Schooling and learning

February 22, 2019

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The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

IN recent times, there has been much emphasis — and rightly so — on the distinction between schooling and learning in education literature. Children might be in schools for a long period of time, but if they are not learning what they are supposed to learn during those years, ‘schooling’ does not translate into ‘learning’. The number of years of schooling, in this case, fails to be an effective indicator of learning.

The problem is particularly severe in developing countries still struggling to get all children enrolled. In their bid to get children into schools, they have focused a lot on enrolments and not enough on quality of learning and education. A new measure, on effective schooling, adjusts years of schooling for learning, and data (especially from developing countries) shows that years of schooling is drastically reduced if they are looked at in terms of effective years of schooling. For Pakistan, the adjustment cuts years of schooling by almost half.

Poor learning outcomes have been known for a long time. All of the tests/examinations conducted in Pakistan have indicated low learning outcomes. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) has been documenting these poor outcomes for years. But state attention on the issue of quality of education and learning has been more recent.

Interestingly (though I have not looked at the data in detail yet), ASER 2018, launched just a couple of days ago, is showing impressive gains in learning across Pakistan and in some provinces in particular. The gains, in some areas, are six to 10 percentage points, compared to learning outcomes in 2016. This is quite impressive. The gains are too large and across various types of competencies to be just a statistical quirk.

A recent report is showing impressive gains in learning across Pakistan.

There are a number of questions that crop up. Are the 2018 results a blip, or are we going to see a trend in improved learning outcomes? We will have to wait for 2020 to find out if the gains continue and/or are maintained.

The regional story of educational outcomes in Pakistan is, however, getting starker. Some areas of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which were ahead of other areas to start off with, are showing larger gains as well. Other areas, in parts of Balochistan and Sindh, are showing small gains, no gains or even some poorer results. This cannot bode well for a federation. We have to ensure that areas that are lagging behind — and are at the risk of being left behind even more — are highlighted, with extra effort put into these areas over the next few years.

There seem to be significant improvements, on a number of measures, in public schools in Punjab and KP. Infrastructure has improved a lot, the provision of basic amenities has improved, and teacher attendance and availability has become better. Some public schools are even seeing higher enrolments.

Though the gap in learning outcomes between children going to private and public schools continues (with private schoolchildren doing better than their public school peers), the gap is narrowing. In some areas, the gap has been removed. All this, despite the fact that private school students, on average, continue to receive more after-school coaching (tuitions). This would be very interesting to follow up on over the next few years.

What is driving the improvements in learning outcomes? This would, of course, be the main question. Over the past 10 to 15 years, a lot of reforms have been implemented in education. Are these reforms beginning to pay off?

The provinces have raised teacher numbers, raised entry requirements for teachers (to at least Bachelor’s level, though most new teachers have a Master’s degree), improved their salaries and grades, and increased their monitoring substantially.

The provinces have substantially improved school infrastructure. They have also started to provide some funding directly to schools — so that they can work on and implement their own school improvement plans — and they have also provided more support to head-teachers and teachers. There have been significant changes in governance structures as well. Monthly district-level reviews, known as DRCs, have been institutionalised as a way of keeping an eye on school performance. Regular higher-level review meetings are also used in some provinces as a means of introducing tighter accountability.

Which of these reforms is helping to improve learning outcomes? Since we have been doing so many reforms simultaneously, it would be hard now, post-fact, to de-bundle the impact of these changes and know if one, some or all have contributed to these learning gains. But, at some point, we will have to do this careful work to figure out what’s working and how it’s working.

One can argue that the gains that have been made are still small, that we need to improve learning outcomes at a faster rate, and that we also do not know whether these gains are indicative of a trend or not. All of these are important points, but it is also exciting to see learning improvements after quite some time — and, in some cases, quite large gains.

The new governments have also made a lot of promises to improve education even further. The Punjab government recently announced a ‘New Deal’ on education. It is promising large improvements in access, learning and governance of education over the next five years. Other provincial governments, too, have been saying similar things in the last few months.

The new ASER results give a nice platform for these governments to move forward. They will have to see which policies of the past have promise and which need changing — but a lot of groundwork is there to build on. Hopefully, the focus will remain on leaning outcomes now and for all children across Pakistan.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, February 22nd, 2019