Published on Development Impact

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.

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