The coming into force of the landmark Right to Education (RTE) ("free and compulsory admission, attendance and completion of elementary eduction") as a fundamental right for children in the 6-14 age group from April 1, 2010, raises several important issues. Apart from its other objectives, the RTE is expected to bring approximately 92 lakh out of school children in the country to schools. One of the most intriguing features in the RTE Act is the mandatory provision of 25% of seats in private schools to be reserved for children from economically and socially weaker sections. In this context, I am tempted to revisit one of the most fundamental debates in school education in developing countries.
Conventional wisdom would have it that government schools fail because they are severely deficient in even basic infrastructure, suffer from teacher absenteeism, and bureaucratic lethargy leaves supervision highly deficient. While these are all accurate representations of government schools, it may be an over-simplification to reduce the challenge to these popular stereotypes.
Here is a list of possible explanations (in particular order) for the poor relative performance of government run schools in comparison to private ones under different contexts and environments.
1. Presence of good private schools - Do good private schools make government schools more competitive? Or do they end up cherry-picking and, in the net, leaving government schools even more impoverished?
One way to establish any causal relationship is by a comparison of the performance of government schools in states or provinces before and after the entry of private schools. Another approach is to compare the effect of a newly-established private school on a neighboring government school.
Either way, it cannot be denied that given the very pronounced psychological bias towards private schools (for whatever reasons), they become the preferred choice for parents. A self-fullfilling effect cannot be denied.
2. Social stratification - Are government schools likely (probable) to be of much poorer quality than private schools in socially and economically stratified societies? Are those higher on the social ladder more likely to send their children to private schools and not government schools? I would believe that both answers are affirmative and contributes to the self-fullfilling effect mentioned in the first point.
Is there a tipping point effect at work? What role does the economics of social segregation play in leading to an emergent situation wherein the better children gravitate towards the good schools leaving government schools with the remaining children? It is necessary to discount for this effect to determine the real difference in quality.
3. Inferior quality of students - It is again widely acknowledged that the better quality students tend to leave government schools for private ones, especially in the urban areas. Here too, is the flight induced by the presence of good private schools or the poor quality of government schools? It is natural that the flight of good students to a specific category of schools not only enriches that school, but also impoverishes the quality of the school from where the student is leaving.
The 25% mandatory provision, if properly implemented provides an excellent opportunity for the best students from the disadvantaged and weaker sections to access education from the best school, atleast in the urban areas. However, will it also have a "crowding out" effect of the best students from the neighbourhood government schools and its consequent increased deprivation?
4. Strength of demand-side pressures from the local community (School Management Committees) or vibrant parent-teacher associations (PTA) - Do government schools in localities where PTAs are active or local community is demanding do better than those where these influences are weaker? I would think so and also that parents are more demanding on private schools (and their paying for the schooling surely contributes to them demanding more).
5. Incentive distortions - Does job security increase the moral hazard for teachers? Does it take away the deterrent associated with keeping teachers disciplined and reduces their accountability? Does the flexibility to hire and fire teachers positively impact on teacher performance and school outcomes? Do agency problems (teacher-school management relationship) adversely affect the performance of teachers in government schools? This assumes great significance and an equally great opportunity given the massive new recruitment needed.
6. Strength of teachers unions - Do recalcitrant teachers unions compromise the quality of government schools? How about comparing the general performance of private and government schools in areas where teachers unions are strong and weak, by controlling for other possible causal factors?
One of the biggest dangers with the RTE Act is the massive requirement for new teachers to meet the 30:1 ratio - there are 5.23 lakh teacher posts vacant and 5.1 lakh additional teachers are required. Are state governments going to meet this gap by direct recruitments or by contract appointments or by a structured contract to permanent career progression approach? Given the considerable power wielded by teachers unions in all states (and this additional force will only multiply their power), the direct recruitments look the most possible option, alongside the existing Sarva Siksha Abhiya (SSA) contract vidya volunteers.
Given the fact that the RTE Act lays down standards for various things including school infrastructure, teacher training and curriculum, would it not have been prudent to specify the modalities for recruitment of the new teachers (and all teachers henceforth)?
7. Inadequate facilities - Inadequate facilities are the commonest cited reason for the poor quality of government schools. Is it so? I am not sure this will stand the test of deeper scrutiny, though it does play a role. The massive investments proposed under RTE Act should take care of this.
8. Salaries of teachers - If anything, there is a possibility that the higher salaries of government teachers, in comparison to their private counterparts, may be adversely affecting the quality of teaching services delivered. It generates greater pressures of economic mobility and migration of rural school teachers to towns and the resultant incentive to frequently absent themselves.
9. Teacher attendance - It is widely acknowledged that teacher truancy is a major problem with government schools. However, there is adequate evidence that merely ensuring teacher attendance is not enough to improve teaching quality and student outcomes.
10. Teaching methods - Do private schools score over government run ones in their teaching and student monitoring methods? How do the same methods in use in private schools work in government schools?
11. Poverty - It has been found that children from poorer families are more likely to have larger absenteeism rates. Further, efforts at addressing the incentive to send children for work by even modest cash transfers have been found to lower absence and increase retention.
It is very difficult to approximate and separate the specific reasons for the poor quality of government schools in different contexts. However, it can safely be argued that varying permutations of the aforementioned reasons are responsible for the problems of schools in different localities. And among all of them, the direct and indirect impact of existing private schools on the quality of government schools assumes great significance. This also underlines the importance of strong administrative and regulatory oversight on maintaining standards, especially in urban government schools.
The extent of success of the RTE Act, especially in urban areas (in rural areas, private competition may not be a signficant factor), will critically depend on the impact of various RTE interventions on the the aforementioned factors (which will vary across locations).
See this superb post by Mark Thoma on the importance of quality education.