Mean Reversion in Education

7 Apr

Once is Not Enough


04/04/2013 | 0 comments

“We give our teachers training in everything, but it is no use..” bemoaned a co-ordinator.

“We started innovation clusters..and we go back after ten years, and nothing has changed..”, came from a researcher

“I taught the students the same thing in five different ways, they practiced it, and they still got it wrong in the exam!”

There is a pattern here, and a pattern that has been recognised in financial markets – Mean Reversion.

This is a tendency that is observed in large samples or values of assets, especially in stock markets. Over a period of time, while the value of a stock may go up or down, it often tends to revert to its long term mean.

The same happens to learning, or any kind of change.

And certainly to people.

In education systems too it has been observed that the initial gains from new projects are easily eroded, and performance gains lost over a few years.

Take the example of teacher training.

The way teachers are taught is rather antiquated – they read for a degree for three years with little sustained interaction with real classrooms. And then they are thrown in at the deep end with almost no mentoring or support. In rural postings they feel like the last bastion of civilisation, bringing light to the dark corners. Such heroism is commendable, but so difficult to sustain! Without well designed regular interventions, mean reversion is inevitable.

Even those who are in government schools and get regular in service training are unhappy with it. A recent study conducted by the NCERT across 15 states showed that 55% of teachers consider in service training to be irrelevant (79% in Haryana). Clearly there is a problem, one that is evidenced by low teacher motivation in many places. The annual ASER report continues to report high levels of teacher absenteeism that has a negative impact on student achievement.

The reasons for that are not hard to find – teachers have little incentive to keep performing. Many are in tenured jobs where tedium tends to set in rapidly. They have little support even in large schools where team teaching is a little known concept. Motivation levels drop, teachers slip into old habits and their own comfort zones. Some live in the city and are posted to remote rural schools – it is easier to be absent than there for the children. Some just do not care. Of course, some are brilliant – their reversion to mean is about going back to excellence, even if occasionally tired. But others find it a struggle to hold their end up.

Does it mean things will always remain the same? Surely, there have to be some tools that will keep them from reverting to lackadaisical attitudes. Better policing? More training? One of the things that I do is to design interventions in education, and among the first principles of intervention design is reinforcement. All interventions need scaffolding and supportive reinforcement over long periods of time. While the initial intervention in any system, especially education does demonstrate significant results, all change is a slow process since it requires to be embedded in practice. If the new information is not embedded it tends to evaporate rather quickly. This can be observed in simple interventions such as a training program, or a complex intervention – such as a change and transformation program.

Teachers and trainers too need more than a single point intervention for effective performance. It is impractical to expect change to happen just because it was said in a roomful of teachers in a workshop. Or because they went through some exercises on paper. While these are excellent ways to introduce new ideas and start to embed them, it is just that – a start.

Heard the saying – ‘People don’t change’? They do. But not just because they are told to change their ways. Unless there is an eco system that is created that fosters, encourages and monitors the initiative, how can it be sustained? Things will naturally slip to where they were unless there is the will to do it differently. – This will needs incentive alignment, needs good governance, needs reward mechanisms and needs to work with localised networks. Again and again.

Simply put,

Once is not enough.

Read more:


This was published in Forbes India Blogs On April 4, 2013 and is linked here and


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: