The Debate Over School Choice

Over the last few years, there has been a spate of media articles/conferences etc. in India, advocating for what is termed “school choice”. Two such examples are here and here. What follows is my response to one of these articles.

Two of the central claims seem to be the following:

  • There is conclusive evidence in favor of school choice; and that private schools offer better educational quality at lesser (one-third) price, when compared to govt. schools
  • That the reason for this seeming incongruity is “incentives”: “Private schools pay their teachers lower salaries, while making those teachers work harder. This is because jobs in private schools, unlike government schools, are not secure. If teachers, do not perform, they will be fired.”

Both these claims are incorrect or problematic. Here’s why:

Claim One

1.1 Private schools offer better quality

You have not clarified what you mean by ‘educational quality’; even though doing so is critical to making sense of your claims. The AP RCT study reports that they found no difference in the test scores of lottery winners and losers in Maths and Telugu and only some difference in English, Science, Social Science and Hindi. Please note the specificity of their claim. They are talking about the ‘scores’ achieved by students on some standard pen-paper tests, in six subjects.

What you have done – not explicitly – is equated these test-scores, with what any parent or educator understands, is a far broader notion of ‘educational quality’. Let me explain this further. Let’s say you have two children and you have the option to admit them in two schools. The first school focuses exclusively on ‘preparing’ students to score well on standard pen-paper tests on 5 or 6 subjects. It has “long school hours” and “long school years” (which, both you and the authors of the AP RCT study seem to think are unquestionably good); and students consequently have no time for or exposure to anything else other than their books and studies.

The other school believes that academics is just one part of ‘education’, and not the whole of it. And developing skills such as cooperation and empathy; living in a democratic set-up with peace and harmony etc. are at least as important for the child and the society as a whole, as his/her ‘test-scores’ on science or social science. It has a huge playground, great art teachers, smaller school days that allows the students to pursue their interest and so on.

Which of the two schools would you put ‘your’ children in? Which of the two schools, do you think, provides better ‘quality of education’?

What you have done is this: you have taken a study that makes a very restricted claim about ‘test scores in a handful of subjects’; and you have used that to make a general and sweeping claim about “educational quality”. You should have made this ‘leap of assumption’ explicit to the readers (but I wonder if you understand this yourself.)

All studies that you refer to have this limitation – they fail to take into account that good education cannot be measured in such narrow terms (How do you measure the benefits of the civic sense developed in children, or a love for exploration for exploration’s sake, that leads to an innovation 40 years after the students passed out of school? You cannot.) They however don’t like this ambiguity; and in their zeal to measure and control, reduce education to simplistic indicators as test scores.

Ask your children and they will tell you what the economists don’t understand – how inaccurate and impoverished a definition of “good education” that is. And remember that if something is not “good education” for your child/children; it is not good education for ‘any’ child. If you think, only my/our children deserve the holistic education and the children of the poor must make do with the narrow focus on academics, well…that will require a separate discussion.

When the very definition of the word that you use to make your central claim is faulty; it becomes somewhat pointless to discuss the claims further. However, even if, for arguments sake, we were to accept your definition of quality education, you have failed to mention, what had in fact been pointed out by Anurag in one of his previous articles, “The conclusions of this five year-long study are unambiguous: once variation in socio-economic background are accounted for, there is no difference in learning
outcomes across government and (non-elite) private schools.”

1.2 Private schools do so ‘at lesser price’

Now let’s take another part of your first claim – that private education costs less. Once the definition of ‘quality education’ has been changed, it becomes apparent that good education is going to be moderately expensive – libraries cost money to build and maintain, laboratories cost money, field-trips cost money, arts and sports cost money. Any nation or society which seeks to cut corners in providing for good quality education for its every child, does so at its own peril. (Students pass science subjects from low cost private schools without having ever stepped in a laboratory; they graduate without discovering the joy of reading merely because it’s fun.)

You may ask – it’s not that govt. schools provide this ‘good education’, do they? I will address that below, but note that, for now my key point is: good education ‘is’ going to cost money. And when we try to push down the costs beyond a reasonable limit – schools do what the low cost private schools are doing – they drop every other aspect of a holistic education and begin to equate good education with test scores on a few subjects.

Moreover, in case you have missed it, here is a quote from one of Anurag’s earlier articles, “Salaries of teachers in most such private schools [often as low as 2000 to 6000] are very low, bordering on the exploitative. The reasons why they get teachers at these salaries are fairly simple. Most of those who join private schools as teachers are those who are waiting and trying to join government schools. Since recruitment of government teachers has its own pace and scale, many keep waiting and trying for years, and it’s this lot that largely feeds the private schools. Eventually of those who don’t make it to the government system, many leave teaching to do other things, which is not surprising, given their salaries.

The “teacher labour market” is driven by the government schooling system. Private schools are an appendage. One crucial implication of this is that the kind of people entering the teaching profession is driven by the government schooling system. If it were not so, the kind entering teaching would be of very low capability, making the situation in education even worse than today, given the primacy of the role of teachers in anything related to education.”

Further, our objective is not and must not be to barely meet your narrow definition of ‘quality education’. In other words, these poorly paid teachers may have helped students score as much as govt. school students – but our goal is far higher than that. And we have no evidence that the same unqualified and inexperienced teachers would ever be able to provide the students with that quality of education which they ought to receive. Your claim, “The output of academic teaching at private school will only go up because they will now have more resources” has no grounds.

In fact, the AP study that you refer to mentions in the last section, “It is important to highlight that our results do not imply that increasing the time or money spent on instruction in these subjects in private schools will lead to a linear (or even concave) increase in learning outcomes (we have no evidence on this). For instance, if the voucher value were to be increased to equal the level of per-student spending in the public schools, it is possible that the private schools may respond by improving aspects of the school that are more visible to parents and improve their marketing prospects rather than more effective teaching. We see an illustration of this issue when we consider the question of why private schools choose the allocation of instructional time that they do.” It is, for instance, quite possible that the low qualified, overworked (due to the long school hours) teachers in the low cost private schools are already operating at their upper limit. And if the students’ achievements have to go up to the level we hope, it will require additional teachers training and support – which would make them eligible for higher salary – and thus the cost to meet our goal of good education must necessarily go up, even for private schools.

1.3 There is ‘conclusive’ evidence in favor of school choice

This part of your claim is quite unjustified. First, in your own article you note that, “There are criticisms of RCT, the most significant one being the high cost of running of such trials, because of which experiments are often localized, thus yielding results that cannot always be extrapolated nationally or internationally.” And yet, you use the study to claim that there is a ‘conclusive’ case for school choice. If you had gone through the AP study carefully, you would have noticed that the researchers themselves note, “Since Friedman (1962), the theoretical promise of increased choice and competition for better education outcomes has generated a large empirical literature trying to measure the impacts of school choice on education outcomes, with the best-identified studies typically using lottery-based designs to identify the impact of choice and better schooling options.5 However, the results to date are quite mixed with most studies typically finding zero to modest positive effects of receiving a voucher or attending a more selective school on test scores (Rouse and Barrow 2009 review the evidence), though recent evaluations have found positive effects of attending charter schools on test scores (Abdulkadiroglu et al. 2011; Dobbie and Fyer 2011).” Does this sound ‘conclusive’ ?

Yes, I am aware that you have referred to some other studies as well; but you have completely ignored another set of studies which say the opposite, “The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment has comprehensive cross-country view of this issue; a brief abstract is available at…. IDFC’s 2012 report on private sector in education in India, has an interesting wide-ranging discussion in its fifth chapter titled, Every Child in School and Learning Well in India: Investigating the Implications of School Provision and Supplemental Help, that has been written by Rukmini Banerji and Wilima Wadhwa. Those with academic interest may look at Relationship between private schooling and achievement: Results from Rural and Urban India by Amita Chudgar and Elizabeth Quin in the journal Economics of Education Review”

To reiterate, PISA says that “some features, most notably the prevalence of private schools and competition for students, have no discernible relationship with student performance, at least at the system level…thus, after socio-economic status is accounted for, private schools do not perform better than public schools…although individual parents may derive an advantage for their child from the privileged socio-economic context—and attendant resources—of private schools, school systems as a whole do not seem to benefit from a greater prevalence of private schools or a higher degree of competition among schools.” In simple terms, the comprehensive evidence from 65 countries says that competition and market-based mechanisms do not improve school systems; on the other hand, they increase inequity.”

My point here is not to make a ‘conclusive’ case against or for school choice, but to point out that if one were to stop looking at and interpreting evidence selectively one will see that the debate on school choice is, at best, inconclusive; if not ‘against’ school choice.

Your central claim – in parts, as well as in the whole – is thus wrong/problematic.

Second Claim

Do you or have you, Harsh and Rajeev, work/ed in an environment where you are/were made to wonder every day whether you will have your job next month, or will be kicked out? Or how you will pay your bills, and if you have school going kids, their school fees? Do you slog at work because you think you will get a bonus at the end of the quarter? If you do, I feel for you. You quote Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Do you think Jobs made Apple, Apple; and created the magic he created; because he was fighting to keep his job? Or that Gates continued to work hard even after he had become a billionaire, because he was worried about his bonuses?

Most of the Mint readers are professionals themselves. Close your eyes for a moment and think of all your previous jobs. Which one did you like the best? The one where the boss breathed down your neck and kept threatening you, that he will kick you out if you do not ‘perform’; or the one where s/he was willing to give you your space and time and trust you? Where it was considered a good thing if you spent the companies time and money in your training; or the one where taking with your colleagues over coffee was treated as a theft? Is there a reason why the ‘best places to work’ all seem to have trust, freedom, dignity of the employees as a common factor?

Or is it that, we think, that it is all fine for ‘us’ – IT and finance professionals etc. – but somehow the same does not hold true for teachers? That ‘they’ must be kept on hooks – ever threatened of being kicked out of their jobs; and ever treated as low-intelligent beings, with ‘carrots and sticks’? And that is how to achieve ‘good education’?

Even economists have begun to see that that doesn’t work other than for simple, straightforward, mechanistic tasks

“But when a task gets more complicated, when it requires some conceptual, creative thinking” motivation is no longer merely about carrot and sticks. While enough money needs to be paid to take money off the table, there are 3 other factors which lead to better performance – which unfortunately, is often completely ignored. And these factors are: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.
To think that teachers can be ‘motivated’ (or threatened rather), into providing good quality education, with the help of monetary incentives, reveals an appalling lack of understanding of the teaching profession and teachers. It is difficult to understand this if you have looked at education only from outside, say as an ‘economist’ or a ‘policy planer’ – but providing education – at least the kind of education that we hope to provide – is in many ways far more complex, than crunching numbers in investment banks or diagnosing diseases and prescribing medicines. Teaching is a challenging profession and teachers ought to be professionals who have as much need for autonomy, mastery and purpose – as any other profession. To think that good quality education (as it ought to be defined and not how you have defined it), which will prepare our children for the 21st century; can be provided by untrained teachers who should be paid no more than 2000-10000 a month; and always kept under the fear of losing their jobs; and made to work long-hours as factory or mine workers of the 18th century – is ridiculously naive.

And finally, arguing for a strong public school education system is ‘not’ the same as being against private schools. The position of Anurag is exemplified I believe by this statement: “[The] problem has been created by us as a society and not by private schools. The solution therefore does not lie in stifling them. The only solution to India’s problem of education is in improving our public schooling system. This will require hard, sustained effort for decades and substantially higher investment.” Is that a criticism of private schools; or an argument for strengthening the public education system? These two are not the same thing.

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