Monday, May 28, 2012

What can be done to improve learning outcomes?

Addressing the issue of poor student learning outcomes is surely one of the foremost public policy challenges facing governments in many developing countries. However, it is far from settled wisdom as to what should be the best public policy prescriptions to improve learning outcomes.

A Foreign Policy article by Charles Kenny claims that if we want to improve student learning levels, we need to "focus on teachers". And this focus has to come by way of efforts to increase teacher attendance, improve the learning environment (eg. putting computers in the slum), align incentives facing teachers (rewards for student learning outcomes), better equipped teachers, flexible curriculums etc.  He concludes,
All that is left is the willingness to confront the political challenges connected with rewarding teachers for learning outcomes - and ensuring they have the tools to help deliver inside and outside the classroom.
I agree with the role of all these factors to improving learning outcomes. But I am not sure whether they will necessarily result in improved learning outcomes. Consider each of Kenny's suggestions. Though, by themselves, improving teacher attendance is not likely to contribute much to improve learning levels, it is a basic pre-requisite for the success of all other interventions.

But the importance of all the other factors are questionable. Far from being ill-equipped, teachers in many Indian states are over-trained both on content and pedagogy. Even where flexibility is provided in curriculum, as in states like Tamil Nadu, the learning outcomes have not been much better. Aligning incentives by way of performance-based payments is fraught with several imponderables. There is little conclusive evidence that improvements in learning environment by encouraging the use of computers leads to improvements in learning levels. In any case, most of these issues are inter-related with longer term social and economic development issues. So what's the way ahead? 

I believe that this search for new initiatives and strategies reveals an inadequate understanding of the problem and its context. Given the general abysmal condition of public school systems in most developing countries, I feel there may be several low hanging fruits to be plucked from just getting the basics right. For a start, it is possible to dramatically improve teacher attendance with some minimal administrative commitment.

But the most important area that needs focus, more than teachers, are the elements of classroom transaction. It is widely acknowledged that given the differential student learning abilities and their baseline learning levels, some form of remedial instruction has to be central to any meaningful classroom transaction strategy. Its integration into the regular syllabus coverage schedule may not necessarily require much flexibility in curriculum or syllabus. Once a classroom instruction model that revolves around this is ready, the challenge then lies in its scaled up implementation. And it is here that many public systems fail. 

But I believe that this fate can be avoided by closely scripting the classroom transactions required to implement the aforementioned remedial instruction focussed pedagogy. This level of micro-management is necessary in systems with abysmal current learning levels, poor internal motivation, and weak supervisory oversight. This common minimum agenda of the particular classroom instruction model will have to be implemented in a more or less top-down manner. Again, with basic administrative commitment and professional management, it is possible to implement a tightly scripted pedagogy model with some reasonable level of satisfaction.

But to pre-empt the expected criticism, let me caution that this is only the second-best solution to improving learning outcomes. It has the potential to take a poor system to a reasonably good level. But it cannot transform a good system into a very good or a great system. 

Once the public schools system moves from a bad to a satisfactory system, then the transition to a good or very good system would need an alternative strategy. It would have to be underpinned by local motivation and initiative, which would require a more bottom-up and stake-holder focussed strategy. Till then implementing a closely scripted classroom transaction model which revolves around remedial education may be the best way to improve learning outcomes. 

1 comment:

gaddeswarup said...

Have you any views on Sugata Mitra's Hole-in-the-Wall studies?