I have blogged earlier about the problem of low-level equilibrium at which many social systems operate in countries like India. This low-level equilibrium conceals the deeper quality deficiencies by generating politically (or systemically) acceptable salient outcomes. Here is an example from education sector.
The most high-profile barometer of school education in India is the pass percentage in tenth class examinations. This trumps all others like school enrollment rates, teacher and student attendance and even the newer focus areas like learning outcomes assessment in primary schools. Expectedly, pass percentages have seen a steady rise over the years, with the steepest increases coming in recent years, across all states.
However, there are credible enough allegations that this increase is a classic case of grade inflation. Skeptics attribute this increase to liberal valuation of the standardized SSC examination papers, repetition in questions over years, and reduced vigilance against copying during exams, more than any dramatic increase in the quality of education in schools.
However, a new dimension to the debate, which draws on the recently released SSC examination results in the state of Andhra Pradesh, finds that in districts with more focused monitoring (arrived at based on qualitative parameters) of school education, the results (specifically SSC results) were poorer than in districts where the level of monitoring was minimal and things were largely left to the teachers. And the explanation for this observation - with increased centralized monitoring, the ability to indulge in practices like copying were constrained!
Though quality of education increased (due to timely syllabus coverage, higher teacher and student attendance) with greater monitoring, it was not enough to offset the decrease due to the reduction in copying. Improvements in quality of education, or specifically learning outcomes, is most often a slow process, more so in the higher classes, and therefore the increased supervisory focus does not bear immediate results.
What distorts the incentive for the monitoring officials in each district is the fact that their performance is judged mainly through their tenth class results (there is no other universal parameter, that is/can be captured, that can be used to judge academic performance of schools). Therefore any intervention that results in lowering their results, in comparison to those of their peers in other districts, will naturally go against their incentive structure.
In the circumstances, the unfortunate reality is that the possibility of a decrease in pass percentage due to greater monitoring may exert a disincentive effect on administrators in intensifying monitoring of exam invigilation and paper valuation. Further, the possibility of amplifying their performance by liberal valuation and invigilation would also exert a disincentive effect on teachers and supervisory officials from focusing on steps that would improve the real quality of learning outcomes among students.