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Opinion

April 12, 2014

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Education innovation

The writer has taught international relations and public policy at Boston University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and was the vice chancellor of LUMS.
First, the good news about education in Pakistan. It is no longer necessary to convince parents that education is important. There is real demand – mostly unmet – for education in Pakistan. Especially for good education. Including by households that have been denied access to education.
Many lower- and lower-middle class households – at least in urban centers – seem willing to spend larger proportions of their income on their children’s education. At a visceral level, a broad and palpable recognition has set in that education is amongst the very few passports to success available to the otherwise marginalised.
The bad news flows directly from the good. Education in Pakistan is not a demand problem as much as it is a supply problem. And the supply side is really really messed up. We talk much and we talk often about how messed up it is; let me just suggest that it is even more messed up than we think.
Suffice to say, if there is one sector that is in desperate need of innovative thinking, it is education. Innovative both in terms of how we think of the problems that we face and also of the solutions that may be applied to them. Here are two innovations which, in my view, would be good initial steps to start with.
Measure quality, not just enrollment. A manifestation of the good news is that the 18th Amendment to the constitution boldly proclaimed (section 25A) that “the state shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen.” A demonstration of the bad news, however, is that an estimated 20 million, or more, children between five and sixteen remain un-enrolled. However, the actual situation is much worse because no matter what the number of un-enrolled students may be, the number of students whose promised ‘Right to

Education’ is not being met is even higher.
Why? Because enrollment does not equal education. Enrollment tells us if a child is in school. It tells us nothing about the quality of education the child will receive. In fact, we know that in a very large proportion of schools that quality will be miserable. To put it plainly, the number of uneducated children in Pakistan is significantly larger than the number of un-enrolled. The number of poorly educated is larger still. Disastrously so.
There are, of course, legions of numbers – mind-numbing and heart-wrenching ones – to highlight our supply side problems. I avoid them to the extent that I can. First, because in a country that is unable and unwilling to hold something as basic as a national census, no number should be believable. More importantly, because I do not think that the essence of our most pressing challenges is captured by the numbers we get fixated on, which are mostly on enrollment.
An immediate innovation should be to change what we count. This means measuring, talking about, and getting worked up about the quality of education as much as about enrollment. One way to do this would be to set up system-wide assessments of, for example, how many 5th or 8th graders are actually performing at a 5th or 8th grade level. Technology can enable other means of quality assessment. But the key innovation has to be a shift from an education enrollment focus to an education quality focus. Ultimately, we will have to acknowledge that our deadliest supply side demons are about the quality of education as much as they are about its quantum.
Yes, enrollment gaps can be seductive, and for all the right reasons. They can also be costly distractions. A discourse that is fixated on enrollment will trigger policy that is fixated on getting as many more children into schools as quickly as possible. Done sloppily – as it will be – this can further diminish the quality of education (for example, by overloading classes, inducting less than qualified teachers, etc.). Such a vicious downward spiral produces armies of young people unqualified to justify their qualifications and their battalions infiltrate onwards into the system. The net result is a swelling of the ranks of the educated unemployables. A tragedy for all.
Quality enhancements can be self-reinforcing and system-enhancing. Invest in quality anywhere in the system and the benefits will tend to flow and grow across the system. Unfortunately, the converse is also true. Allow quality to fall – as we have – and the poison will bioaccumulate; and spread.
To get to quality, start with teachers. Measuring quality without investing in the means of quality enhancement is a recipe for frustration. Teachers are the weakest link in our education system but also our strongest hope for improving thing. There are, indeed, scores of amazingly dedicated and accomplished teachers all across the country who are a source of motivation for all around them, and most of all for their students. There are, unfortunately, far more who are not any of these things. An immediate task must be to make sure that the later do not overwhelm the former.
Before the quality of students’ education can be enhanced, the quality of the teachers who work with them has to be addressed. In a system where we still struggle with identifying ‘ghost’ teachers and ensuring that real ones can be made to show up in ‘ghost’ schools, a focus on quality seems idealistic. It may well be so, but it is also necessary. The challenge is to find ways to enhance teacher quality. This means finding innovative ways for teacher retraining, recertification and renewal.
This is difficult not only because the task is large and can be expensive. It is more difficult because the forces of inertia and habit will work against innovation. The right mix of incentive and technology can help. Incentive can be structured by linking teacher advancements to teacher performance – for example, in technology enabled recertification programmes.
Technology can play a key role as the platform of retraining. For example, there is much talk of online instruction including the so-called MOOCs (massive open online courses) as the newest buzz-toy in education, especially higher education. The jury is still out on the efficacy of such concepts for schools. However, a primary use of such technologies can be teacher upgradation. Such innovation can be designed not only for teacher retraining but, even more importantly, for providing teachers with the technological tools to raise the quality of their classroom instruction. Technology can be a great equaliser.
The key realisation has to be that teachers are the key to educational quality enhancement. If we need to get to students we will need to first get to teachers. Here, again, an urge to rapidly ramp up the number of teachers in the system has to be tempered with the need to improve teacher quality. Indeed, good teachers can be value multipliers and game-changers for the entire system. Equally – and maybe more so, bad teachers are value destroyers; indeed, system destroyers.
The political impulse – for policymakers as well as activists – is to seek instant gratification in incorporating as many more teachers as possible, as soon as possible.
A programme that seeks also to focus on enhancing the quality and (re-)training of teachers already in the system seems painfully slow, devoid of political mileage, hardly innovative and, frankly, boring. However, innovation that ends up being truly transformative often starts off as looking exactly like that. It is only when it works its magic that it can be recognised to be ‘disruptive’ in the best of ways.
Twitter: @adilnajam

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