Let's not declare an education 'emergency' in Pakistan

Treating education as site of emergency decisions is poor policy because it trivialises meaningful learning.
Updated Oct 02, 2019 02:47pm

Spend enough time on Twitter, sorting through endless WhatsApp video forwards or consuming other similar sources of information about one of the many crises plaguing present day Pakistan, and one is likely to experience — in addition to anxious depression — the sense of some ‘emergency’ or the other.

Some parts of life do constitute a site for urgent, activist behaviour, marked as they are by immediately quantifiable amounts of action required, such as damage to nature or discriminatory violence. Other decisions, however, cannot be immediate without requisite resources and strategic planning. Education sits firmly amongst the latter.

Study the context

An emergency signals that some matters are more important than others because they present a fine line between life and death; that a regular plan will not do, hence a back-up is immediately required.

Declaring the current state of the education system in Pakistan as one akin to an emergency has a justification, albeit a weak one: what we do with the learning habits, abilities and potential of over 100 million Pakistanis is no small or casual issue. But an emergency mode for education, beyond the requirements of immediately looking for the right thinkers and stakeholders to inform sound decision-making, is problematic, not least because it underestimates the role of variability and longevity that are central to the puzzle of strong education service delivery.

The education process has too many moving, interconnected parts to successfully pinpoint exactly which part merits all attention more than any other. Within the domain of Pakistan’s school education, which is where I locate this particular article, the subjectivities are especially evident. An entire school of thought argues curriculum is the pain point, hence the need for a single national form of it, whilst many on the implementation side advocate endlessly for the deployment of a good teacher to every classroom. Another (smaller) group takes the strategic position that fixing assessments (as the standard towards which the system routinely moves) is the real area of concern.

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And this is all in the realm of learning; let’s not forget the force of argument behind those who believe the real emergency is that there are still too many children outside of school or that there simply isn’t enough money being allocated to the sector anywhere in Pakistan. These split positions on identifying the magic lever that can transform education lend credence to the point that there are no easy answers to this complex part of the human experience: learning, how to get it, and how to use it well.

Then we turn to data, and find that not all parts of the education system in Pakistan are failing, or failing the same way, so all parts will not respond in the same way to blanket emergency narratives. For instance, Sindh does better than the Punjab in public-private partnership models for education delivery; Punjab has the highest enrollment rates in the country, but is still at a loss as to whether learning is happening; and autonomous regions like Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan offer prized case studies in school leadership and student motivation.

How do we balance the respect we owe to contextual variations against the pressure of ticking clocks to reform?

Calm the nerves

We can start by acknowledging that the narrative of a ‘crisis’ does not traditionally juxtapose well with big thinking. It crowds out appetite for nuanced and creative problem-solving, an approach that requires time, and forms the basis of effective decision-making. By lacing educational complexities in tropes of alarm and fear, crisis responses encourage those in positions of authority to reach for pre-programmed or transient measures that end up as systemic blind spots.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the history of education policymaking in Pakistan is littered with the less-than-impressive decisions of leadership ranging from elected representatives to departmental secretaries and related others. Reaching for that which seems most ‘common’ or ‘workable’, colloquially understood as the path of least resistance, is, for that reason, also frequently the path of least reform. Because what our policy spaces don’t seem to understand is that reform is not about mitigating resistance; it is about solving people’s problems through attention to their needs, a consequence of which is often less resistance because a sound decision makes intuitive sense to its end users.

Consider the following vignettes:

Pakistan, a young country at about just 30, is experiencing service delivery gaps in education. Let’s turn all teachers from professional educators into government servants because bureaucracies are undoubtedly where good ideas and little children go to become the best versions of themselves.

Parents want English at primary school for their children because this will help them get jobs more easily. Let’s pretend our way into a national English-speaking revolution devoid of mother tongues because the linguists and early years researchers can’t possibly know better than the asymmetrically informed market for broken communication skills in Pakistan.

These are not mocks I have made up along the way. These are two important moments from the story of education policy in our country. The former refers to the decision in the 1970s to nationalise much in Pakistan, one of which was the teaching profession. The latter refers to flirtations by various governments in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with medium of instruction in a language that is not once but twice removed from 5-9-year-old children’s mother tongues.

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There are many other such moments in the unfortunate history of what we have done to the learning journeys of a majority of our children, and they are all interwoven by the common thread of sudden, and subjective, decision-making. Treating education as the site of emergency decisions is a poor policy position because it trivialises both education policy, and its well-intended outcome: meaningful learning.

More importantly, in demanding immediate action, we are likely to miss some of the most important voices in the system: those of students. Students learn differently. There is enough research now to demonstrate this. But rapid-fire decision-making in a rush, based on the best story one has heard, does not respect the myriad ways in which students need to be addressed by their education system.

The demand for immediate action also sends out the wrong signals to underdeveloped markets like ours. Deep thinkers, who tend to be quieter and are typically found in research organisations, may be escorted to the side lines for lack of solid voice or missed altogether unless they stumble upon a loud, well-intentioned champion.

Louder, even if more superficial, narratives can gain importance relatively easily in the sensitive and nuanced task of educating the next generation. In her powerfully argued book, Quiet, Susan Cain underscores this point with evidence: societies that equate loud assertions with being correct often miss out on profound insights to the human condition offered by those who spend more time thinking holistically than marketing those thoughts. Reactive thinking is never quiet, prolonged thinking.

Look at the statistics

But all this deep reflection aside, what about the urgent decisions policymakers do need to take if we are to get Pakistan’s education back on track? In medicine, vital signs and a few key sequential questions provide baseline indication that a person warrants immediate attention, and of what nature.

What are the vital signs for education? Learning outcomes, most would immediately respond.

So let’s consider a learning outcome component of a nearly decade-long reform agenda undertaken in Punjab between 2010 and 2018, spearheaded by the office of the former chief minister of the province. The Roadmap, as it came to be known, was marked by a strategic set of Key Performance Indicators that set as targets, amongst many others, attendance in the high 90s and learning in the higher 70s, then 80s (by percentage) over a span of four years. This, for a system that started with attendance hovering between 60 per cent and 70pc (of all school-aged children) and little to no information about learning outcomes, was ambitious, and in the admission of many sources close to the process over the years, arbitrary.

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One of the key mechanisms through which the government attempted to jumpstart foundational literacy and numeracy outcomes was the introduction of a weekly literacy and numeracy ‘drive’ emphasising these two skills.

The drive included dedicated instruction hours on Fridays across government schools in Punjab, teacher guides with specific lesson plans to inform literacy and numeracy instruction, and a tablet-based assortment of seven questions (a kind of test) around literacy and numeracy administered monthly to 6-7 students in Class 3 on, so the claim goes, grounds of random sample.

The earliest analyses of results from this drive from between 2014/15 and 2018 flag two concerns:

Correct the mistakes

Now, a 5pc increase does not indicate no progress (if converted to absolute numbers for Punjab’s Class 3 enrolment numbers, an addition of 5pc to any category of students amounts to just under 60,000 students, which is better than zero students demonstrating better foundational skills). But several concerns underpinned the technical, hence policy, utility of this elaborate intervention attempting to respond to an emergent crisis of poor foundational learning at the primary level.

Firstly, the questions that featured in the tablet-based test were not developed as standardised assessment items, thus did not correspond to specific domains of cognition, skill or abilities laid out for Class 3 curricula. Robust assessment items take anywhere between one and three years — not the timeline of an emergency — to adequately develop, and test for validity. They also have to be incorporated into a larger assessment bank (in the thousands) from where they can be drawn in random manners to avoid conditioning students and teachers to predictable patterns of testing.

Using the underwhelming items developed for the ‘drive’, a clear picture is still not emerging of what knowledge/skills third graders may actually be able to demonstrate across Pakistan’s largest province. In fact, based on all field encounters, teachers across the Punjab admit to having gamed the system.

They have tailored their Class 3 instruction in math and English only to questions known to appear on the tablet-based test (a problematic phenomenon known globally as teaching to the test); helped students memorise predictable questions and their answers to ensure ‘flourishing’ results are reported through the system; indulged reporting officers in casual banter and narratives of ‘good will’ to go easy on the students sampled for the test.

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As an example of this, out of a class of 45 at a primary school in district Jhelum, not one student was able to explain the difference between the words ‘bin’ and ‘dustbin’. Some of them knew, however, that 'dustbin' was a word that appeared on ‘the test’ and meant jis mai koora daal tai hain, but could not make the connection to the stem ‘bin’ (container) — the nomenclature for the thing into which one would put something, like trash.

In other words, a considerable policy intervention reinforced problems all of us already know plague our public education system.

Further, the manner in which drives were — and still tend to be — executed betray an unpersuasive statistical conceptualisation of ‘random’ sampling. This has only complicated whether we reliably know anything about how Class 3 students perform to basic literacy and numeracy standards.

The sum of this is that in Pakistan, we have now watched a large part of our education system repeat a certain kind of testing procedure with young children (about eight years old) for nearly five years without moving learning outcomes very much.

We are still not in a position to consider this as systemic/diagnostic assessment (the results cannot inform how we think about the successes and gaps in taught and embodied curriculum). We cannot even use the ‘drive’ data as a reliable baseline against which to set new targets for Class 3 learning outcomes (or, relatedly, the pupils a year below or a year ahead for smooth learning transitions).

Embrace complexity

The Literacy and Numeracy Drive, as the learning outcomes policy at Class 3 described above was known, suffered from a classic trap: it overloaded a system by oversimplifying its assumptions.

It assumed, most notably, that learning could be made to happen, pushing systemic stakes to some of their highest levels. In doing so, it presented itself as a centrally-driven, top-down approach to the complex science of cognition — an approach that is predominantly considered an outdated, industrial-era, reductive, 20th-century framework for education, an approach that is not rooted in any contemporary scholarship or thought leadership about how children learn.

A seemingly straightforward policy implemented ostensibly to respond quickly to a basic learning struggle at primary years, has brought the education system to an even more complicated, unclear situation. What do our students genuinely know, and how much more should realistically be invested into this programme to try and generate real value for money from it? Should we be trying to do something else altogether, based on actual evidence from the world of education and educators?

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These are intricate decisions, often requiring many kinds of skillsets to come together to think multifacetedly about education. What should be clear from any review of Pakistan’s seven decades (and seven education policies) is that our learning systems do not stand to benefit from sudden decisions, gut feelings, ideological stonewalling, arbitrary thresholds, top-down approaches, recycled models from somewhat similar problem contexts, or generalist consulting. All of these have held an unfortunately privileged role in the history of Pakistan’s education policymaking.

To really make education work in Pakistan, we have to find policy development models that work for Pakistan. The everyday business of policy and delivery is overwhelming and consuming. So what our children need is for us, the grown ups, to cooperate over the right resources that can inform our education decisions most creatively, intelligently, with evidence and a level of confidence that our prescriptions can work in our various Pakistani contexts.

A bold government is a creative government

Government at every level in Pakistan must normalise, and value, the sourcing of contextually-relevant insight, and evidence-based thinking from those whose professional lives are built around answering such questions. This can be enabled through the creation of spaces that aggregate slow and fast thinking, strike a balance between deep and shallow prioritising of reform strategies, or figure out the right combination of rational and behavioural incentives.

Recently, the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training has taken a happy turn for the unusual: it circulated a tender notice for an academic partner to formally review its current process of developing a single national curriculum at the Curriculum Wing in Islamabad.

To other systems, this would not be novel. The United Sates Department of Education benefits from a longstanding role for education research within itself. Behavioural insights teams (‘nudge’ units) have proliferated across the world; a policy design lab works closely with the United Kingdom government with efficient civil service as its mission. The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation’s PERFORM project linked social science researchers to government leaders in countries like Albania and Serbia.

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The ways in which governments around the world draw on the intellectual and analytical strength of their thinkers are truly worth examining for implementation in Pakistan if we are to make meaningful learning a reality for nearly two-thirds of our population. To be clear, such steps are not going to facilitate overnight decisions, and they are likely to test the patience of politicians and bureaucrats alike, who often need quick answers to massive problems.

But as Newman Burdett, a senior assessment research expert with the National Foundation for Educational Research in the UK and editor of a 2016 special edition of the academic journal Educational Research, notes, problems that end up in learners’ experiences and school journeys are often traced back to "policy formulation (that) becomes more about politics and persuasion than research." The rest of the entire special issue runs a common theme across the experiences of education policy and reform in seven different countries: real education reform does not happen through urgent, knee-jerk decisions to replicate whatever seems to make sense or has worked in another context.

Real education reform happens when good decisions are taken about learning at the right time on the basis of sound evidence and in response to the varying needs of end users, yes the teachers, but most importantly, the students. And that merits time.


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