Thursday, November 17, 2011

A few thoughts on remedial education

Arguably one of the biggest failures of school education in India is its one-size-fits-all approach wherein teachers cover the prescribed subject syllabus on a single-track mode for the entire class. This approach overlooks the differential learning abilities within a group of children. Under the circumstances, certain children fall behind and this lag gets carried forward to the next class and so on (since there is a system of automatic passing in all primary classes).

In order to address this problem, remedial education aimed at the laggards, has emerged as the favored solution. However, there is considerable ambiguity about how this remedial education should be administered. One area of debate is about when this remedial instruction should be imparted. Should it be integrated into the regular classroom instruction and imparted along with regular teaching during the classroom hours itself? Or should it be done outside the regular classroom hours?

There are merits and demerits with both approaches. This post will skip this issue. However, there is an important behavioural dimension to the latter approach that is often overlooked in such debates. If the remedial instruction is shifted to off-school hours, then it may do little to change the status quo or the incentives of the regular teachers.

The deficient model of pedagogy will persist. More damagingly, it may crowd-out any remaining motivation to get all the children in the class to achieve the grade-specific learning competency during the regular classroom hours. Reassured that the laggard student would be brought upto speed through off-school hours remedial instruction, the teacher may be further emboldened (or feel less guilty) to continue with the prevailing inefficient mode of instruction. So will the off-school hours remedial instruction model end up exacerbating the problem of single-track teaching?

What would be the effect of the possibility of off-school hours remedial education on students? Logically, some would loath the possibility of having to sit through more hours of classroom instruction and therefore be encouraged to learn during the regular classes. Some others would let their attention down during the regular class hours in the firm reassurance that there would always be the off-school hours classes to fall back on. Which of these two effects would dominate?

A more appropriate solution, one that takes into account the aforementioned failings, is to have a mix of both approaches. To the extent possible the remediation should be integrated into the regular classroom instruction. However, those extremely deficient students could be remediated through off-school hours instruction.

Update 1 (8/4/2012)

Esther Duflo, Pascaline Dupas, and Michael Kremer have evidence that appears to, among other things, also support my aforementioned thesis, from this study of additional contract teacher assignment to certain schools. They find great benefits from a complementary strategy that involves decentralized hiring of contract teachers, and School-Based Management training programs. They write,
"We examine a program that enabled Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs) in Kenya to hire novice teachers on short-term contracts, reducing class sizes in grade one from 82 to 44 on average. PTA teachers earned approximately one-quarter as much as teachers operating under central government civil-service institutions but were absent one day per week less and their students learned more. In the weak institutional environment we study, civil-service teachers responded to the program along two margins: first, they reduced their effort in response to the drop in the pupil-teacher ratio, and second, they influenced PTA committees to hire their relatives. Both effects reduced the educational impact of the program. A governance program that empowered parents within PTAs mitigated both effects. Better performing contract teachers are more likely to transition into civil-service positions and we estimate large potential dynamic benefits of contract teacher programs on the teacher workforce."
The governance program involved giving the parents in the PTA committee School-Based Management (SBM) training how to  interview and select job applicants, monitor and assess teachers’ effort and performance, and perform a formal review of the contract teacher’s performance to decide whether to renew her contract.They write about how empowering parents mitigates the negative effects among civil service teachers,
First, in schools with SBM training, civil-service teachers were more likely to be present in class and teaching; second, in those schools, relatives of civil-service teachers were less likely to be hired as contract teachers; third, those relatives who were hired anyway performed as well as non-relatives (which could comefrom better selection of the remaining relatives, or stronger incentives).
However, on contract teachers, I have reservations about their political acceptability and consequent scalability.

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