STEVE Jobs once said, “sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.” Innovation is an adaptive or inventive learning process. By being adaptive, an organisation can produce the same products cheaper to improve profits. By being inventive, an organisation can keep producing better products to keep customers paying, which is what Apple successfully did. Deciding between these two approaches, whether to improve upon existing solutions or design new ones altogether, is a choice that education policymakers are currently facing in Pakistan.
The test score data in the Annual Status of Education Report for all provinces from 2011 on shows little improvement in learning. Ten years from now, Pakistan may have more high school graduates, but that may not mean much in terms of being employable. If learning does not improve, policymakers could even argue that these children are better off outside school learning a trade or being employed. I have encountered fifth-graders who, despite having attended school diligently, cannot name a second word starting with ‘A’ after apple. The injustice aside, this is a waste of precious material and human resources, something that a developing country like Pakistan cannot afford.
What is truly surprising is that the government has tried every single policy in the standard playbook to improve matters.
I and others from the Learning and Educational Achievement in Pakistan Schools (LEAPS) programme researched education reforms in Pakistan from 2000 onwards.
Evidence should guide our choices in education.
The first surprising fact was that there have been more than 100 reforms since 2000 alone. The second surprising fact is that all these reforms make sense; they are consistent with what countries around the world do to improve their educational outcomes. They include incentivising teachers, raising teacher qualification levels, improving the curriculum, more testing, better textbooks and better education support services. Name any reform, and it is almost guaranteed that it has been tried.
Given this huge emphasis on education reform, why has learning not improved?
At the recent Ednovate conference, many representatives from public, private and non-profit educational sectors agreed on the need for effective innovation in education reform, however it became clear that consensus on the approach remained elusive. Should the focus be on improving the current system or trying out new strategies? Because all consequences, good or bad, of either route cannot be immediately envisioned, any proposal could be countered with legitimate dissent.
To illustrate, take the 2010 Punjab school merger and staff rationalisation policies. To counter teacher shortage, the government of Punjab introduced teacher rationalisation policies that allowed teachers to be transferred from low to high-enrolment schools, where they were needed. The government had done this twice before in 2005 and 2008 with the aim of having one teacher for 40 students in a school. However, the imbalance kept returning because teachers sought transfers to their previous schools. The government took an adaptive approach in 2010 to improve upon the current solution by merging low-enrolment schools with high-enrolment schools before shifting surplus teachers to schools that needed them.
The policies led to unintended consequences including a loss of female teachers because the merged schools tended to be further away, causing some women to leave the profession, along with increased teacher absenteeism. In fact, this effort worsened the shortage of teachers.
Despite an adaptive approach, this policy did not achieve its desired objectives. Perhaps the mistake is that we are not challenging the policy’s fundamental underlying assumptions. In fact, the assumption that schools require one teacher for 40 students has not even been tested, let alone challenged. Being inventive means challenging the underlying assumption, and managing the process of change with the bureaucracy.
A common theme emerged from the conference: A prerequisite for effective innovation is to bring all stakeholders on the same page, and one way to achieve that is through evidence-driven decision-making. If the 2010 Punjab school merger policy had been tested before it was executed, policymakers may have accounted for unintended negative impacts, perhaps by involving teachers at the policy development stage. Policymakers too may have been less wedded to the idea and thus more open to reassessment if glitches were spotted before too many resources were spent on large-scale policy implementation.
Being committed to evidence-driven decision-making can lead to more effective innovation. Now is the time to let the evidence speak for itself and guide our choices, whether they rely on improving on current solutions or designing new ones altogether.
The writer is programme manager for the LEAPS program team led by Tahir Andrabi, Jishnu Das and Asim Khwaja at the Centre for Economic Research in Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, October 26th, 2017