacher. I'm just being crude here. These low-cost private schools are not good schools. These teachers work one-two years and the scandalous thing is they can do just as well as the government schools. Teacher qualifications and teacher training are not producing the outputs. These private teachers do just as well, mark that word, just as well, not better. Elite private schools produce much better results but with much higher inputs. We find that we can produce the same level of quality with next to no inputs and this undermines the belief in inputs or training, qualifications.

So studies find that the low-cost private schools perform better than government schools, but not by a ton. The key thing is to formulate achievable learning targets. Let's get kids to read fluently, not worry about what has to be done to clear grade 10 exams etc. Curricular objectives stated in the Indian system are wildly out of touch with what is achievable. Let's set realistic targets and aim at achieving them universally and let teachers loose into achieving them. That will motivate teachers. The current system guarantees frustration on all sides.

Muzamil Jaleel: What is the best medium of instruction? English or the mother tongue?

The wisdom is that the mother tongue is the best medium in the early grades. What's happening is that private schools to differentiate themselves are claiming English as medium of instruction and still do a crappy job. They can't hire enough teachers who have good English... A recent study compared private schools in Andhra Pradesh and interestingly the scores of students that moved from public Telugu-medium schools to private-Telugu medium schools went way up. If they went from public Telugu-medium schools to English-medium private schools, the scores went down. Kids just aren't getting it.

Part of the process of education is to take you from a common sense understanding of the world to a more formal understanding of the world. So you are essentially making translations between conceptual understanding and how those concepts map into a formal system.

Children are never actually brought from their actual understanding of the world to the formal understanding, that schools tend to teach you, in a way they can use their common sense intuition to reason accurately in a conceptual way. Since that translation fails early, it fails completely. English as a medium of instruction too early makes this process worse. A child's common sense understanding is mediated in their native tongue. Then you are introducing formal concepts in a language they don't fully understand and taught by a person who fully doesn't understand the language they are using.

P Vaidyanathan Iyer: If there is political traction to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, is the issue about reform of the education system by political intervention?

All of the money is being allocated to teaching posts and is all about the politics of patronage in hiring. SSA is popular because it allows politicians to hire more teachers and what could be more important in terms of rewarding supporters and delivering benefits, particularly when they are so dramatically overpaid relative to the actual market? The political support to the SSA is a facade that it is about education while its popularity among politicians has nothing to do with education.

...then you get a government that makes these claims about progress being made in education, while they are making progress only in schooling and on hiring and building.

The political traction of getting kids educated isn't there in part because the politically powerful citizenry have opted out of government schools. So where is the traction for learning in government schools? The political system has at heart the replication of the existing system that benefits key constituencies. In such a case, a system that seeks to educate children and achieve learning objectives has very little political traction.

Chinki Sinha: What do you think of the PPP model in education and the Right to Education Act?

The RTE is one of the most massively ill-conceived things that happened. At a time when India should have been thinking about the evidence on the table of learning problems, you have just enshrined an additional legislation, an input-led approach and focus to schooling that we know will fail. The law is going to say that we have to shut down schools where we know learning is high because they don't have these scheduled criteria... and push them into schools where learning is low. That is just obscene.

What is enshrined in the national legislation is an anti-learning agenda. What is quality and how do we define it? The legislation has enshrined a definition, that we know from empirical literature..., has no deep intrinsic connection to learning performance. The RTE is just a wrong instrument at the wrong time. It will be an inhibition towards moving to a learning agenda...

The battle in education is going to be, do we free people up to learn however they would, or do we insist on an appearance of what a school should look like?... PPPs are going to go after appearances. It will draw the private to the level of the public instead of the other way around. They will need to conform in order to get the support and that will kill all ingenuity and drive.

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