The single-most important goal for education policy in India should be to deliver universal functional literacy and numeracy to reduce learning gaps in early grades itself.(Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)
The single-most important goal for education policy in India should be to deliver universal functional literacy and numeracy to reduce learning gaps in early grades itself.(Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)

Learning levels will not improve by spending more on education

Interventions that improve school governance and time-on-task on instruction, and those that improve pedagogy – with a focus on matching instruction to the learning level of students have been shown to be highly cost effective at improving learning outcomes.
By Karthik Muralidharan and Abhijeet Singh
UPDATED ON APR 17, 2019 09:39 AM IST

A fundamental tension in the design of education systems is that, historically, they have served three very different roles. First, they have sought to impart knowledge and skills that improve employment and earnings prospects (the human capital role). Second, they have aimed to create shared norms of behaviour, values, and identity (the socialisation role). Third, they have aimed to assess and classify students by educational ability and achievement to select students for higher education and skill-intensive occupations (the sorting role).

A simple way to understand the Indian education system is that it is mainly driven by the sorting role. Indeed, the Indian education system is perhaps best understood as a filtration system rather than an education system. In other words, the central feature of the education system is the use of exams to classify students rather than teaching effectively (as shown memorably in the movie, 3 Idiots). An important consequence of a sorting-based education system is that children who fall behind grade-level standards do not get a meaningful education because the obsessive focus on passing exams means that teachers have limited time or motivation to teach students who have fallen behind.

These facts are illustrated strikingly by the figure below, which shows the levels and dispersion of student achievement in mathematics in a sample of over 5,000 students spanning grades 1 to 8 across 40 schools in four districts of Rajasthan (using data from an ongoing study). The x-axis shows the grade the student is enrolled in, the y-axis shows the grade that their actual learning level is at, and each dot represents 10 students. The blue line is where students would be if they were at a grade-appropriate standard and the red line is where the true average learning level is at.

There are three key patterns in the data.

First, the average rate of progress of learning is substantially lower than the rate envisaged by the syllabus and textbooks (around half). Second, as a result, the gap between average learning levels and the standards of the curriculum grows over time. Third, there is a striking amount of dispersion in within-grade learning levels — for instance, students enrolled in Class 8 range from second to eighth class in their learning levels. Similar patterns are seen in our data from Delhi and Madhya Pradesh.

The patterns shown in this figure may well be the most important facts about education in India.

While the facts about low average levels of learning are well known, the figure shows the striking variation in student learning levels within a class. It highlights both how far behind grade-level curricular standards many students are, and also the difficulty that teachers face in handling such variation in student achievement. In Delhi, we also find that students in the lowest third of within-grade test scores in Classes 6 to 9 make no progress in learning during the school year, despite being enrolled in school. This is consistent with their being so far behind curricular standards, that textbook-based classroom instruction is essentially useless.

We believe, therefore, that the single-most important goal for education policy in India should be to deliver universal functional literacy and numeracy to reduce learning gaps in early grades itself. Seventy years after Independence, a large fraction of children completing primary education are still not functionally literate and numerate. This is both an economic and a moral failure. It inhibits the skill formation needed for economic growth and also robs millions of children and youth of the opportunity to participate in broader economic growth.

Finally, this problem will not be solved by spending more on education in a business as usual way. A key message for education policy from over two decades of high-quality research on education in India is that large increases in education expenditure and enrolment have not translated into improved learning. The facts presented above provide a likely explanation for the low productivity of time and money in our education system. Money is spent on building schools and hiring teachers, and the no-detention policy aims to keep children in school and prevent dropping out; but very little learning is taking place because most children are too far behind the level at which instruction is taking place.

In contrast, interventions that improve school governance and time-on-task on instruction, and those that improve pedagogy — with a focus on matching instruction to the learning level of students (“teaching at the right level”) have been shown to be highly cost effective at improving learning outcomes. Regardless of the election results, we hope that the next government will prioritise delivering universal literacy and numeracy over the next five years, and make use of the available evidence to do so in a cost-effective way.

Karthik Muralidharan is the Tata Chancellor’s professor of economics at UC San Diego. This article is co-authored by Abhijeet Singh who teaches at the Stockholm School of Economics. The ideas here are expanded upon in the chapter on “School Education Reform in India” in the book What the Economy Needs Now, published by Juggernaut, and available on April 20

The views expressed are personal

SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
Close
It takes courage to push a conversation that evokes almost zero public sympathy in an audience that is inclined to believe that consent has no place on the marital bed(Shutterstock)
It takes courage to push a conversation that evokes almost zero public sympathy in an audience that is inclined to believe that consent has no place on the marital bed(Shutterstock)

The conversation India refuses to have

By Namita Bhandare
UPDATED ON JAN 08, 2021 08:01 PM IST
In the past few years, India has broken traditional silences on sexual abuse, on consent, and on the rights of sexual minorities. It’s time to break another traditional silence
Close
What other, newer democracies find relatively easy — conducting an election, the counting of votes, the peaceful transition of power — seems to have befuddled the US. There can be and must not be any normalisation of gross prejudice or violence(AP)
What other, newer democracies find relatively easy — conducting an election, the counting of votes, the peaceful transition of power — seems to have befuddled the US. There can be and must not be any normalisation of gross prejudice or violence(AP)

After anarchy in the US, reimagining the middle ground

UPDATED ON JAN 08, 2021 07:53 PM IST
Governments have to learn how to engage with those who did not vote for them. Citizens have to learn how to converse amidst ideological divisions
Close
Mohammed Siraj led India’s breakthrough in the ongoing tour of Australia. But he grew up playing tennis ball cricket and first held a real cricket ball only five years ago.(Getty Images)
Mohammed Siraj led India’s breakthrough in the ongoing tour of Australia. But he grew up playing tennis ball cricket and first held a real cricket ball only five years ago.(Getty Images)

The secret weapons of a fast-bowling nation

By Rudraneil Sengupta | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON JAN 08, 2021 03:31 PM IST
Surprise finds are making their mark in the India bowling line-up, but they aren’t coming up through the system.
Close
A New York street in the 1920s. Just two decades earlier, in the age of horse-drawn vehicles, people had feared their cities would be buried in manure. Then the internal combustion engine took horses off the streets altogether, a shift often used to illustrate the unpredict-able fallouts of new tech.(Shutterstock)
A New York street in the 1920s. Just two decades earlier, in the age of horse-drawn vehicles, people had feared their cities would be buried in manure. Then the internal combustion engine took horses off the streets altogether, a shift often used to illustrate the unpredict-able fallouts of new tech.(Shutterstock)

The horseshit paradox: Why fears about tech are wildly exaggerated

By Charles Assisi | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON JAN 08, 2021 03:11 PM IST
Our world runs on complexity. And no machine we have created — or look likely to create — can truly navigate that complexity by itself, says Charles Assisi.
Close
It is no surprise that all kinds of protests are being seen in many parts of the world at the moment(SHUTTERSTOCK)
It is no surprise that all kinds of protests are being seen in many parts of the world at the moment(SHUTTERSTOCK)

This decade will be decisive for democracy, capitalism

By Shashi Shekhar
UPDATED ON JAN 03, 2021 10:07 PM IST
There is another fact which needs attention. Human civilisation has always discovered new light in the darkest days of crisis. With this hope, let us welcome this new decade.
Close
A vibrant corporate capitalist base also leads to additional revenues for the State — which, in turn, can be used for greater welfare for the marginalised and creating a more level-playing field in terms of opportunities(Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)
A vibrant corporate capitalist base also leads to additional revenues for the State — which, in turn, can be used for greater welfare for the marginalised and creating a more level-playing field in terms of opportunities(Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)

In defence of reformed capitalism

PUBLISHED ON JAN 02, 2021 07:05 PM IST
Targeting corporate capitalism won’t help. It is essential for growth and democracy. Focus on reforming it.
Close
A health worker prepares a syringe to inoculate a volunteer with a Covid-19 vaccine, Lima, December 9, 2020(AFP)
A health worker prepares a syringe to inoculate a volunteer with a Covid-19 vaccine, Lima, December 9, 2020(AFP)

A robust public broadcaster can guard against anti-vaccine rumours

By Mark Tully
PUBLISHED ON JAN 02, 2021 07:02 PM IST
There seems no reason to doubt that a large number of Indians are, to say the least, undiscriminating in the source of news they chose to watch. This will make them liable to fall prey to false information which can undermine the vaccination campaign.
Close
The silence and loneliness of being on my own is no longer intimidating. In fact - and I know that sounds a little perverse – I’ve enjoyed it. So this morning I feel I don’t want to lose it. At least, not completely.(HTPHOTO)
The silence and loneliness of being on my own is no longer intimidating. In fact - and I know that sounds a little perverse – I’ve enjoyed it. So this morning I feel I don’t want to lose it. At least, not completely.(HTPHOTO)

Goodbye to all that? I’m not so sure

UPDATED ON JAN 02, 2021 06:55 PM IST
The honest truth – and you’ve probably guessed it by now – is that I’m going into 2021 with a little trepidation or, if that’s too strong a word, more than a touch of hesitation.
Close
n many ways, Modi’s economic vision resembles that of the United Kingdom prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the United States President Ronald Reagan. Both faced an avalanche of opposition to their push for economic reforms(PTI)
n many ways, Modi’s economic vision resembles that of the United Kingdom prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the United States President Ronald Reagan. Both faced an avalanche of opposition to their push for economic reforms(PTI)

Farm stir: Latest attempt to stop Modi’s reforms

By Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda
PUBLISHED ON JAN 01, 2021 08:06 PM IST
The Opposition may continue to denigrate him, but millions see in the PM a rare determination and willingness to take risks and cleanse the rot
Close
US President-elect Joe Biden in Delaware, December 29, 2020(REUTERS)
US President-elect Joe Biden in Delaware, December 29, 2020(REUTERS)

Biden has no record of missteps on India

PUBLISHED ON JAN 01, 2021 08:06 PM IST
With the Chinese amassing troops along the border, Indians want to see more, even as they acknowledge that the US will not conduct its foreign policy to please India, echoing a Democratic congressional aide who is normally sympathetic to India but is frustrated by “constant pushing on China”.
Close
Ancient calendars could be intricate, beautiful, but confusing. Above is a section of the ancient Mayan calendar.(Shutterstock)
Ancient calendars could be intricate, beautiful, but confusing. Above is a section of the ancient Mayan calendar.(Shutterstock)

Lend me your years: How the Indian National Calendar came into being

By Rachel Lopez | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON JAN 02, 2021 08:29 PM IST
See how, back in 1955, an elite team headed by astrophysicist Meghnad Saha untangled India’s confusing variety of almanacs.
Close
An aangan in an old home in Mehrauli, New Delhi. A fixture since the time of the Indus Valley Civilisation, the courtyard faded away with the coming of Western-style architecture during colonial rule.(Mayank Austen Soofi)
An aangan in an old home in Mehrauli, New Delhi. A fixture since the time of the Indus Valley Civilisation, the courtyard faded away with the coming of Western-style architecture during colonial rule.(Mayank Austen Soofi)

Poonam Saxena writes on the true heart of the Indian home, the aangan

By Poonam Saxena | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON JAN 01, 2021 07:04 PM IST
It now lives on largely in books and film, but the courtyard was where we cooked, celebrated, slept under the stars on summer nights.
Close
After a traumatic and turbulent 2020, it’s time to ring in a New Year with hope. And since Rabindranath Tagore is being rediscovered by our netas ahead of the Bengal elections, this is a prayer for India in 2021 that draws inspiration from the great poet-laureate.(Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)
After a traumatic and turbulent 2020, it’s time to ring in a New Year with hope. And since Rabindranath Tagore is being rediscovered by our netas ahead of the Bengal elections, this is a prayer for India in 2021 that draws inspiration from the great poet-laureate.(Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

A ‘new’ India can’t be built by abandoning the core values of our founding fathers

UPDATED ON JAN 01, 2021 06:01 AM IST
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high. Where an Indian identity is determined by citizenship, and not divided by the narrow domestic walls of caste, region or religion. Where true secularism demands that no state authority promote or discriminate against any religion, where equal respect for all faiths must be the basis of our constitutional secularism.
Close
The farmers’ protest may be geographically limited, but the ripples it has caused are international.(ANI)
The farmers’ protest may be geographically limited, but the ripples it has caused are international.(ANI)

The year is almost over, but scars will remain

By Shashi Shekhar
PUBLISHED ON DEC 27, 2020 06:13 PM IST
The year 2020 will be known as a year of bias, discontent, isolation and apprehensions. These can be brushed away by blaming the pandemic, but the virus merely amplified existing tendencies.
Close
The argument Covid-19 did not permit the session is specious. For a start, Parliament’s earlier functioning disproves it. The monsoon session was held in September when daily cases crossed 95,000. So how can a situation when the increase has reduced to under 25,000 be a credible reason for not holding the winter session?(Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)
The argument Covid-19 did not permit the session is specious. For a start, Parliament’s earlier functioning disproves it. The monsoon session was held in September when daily cases crossed 95,000. So how can a situation when the increase has reduced to under 25,000 be a credible reason for not holding the winter session?(Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)

Parliament should sit more often

UPDATED ON DEC 26, 2020 07:36 PM IST
The bigger moral argument rests on the belief Parliament is special. It represents our nation. It speaks for us and symbolises our resolve. So if the temple of our democracy ducks the challenge of functioning in a time of the virus what’s the example it sets for the rest of us and what’s the message it sends to the world beyond our borders?
Close
SHARE
Story Saved
OPEN APP