ACCORDING to the 2013 Annual Status of Education Report (Aser), 60pc of children in the fifth grade in KP don’t have even second-grade competency in mathematics and language. The challenge for education reform is to improve this dismal outcome. It would be a big step towards making KP children productive citizens in their own province, in the rest of the country and overseas.
“Positive change in education standards can come about only if supervision is strict, teachers know their subject and are regular in teaching it.” This conclusion by a frustrated district education officer echoes the international experience of improving learning.
The fact, however, is that making teachers attend school regularly and teach effectively remains one of the biggest challenges to education. Since KP government schools account for 75pc of enrolment and school teachers constitute 55pc of the provincial civil service, improving education outcomes is tantamount to improving overall governance in KP.
KP has taken many measures to improve education.
To its credit, the KP government has taken several initiatives to improve schooling. New primary schools are being built and existing schools upgraded, especially in areas damaged in the 2005 earthquake. To improve girls’ enrolment, allowances for female supervisors and a girls’ stipend programme have been introduced in ‘hard districts’ (eg Battagram, Shangla, Tank and Kohistan) — areas with low enrolments that are remote and/or suffer from political unrest.
However, without accurate evaluation of policies, it is hard to tell whether they have any impact on the ground. Therefore, the provincial government has established an independent monitoring unit (IMU) to gather evidence on school performance systematically (using smart phones to prevent manipulation). Data is now available for over 28,000 KP schools to assess policy initiatives and design cost-effective interventions.
A recent study by our team at the Consortium for Development Policy Research and the International Growth Centre investigated KP school performance utilising Aser and IMU data and found that, as demonstrated elsewhere in education literature, KP schools that produce good results also have high student attendance. The study shows that getting a teacher to turn up to teach is more cost-effective in improving education outcomes than investment in school infrastructure. Moreover, community involvement, as measured by active parent-teacher councils, promotes learning by improving both teacher as well as student presence.
A striking feature of KP’s education system is the high variation in school performance even within districts. Thus, districts that perform well overall also have schools with poor education outcomes and poor performing districts have some well-functioning schools. Discussions with KP teachers and administrators were revealing of the causes of this variation.
A district officer in high-performing Kohat organised monthly meetings and merit awards and made principals accountable for students’ academic results. Clearly, strong leadership at the local level can improve learning outcomes, despite the constraints.
Many expressed dissatisfaction with teacher recruitment, postings and other favours granted to teachers and staff on the basis of political affiliation. An assistant district education officer said that “the hand of politicians has to be off the teachers” to get good results.
School administrators complained that performance evaluation reports were not a sound measure of competence since everyone is given an average grade regardless of how they actually performed. The PER system could be a powerful tool for improving teacher performance if salary, promotions, postings and transfers are linked to student achievement, they said.
Officials from ‘hard areas’ spoke of many unaddressed problems. In mountainous Kohistan, and Shangla, seasonal migration results in a mismatch of demand for education and supply of teachers and schools. In areas with strong tribal systems, teacher truancy can be addressed effectively by working with local traditional leaders.
The conclusions from research on KP school education are: (i) evidence-based research to assess education outcomes and their determinants is now possible with availability of data; (ii) there is a strong link between student attendance and level of learning; (iii) high variation in performance among schools in similar settings allows for local initiatives to improve outcomes; (iv) the teacher is the main facilitator of learning, so greater focus is needed to improve teaching methods; investing in school infrastructure alone will not be enough; and (v) initiatives can be anchored in existing service rules and performance evaluation to incentivise teachers to teach better.
Finally, policy initiatives that improve teacher performance — even those that are embedded in existing service rules — need to be fine-tuned. With the availability of detailed school level data, KP is in a good position to utilise new policy research methods to do this cost effectively.
The writer is a member of the Consortium for Development Policy Research.
Published in Dawn, October 5th, 2015