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Without doubt, rapid economic growth and rising public spending in India have resulted in substantial educational breakthroughs over the last decade. This period has seen a steady increase in enrolment and headline literacy rates, and a considerable reduction in gender disparities in education. But despite the great strides made toward the Millennium Development Goals of universal primary education and gender equity, India continues to face several challenges with respect to both access and quality of education. Almost half the children in grade 5 cannot read a second-grade text1, nearly 60 % of Indian college graduates "suffer from some degree of un-employability"2 and 85% of general graduates are unemployable by India's high-growth global industries3. International student assessment tests reveal that learning levels are not just low in absolute terms, but also relative to international standards.
Poor learning levels of students are not just a cause for national embarrassment, but are especially worrisome when one considers their socio-economic repercussions. Increasingly, research from across the world confirms that both at the individual and societal level, it is the learning levels or what individuals know, rather than levels of educational attainment that are important for economic outcomes. The former is almost intuitive, as an individual's cognitive skills govern his earnings potential. But even national growth rates are far better predicted by performance on international student assessment tests than average schooling levels4.
In the Indian context, the country's changing demographic landscape further underscores the importance of learning levels. Declining fertility and mortality trends over the last few decades, combined with shorter life expectancies of the older generations, have presented India a window of opportunity called the "Demographic Dividend" - a large working- age population and a low dependency ratio. But the country's ability to leverage this demographic dividend and translate it into improved levels of economic development hinges on robust linkages between its education system and labour markets. High levels of unemployment in the country, however, highlight the failure of India's education system to prepare its youth for the job market. Poor learning levels in the population also threaten the nation's competitiveness and its ability to attract new foreign investment.
Given the pivotal role played by it in determining the link between education levels and socio-economic development, quality of education, with "learning outcomes" as a key metric of quality, needs to become an explicit priority of India's educational policy. This is not to suggest that the policy focus must entirely shift away from expanding access to education. With major access challenges still persisting at all education levels, efforts to expand coverage of the education system must certainly continue alongside efforts to improve learning outcomes.
The crucial next step would be to establish which specific policies and programs can help to improve learning outcomes. It's instructive to note that research highlights how early years are pivotal in shaping an individual's development trajectory. Policies to address problems in pre-school / elementary education are therefore particularly important and are the focus of this essay. The literature identifies many policies that can potentially improve learning performance, but the challenge is to identify which policy options are relevant in the Indian context, have the maximal impact on learning and are cost effective.
In fact to some extent, the problem goes beyond the education system. Research pertaining to science of brain development shows that in order to develop properly, a child's brain needs nurturing long before formal schooling starts5. Chronic malnutrition in young children is known to have devastating and irreversible consequences for their brain development and future learning outcomes. Besides, giving children the right psychological and intellectual support in early years can radically change their development trajectory for the better. Robust early childhood development (ECD) programs that provide adequate nutrition and cognitive stimulation during early childhood are therefore crucial to realising a generation's potential.
India's Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) is the world's largest ECD program, designed to provide health, nutrition and hygiene education to mothers; supplementary feeding for all children, pregnant and nursing women; along with non-formal preschool education to children aged three to six at local childcare centres. In practice, the ICDS is not functioning well, and the biggest testament to this is borne by the fact that despite its 30 year old existence, 42 percent of Indian children are malnourished, half of them severely6. From a design perspective, the scheme faces problems such as inadequate coverage, low accountability of workers; an excessive focus on health and nutrition at the cost of pre-school education etc. From an implementation perspective, it is severely resource-strapped, with inadequate staff training, staff shortages and poor infrastructure resulting in poor quality of services provided. This is particularly reflected in the widespread neglect of children under 3 years of age (the age window during which interventions can have the most effect)7.
Quality ECDs provide a cost-effective vantage point to improve the cognitive ability of individuals and arrest many potential learning problems even before they develop. The importance of a robust ECD for India for improving learning outcomes cannot be overstated. As a first step, India needs to invest in capacity-building initiatives (eg. hiring and training of ICDS workers, improving infrastructure) and establish an accountability framework to improve the quality of service delivery7. Second, the program strategy needs to be re-assessed and improved learning outcomes should become a guiding principle here. A World Bank Study on nutrition proposes restructuring the ICDS into 2 separate schemes - a health and nutrition program for children under 3 years of age; and a pre-school function for ages four to six8. Although the argument for restructuring is made with a view to improve nutritional outcomes, it can be extended to educational outcomes as well.
Moving on to formal schooling, it's commonly argued that the poor learning levels are a reflection of a resource strapped public schooling system. Between 2005 and 2012, however, government expenditure on education has more than doubled (from $4.2B to $10B)9. This expenditure has almost entirely been made on educational inputs- improving school infrastructure, teacher salaries and training, hiring more teachers to reduce pupil-teacher ratios etc. and yet, as argued earlier, learning levels remain dismal.
So why haven't government investments been reflected in higher learning outcomes? The missing link here is the poor teaching quality, which is documented to play a critical role on the foundational literacy and numeracy of individuals10. Even today, rampant teacher absence and low levels of teaching remain quintessential characteristics of public schools in India. A study using a representative sample of Indian schools found that 25 percent of teachers were absent on any given day and that less than half of them were engaged in any teaching activity11.
The dismal levels of teaching effectiveness are the outcome of what Economists call a "principal -agent" problem, arising due to virtually non-existent accountability mechanisms for teachers/ school authorities; and a lack of incentives to teach. Public school teachers are typically employed on permanent contracts and teacher-pay is overwhelmingly based on educational background, and experience, rather than teacher attendance / performance of students. Higher observed teaching efforts and attendance from both private school teachers, who face much stronger accountability mechanisms 12 and "parateachers" (who have been recruited in many government schools on contractual basis to fill shortfalls in teacher requirements) underlines the role for policy in improving teacher effectiveness 13.
In a utopian world, the policy solution to this would entail stronger accountability mechanisms and monitoring processes; teacher compensation that links to measures of student learning outcomes; and a contractual structure of employment. Findings of a long- running policy experiment confirms that such policies can stimulate significant improvements in both teacher attendance and student learning outcomes14. In practice, implementing a carrot and stick compensation scheme as above is likely to meet a lot of political opposition. While these must certainly be the guiding principle for medium/long-term policy, they don't seem to be immediately feasible in the Indian context. Enforcing stronger accountability mechanisms, however, is definitely feasible. Empirical evidence confirms that improving governance and monitoring, either alone or coupled with modest changes to compensation structure, can lead to significant reduction in observed teacher absence 15.
Another aspect of Government policy that requires perceptible change is its outlook regarding private education providers in education. To put things into perspective, note that the Indian elementary education system bears the hallmark of a "dual system" - with one set of schools (predominantly public schools) catering to underprivileged sections who can't afford to pay for quality education; and the other set of high quality institutions catering to well-off families. Many reasons, including the perceived superiority of private schools due to higher teacher attendance and commitment, have resulted in a surge in demand for private schooling over the last 20 years13. Surprisingly, it's not just the well-off who are being privately educated, but increasingly, low-income families are also turning to private schools. Spurred by demand from parents, a large number of low-cost private schools have sprung up across the country. The annual ASER reports show a steadily increasing trend in private school enrollment from 18.7% in 2006 to 25.6% in 2011 and according to a World Bank report, 27 % of Indian students are now privately educated.
Government regulation, however, imposes onerous infrastructure requirements on private providers, and classifies education as a non-profit activity. Such regulations challenge the low-cost model of private providers catering to the poorer sections of society, and limit their options in terms of investing surpluses to improve access/quality of education for disadvantaged sections of society.
Like many developing countries, there's a long time to go before India's supply of public education can come close to keeping up with demand. Additionally, survey evidence reveals that quality of education and learning outcomes are much superior in private schools even after controlling for student / family factors and teaching inputs16,17.This presents an opportunity to use private educational providers to improve performance and learning outcomes in public schools , over and above their role in bridging the supply shortages in educational attainment. One possible option successfully used in Latin American countries such as Colombia is to generate competition in schooling by introducing school vouchers, which provide parents the wherewithal to send their children to a school of their choice. With public and private schools subsequently vying to attract students by improving quality of education, voucher schemes have the potential to generate large efficiency gains in the schooling system and should be explored as a policy option in the Indian context.
Despite the challenges many Indian students face as first generation learners, there's evidence to suggest that they embody as much learning potential as their peers from the developed world(*). The challenge for policy makers is to translate this potential into superior learning and socio-economic outcomes via robust educational reforms. As outlined in this essay, problems exist at all levels, but since early years are critical not only for the immediate well-being of an individual but also for shaping his/her life-long development trajectory, those in pre-school and elementary education system deserve particular attention. The policy solutions discussed here are not just cost effective, but are backed by scientific reasoning and evidence from policy experiments from around the world.