Everyone has an opinion on education. Start a conversation at a dinner table, a tea shop, an academic seminar, a global conference, a train, a bus or flight – everyone you meet will have something to say about it. Often, they will know precisely how bad it is, how much worse it has become and what needs to be done to fix the ills. When I say precisely, I don’t mean that – I mean with a great deal of authority. Very definite and well articulated opinions. And they may well be right. Because nobody can really answer (most of) the big questions in education in India with any degree of precision.
The holy grail here is evidence based policy making. It would obviously be great if every decision made had a solid basis in proven hypothesis. If we knew for sure, to take a facetious example, that children study better in white shirts than blue shirts, and this had been tested rigorously, then it would be easy to create a policy that tends towards white shirts as school uniforms. This is also better for policy makers as they have the evidence to fall back upon and even justify their decisions. In practice of course evidence is just one part of the policy making puzzle and may even prove to be inconvenient in some circumstances. Yet, it is what stands closest to fact in the vast unknown.
The first hurdle of course is the availability of data. There is some available on the ministry website and some with affiliated institutions. Some data is gathered in large studies such as those conducted by the Azim Premji foundation, Pratham, Accountability Initiative etc. and these answer specific questions each year. The Karnataka Learning Partnership and Centre for Civil Society are taking the lead on compiling some data that are available to all while investors and private consulting firms have their own data sets that are not available in the public domain. Each of these serves a limited purpose and researchers often find themselves stuck because they have no credible information sources or good data unless they set up a data collection process themselves as part of their studies. That is either very expensive and time consuming or forces them to dramatically reduce the scope of their work.
There is a wide range of research done on education in India, only some of it academic. (On a personal note, I wonder if I should still be surprised when one silo has not even heard of the work done in another – oh right, I did say silo) Firstly there is academic work that is being done across schools of education in India and abroad (primarily in the UK and the USA). The quality and impact of the work differs greatly depending upon the access and funding they receive. There is some excellent work of limited scope and reach being published in small journals and post- conference books that gets lost in the sheer volumes of papers being produced in an uncurated world. Then there are rigorous investigations by celebrity scholars – my favourites being Prof. Geeta Kingdom of the Institute of Education and Prof. Karthik Muralidharan of UC San Diego who have told cogent and critical truths about teaching and learning in India. Much research is also done in the investor community – some of it philanthropic, some driven by pure investment principles. Central Square Foundation, for example, incubates many projects that do much good in the education sector and curates information and data that forms the basis of investment (and re-investment) research. Consulting firms with education arms too co-create interesting and useful research in the field of education.
Application of Research:
Useful research? Did I hear laughter in the background? For research to be useful, it not only needs to be rigorous and relevant (and much of it clearly is) but also needs to be accessible. Over and above that – it needs to address real questions that help decision makers at all three levels – policy, institution and the classroom. If education is about benefiting the child (the marginal child as economists would say), then we need to be able to answer the questions schools and teachers ask regularly. In the past forty-eight hours, this is the range of questions I have been asked -
From a school owner – Is there a guide or research that points me to the characteristics teacher quality? In teacher selection – how do I recruit a good teacher? (We all know good teachers, we know their qualifications etc. which is partial knowledge)
From a School trust – What is the right proportion of male and female teachers that will enhance achievements of boys and girls? (K. Muralidharan had a paper that partially answered that question) (Of course, all recruitment has to be regardless of gender – so the question can only be about the impact of gender skew in the teacher cohort)
From a teacher-leader: Is a multi ability class better than streaming into ability sections? If I have been told that I must achieve high performance, and if achievement is my only goal , what are the consequences of my decision?
From the management of a large school group seeking to expand: Is it better to raise the grade level (from primary to secondary) or open another primary school if I want to serve my area better?
From a potential investor: What are the returns to investment to RTE compliance? -If I invest, is there a case for giving loans to ensure RTE (Right to Education act) compliance? Will I get my money back with a fair return?
From the management team of a small Business School: How do I fill seats in my B-School during this slowdown? Numbers in engineering and business schools are seen to be falling – is there a forecast that will help me plan capacity?
The answers are out there. Some have been researched, some await their turn. Most decisions will also depend upon the context, experience and ability of the person in charge. But it is better to have some validation based on good data. There is very little data, and much of it is not very good quality data. And so, we wait, unable to fully answer these questions and decide the our future education path.