The Double Edged Sword of Statistics in Education

22 Mar


While it is no one’s case that statistics alone tell the whole story, the lack of reliable data has hampered policy-making in the field of education

Yes, ma’am, on paper we have full enrollment. But there are some children in the village who are not on the rolls,” said one of the teachers. “And there are some who are on the rolls of two or three schools at the same time”, added another.

I looked at my presentation — it had these beautiful charts based on official statistics. Enrollment was up to nearly 100 per cent; drop-out rates were still worrisome but gross enrollment rate in higher education had almost doubled in two years. This would have been a rather commendable rise, if it was so, especially since these two years had not seen a commensurate rise in capacity. Of course, the data for overall capacity in higher education by subject and location is almost impossible to find. Between the  All India Council for Technical Education, the University Grants Commission, the unrecognised and the unrecognisable educational institutions, a range of higher education was being offered to the student body with little accounting at the margins.

The sources of data are varied too, and they do not always reconcile. Reports by various investors, analysts, State Governments and ministries showcase different aspects of the ‘education elephant’ that we seek to understand. It often resembles the case of the blind men and the elephant, where the parts do not describe the whole.

Education data in India is scattered — for example, the Ministry of Textiles runs a massive training programme for weavers, as do other ministries which run skills development training programmes. As far as one can tell, the data from these programmes are not included in the education budget as these are independent allocations within different ministries. Until recently, investment in the private sector was not recognised as being significant and therefore, not reported. It was only after a few studies by consulting firms proved that private investment was significant — both at the school level and in professional education including engineering and medical degrees — that things changed.

It is difficult to answer simple questions such as: What is the total amount spent on education in India? While broad numbers are available on ministry websites, it has been a task for students of education policy to parse these figures. Compare this to the ease of obtaining numbers for countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The Annual State of Education Report exposed the fact that student achievement data was misleading as it merely recorded the number of students per class, not the abilities of those students which proved to be lagging when tested. Reports say that school infrastructure recorded on paper do not actually exist or are unusable. Therefore, the available data is not always reliable, but that is all we have. Hunting for data on the number of students in higher education by subject area, (or even colleges and courses by number and volume) is an uphill task. Data for skills by area is probably still not available. The data available is supply driven.

But an over-emphasis on statistics may lead one astray. School teachers all over the world are agitating to not be judged by the performance of their students in examinations. Student achievement is affected by many factors including early nutrition levels, peer group, parental support and often, economic imperatives. Assessing teachers using these statistics is unfair to them, and also, forces them to teach to the exam and devote time away from true pastoral care in the classroom — which cannot be measured.

League tables, while popular and simple, are another example where ranks and numbers cannot measure good quality education. As schools try to climb up the league table, they work to the criteria of the tables, which may or may not suit their ethos or national imperatives. For example, most higher education tables across countries place significant weightage on international collaboration. For India, the low gross enrollment ratio and capacity constraints in higher education imply that efforts need to be directed to the domestic need before investing in attracting international candidates. But India does not have a problem of plenty in statistics. Without good quality statistics for evidence, one wonders, what drives policy.


This Op-Ed was published in the Daily Pioneer newspaper on March 23, 2013 and is linked here and


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