Healing the broken system

Public schools, like living organisms, are also systems. They can be broken and injured but can also be healed with a well-designed and time-bound arrangement

Healing the broken system

One of my many teachers in matters of education research said all knowledge is post experience. As a criterion for knowledge, this statement is quite interesting as well as challenging. It implies that we may have an informed guess about something, or may have committed to our memory some facts about it, but we can’t claim knowledge about it without relating it to our experience. It is the same old saying about ‘ilm’ and ‘aml’ and incompleteness of each without the other. Be that as it may, recently I got an opportunity to think about this relationship between my own experiences and something that I was trying to understand in the course of a policy dialogue organised by Institute of Social and Policy Sciences (I-SAPS) and Institute of Development Economics and Alternatives (IDEAS) in Lahore on April 16, 2015.

The policy dialogue was on Public Private Partnership (PPPs) and it explored the potential of various models that involved adoption of public schools by private philanthropists. Before going any further, I should also praise both organisations for bringing a diverse range of stakeholders, including politicians from across the political spectrum, philanthropists, members of the civil society, and government functionaries together to debate the potential of PPPs to help boost the quality of public schools.

What follows is a slightly more developed account of what I said on the occasion.

I am not a participant, or a school adopter. I have never been involved in any PPPs in any capacity other than as an observer during the course of a research project. So how could I relate these models with my own experience? As I thought about it a little more, it seemed to me that some of my life experiences could provide a few metaphors to further think about a relationship between a public school -- which is assumed to be in need of help from an external agent -- and an external agent willing to help the school.

So I narrated two personal experiences to the audience that have apparently nothing to do with the schools or public private partnerships but provide useful metaphors for thinking about PPPs. Here they are.

More often than not, we only hear the interested parties talking about their achievements, which cannot help us establish the success or failure of the adopt-a-school or partnership for management models.

Over three decades ago, I met a road accident, which left me critically wounded with multiple injuries. The worst of which was a fractured right femur (the thigh bone). In order to fix my body, which was obviously a broken system, I had to arrive at what may be called a contract with a surgeon. These arrangements meant that I’d hand myself over to the care of my surgeon, that I would be kept in a hospital for a certain period of time, and that during this time the hospital, with all of its paraphernalia, will provide the much needed care.

Eventually, the surgeon performed a procedure. As I was told later, he took out some bone from another joint, and grafted it in the gap between the two ends of the fracture where the original bone, having been smashed into pieces, was no longer there. He then placed a stainless steel plate on the bone and tightened its grip with four screws on both sides of the fracture site. I was kept immobile for a few weeks after which the hospital provided me with a pair of wooden crutches to walk with. I was also asked to strengthen my diet to include things that could help my bones heal faster and become stronger. A few months later, the crutches were off, and I was on my own.

What does this experience have to do with adopt a school programs? Let us look at the aftermath of the accident, and my interaction with the hospital as a metaphor now. Think of my body as a broken system and the hospital as the external agency, which claims that it can fix it. Notice, however, that this interaction between the hospital and myself has an exit strategy built into it. I never expected that I would always be dependent on the hospital and neither did the hospital staff. The entire effort was based on the assumption that my body will eventually heal itself and that once that has happened the relationship between the hospital and patient (myself) would come to an end.

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Another important aspect of this experience is the foreign object, the steel plate, which was inserted into my body. It worked because it was designed in such a way as to not compete or come into conflict with what was already in my system. If that wasnthe case my body could reject this foreign object and make matters even worse for both myself and my doctors. Furthermore, the onus was not on the existing system (patient’s body) to accept this object, but on its designer to ensure that the body would accept it. Then, there was also this effort to strengthen the body by focusing on diet and supplementation.

Finally, there was also this need to go to a third party to determine whether or not the bone had actually healed. That is to say, the surgeon could not depend on his own assessment or my satisfaction to determine if my injuries had been completely healed. A third party evaluation, in this case an x-ray from a diagnostic laboratory, was needed to establish the state of healing.

Let us now see how this healing-broken-bones-with-surgeon’s help metaphor can describe our perspective on adopt a school models. If we use this as a driving metaphor for adopt a school models, then we must assume that public schools are in bad health and that they require the help of an external agency. But we must also assume that the public schools represent a separate system, just like my body. They can be helped by an external agency but it would be done best if such help was a temporary and time-bound arrangement designed to meet some specific goals. The following things inescapably follow from this metaphor.

First, like the relationship between a doctor and a patient, there must be a clear exit strategy. At the moment it is not as clearly spelled out. Many organisations that are involved in school adoption assume that they are taking the schools over forever. This is possible, but not if we use the above metaphor to think about the adopter-school relationship.

Second, the adopting organisations seek to make some changes in order to fix or address problems in the public schools they adopt. Recall the foreign object aspect of my surgery experience. The new things that well-intentioned external agencies attempt to do inside the schools will only work if they are accepted by the system. The onus is on the external agency to craft the reforms in ways that don’t interfere destructively with the existing systems but change them incrementally.

Third, the adopters must strengthen the systems within the school, much like the emphasis on proper diet to support healing in the case of the patient.

Finally, just as my surgeon and I needed an x-ray to find out if my bone had healed, we need ways of determining, quite apart from the satisfaction of the public and private partners, that this partnership has actually fixed the broken system (third party evaluations). More often than not, we only hear the interested parties talking about their achievements, which cannot help us establish the success or failure of the adopt-a-school or partnership for management models.

Now let us look at another possible metaphor. More recently I have been near a patient with a chronic condition, which is unlikely to heal completely. This kind of a condition requires a very different kind of external intervention. It is one that requires an indefinite management and no-exit strategy. If we were to use this chronic illness metaphor to model the partnership, we would be assuming that the adopted schools would always remain under the care of the adopting organisations.

These two experiences could be used as metaphors to illuminate important aspects of the interaction between any entity in need of help and an agency that could offer the needed help. There may be many others as well. Whatever the case may be, we need to decide which of these metaphors are, or should, be reflected in the public private partnerships.

Public schools, like living organisms, are also systems. They can be broken and injured but can also be healed. Government and private sector players will do better if they keep this in mind. The latter should seek to help and restore rather than takeover and run the public sector schools and the policy should ensure that this remains the case by requiring clear exit strategies as part of the partnership for management contracts.

A previous version of the article incorrectly mentioned the name of the institute in Lahore as Institute of Development Ideas and Alternatives (IDEAS). The error is regretted.

Healing the broken system