The Case for the Counterfactual in Education Policy

17 Jul

There was a statistic in India that puzzled many of us for long. This was the enrolment number in primary school education which was stated to be 116% (at it’s peak) a few years ago. How can 116% of students eligible to enter primary school be at school? Rephrasing: it means that for every 100 children of the age group that was supposed to be at school, 116 were enrolled. How is that physically possible? This was official data – thus the best quality of fact finding that was possible at scale. Few explanations were offered.

This is when a mechanism for dealing with the other point of view becomes useful. Many of us started asking questions – and each of the sets of questions were at a different level. Some asked about the data design, some about the integrity of the collection process, some others spoke to school heads in villages. The ‘other view’ was not seeking to discredit any achievement in access and enrolments, nor was it about creating an us vs. them – it was simply seeking to support a better understanding of ground realities in ways that are difficult for official channels. The general view that emerged at that time built a better understanding of flaws in data gathering and collating as well as some phenomena that the official data had not even thought to capture. It turns out that in many areas children were enrolled in the local government school as well as a private school. They did this in response to the enrolment drives run by the local administration, but also exercised their choice to study in a school that suited their needs and ambitions. There were also issues with ground level data such as children who were out of this age range, often in multi ability single classrooms who were included in this list of enrolments thus pushing up the numbers. It is the alternate voice in education that had the bandwidth, access, curiosity and need to investigate this and other aberrations.

One of the largest counterfactuals to the establishment narrative is the set of ASER reports that is unmatched in the scale of its operations. It tests basic learning outcomes of literacy and numeracy at the primary school level by testing the skills through some simple but sophisticated tools it has devised. It has shown that most students across states (it is a very detailed report) are about two years behind at school. This is indeed a very important finding – if students are being left behind in competencies and dragged forward through learning levels merely based on their chronological age, then it highlights a fatal flaw in education policy and its practice. It builds a strong case for a range of solutions to be deployed such as remedial support, cadres of local para teachers and even questions the no detention policy enforced by the Right to Education (RTE) Act.

Of course the ASER reports are not always accepted by the establishment who counter the findings through their own NAS studies – which truly are in their nascency and not very useful so far. They are also designed in ways that allow for pockets of subjective selection and testing – among other issues that we hope will get ironed out in further cycles. The NAS results have unsurprisingly been far more positive than the ASER numbers leading to a standoff between the two assessments. This is as it should be. The counterfactual has value in the debate, not in silence. In fact the counterfactual must be encouraged to bring texture and a dose of grassroots reality to any scaled narrative – let the debate keep it real. The skills space is poorer for the lack of a similar debate.

Indian mythology speaks of a grand manthan (churning) between opposing forces that gave out valuable byproducts that sustained life. Policymaking too needs its manthans to be able to give out information of value, and this can be done only if there are different points of view in play. For instance – the data and information gathered by government has been driven by the need for tracking the system for administrative efficiency. This means that they seek data such as number of schools, payroll information, examinations attempted and results etc. This point of view has little room to inquire into the range of teaching and learning issues that occur in a classroom, to track pastoral care, or even to find out the kind of support resources a local teacher may need from time to time. Even if it wants to, a grand central (or even state) system cannot peek into these layers without a huge amount of investment that is many multiples of the present budget. The non establishment voices – whether policy, activists, interventionists or support products – are able to do this. This is done because they arrive at their questions from a different point of view. They seek to investigate gaps, because it is these gaps that will help them find out what they can do to help. Their questions will be of a different type, such as –  ‘What is the difference in timetable allocations between schools – and how does that affect outcomes including attendance’, or, ‘What makes a parent (child) choose a private school when there is a free government school at walking distance’, or even, ‘Will providing worksheets to teachers improve learning or should they be trained in planning their own lessons” – and so on. There is value in this point of view developed for the local context. Their point of view can provide information that is not possible to gather from a top down view. And no intervention or policycan be derived without good quality information.

Developing the counterfactual, especially in practice (and not just in academic space) is akin to an exercise in innovation, often best initiated outside of establishment space. Even large corporates have learnt that R&D and product development needs space of its own outside of its regular operations-sales-finance complex. Education too needs these spaces to build on innovation, to test  the its range, its tolerances, its ability to scale and sustain before launching it for all. The counterfactual to current establishment practices is built through trying and trying again – and is an attempt to bring tested realism to mainstream practices.

To place non-establishment voices in opposition to establishment voices is an immature personification of a debate that should be viewed only from the lens of the issues it seeks to tackle. Sure, people build self perpetuating mini empires, get funding from a range of sources, make mistakes along the way but these are governance issues that must be managed. Ideas last longer than persons. The manthan must not be allowed to slow down, especially at a time when India is preparing for its big surge in employment, enterprise and hopefully a lot more. This is the time to invest in the other voices that rise without fear or favour so that real issues are identified and tackled. The first gift of this true manthan will be the ability to trust investments, which is the only backbone required for growth in the future.


This was first published in PolicyWonks


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