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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Scholz

#BiharDebates: The Future of Bihar’s Schools – Which way to go?

What must an education system be able to deliver for a Bihar of the 21st century? Where are we at currently? And how do we get from where we are to where we want to be?

You might wonder whether this is a topic for think-tanks. After all, should think-tanks not rather provide technical advice to technical problems? We think technical advice is an important part of our work, but that we must go beyond. We are a pro-people think-tank. This means we care about our people, the citizens of Bihar. All of them. This makes is necessary to have a clear compass of where we want to go.

This post shall serve as a starting point for an ongoing discussion around this question: Where do we want to go?

Education in Bihar is in crisis. There seems to be consensus across the political spectrum that the status quo is undesirable. This means that there is an impetus for reform. If we want to move, we need to know two things: where do we want to go (1), and how do we get there (2). Indeed, (1) must be clarified before (2).

Let’s take a closer look at (1). Where do we want to go? In other words, for our subject, the question is what do we want Bihar’s education system to deliver?

Let’s first think about a theoretical foundation for our future school system.

There are generally two categories we want to have an eye on: quality and equity. This indeed boils down to the mission of our institute: Good schools (quality) for all children (equity). Yet, it does not give us a clear idea what exactly a good school is and how a school can be good for all children.

Quality is often narrowed down to learning-levels in contemporary discussions. Imparting knowledge is one core function of schools. But it is not the only one. We might also want the values of our Constitution and a sense of responsible citizenship to be part of what is taught in schools. Even further, we ultimately might want a society which treats everyone with dignity and respect, is aware of its heritage, and consists of individuals who will contribute in a meaningful way to the common wellbeing. Schools maybe should also be places where discussion is encouraged, citizenship is practiced, and a sense for democracy is developed.

That is a lot already. What does equity mean in our context?

Equity means that we might want a school system in which it does not matter where you come from. Your gender, your socio-economic background (let’s say it straight: whether your parents can afford private tuition or other “market solutions”), your caste, your disability, or where you live (e. g. rural vs. urban) must not determine or even influence whether you can flourish. Equitable schools must be safe places. They must be safe for girls and boys alike. Whether you have a disability or not, whether your parents are rich or poor, whether you are from an upper-caste or Adivasi background. It shall not influence how far you can reach.

This sounds like a straightforward and commonsense description. Like often, the devil is in the detail.

The socio-economic background has a profound influence on whether children drop-out and, even if they don’t, how much they are able to learn in school. Why? The reasons might be manifold, but one might be that unlike middle class parents, poor parents might not be able to read and write themselves. Their ability to provide support is therefore limited. What children don’t learn in school cannot be taught at home. Another aspect might be stress is the family. Poor families often struggle economically and try to make ends meet. Migration for wage labor is a regular phenomenon. Being separated over prolonged periods puts emotional stress on all family members, including children. Therefore, the environment outside the school has an enormous influence on how much learning happens inside the school.

We could certainly think about many more points that influence learning in schools. Every child is different, gets different support at home, has different amounts of emotional stress to deal with, or comes with different abilities and interests. A teacher must deal with such a diverse set of needs. This is not an easy job.

A perfect school system would probably ensure that all needs of all children are met, they are supported in the way they need to be, and the outlined objectives from learning levels to civic education are met. This sounds far off what is happening daily in Bihar’s schools.

Which takes us to (2), the question of how to get from the status quo to (1).

Here, diverse ideas for reforms are discussed globally, nationally, and in Bihar.

We can try to structure this question following the framework outlined by Frank Adamson, Bjorn Astrand and Linda Darling-Hammond in their book Global Education Reform:

Source: Frank Adamson, Bjorn Astrand and Linda Darling-Hammond: Global Education Reform.

There are different rationales that contrast the debate. One is a neoliberal rationale which focuses on efficiency and which tries to achieve efficiency by choice. Choice is an important cornerstone in this rationale: parents should be allowed to choose the school of their children. Schools should compete for students. This would then rise quality.

On the other hand, the idea of public investment focuses on universal access, education as a public good, not a commercialized commodity. The idea of public debate and citizenship has a key place in this rationale.

This has important implications for the mechanisms chosen in an education system:

Source: Frank Adamson, Bjorn Astrand and Linda Darling-Hammond: Global Education Reform

The neoliberal mechanisms focus on competition. Vouchers are meant to allow children to choose from a variety of schools in the market. Teaching is tailored towards a test-based accountability. Like the price-signal that guides consumers in a market, thin, standardized test results grade schools and serve as a signal to parents. Competition will ensure that schools have a self-interest in maintaining good grades. Schools in this system can fail. If they fail, they are going out of business and disappear from the market. Accountability is thin in this system. Teachers are evaluated based on standardized testing. This ensures that teachers are teaching what they are expected to teach. The system does not trust its teachers but ensures compliance by standardized testing.

Teachers in a school in Muzaffarpur District

On the other hand, public investment invests in teachers. Teachers are meant to be well prepared, but also supported throughout their professional life. Schools are well-funded. Infrastructure is provided by the State and there is a focus on a more holistic idea of education. Education is not narrowed down to measurable numbers. It is meant to include a sense for democracy, values, and an inclination to public spiritedness. Schools in this system are not allowed to fail. They are closely monitored and supported so that failure can be prevented. Accountability is thick in this system. It might better be described as responsibility. A professional ethos of well-trained teachers allows the system to grant discretion. The system trusts its teachers. The supportive environment encourages teachers to open up on difficulties.

The two paradigms are the two extremes of a continuum of potential ways of arranging a school system. The question at hand is: Where should Bihar’s school system be located?

Looking back in history, the Indian and Bihari idea of education has never been to see education as a commodity traded on a market and based on competition. What is correct is that historically, the school system was also exclusionary with most children being denied access to education. The idea of education as a tradable commodity is a foreign concept from outside India.

Looking at the context, the core requirements of the neoliberal system to work seems unlikely to unfold in Bihar: competition (especially in rural areas) and effective standardized testing (due to cheating). Remember: standardized tests should serve a clear signal for parents about the quality (in a narrow sense) of schools. Yet, if there is neither competition nor trustworthy testing, the door is wide open for rent-seeking and resource wastage.

Looking at the normative dimension, everyone needs to decide whether education should follow the narrow idea of learning which can be measured in standardized testing (one might argue, this is at least better than the status quo) or whether one thinks education should be a public good and prepare pupils not only for the labor market, but for the duty of responsible citizenship.

You disagree? Let’s have a debate!

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