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Consensus at Harvard

August 02, 2011

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OF late, the education sector in Pakistan has come under intense scrutiny abroad. Aid-givers and the so-called partners in the war on terror have belatedly reached the conclusion that at the root of Pakistan’s ills lies the country’s failure to educate its citizens.

Hence the sudden flood of foreign-funded reports and studies on education. It is a different matter that many of their assumptions are wide off the mark and the strategies they suggest display gross ignorance about the conditions on the ground and the local needs of the people. The latest to hit the Web is the consensus statement produced by Harvard University’s South Asia Initiative (SAI). In July the SAI convened a dialogue on education reforms in Pakistan that brought together some 30 high-profile personalities — party representatives, bureaucrats, journalists and academics — to the Kennedy School to work out a reform strategy.

The statement issued spells out the overwhelming consensus that the group arrived at. It defined the foremost goal for education as endowing all Pakistani children with a minimum standard of reading, writing and arithmetic skills. This is to be achieved by introducing standardised testing, measuring and dissemination of learning achievements. Teachers must be recognised as being central to the education system and must be supported and held accountable. The private sector must be acknowledged as an ally in the quest to educate Pakistan and it must be facilitated, provided it meets minimum standards.

The statement also highlighted the problem of parents operating in an information vacuum and the need to empower them by providing them information about school performance, school and teachers’ accountability and learning achievements.

All this sounds very impressive but there are some caveats that can be disregarded at our own peril. Baela Raza Jamil, director, programmes, at a number of education-related NGOs and managing trustee of Sanjan Nagar, who brought this document to my notice, wrote in a note that the recommendations of the Harvard group are “universal recipes for action anywhere in the developed and developing world alike. What distinguishes these for Pakistan specifically?” She noted that the issue of language acquisition as the core for literacy and numeracy competencies did not feature in the Harvard Consensus at all. Jamil called for “indigenous dialogues and activism for serious prioritised education reform”. A very valid comment.

These recipes cannot work in our context even though one cannot fault their underlying principles — making teachers accountable and empowering parents to monitor their children’s education. Let the final arbiter be the results of standardised testing.

Blogger Irfan Muzaffar points to the pitfalls in standardised testing in our context to judge teachers. “Pakistan is afflicted by the worst of inequities in the distribution of capabilities across its population. The contextual factors (both inside and outside the school) that have an effect on learning vary significantly across different groups. So the same test being given to people located at different points on any interpersonal comparison of well-being can potentially produce very different results.... It seems absurd to rely on the test scores to make judgments about accountability and performance of teachers.”

The overarching problem I foresee is in the context of language. It impinges on each and every aspect identified by the Harvard Consensus. Although we have yet to realise it, the fact is that the language in education will determine our success or failure in achieving the goals of education. Reading, writing and numeracy competencies can be achieved faster if children learn in their home language. Attempts to foist on them a language they are not familiar with — be it English or a language they don’t speak at home — only stunts their cognitive development and causes a setback in their natural process of learning as they have to concentrate first on learning a language they do not understand.

To expect teachers who do not know that language very well themselves to create reading and writing competencies in these children is a tall order and very unfair to the teacher. It does not work.

Then there are the parents whose monitoring and supervisory role is now being given some importance, probably for the first time. It is a farce to empower parents with information of a system that is geared to a language they may not be fully familiar with. Would such parents really be able to understand what the child is learning in school? Would they be able to hold the school accountable?

The feasible solution would be to start the child’s education in his own language so that he understands what he is being taught. Gradually, English can be introduced as a subject to equip the child with a tool for the business world.

But can one hope for this approach from the Harvard group? Will the private sector (which was represented by the elitist section at the meeting) agree to drop English as the medium of instruction at the primary level? After all, it is the language of its rich clients.

If English is to be imposed as the medium, the children of the poor will never be able to compete for jobs. According to the British Council’s Euromonitor report The Benefits of the English Language for Individuals and Societies big businesses admit their preference for English-speaking candidates and those who have studied in private institutions.

Does education for the poor stand any chance, trapped as they are between the devil and the deep sea?

The writer is the author of Tyranny of Language in Education: The Problem and its Solution. www.zubeidamustafa.com