Seeing a child like a state: Holding the poor accountable for bad schools -- Guest post by Lant Pritchett


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In the early 20th century Helen Todd, a factory inspector in Chicago, interviewed 500 children working in factories, often in dangerous and unpleasant conditions. She asked children the question: “If your father had a good job and you didn’t have to work, which would you rather do—go to school or work in a factory?” 412 said they would choose factory work. One fourteen year old girl, who was interviewed lacquering canes in an attic working with both intense heat and the constant smell of turpentine, said “School is the fiercest thing you can come up against. Factories ain’t no cinch, but schools is worst.”   

The recent expansion of the “ASER-like” simple assessments of literacy and numeracy skills of all children in a village based approach provides an accurate, and chilling, picture of just how little learning is going on inside schools in many poor countries. The ASER data can show the learning profile, the association of measured skills and grade completion, by showing what fraction of children who have completed which grade can read a simple story (expected of a child in grade 2) or do simple arithmetic operations.  Take Uttar Pradesh in 2010.  By the end of lower primary school (grade 5) only one in four children could divide. Even by grade 8, the end of upper primary only 56 percent could.   Similarly, by grade 5 only 44 percent could read a level 2 paragraph and by grade 8 still only 77.6 could.   A large plurality of children, even of those that had persisted and been promoted through eight full grades or primary school—roughly 8000 hours of available total instruction—were either illiterate or innumerate or both. 

Even these children can however see the disparity in accountability between them and their teachers. The regular civil service teachers in Uttar Pradesh are massively privileged: making over three times the market wage, no accountability, not even to show up for work, and able to mistreat students with impunity. Data from the 2005 India Human Development Survey (Desai, Dubey, Vanneman, and Banerji 2008) show that 29 percent of parents report their child was “beaten or pinched” in government schools in the previous month. Worse, a child from the poorest group of households is almost twice as likely to be beaten or pinched in a government school than a child from the richest group of households. This is in contrast to private schools which show no income favoritism in beating. Studies consistently find absence rates of regular teachers in government schools in UP around 25 percent—not to mention low rates of effort when in attendance. 

Recent research (Atherton and Kingdon 2010) shows that if somehow UP in 2009 had been able to replace its regular teachers making around 11,000 rupees a month with contract teachers working for 3000 rupees a month that UP could have saved more than a billion dollars (Roughly 600,000 primary and upper primary teachers times 8000 rupees monthly wage differential (11000 less 3000) times 12 months divided by 45 rupees/$). This replacement of regular with contract teachers would appear to double child learning per year as the estimated “contract teacher” impact on learning, controlled econometrically as finely as possible for cofounding effects like selection using student and school fixed effects, is roughly the same as an additional year with a regular teacher.  

Suppose you are a child from a poor household approaching adolescence in Uttar Pradesh who has struggled through years of schooling without learning anything, been promoted from year to year with no attention to your actual learning, perhaps even regularly beaten or threatened by teachers.   You might consider dropping out of this “fierce” thing called school. 

But wait. The development technocracy with its latest rigorous research methods and can-do, expansion of “what works” attitude has the solution to your drop-out problem:  they will threaten your mother.   This is a wildly new popular class of programs called “conditional cash transfers” which has spread from its origins in Mexico and Brazil to over 30 countries. The design is simple, use some targeting method to determine eligible households and offer the eligible households cash (often paid to the mother of the household) but only if all their school aged children stay in school. These conditional cash transfers, to no one’s surprise, have been rigorously proven to reduce child drop-out.  

For the state and those that see for the state and like the state, see the problem of child drop-out is a problem of the household not complying with the state’s objective to universalize enrollment. The obvious solution is to make the poor child and poor households more accountable to the state’s narrowly drawn objective of increasing enrollment. That the real goal was to properly educate the child gets lots in the counting. Once the problem of education is re-defined so that the state can easily see and measure it as schooling then forcing a child back into a disastrous school counts exactly as much in increasing enrollment as attracting children to stay in school because they are learning.     

Of course in cases like Uttar Pradesh it is obvious the reality is that the functionaries of the state are not accountable to citizens for adequate, or even humane, service delivery. However “seeing” that teachers should be more accountable for a quality of schooling experience that would retain students however requires seeing what even a child can see, but which the state has no interest in seeing, and hence no capability to see. Holding powerful teachers accountable, while cost-saving and learning increasing, is politically difficult. Even giving poor people a choice in where their children attend school is politically difficult to get by the educationist lobby. But holding poor people accountable is always politically easy.  

Of course when CCTs force children back into school the children might not learn to read and might not learn to divide, but they will learn an important, if tragic, life lesson: when you are poor the state has power and you do not.


Join the Conversation

Dr. Iddo Dror
January 05, 2012

My twitter feed is abuzz with praise for this article, which raises some very valid criticism about the state of schooling in Indian public schools, specifically in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populated (200 million - which would make it the world's 5th most populated country) and notoriously poorly performing state.

That (some) public school teachers are overpaid, absent or apathetic, and discriminate against poor children is a sad fact. That school reforms that would open competition could make a real difference both on the financial side as well as on the dismal track records of the schools is also a valid comment.

That kids get "pinched or beaten" in schools is clearly unacceptable. However, as a parent to a 2 year old schooled a in South Delhi private pre-nursery - perhaps as far from the reality of poor kids in rural UP as one can in India - I can (sadly) observe that using physical punishment as a means of "educating" is still a reality in this country, and not constrained to public schools in poor rural areas.

Which brings me to my main beef with the article, and the ensuing praise on twitter, amounting to somewhat of a Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs) bashing. How and why did we make CCT the villain ?

CCTs have proven effective in getting child school attendance up. How is that, in and of itself, a BAD outcome?!

That many children leave school illiterate is wrong. Such failings need to be analyzed and corrected. More attention can and should be given to improving the education system (public and private).

However, many poor students DO manage to, despite the odds, learn to read, write, divide, and go on to better their lives, and that of their families by getting more stable and better paying office jobs instead of the subsistence farming and casual labor environment they hail from.

Let us also not forget that a poor child in a rural setting not going to school can hardly expect a "pinching or beating free" environment. They are likely to be exploited from a very young age, and will have a much lower chance of ever breaking from the cycle of poverty into which they were born.

Are no schools better than poor schools? CCTs are no panacea. But they are no villain either.

January 04, 2012

Greetings from Brazil. This was an insightful post.

In the 7th paragraph, maybe it shoud read "educate the child gets lost"?

January 15, 2012

Dr., you've set up a false dichotomy. The choice isn't poor education vs. no education. It's poor education vs. whatever the child's next-best option is. Might be employment, might be apprenticeship, might be self-education.

The way to reduce child labor and increase education is not to mandate school attendance, it is to make education the best option (in the long run) compared to working.

Guy Pfeffermann
January 04, 2012

SUPERB. Period.


Timothy Ogden
January 04, 2012

Educationist Lobby is a phrase we definitely need to import to the United States.

BTW, was the "grain inflation" paper which found teachers cheating on grade and attendance counts to make sure children got their CCT allotment in UP?

January 04, 2012

....and this is an issue in many countries. I am a Nigerian, currently studying for a postgraduate degree in University of Oxford. Up until now, I recently remarked to a friend, I have always felt that I was educating myself. Somehow, at each successive level of education, I came hoping that finally my teachers would do their job an at least teach me the scheme. I got a good deal, many times we got half way through. However, many Nigerian children cannot say the same and I still feel under educated. I recently read over a system that involves community members via mobile technology in monitoring established standards in education- teacher attendance, scheme coverage etc and included parents, teachers and other members of community. I think this is commendable and should be encouraged. I also don't think that if a child finds that on coming to school he is really educated and doesn't have to feel vulnerable in the next class, he will need a CCT to keep him coming. The internet has made us realise the possibilities and expectations for members of our peer group in different contexts. We want to be all we can be.

January 06, 2012

I was actually educated in UP (Uttar Pradesh),India in Jhansi. I was not a product of state education. I was fortunate or unfortunate enough to be educated in a convent school.

I had the bad fortune to be punished quite a great deal by Sister Scholastica and Mother Superior. Physical beatings not so much, but I was called a heathen and made to say the Lord's Prayer. I was always ranked 13th and I could never figure out why even though I did very well in my courses. Then later it struck me that the 12 children ahead of me were all Christian and therefore were treated "specially."

However in all of this I never felt bad about the whole experience. I did get educated and quite well. The nuns really knew their stuff and were quite adept at getting the material across with very little use of technology.

And that's the point that needs to be made. The nuns were fantastic teachers despite the double standards. I learned and the test of my learning was that I could easily keep up with my classmates in England, France and the USA when I moved there.

Rather reluctantly privitization seems to be the best methodology for teaching is the conclusion I have reached. But unfortuntately if you priviatize you alienate the state and the NGO that depend on foreign aid.

This problem will magnify itself as India becomes a world power.

Marlon Stewart
January 05, 2012

I agree to an extent that Pritchett's essay touches more than just a 'food for thought' nerve but still find it a bit 'limp' of critical considerations. Firstly, UP is by far considered to be a 'backward' (God forbid that term) region. I believe this term is ascribed due to the extremely low mortality rate, social, economic, political and health provision reasons- ones that this post does not allow me to go into, but that which research provides.
There is also a very strong caste divide which impacts on who gets... or is privileged to...That said, it is not only that regular civil service teachers are massively 'privileged' but by virtue, also apathetic to the students they teach. This present 'state' will not necessarily be corrected by a reversion to contracted teachers. Neither is a comparative analysis of the private school provision a basis of resolve. the question is: How many of UP children which are on the whole divided by a caste system, attending these private schools? Or is 'which caste attends these private schools?' a better question?

So maybe wider issues such as 'how prepared are these UP children to learn given the low nutrition etc caused by the increasing numbers below the poverty line, levels of urbanization while still experiencing the highest birth rate and fertility rate.

what we are dealing with then is not only accountability (of the state) but also the capacity (to learn) of the students.

January 15, 2012

Very interesting, but, suggesting that cutting the wages of more than half a million teachers by almost 3/4 could save a billion $? I'm far from an expert on rural India, but from the perspective of sitting on my couch in Manhattan it's hard to understand... Instead of 245$ per month, teachers would make 67$ per month? 2$ /day?

Re-reading it, I guess the point was that the contract teachers are also better teachers.