VITAL STATISTICS ON EDUCATION QUALITY
By and large, the quality of education in Pakistan is poor. But it is not uniformly poor. Some schools are worse than others. If we were to think of the school education system as a pyramid with a few elite schools (public as well as private) on top, the bottom of that pyramid is extremely wide and thin. This point is made by several studies of student learning and, most importantly, by the scores obtained by students appearing in the Punjab Examination Commission exams.
In Mathematics, a subject known to be a rich reaping ground for mathematically gifted students, only 15 out of the 1.4 million students appearing in the 2010 class-V exam managed to score a perfect 100 (as compared to 6000 who scored a perfect zero). Half of the students obtained less than 32 marks and one in every five students scored less than 20. Likely none of these students in the latter category will have acquired functional numeracy even after spending six years in school. That is a massive failure.
Admittedly, the above achievement indicators are depressed somewhat due to the potentially un-schooled students appearing as “private candidates” (more than 2% of the total examinees). Excluding them, however, only leads to a marginal improvement in these numbers. For instance, the average math score among “public school candidates” is 33.4 percent. And the situation is not much better in other subjects.
The information presented thus far about student’s learning achievement is not altogether surprising or new. Various surveys of student learning in the past have shown similar gaps and shortcomings. But the PEC exams help put a (yearly) spotlight on education quality by forcing us to think about the underlying weaknesses and their potential remedies. Where do low-achieving children come from? Do they tend to be more densely clustered in certain schools and geographical areas than others? What characteristics do such children, their families or schools have? Some of these questions can only be answered by doing additional research and analysis. But the PEC exam data can itself reveal interesting patterns as well.
In Punjab alone, there are approx 60,000 government schools in 36 districts and more than 100 Tehsils. While some districts perform better than the others, the difference in terms of the average test scores between districts, tehsils or sub-tehsil units (called ‘Markaz’) is not great. Much larger differences exist across schools located within the same administrative unit (Figure 1). The good and bad schools, it seems, are more or less evenly sprinkled across different administrative units (Figure 2).
Note: The x-axis uses a unique number for each district starting with 1 for the district with lowest mean total score (all subjects included) to 36 for the district with highest total score. District names not printed to avoid clutter. A dot indicates the average score obtained by students in one government school. The line connects the district-level mean scores. The range of variation in the points vertically, for a single district, is much larger than the vertical distance between the lowest and highest points on the line.
Note: The above picture “spreads out” the points in Figure 1 for one district, viz. Gujrat. A dot indicates the school-level average score, as before. The numbers on the x-axis denote unique school IDs sorted by geographical location, starting with schools falling in Dinga Markaz (grey box) within Kharian Tehsil (red box). The green box contains the grey and red boxes and covers all government schools in Gujrat district. The picture shows the range of variation in school-level average scores within different levels of department jurisdiction.
What separates a good school from the bad one? What is the critical ingredient that has the transformative effect on school quality? That, of course, is the holy grail of much of education research.
But the above observation rules out the simplest district-level explanations of school performance. The quality of district leadership may be important but the fact that no district stands out in excellence (or lack thereof) indicates the prominence of school-level factors, and what goes on in the trenches, on the eventual learning outcomes. Most school jurisdictions have, within them, a range of schools from the very good to the dysfunctional. No district administrator seems to have found the secret to making his dysfunctional schools work again which means that firing one is not likely to solve the problem either.
The Government of Punjab Education Department collects a range of information on every school regarding its infrastructure, its teachers and student enrolment. By tracking school facilities over time and spending resources on improving them, it allows policymakers to track progress in providing the “missing facilities”.
Similarly, the learning outcome data is critical to monitoring the quality of education in government schools, identifying any gaps as they develop and evaluating the effectiveness of steps taken to address them. It all, of course, depends on the quality of data and its use in policymaking but the debate has to be on how best to measure, collect and use the relevant information rather than whether it should be collected at all.
PEC Grade V examinations provide the tool with which to track the performance of more than 40,000 primary schools in the public sector. It provides an objective yardstick with which to rank schools and can help point us in the right direction to offset any inequities in the access to quality education. Given the size of government primary school sector and the scale of its problems, this is timely and useful.
Furthermore, the rationale for a high quality assessment mechanism goes beyond measurement. Besides measuring the learning outcomes, a high quality assessment system can have a dramatic impact on the quality of teaching and learning itself. Back in the 90s when the O- and A-levels were still a novelty and the private schools offered both matriculation and O-level streams, the most convincing argument given for choosing the latter stream was that its assessment system encouraged real, conceptual learning rather than rote memorization. Perhaps it is time for the public sector schools to strengthen their assessment systems and compete for high quality students interested in real, conceptual learning? That itself is a laudable goal that PEC should aim to achieve.
Imagine going back 200 years to visit an extremely sick patient fighting for survival. Without proper diagnostic information, the source of illness and its remedy remains a mystery for the doctors. Hence, their “cure” involves trying a bit of every possible treatment in the hope that the patient’s condition will improve. Would accurate information on the patient’s vital statistics improve the quality of medical response? Perhaps. Will it advance knowledge about that ailment and its cure in the long run? Most certainly, yes. Much the same is true of the education system of Pakistan today.
This article originally appeared in The News.Dr. Farooq Naseer is a Non-Resident Research Fellow at IDEAS. Concurrently, he is Assistant Professor at LUMS, where he teaches in the areas of econometrics, applied microeconomics and development economics, at both the graduate and undergraduate level. He is also a founding member and fellow at CERP.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives