Monday, May 29, 2006


Parul Sharma

Government schools in India are host to a problem that afflicts public schools in several parts of the world today: poor teaching standards and consequent low academic performance coupled with high drop out rates. These trends in public schools stand in stark contrast to trends in private schools. Thus, going by the simplest indicator of academic performance, in 2004 the pass percentage of students in Delhi’s government schools in the Secondary Examination was 50% while that for private schools was 80%.

Teachers constitute the single largest group of educated and professionally qualified workers in India. Regular teachers are government employees with assured lifetime tenure, pension, medical and other welfare benefits. They are governed by strict entry and qualification norms (one to twelve years of general education and minimum two years of diploma or degree in education). Low teaching standards and accompanying problems prevail despite stringent certification requirements and competitive pay scales and welfare benefits. In contrast private schools outperform government schools even though teachers in private schools have, on an average, one fifth the salary of regular government teachers and are not mandated to have formal teaching certification.

In this context a recent study commissioned by the World Bank and conducted by economists at Harvard University called “Missing in Action: Teacher and Health Worker Absence in Developing Countries” has some interesting insights to offer. The study, based on a survey of 3,700 schools across 20 Indian states, concludes that government school teachers represent among the least motivated class of workers in India: they have an absence rate of 25% that is even higher than the absence rate of 10.5% among Indian factory workers who enjoy a great degree of job security owing to India’s rigid labour laws. This prevails on account of poor “daily incentives to work” chief among which are poor monitoring and sanction mechanisms in government schools.

These prevailing ground realities show that teacher performance is neither linked to teacher salary nor to traditional certification requirements. It is instead linked to strong and well functioning systems of accountability. The National Policy on Education, 1986 clearly stipulates laying down of norms of accountability with incentives for good performance and disincentives for non-performance among government school teachers. However, this is far from fact. In the prevailing system all regular school teachers move from one pay scale to the next after nine, eighteen and twenty seven years of “satisfactory service”. Further, what often passes off as supervision is mere collection of data on the enrolment and promotion of students by inspectors.
In response to the increasingly expensive system of maintaining regular teachers and ensuring universal access to elementary education governments in several Indian states have begun operating a parallel system of recruiting para-teachers and contract teachers. These teachers are appointed on a contract basis. They are paid about one sixth of the salary of a regular teacher and are not entitled to any welfare or pension benefits. They are not eligible for promotion and are appointed for a specific school. The system of para and contract teachers is widely viewed as a solution to overcoming the shortage of regular teachers since this category of teachers is not expected to meet the certification norms prescribed for regular teachers. Further, para and contract teachers are viewed as a solution to absenteeism and low accountability among regular teachers since their contract can be terminated at short notice.

Even as this system incorporates sanctions in the form of fixed tenures, the sanctions are not designed to promote higher teaching standards. Equally, the system lacks incentives to promote higher teaching standards. Not surprisingly, the World Bank study cited above concludes that even though the alternative institutional form of providing education through contract teachers is relatively cost efficient, these teachers perform no better than regular teachers.

Clearly, the need of the hour is to identify, retain and promote good quality teachers in government schools. Here, the propositions of America’s Hamilton Project in a paper entitled “Identifying Effective Teachers Using Performance on the Job” are highly instructive. The fundamental premise of the paper is that a teacher’s performance during the first two years on the job is a far better predictor of long term teacher quality rather than the teacher qualifications at the point of entry into the profession. Therefore policymakers’ traditional approach of improving the quality of the teaching force by raising the certification requirements for entering teachers is flawed.
It therefore proposes that public schools should ignore the traditional system of teacher certification and simply hire teachers with good academic qualifications. Thus new teachers would still be required to have a four year undergraduate degree and demonstrate content knowledge (as in the prevailing American public school scenario) but they would no longer require to be certified. The teaching ability of teachers thus hired would be assessed after two years based on their impact on student achievement, subjective evaluations by principals and peers and parental evaluations. Further, those teachers who receive poor evaluations during their first two years on the job would not be offered permanent positions (tenure) without obtaining approval from the district school authorities. Finally those teachers who receive good evaluations and who work in schools where at least 75% of the students are from low income families would be given bonus pay. The paper recommends that to implement this proposed system of sanctions and incentives for teachers the government must budget for setting up systems for measuring the classroom effectiveness of teachers and for tracking student performance and teacher effectiveness over time.
The Hamilton Project has lessons for Indian education reform since prevailing ground realities vis-à-vis public school education in India correspond to those in America. Both the countries have an impending shortage of regular school teachers coupled with very low performance and sanctions among regular school teachers. Public school reform therefore requires a two-pronged approach. Firstly it requires that the barriers to entry into the teaching profession be removed by overhauling traditional certification requirements and making recruitment contingent on skill. Secondly, it requires instituting performance related sanctions for teachers by ensuring that those teachers who are least effective on the job lose their chances of getting permanent employment or a promotion and those who are most effective get bonuses.

Significantly, both the American and the Indian governments have erred in adhering to the conventional systems of teacher certification, recruitment and promotion in their most far reaching programs of school education reform. America’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act aims to improve the performance of American public schools by increasing the standards of accountability of school districts and schools and giving parents more flexibility in choosing schools for their children. It stipulates the “highly qualified teacher” requirement for all public schools. To be “highly qualified” under the NCLB Act a teacher must have a bachelor’s degree, be fully certified as defined by the concerned state department of education and be able to demonstrate subject area competence in any core subject taught. Likewise, the Indian government’s flagship program on universalizing elementary education, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan provides funds for improving the quality of ongoing in-service training of teachers but does not propose any changes to the existing system of teacher recruitment and promotion.

The Hamilton Project offers valuable and workable lessons in education reform not only for the United States but equally for India. To secure a future for India’s government schools its proposals merit more than a passing glance among policymakers.

The author is a research assistant with Centre for Civil Society

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

OBC Reservations: An IIT Faculty Member's View
Prof. M. Balakrishnan, IIT Delhi
Nearly six decades after independence, this country is planning to announce that majority of its population is backward and does not have equal opportunity to pursue education and employment. Along with this, it is going to open up a Pandora's Box by various caste groups to be classified as "backward". What an interesting way to begin the 21st century when finally India was beginning to emerge as a serious player in the new knowledge economy! The major carrot that is being doled out is the seats in the elite medical, engineering and management Institutes. What bothers me is no one is interested in even consulting the people who have built these Institutions and brought them to this stature. I have strong views on efficacy of reservations in general but here I would confine myself to the issues concerning IITs. At least here with my three decade long association, I can claim to know something. Many of these arguments may be applicable to the other elite Institutions in medical and management disciplines as well.Today IITs are considered excellent educational institutions. There is a countrywide scramble to get into these with many students spending the best part of their teen years in preparing for its entrance examinations. This should not be confused with ranking of universities where just a couple of IITs make it in the top 500. These rankings deal primarily with the research output and not with the quality of undergraduate education. I can confidently say that any ranking of quality of undergraduate engineers produced would put IITs in the top 20 worldwide if not in the top 10. And it is this achievement that is going to be hard to maintain with the proposed reservations policy. Before we go any further, it would be best to examine how this excellence has been achieved.The fundamental contribution that the Central Government has made to these institutions is in generous funding (by Indian, not global standards) combined with unmatched autonomy. The main point of engagement between the Government and these Institutions has been through the appointment of Directors. Except for a brief period during the last administration, the Governments had refrained from any major politicking in these appointments. They have by and large appointed the best available applicant Professor from the same or another IIT for the job. These venerable people had themselves a great pride in these Institutions and have ran the Institutes with the best of their abilities (maybe not always efficiently but always fairly) without major vested interest. For someone outside IITs to understand the power of this position is not easy. The Director virtually appoints the complete senior administration including the deputy directors and deans, chairs all the faculty selections including that for the Professors, is the chairman of the senate and thus the academic head, is the financial head and also the administrative head. For most people living in the campus, which includes 90% of faculty and students, he is also the chairman of the local municipality (all major complaints on water, electricity, sewage etc. would reach him). This ensures that the buck almost always stops with him and thus decision making is unavoidable. This autonomy that has been the hallmark of these institutions is being eroded. There were attempts in the last Government (fortunately not vigorously pursued) to tell IITs what to teach. The present decision would strike at the fundamentals of IITs as the Government no longer feels whom to teach and how many to teach is best decided by these Institutions themselves. This in my opinion is the most dangerous fallout as it strikes at the very core of the success of these Institutions. Once the lines of control gets blurred, there would be no stopping, as today's political functioning is clearly not dictated by long term vision. Soon we could have reservations in faculty and create a caste based patronage system which has destroyed many of the once excellent state universities. In IITs, the faculty selected and promoted solely based on merit has maintained a high standard of ethical behavior, have taken their teaching and research seriously, refrained from politicking themselves and supported the Institute in many ways to fulfill its commitments. Who are these faculty members? A large number are our own alumni (undergraduates as well as postgraduates), majority of them have studied or conducted research in the west and almost all of them have had opportunities of pursuing financially much more lucrative careers in India and abroad. Thus each faculty member is here by choice and he/she has exercised that choice with one major attraction - opportunity to teach, interact and work with extremely bright students perhaps unmatched anywhere. It is this attraction that is being tampered with. In a situation where all IITs are short of faculty and desperately trying to innovate to attract faculty under the constraints of the pay commission dictated salaries (while competing with Sensex based salaries), this is not a pleasant development.IITs have had reservations for SC/STs for decades. Why would this be different? Aren't these students likely to be better prepared than the students admitted under the existing reserved category? Here I would like to share some of the facts with the readers. IITs have been admitting SC/ST students for years under two modes. From the general category, a significantly lower JEE cutoff is decided and reserved category students scoring above this cutoff are admitted directly to the UG programmes. Another still lower cutoff is decided and reserved category students from this set are admitted to a one year preparatory course conducted by IITs themselves. After passing this course, they can join the programmes without having to appear in JEE again. Even this exercise collectively yields less than 15% in IIT Delhi though the quota amounts to nearly 22.5%. Half of the reserved category students manage to clear courses comfortably while the other half struggle on the margins. What would be called a good performance (cumulative grade point average or CGPA of 8 and above) and is achieved by nearly forty percent of general category students, is rare and occurs once in many years among the reserved category students. It is not that all general category students do well. There is nearly a 5% "dropout" rate even among them which is a cause of concern but mainly attributed to the burnout due to JEE preparation phase. The "dropout" students have no effect on teaching as they neither are regular nor make their presence felt in classes. The remaining part of weak students is too small and at present hardly any instructor would pitch his / her course at that level. On the other hand, the present policy may introduce a large band of weak students which no instructor can ignore. This would definitely result in drop in the quality of education. It is the hypocrisy of the highest order that on one hand the reservation for SC/STs is considered a success and quoted for extension to OBCs, and on the other hand, no hard data on the performance of these students is available in the public domain. Some administrators I talked to consider this data as sensitive! Analysis of where the reserved category students go after graduation would be enlightening. I do not have the sensitive data but my experience shows that most of them either go to services like IAS/IES or to the public sector companies. Normally this choice of careers by IIT graduates should be a matter of satisfaction except that both these entries are again using the reservation quota. Is it empowerment or crutches for life?In this whole episode, the most stunning news for me was when the Hon'ble minister announced increase in intake to compensate for the reservations. This would amount to nearly 56% overall increase in undergraduate intake in the IITs. This showed complete ignorance of what makes IIT undergraduate education tick. There are few Institutions in the world where undergraduate students get to interact one to one and so freely with such high-caliber faculty. Students are advised on courses in small groups, interact over hostel dinners, go on industrial trips and finally carry out a well supervised project. Every undergraduate student does an intensive "novel" project either individually or in groups of two and he/she is effectively "supervised" by a faculty member. Many of them result in publications. This system evolved when the student-faculty ratio was 6:1 and is getting strained at the seams when it has reached 12:1. In some disciplines like Computer Sciences and Electrical Engineering where market competition is heavy, it has already gone to 20:1 and above. Though currently producing excellent results, it is a highly non-scalable mechanism. Intake increase on this scale, when effectively faculty strengths in key areas are decreasing could sound a death-knell to one of our few international brand names. I have a poser for Prof. Jayati Ghosh, my well renowned colleague from JNU and a member of the knowledge commission. She has justified reservations in IITs based on the poor ranking of IITs internationally. Her argument is anyway these Institutions are not great, why they should crib about the quality of intake. She nowhere states that any of the 400+ odd Institutions worldwide which are ranked above IITs have achieved their status through reservations. In that case all Tamil Nadu Engineering Colleges with 69% reservation for decades (openly defying the Supreme Court suggested norm of 50%) now should be at the top. Postscript: Finally, I would like to seek opinion on the composition of our next Olympics team. We have admittedly done much poorer in sports than education. Should our next Olympics team be chosen on caste basis or perhaps with adequate representation to athletes aged 40+ who are at present completely unrepresented? After all we do not have much to lose as we only win one bronze medal in alternate Olympics. I would no longer be surprised if some future Sports Minister considers caste based quotas for our national cricket team. After all that would be worth a few votes and the nation would have been well prepared by then to cheer only for its own caste brethren!
The author is a Professor of Computer Science & Engineering at IIT Delhi. He has been with IIT Delhi since 1977 except for a three year stint outside India. Currently he is on Sabbatical and working with a startup. The views represented here are completely his own. M. Balakrishnan (, Taxila ApartmentsIIT Delhi Campus, New Delhi - 110016

Friday, May 12, 2006

The Delhi High Court has banned private schools from holding interviews to their nursery classes. But in an attempt to laud this decision that saves parents the stress of admissions, we ought not to overlook the larger picture. There is a dearth of schools in this country. According to most private schools, the fairest attempt to cap the multitude of applicants is to test their merit, talent, intelligence, presence of mind, etc. One may argue that judging young children on the basis of these skills is probably not as just as it seems. After all, the economic and social conditions of the family do play an important role in moulding those qualities at a young age. While banning interviews may equalize access to good education for all children in the interim, it does not stand as a long term solution to the problem.

The problem, here, is the lack of good schools. The solution to that problem would be to assuage the mound of laws and rules restraining new schools to be set up. The Delhi government’s roll back of the Essentiality Certificate gives some relief to the problem. However, an important factor limiting supply of schools is the legal condition that it cannot be a ‘for-profit’ enterprise. It may not be judicious to depend on altruism to educate a country where more than half the population stands illiterate. The resultant fallout of that law is that individuals who want to set up schools are not deemed solvent for access to credit or loans. Since only school conglomerates and, trusts with sound financial backing have the monetary capacity to bear the costs of setting up and administering a school, we have a few good schools catering to the demands of an ever increasing population of young children. While removing the ‘not-for-profit’ clause allows access to credit and venture capital for smaller but committed education entrepreneurs, it also brings to book the revenues of schools which, hitherto, may have been cloaked under a sundry cost head.

With the opening up of the education sector, the ensuing competition will create new opportunities for schools, innovations in pedagogy and better the quality of education at large. It will make good education affordable. We only have to look at our airlines and telecom industry to witness the impacts of such liberalisation and relaxation of norms. However, until such bold but significant makeovers are acted upon by governments, mere bans will only scratch the surface of the problem.

Monday, May 08, 2006

A Ticket to a Better Education: Philippines Education Voucher Scheme

Philippines public schools have been riddled with high teacher-pupil ratios and poor infrastructure facilities. In spite of having the advantage of an English speaking population and an enviable literacy rate of about 93 per cent, they have been slower in building their knowledge economy status as compared to their Asian counterparts. This is largely attributed to the depreciating quality of public school education in Philippines. In the recent years to address the demand for good quality education, the supply of private education has increased. While public school education is free, private elementary and high school education in the Philippines can cost anywhere between 2000 to 5000 pesos per year. A large number of Filipino children who cannot afford better quality private education continue to slump with free public education.

To bridge this disparity in the quality of education between the haves and the have-nots, the government has proposed the Education Voucher Scheme. The scheme seeks to provide financial assistance to public elementary school graduates who desire to pursue their secondary education in private schools of their choice. The Department of Education has red-coded public schools that have a large intake of students but limited classroom size. These schools will be designated to identify 25 children each, who are in the top 50 per cent of the class and express a desire to change their school. The financial status of these children will have to be not more than the poverty threshold as defined by the government.

The scheme is intended to solve the problem of excess enrolment in public schools and thus better the quality of public education. The Department of Education in Philippines has earmarked 100,000 voucher grants for the scheme. This will be distributed across 4000 public elementary schools. The vouchers have an upper cap of 4000 pesos and beneficiaries will have to bear differences between the tuition fee of the selected school and the voucher grant.

The government is also ensuring that graduating beneficiaries make an informed choice. They will be given a list of private recognized schools to choose from. The list will also carry their respective fee structures. So as to not impinge on the liberties of private education providers, the beneficiaries will have to fulfill the criteria for selection in the private school on the basis of their grades and elementary school leaving report. If unaccepted they will have to seek out another private school. However, the scheme requires that consenting private schools allow the scheme committee to monitor the progress of voucher beneficiaries.

The Education Voucher Scheme does not specify the incentives for existing public elementary and high schools to improve performance and that may be its inherent flaw. Probably, the government hopes to address quality improvement in these schools through the subsequent fall in teacher-pupil ratios. However, as a first step in improving access to better quality education for its weaker sections, it stands out as a concerted and committed action.
Now, Delhi Govt clears way for more schools

Neha Singh

New Delhi, May 4: TO tackle the huge demand for admissions, the Delhi government has paved the way for setting up more schools. In a significant move, the Education Department has lifted the cap on the number of ‘‘essentiality certificates’’ that are granted to each district.

As per the rules, any application for starting a new school must be accompanied by an ‘‘essentiality certificate’’, granted after surveying the needs of the district. So far, there was a fixed cap on the number of these certificates issued per district, varying according to the population.

But the new rule means that anyone who wants to start a new school can do so, regardless of the number of existing schools in the district. Of course, the proposed school will have to meet the other basic criteria — budget, teaching staff, structured transportation and registration with the land agency concerned.
There are approximately 12 lakh children out of schools in Delhi.

‘‘Everyone keeps harping about admissions,’’ said Education Minister Arvinder Singh Lovely. ‘‘The best way to address the situation is to provide more schools and more seats,’’ he added.
Clearly, this is the government’s way of throwing the floor open to private concerns that will provide these seats. ‘‘If a private organisation wants to invest its money in setting up an educational institution, there is no reason for the government to say no. We believe that the school is coming up because there is a demand for it. If the demand is being fulfilled, we will not interfere,’’ said Lovely.

According to the Minister, a survey of the old system was carried out last year. ‘‘For instance, we saw that in Najafgarh district only two or three schools were allowed. Things will change now,’’ he said.

* Over 900 government schools
* Over 1,500 MCD schools
* Over 1,000 registered public schools

Monday, May 01, 2006

Floating school: Education delivered at home

Tejeswi Pratima
Saturday, March 11, 2006 (Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh):

Educationists in Andhra Pradesh hit upon the idea of a floating school to draw children who would otherwise be helping parents at work.A perennial problem in rural India is of parents refusing to send their children to school. So a team of enterprising educationists in Andhra Pradesh took the school to where the children are. Every morning at nine, a special boat comes to pick up fishermen's children who otherwise remain busy helping their parents. Now they spend the day the boat school near Kakinada, in Andhra Pradesh's East Godavari district. "I used to go for fishing with my parents. Now I want to study," said Sita, a student.Home deliveryThe fishing community here was reluctant to send their children to school and preferred that they helped them at work. So the administration under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme decided to take the school to the homes."It is not a teaching and learning process. It is to create awareness. The 10-15 days on the boat is to give child friendly activity. "After 15 days, we admit them in residential bridge camps," said DN Murthy, Additional Project Director, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.The orientation stint on the boat is for two weeks. Since September 2004, when the project began, 250 children now go to a regular school. Clearly, the boat school has managed to do much more than just stay afloat.

Education still a distant dream for street children

Kolkata, April 19: In a recent survey by some NGOs in Kolkata it has ben revealed that education amongst the homeless, or rather the street children, is on the back burner. Even though elementary education for children in India is a fundamental right, it is noticed that many of the homeless or street children are being continuously deprived of this right.
Says Shabir Ahmed of Calcutta Samaritans, an NGO that works in projects concerning the pavement dwellers, “Elementary education is a fundamental right and it is guaranteed in the Constitution of India. But reports show that many street children or homeless children are not receiving the basic education.”
Generally the parents shy away from sending their wards to the local schools but Ahmed emphasises that it is not the reason for such high percentage of street children not receiving elementary education.

There are two primary reasons for the discrepancy. “The main reason being the educational institutions going beyond the reach of the homeless. They are either too far placed from the places where these homeless put up or they are too costly for them to afford,” said Ahmed.
The other reason is the great deal of discrimination that is practiced against the homeless. “The school authorities often treat them with scorn and contempt. If they approach the schools and request the authorities to admit their wards, they are often shooed away on grounds of untouchability and so on,” said Ahmed.

Many NGOs are currently running activity centres and story-telling centres but they are not enough to educate the children at the basic level right away. “There are around 60,000 homeless in Kolkata and children constitute a major proportion of the number. So the state government should look into the matter so that the funds sanctioned by the Centre for basic education does not remain unspent,” Ahmed said.