November 2, 2009

Mina, my maid’s daughter, attends a private primary school in Karachi. Her parents tried sending her to a government school for a bit but found that the teacher seldom showed up for class. This wasn’t working for someone like Mina who is a fantastically bright kid. So they put her in a private school that charged them about 400 rupees a month, which is expensive for parents who each only earn 4,000 rupees every month. But Mina has flourished in the private school. She enjoys her lessons and consistently outperforms her peers. Her future is bright; she stands a very good chance of becoming a teacher, or lab technician, or shop assistant.

Of course, all children deserve to have high-quality education, free of cost. Whether it’s elite Cambridge board schools like the one I went to or the small set-up Mina goes to, the huge quality gaps between private and public education should not exist.

What can government schools learn from private schools? Is the level of learning success higher in private schools because teachers are more closely monitored for their attendance? Is it that the teachers are more qualified, and therefore paid higher? Is it that parents who pay fees are motivated to make their kids study harder? Are children who go to private schools richer, and therefore healthier and smarter? Or is it that private schools, because they are for-profit institutions, are investing more back into their organisations? But into what specifically? Is it books? Better infrastructure?

Say you survey 800 schools across Punjab, conduct tests for 12,000 children, survey 5,000 teachers and 2,000 households. What would the results tell you?

The Learning and Educational Achievement in Punjab Schools (LEAPS) did just that. They brought in some economists to gather and crunch the data, and they found, predictably, that education levels in Pakistan are quite low, both in private and public schools. Children cannot construct sentences in Class 3; they even solve math problems by rote. Enrolment may be on the rise since the 1980s, but this means nothing for learning basic math, English and Urdu. At the same time they found that children who attended one of the many private schools that have cropped up over the last decade perform significantly better than their public-schooled peers. By the time they are in Class 3, their test scores in English are equivalent to government school children in Class 5. In math and Urdu, a private-schooled third-grader knows as much as a government-schooled child in Class 4.

The next step was to slice the data. Do children from low-income households perform badly? Are lower teacher-to-student ratios the key to better test scores in private schools?

The team was in for several surprises. For one thing, a private school teacher in a village in Faisalabad is likely to be a local female, usually unmarried, and maybe a matric-pass. The public school teacher is usually male, and far more qualified. The young female teacher earns just over 1,000 rupees a month. The government school teacher earns nearly six times as much. So it’s not that private school teachers are better paid and therefore more motivated, nor are they more qualified.

This is what the economists had to say about their own study:

Despite extensive efforts to isolate observable factors that could explain the private-public gap, the data collected by the LEAPS survey cannot conclusively explain why private schools outperform public schools.”

Economic regression models attempt to explain a relationship between, say, private schooling and higher test scores, by accounting for all the possible advantages a child who goes to a private school might have. A regression model would include child characteristics (age, gender, health status), family characteristics (availability of books and other media at home, parental education, income), school characteristics (infrastructure, location, student-teacher ratio) and teacher characteristics (absenteeism, age, education, gender, test scores, training). The list is exhaustive. The team found that all this explains only about 30% of the difference in test scores between private and public schools.

The numbers alone explain less than a third of the difference. In developed countries, though, factors such as having wealthier parents or better access to media are big influencers and often dramatically affect a child’s test score. So over here, why are these private schools “better” than their public-school counterparts?

The economists put their numbers aside to find out. They went and talked to the head teachers at a few private schools. This is what they had to say:

“In the first interview, the head teacher felt that one of his teachers was weak in mathematics, so he had arranged for her, together with other teachers from neighbouring villages, to go for further training in Hafizabad, 60 kilometres away from the village. The second head teacher felt that the lack of a boundary wall was distracting students (the school was next to a road), so he spent funds on building a wall and his impression was that children could now focus more as a result of this construction. In the third school, children from one settlement were frequently absent since they had to cross a small forest to reach the school. The head teacher decided to send a teacher every morning to this settlement to chaperone the children to the school, and attendance increased dramatically.”

Teaching requires imagination and creativity. So does entrepreneurship. Just as studies have found that there is no one formula for good teaching, there is no one formula for successful entrepreneurship. But in tiny villages across the subcontinent people who want to do, do — and in a surprisingly beneficial and non-exploitative way. It seems that private schooling allows a Matric-graduate who couldn’t find work in the city, or a young secondary-school-pass girl who can’t leave the village, to meet parents like Mina’s who need a place where they know the teacher will show up.

But more than that, it seems that private school owners have just that little extra incentive to make sure kids keep coming and parents keep paying fees. Not only will they fire bad teachers, they will provide evening classes in harvest season. Not only will they make sure it’s worth parents’ time to send their children to school, they’ll cope with large classes by appointing the smarter children to help the weaker ones. Every ghetto, every city and every household has its own problems. While Pakistan’s government schools would rather let the exceptions slip through the cracks, it seems that a good entrepreneur would see them as potential customers. Business-minded creativity doesn’t show up in the numbers.

For free-marketeers, this is good news. The challenge is for the rest of us. Can you train someone to think creatively? What incentives do you provide him/her? Are you putting really poor kids at a disadvantage? And we haven’t even begun to crack the really big question: how do you get teachers, government or otherwise, to put in more effort?

I’m no economist, but I have a feeling that it’s going to take more than an economic model to figure that one out.

The LEAPS report is available online here.