Elite Education for few better for a developing country than universal elementary education?

Oxfam Blogs has an extremely interesting article that compares the rise of Somaliland vs. the fall of its neighbor Somalia, and points out how this completely upends conventional wisdom regarding foreign aid and other aspects of building a country.

And the aspect I found most interesting there related to education. The paper points out that elite education, available to only a selected few, was found to be more important than universal elementary education – at least in terms of providing the next generation of leadership for the country:

The paper highlights the critical political importance of elite secondary schools in forging leadership. Available to a relatively small group of often privileged Somalilanders, this is in stark contrast to the donor emphasis on universal primary education. In particular, many of Phillips’ interviews led to the Sheekh Secondary School, set up by Richard Darlington, who fought in WWII as the commander of the Somaliland Protectorate contingent. Sheekh took only 50 kids a year and trained them in leadership, critical thought and standard (Darlington borrowed from the curriculum of his old school, Harrow). Sheekh provided 3 out of 4 presidents, plus any number of vice presidents, cabinet members etc. And no it isn’t a weird Somaliland version of Eton and Harrow (I asked) – it stressed student intake from all clans, especially from the more marginalized ones.

Compare and contrast this with what Clay Shirky said a few days ago – that maybe the way forward for higher education is to provide the lower quality of education to a larger number of people at lower cost. Of course Shirky was talking about US, a developed country, while Oxfam is talking about Somaliland, a poor underdeveloped African country, so the situations are quite different. And I certainly don’t claim to know which approach is better. (And I’m sure that the correct answers lies in saying, we should do both.)

But, it is interesting food for thought. If you were forced to pick just one for India going forward, what would you pick – great schools that provide world class education for a few, or universal literacy?

Read the full article.

Source: @makarand_s

Higher Education and the problem with adolescence

According to updated guidelines being given to child psychiatrists in the UK, adolescence in kids now ends at 25 – the age for adulthood is being raised from 18 to 25. To prevent young people from getting an inferiority complex.

This brings to my mind the question of what exactly is adolescence, is it a universal phenomenon or is something that arose out of the compulsions of a modern industralized society, and is increasing the age of adolescence a step in the wrong direction.

There are a couple of thought-provoking articles that I would like to point you towards. The first one, by entrepreneur Paul Graham is a long article that starts out talking about nerds, geeks, and bullying in American schools, but in the second half, as he explores the reasons behind the problems, he discusses adolescence and the role of “suburbs” and high schools in creating the previously unheard of problem of adolescence:

The first point is that adolescent students spend years in school, a very protected and non-real-life-like environment. And this is a part of the problem.


[…] the whole world we lived in was as fake as a Twinkie. Not just school, but the entire town. Why do people move to suburbia? To have kids! So no wonder it seemed boring and sterile. The whole place was a giant nursery, an artificial town created explicitly for the purpose of breeding children.

Where I grew up, it felt as if there was nowhere to go, and nothing to do. This was no accident. Suburbs are deliberately designed to exclude the outside world, because it contains things that could endanger children.

And as for the schools, they were just holding pens within this fake world. Officially the purpose of schools is to teach kids. In fact their primary purpose is to keep kids locked up in one place for a big chunk of the day so adults can get things done. And I have no problem with this: in a specialized industrial society, it would be a disaster to have kids running around loose.


Adults can’t avoid seeing that teenage kids are tormented. So why don’t they do something about it? Because they blame it on puberty. The reason kids are so unhappy, adults tell themselves, is that monstrous new chemicals, hormones, are now coursing through their bloodstream and messing up everything. There’s nothing wrong with the system; it’s just inevitable that kids will be miserable at that age.

But, this is neither inevitable, nor universal:

I’m suspicious of this theory that thirteen-year-old kids are intrinsically messed up. If it’s physiological, it should be universal. Are Mongol nomads all nihilists at thirteen? I’ve read a lot of history, and I have not seen a single reference to this supposedly universal fact before the twentieth century. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance seem to have been cheerful and eager. They got in fights and played tricks on one another of course (Michelangelo had his nose broken by a bully), but they weren’t crazy.

As far as I can tell, the concept of the hormone-crazed teenager is coeval with suburbia. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think teenagers are driven crazy by the life they’re made to lead. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance were working dogs. Teenagers now are neurotic lapdogs. Their craziness is the craziness of the idle everywhere.

So, how come this problem did not exist earlier?

Teenage kids used to have a more active role in society. In pre-industrial times, they were all apprentices of one sort or another, whether in shops or on farms or even on warships. They weren’t left to create their own societies. They were junior members of adult societies.

Teenagers seem to have respected adults more then, because the adults were the visible experts in the skills they were trying to learn. Now most kids have little idea what their parents do in their distant offices, and see no connection (indeed, there is precious little) between schoolwork and the work they’ll do as adults.

And if teenagers respected adults more, adults also had more use for teenagers. After a couple years’ training, an apprentice could be a real help. Even the newest apprentice could be made to carry messages or sweep the workshop. Now adults have no immediate use for teenagers. They would be in the way in an office. So they drop them off at school on their way to work, much as they might drop the dog off at a kennel if they were going away for the weekend.

Why did this happen?

What happened? We’re up against a hard one here. The cause of this problem is the same as the cause of so many present ills: specialization. As jobs become more specialized, we have to train longer for them. Kids in pre-industrial times started working at about 14 at the latest; kids on farms, where most people lived, began far earlier. Now kids who go to college don’t start working full-time till 21 or 22. With some degrees, like MDs and PhDs, you may not finish your training till 30.

Teenagers now are useless, except as cheap labor in industries like fast food, which evolved to exploit precisely this fact. In almost any other kind of work, they’d be a net loss. But they’re also too young to be left unsupervised. Someone has to watch over them, and the most efficient way to do this is to collect them together in one place. Then a few adults can watch all of them.

While Paul Graham points to the reasons for existence of adolescence, and suggests that this is a difficult problem to solve, the second article, by Newt Gingrich former speaker of the US House of Representatives, is more direct, and says Let’s End Adolescence:

We have to end adolescence as a social experiment. We tried it. It failed. It’s time to move on. Returning to an earlier, more successful model of children rapidly assuming the roles and responsibilities of adults would yield enormous benefit to society.

Prior to the 19th century, it’s fair to say that adolescence did not exist. Instead, there was virtually universal acceptance that puberty marked the transition from childhood to young adulthood. Whether with the Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah ceremony of the Jewish faith or confirmation in the Catholic Church or any hundreds of rites of passage in societies around the planet, it was understood you were either a child or a young adult.

He makes the same point as Paul Graham – the existence of “apprenticeships” in the past effectively ensured that adolescence did not exist:

[E]arly adulthood, early responsibility, and early achievement were the norm before the institution of adolescence emerged as a system for delaying adulthood and trapping young people into wasting years of their lives. To regain those benefits, we must develop accelerated learning systems that peg the rate of academic progress to the student’s pace and ability to absorb the material, making education more efficient.

Adolescence was invented in the 19th century to enable middle-class families to keep their children out of sweatshops. But it has degenerated into a process of enforced boredom and age segregation that has produced one of the most destructive social arrangements in human history: consigning 13-year-old males to learning from 15-year-old males.

I don’t have any suggested solutions. But I believe this is an interesting point to think about. And somehow, the idea of officially increasing the age of adolescence to 25 “to prevent young people from getting an inferiority complex” just seems like a step in the wrong direction.


InnoVidya Event: Spinning Startups from Science & Technology R&D

InnoVidya, IUCAA and MCCIA present a talk by Dr. S. Sivaram on “Spinning off Start-ups from Science & Technology R&D” on Saturday, Mar 15, 2013, at 11am, 5th Floor, A-Wing, MCCIA, ICC Towers, SB Road. This is the next talk in the InnoVidya/IUCAA SPARK lecture series.

About the Speaker – Dr. S. Sivaram

Dr. Sivaram is a renowned polymer chemist and is. an alumnus of Madras Christian College + IIT-Kanpur & received his PhD in Chemistry from Purdue University, USA, After serving as Deputy General Manager (R&D) at Indian Petrochemicals Corporation Ltd., Vadodara, he joined NCL in 1988 as Head of the Polymer Chemistry Division and was the Director of NCL from 2002-2010. He has mentored the PhD theses of 36 graduate students. He has over 210 publications in peer reviewed scientific journals and holds 47 European and US patents and 46 Indian patents. He is the founder-Chairman and presently a member of the Board of Directors of Entrepreneurship Development Center, Pune, a ‘not-for-profit’ Company promoted by CSIR-NCL and a Founder Director of CSIR-Tech Private Limited, Pune, a ‘for-profit’ company, to commercialize IPR and technologies of CSIR as well as other publicly funded research institutions. He is a CSIR Bhatnagar Fellow and J.C.Bose National Fellow at the NCL. The President of India had conferred the “Padma Shri”, on Dr. Sivaram in 2006.

Abstract of the talk:

Spinning off new start-ups is a key component of science and technology (S&T) based innovation. This requires cutting edge scientific discoveries, a robust IPR portfolio, an entrepreneurial mind set and an enabling “eco-system. In India, the burgeoning IT, E Commerce & Service sectors of the economy have seen increasingly buoyant “start-up” activity. Sadly, S&T driven entrepreneurship has been conspicuously missing. This Talk will focus on a brief history and evolution of S&T driven entrepreneurship and the enabling policy framework that triggered a resurgence of “start-up” enterprises in more developed countries of the world. The elements of the “eco-system” needed to nurture scientific entrepreneurship will be discussed. The weakness of the “eco-system” in the Indian context will be elaborated with some prescriptions for change. Some recent examples of technology driven enterprises from India will be enumerated, especially, in the area of health care, diagnostics and clean energy. A large part of Indian S&T is currently outside of this ecosystem. The question of how to bring them into the ecosystem, therefore, assumes great importance. If S&T has to become an engine of innovation and economic growth, “spin–offs” and “start-ups’ have to become an integral part of India’s innovation systems.

About the InnoVidya IUCAA Spark Program

The SPARK program is a series of events jointly conducted by InnoVidya and IUCAA. These are special events that <spark> imagination & curiosity of our young, build bonds between participants of different disciplines, catalyze interactivity & promote peer links

If you’re interested in the state of education in India, please subscribe to get updates by email

Event Details

The event is on Saturday, March 15, 2013, at 11am, at 5th Floor, A-Wing, MCCIA, ICC Towers, SB Road

Fees and Registration

This event is free and open for anybody to attend. Register here.

Private schools in rural India provide similar education at much lower cost than govt schools

Karthik Muralidharan and others have an interesting research paper on the differences between private and public (i.e. government run) schools in rural India, where they discover, over the course of a large, 4-year, controlled study they discover that private schools comparable (actually, slightly better) education, but at costs much lower than the government schools.

This was the setup (in Andhra Pradesh):

The AP School Choice Project provided children who were enrolled in free public primary schools with a voucher that allowed them to attend a private school of their choice.

And here are the main finding:

We find that the main operating difference between private and public schools in India is that private schools pay substantially lower teacher salaries (less than a sixth of that paid to public school teachers), and hire teachers who are younger, less educated, and much less likely to have professional teaching credentials. However, they hire more teachers and have smaller class sizes and less multi-grade teaching than public schools. Using official data as well as data collected from direct observations conducted during unannounced visits to schools, we find that private schools have a longer school day, a longer school year, lower teacher absence, higher teaching activity, and better school hygiene. We find no significant change in household spending or in time spent doing homework among voucher-winning students, suggesting that the impact of the program (if any) is most likely to be due to changes in school as opposed to household factors

So, private schools have cheaper teachers, but spend more time teaching. What about the performance of the students?

However, in spite of the superior performance of the private schools on most measures of school processes, we find at the end of two and four years of the school choice program that lottery winners do no better than lottery losers on tests of Telugu (native language of AP) and Math. Our data from school time tables suggest that a likely explanation for these results is that private schools spend significantly less instructional time on Telugu and Math, and instead spend more time on English, Science, Social Studies, and Hindi. We conduct tests in these subjects at the end of four years of the program and find positive (but insignificant) effects of winning the voucher on test scores in English, Science, and Social Studies (of around 0.1ı each), and positive (and highly significant) effects on test scores in Hindi (of 0.5ı). Averaging across all subjects, we find that students who won a voucher scored 0.13ı higher, and students who attend private schools score 0.23ı higher.

What does all this mean? Here is the bottom line – private schools provide slightly better education at much lower prices:

the combination of test score results and school time table data already show that private schools are more productive than public schools because they are able to achieve similar Telugu and Math test scores for the lottery winners with substantially less instructional time, and use the additional time to improve outcomes on other subjects – especially Hindi. But the cost-effectiveness comparison is rendered stark by the fact that the annual cost per student in the government- school system is over three times the mean cost per student in the private schools in our sample. Thus, students who win a lottery to attend private schools do as well on some subjects and better on others even though the private schools spend substantially lower amounts per student

Check out this short article by the author where he asks this question:

Since private schools achieved equal or better outcomes at one-third the cost, the fundamental question that needs to be asked is “How much better could private management do if they had three times their current level of per-child spending?” Thus, in addition to focusing on improving the effectiveness of government schools at the current level of spending, the results suggest that policymakers should be open to experimenting with models of education provision with public funding (to ensure universal access) and private provision (for better school management).


Overall, policy discussions need to move away from debates of ‘public’ versus ‘private’ provision of education, which are (a) too simplistic because averages hide enormous variation within both public and private schools, and (b) not very useful because both systems are unlikely in their current form to deliver significant improvements in outcomes. Rather, the focus should be on the design of better education ‘systems’ that aim to deliver superior outcomes by leveraging the strengths of both the public and the private sector while mitigating the weaknesses of the other. Clause 12 of the RTE provides the ideal context in which to have this discussion of education systems.

Read the full paper, or this short article by the author where he asks this question:

Source: Marginal Revolution Blog

Giving teachers in India bonuses for performance really works, says research

Alex Tabarrok has an interesting article on which points to a very large, randomized experiment by Karthik Muralidharan and others on giving teachers monetary incentives based on the performance of their students in specific subjects, and reports that this significantly improves performances in not only those subjects, but also in other subjects.

Here, it is important to note that we are talking about Indian Schools, run by the government, mostly in rural India. It is also important to note that this is not an armchair philosopher spouting opinions, but actually data from a large, randomized experiment with controls.

Here is some data that really needs to be shouted from the rooftops:

Students who had completed their entire five years of primary school education under the program scored 0.54 and 0.35 standard deviations (SD) higher than those in control schools in math and language tests respectively. These are large effects corresponding to approximately 20 and 14 percentile point improvements at the median of a normal distribution, and are larger than the effects found in most other education interventions in developing countries (see Dhaliwal et al. 2011).

Second, the results suggest that these test score gains represent genuine additions to human capital as opposed to reflecting only ‘teaching to the test’. Students in individual teacher incentive schools score significantly better on both non-repeat as well as repeat questions; on both multiple-choice and free-response questions; and on questions designed to test conceptual understanding as well as questions that could be answered through rote learning. Most importantly, these students also perform significantly better on subjects for which there were no incentives – scoring 0.52 SD and 0.30 SD higher than students in control schools on tests in science and social studies (though the bonuses were paid only for gains in math and language). There was also no differential attrition of students across treatment and control groups and no evidence to suggest any adverse consequences of the programs.

… Finally, our estimates suggest that the individual teacher bonus program was 15-20 times more cost effective at raising test scores than the default ‘education quality improvement’ policy of the Government of India, which is reducing class size from 40 to 30 students per teacher (Govt. of India, 2009).

Read the full article

Online-only self-service education will never work? -Fredrick DeBoer

Fredrik DeBoer, a professor at Purdue has an interesting article on how there needs to be some realism injected into the debate on online education and MOOCs (massively online open courses) and the world-changing exuberance that usually accompanies these debates.

He points out that the only way he’s found to get students to learn is to meet with them every day physically and drive discussions with them. Here are his arguments:


I’ve tried all number of ways to do that outside of class meetings – marking papers extensively, using Track Changes, real-time online collaboration – and it never, ever works. Most them don’t look, and most of them don’t care, unless there’s the basic human accountability of sitting down with them at a table and going through the changes together. That’s how I drag them to the skills they want.

The idea that students need to be “dragged” to learning is something that most real teachers will understand, while most other people will dismiss, saying, “the good ones don’t need to be dragged.”

Fredrik goes on:

I will have lost some of you with that verb. “Drag them! How presumptuous! That’s so insulting.” I assure you: no, it’s not. No, it’s not insulting to use the word “drag” to describe educating undergraduates. I promise you it’s not. Of course, there are in most classes one or two or three students who are both very bright and self-motivated. They’re wonderful to work with. But most students require a frankly endless amount of pushing, pulling, cajoling, motivating, and yes, dragging to competence. Some actively resist. I’m not complaining: this is what I love to do, and it’s why they pay me.

The system has been set up in such a way, that learning is not really a goal for most students:

I’m just relaying reality, in context with an education media that simply doesn’t want to hear it: our college students are not an army of young autodidacts who are pursuing knowledge out of a love for learning. They just aren’t. They’re here, in very large measure, to collect a degree that they identify as being a largely or purely economic instrument. Who could blame them? That’s what their culture is telling them education is for: making money. So they proceed rationally from that premise.

So, what’s the solution?

So you work, and you work, and you work, and you sit with them in conferencing and you revise their papers again and again and you chase them down when they don’t submit by deadline and you make your instructions explicit again and again and you hope that they’ll bother to come back to class after spring break and you work, work, work to get them to a reasonable level of ability. And then when you give them a B+ they write outraged emails to the dean about what a horrible injustice that is. But of course they do. Again, it’s natural: their culture teaches them that everyone is equally capable of everything, and that any problems in education are necessarily the fault of educators and not of students, so they rage when they get a grade that is commensurate with their work. They’re a product of their culture.

And just in case you feel that this really reflects the (poor) quality of the students, note this:

And trust me: my students here at Purdue are not unusually unmotivated or unintelligent. Just the opposite; they’re remarkably bright, attending a competitive public research university, in a period where getting into good colleges has never been harder or more competitive. Yes, they’re a restricted range. They’re restricted near the top, not the bottom. Still, it’s a struggle to educate them. I’m just trying to be honest with you.

Read the full article

Better education at higher cost, or same education at lower cost?

Clay Shirky writes, that we are at an important inflection point as far as higher education is concerned, and we should get used to the fact that major changes will be forced upon us whether we like them or not.

While he is talking about higher education in the US, some of his thoughts would be relevant to India too.

The main point he’s making (regarding higher education in the US) is that the middle-to-late 20th century was the golden age of higher education – the various governments funded/subsidized education to a very large extent, for a variety of reasons. This led to the creation of a system with good quality education, but very high costs. Over time, the amount of funding from the government has reduced, and the costs have been passed on to the students in terms of higher fees.

This is not a sustainable situation. In the modern world, higher education is becoming necessary, and the costs are too high for most people. Specifically, higher education is failing most people – they are getting no, or sub-standard education because of the lack of affordable quality institutions.

How can this be fixed?

One obvious way to improve life for the new student majority is to raise the quality of the education without raising the price. This is clearly the ideal, whose principal obstacle is not conceptual but practical: no one knows how. The value of our core product—the Bachelor’s degree—has fallen in every year since 2000, while tuition continues to increase faster than inflation.

The other way to help these students would be to dramatically reduce the price or time required to get an education of acceptable quality (and for acceptable read “enabling the student to get a better job”, their commonest goal.) This is a worse option in every respect except one, which is that it may be possible.

The first option, increasing quality without increasing the price, can only happen if governments starts increasing funding for education again. But, that is unlikely to happen, he argues:

If we can’t keep raising costs for students (we can’t) and if no one is coming to save us (they aren’t), then the only remaining way to help these students is to make a cheaper version of higher education for the new student majority.

The number of high-school graduates underserved or unserved by higher education today dwarfs the number of people for whom that system works well. The reason to bet on the spread of large-scale low-cost education isn’t the increased supply of new technologies. It’s the massive demand for education, which our existing institutions are increasingly unable to handle. That demand will go somewhere.

Those of us in the traditional academy could have a hand in shaping that future, but doing so will require us to relax our obsessive focus on elite students, institutions, and faculty. It will require us to stop regarding ourselves as irreplaceable occupiers of sacred roles, and start regarding ourselves as people who do several jobs society needs done, only one of which is creating new knowledge.

Read the full article

The key takeaway for me is that we should stop expecting the system (i.e. government) to come in and fix the system. Instead, we should accept the fact that the goal has changed. Instead of focusing on trying to increase the number of people to whom we can provide very high quality education, we should probably focus on reducing the cost at which we can provide some acceptable quality of education to large masses.