Education reforms: Getting children into classrooms is no longer enough
Investment in low-cost, high-impact education that will make students more productive is vital
To achieve its full potential, it is crucial that India enacts education reforms to enhance human capital. Government policies have so far lifted school enrolment and retention rates, but new research starkly shows that the focus must shift to interventions that will deliver greater benefits at the lowest cost.
While more children are staying in school for longer, Pratham reports show learning outcomes are plunging: in 2005, 49% of Grade 5 students could do division; by 2016, it was 26 percent. Only half of the children in Grade 5 can read a Grade 2 textbook.
Commissioned by Tata Trusts and Copenhagen Consensus, Rajesh Chakrabarti, Kushal Sagar Prakash and Mansi Arora of Sunay Policy Advisory have examined the efficiency of various education policies.
First, they looked at two interventions consistent with the Right to Education Act: in-service teacher training, and reducing pupil-teacher ratios.
The authors found that even lengthy, in-depth tertiary courses and pre-service training of teachers have been found to have zero to modest effects on student learning outcomes, so it seems very unlikely that in-service training, which only occurs for a few days each year, would achieve any more.
Using the state of Rajasthan as an example -- training costs just ₹574 per student annually – the researchers concluded the policy is unlikely to generate benefits in student outcomes that are worth any more to society than the cost.
Likewise, a simple analysis found that halving the pupil-teacher ratio in Rajasthan is expensive compared to other approaches, costing ₹17,368 per student, generating benefits to learning outcomes that, in an optimistic scenario, are worth five-times the costs.
These two approaches compare unfavourably with ideas that are not yet official government policy but have been tested across India.
The first of these is providing performance-based incentives to teachers: effectively, paying teachers more when learning outcomes improve the most. A trial in Andhra Pradesh cost ₹552 per student per year, and resulted in better student test scores, with no evidence of any adverse consequences.
Test score gains are linked to higher productivity in adulthood, and the researchers calculate the net effect as a 7.3% boost to students’ wages. These concrete benefits to society are worth 24 times more than the costs of the intervention.
Next, the study examined ‘teaching at the right level’, which does away with grade-level curriculum and involves organising children into groups based on their current learning levels.
Pioneered by Pratham in India, it is deployed in two ways. The first approach involves running intensive camps, usually 80-100 hours long, with trained Pratham staff and community volunteers. The second approach involves partnership with government to embed the intervention at scale across one or more districts. Teaching at the right level can be done either outside or within existing school time.
Depending on which approach is used, the intervention generates lifelong benefits to students’ incomes worth at least 19 times the costs, and up to 50 times the costs in the right conditions.
Finally, the authors examined computer-assisted learning, which uses technology to help students learn at their own level. Mindspark is one such personalised technology intervention, implemented in a rigorously measured programme over five months in three low-income schools in Delhi.
Adapting this program for fifty schools, and including infrastructure, hardware, staffing and software development, would cost about ₹1,333 per student over five months.
Several studies into Mindspark have shown improvements in student test scores, and have revealed that there may be large returns to further innovation and research on effective ways of integrating technology-aided instruction into classrooms
After five months of access to the program, one robust study showed students scoring 14% higher in mathematics and 9% higher in Hindi relative to the students who didn’t have access to Mindspark.
Plenty of research shows how much future wages are influenced by higher test scores. With these results, the researchers found that on average each student will make 98,825 more over their lifetime. Spending just ₹1,333 per student to achieve such an impressive result means every Rupee spent would generate benefits to society worth ₹74.
It is policies like these that India must embrace, to fully reap its demographic dividend. Getting children into classrooms is no longer enough. Investment in low-cost, high-impact education that will make students more productive is vital.
Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, and Saleema Razvi is senior research advisor for India Consensus
The views expressed are personal