Improving Govt Schools Is the Solution, Charter Schools Won’t Help

Private schools in India are just as dysfunctional as public schools. 

4 min read
Why should India adopt a model that is already failing in the very country the idea was born in? (Photo: Reuters)
Improving Govt Schools Is the Solution, Charter Schools Won’t Help

This is an article in response to an op-ed authored by Prateek Kanwal. The op-ed introduces him as a World Bank Scholar and student at Harvard University. Although he remains a friend and former colleague to me, it is my duty to call out a poorly argued op-ed that, substantially, hides more than it reveals, leading the reader to a biased conclusion.

Let me start by asking the most basic question.

Can we name 5 democracies with a functional education system that have a significant share of private schools or schools modelled on public-private partnership?


That itself tells us something!

The op-ed essentially employs several arguments to establish that government schools are dysfunctional and then goes on to recommend the model of public-private partnership as the way forward. Let me start this piece by highlighting the state of private schools in our country since the article selectively picks facts and omits the ones that stand contrary to the established line of thinking.

Private Schools are Dysfunctional Too

The author quotes the results of the learning assessments conducted by Pratham, an education not-for-profit, that more than 50 percent of our class 5 children cannot read a class 2 text. However, the author conveniently, in his enthusiasm to make a strong case for charter schools, ignores that nearly 40 percent children studying in class 5 of private schools also cannot read a class 2 text.

This reflects that the private schools are dysfunctional too as they cannot prepare two-fifth of their Class 5 students to read a class 2 text in their mother-tongue. They are only slightly less dysfunctional than government schools, but dysfunctional they are.

Additionally, this difference of 10 percent cannot be entirely attributed to their better performance because the same ASER report that the author has used also states that nearly 8% of private school students attend tuitions too.

Thirdly, there is a difference in socio-economic conditions of the family that students of private and government schools come from. The difference in parents’ education qualification is another factor that influences reading ability of the child. All these factors have been conveniently brushed aside by the author. What exactly is the author arguing for in the light of these factors? 10 percent less dysfunctional is what the author holds as true north!

Charter Schools Aren’t Working

Let me now examine the performance of Charter Schools in United States of America. Several studies establish that most charter schools are concentrated in urban parts of the country, indicating the private players’ unwillingness to move to regions that are most backward since the ‘for-profit’ charter schools often find it unviable to operate in rural parts.

Center for Research on Education Outcomes of Stanford University conducted an evaluation of the performance of Charter Schools in USA. The study examined the test data from the charter schools of 26 different states. It found that a mere 25 percent of charters outperformed the government schools in reading, 56 percent of the charter schools produced no significant difference in reading and 19 percent performed worse than government schools.

So, the author is arguing for a model that caters to only the 25 percent and at the cost of 19 percent! States that shuttered at least 10 percent of their charter schools had the best overall results of students, the study concluded. Why, then, should India adopt a model that is already failing in the very country the idea was born in?

Education Department Must be Held Accountable

The only serious suggestion in the article concerns the student learning outcomes and its relationship with the teachers’ career progression including promotions. India needs to institute systems that measure learning outcomes of our students and hold the education department accountable. However, merely teachers cannot be held accountable for this if the department cannot deliver books on time, reduce the class size to a more manageable one, provide basic facilities like clean drinking water, sanitised building and electricity. Hence, the accountability must begin from the top, not from the bottom!

The policy solution suggested by the author, of operationalising public-private partnership model of schools, requires the ‘Prime Minister to rein the teachers’ unions’, build consensus with stakeholders from 35 states and union territories, and possibly ‘antagonise the teachers’.

If some day, the prime minister can mobilise the courage and commitment to undertake this gigantic an exercise, I would advise him to work with state governments on teachers’ recruitment, building teachers’ capacity, providing basic infrastructure in schools, instituting Management Information Systems (MIS) that use technology to reduce administrative work of teachers and build accountability. This will save him and our nation from investing in the ‘public-private partnership’ model only to produce a mere 10-percent less dysfunctional schools in lieu of a mammoth exercise.

India deserves better, and our children deserve the best!

(Anurag Kundu works with Ministry of Education, Government of Delhi as a member of Education Task Force. He is an alumnus of Teach For India. Views expressed are personal. The author can be reached via Twitter @AnuragKunduAK. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.) )

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