Pitfalls of universal education

Noting can empower poor people more than a good education. So I welcomed the launch of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education For All) in 2001. This aims to have all children aged 6-14 in primary school by 2007 and in upper primary school by 2010, a much stiffer target than the UN Millennium Development Goal of universal primary schooling by 2015. My main concern has been that teacher absenteeism will spoil the programme.

However, recent global research on universal schooling sows that many other problems are just as severe. At a World Bank Conference on Aid Effectiveness for Human and Social Development, speakers showed conclusively that completing school is a very partial and often irrelevant achievement.

Mere literacy can be achieved in months. The aim of completing six to eight years in primary school (as planned by Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan) is to gain skills that translate into higher wages and less poverty. But, according to Ernesto Schiefelbein, former Education Minister of Chile and a renowned educator, research shows that while literacy improves income significantly, additional years of schooling contribute little extra.

Why? Because in many countries with near-universal education, students cannot read simple texts or do simple sums. They may have completed school, but they are functionally illiterate.

Surveys in seven Latin American countries reveal functional illiteracy of 40% in Chile and over 50% in the other countries. Dean Nielsen of the World Bank says that surveys in Peru and Romania show that more than half school graduates are functionally illiterate. Maria Cristina Mejia, Education Minister of Bolivia, says her country has greatly increased school enrolment and ended the gender gap in education, yet incomes are not rising. A new book by Professor McGuiness says that functional illiteracy is 43% for nine-year olds in the USA.
Why does school completion, the aim of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, do so little to improve learning outcomes or incomes? One obvious reason is that educational quality is weak even in well-off countries. Many rich countries (notably the US) are spending billions on improving quality. Yet the evidence here too is sobering.

In Latin America, says Schiefelbein, countries have spent an additional $ 1 billion per year on quality improvement for a decade, but with little evidence of improved learning outcomes. Billions spent on more teacher training, text books and learning materials have achieved almost nothing.

Why? One reason is the rich-poor divide. Now, we know this is true of India. A West Bengal survey by Pratichi, an NGO, showed that 80%of children getting private tuition could write their names, but only 7% of others could. In India we ascribe this to poor teacher training and high absenteeism. But even in Latin America, where teaching quality and school completion is far superior, the rich-poor divide is staggering. Schiefelbein says that over 90% of children in the richer half of society are functionally literate but only 10% in the lower half, even though virtually all complete school.

Research suggests that if children cannot read after two to three years of education, they probably never will. They may be promoted regularly and complete school, but they will be functionally illiterate, and their many years of education will not improve their incomes.

Lesson: Indian education must focus above all on early reading skills. If that is not achieved, all subsequent schooling is a waste.

Why are schools so weak in teaching poor children to read? Because, says Schiefelbein, better-off children typically enter school with a vocabulary of 2,000-4,000 words, and have often started reading already at home. But poor children typically have a vocabulary of only 600 words, and have never read at home. Now, the skills needed to teach a child with a 600-word vocabulary are totally different from those needed to teach a child with a 3,0000-word vocabulary. Most teachers lack the special skills (or time, or patience) needed for teaching poor children. Quality improvement schemes tend to focus on teacher training for higher levels of learning. In itself this is a good thing, but it tends to neglect the basic skill of teaching children with a very small vocabulary and little home support from illiterate parents. So, spending billions on supposed quality improvement might not improve learning outcomes: few poorer children will reap much benefit.

Are things better in India than in Latin America? Alas, no. They are probably worse. Sarva Shiksa Abhiyan may, by spending thousands of crores, get most children into school. It may finance better text books, teaching materials and teacher training. But will it ensure that poor children can read within their first two or three years in school? If not, then little will be achieved by ensuring that all children complete school. Poorer children will emerge functionally illiterate after wasting eight years in school.

How can we escape this danger? I will address that in Swaminomics next week.

What do you think?