Teachers who don’t show up to work cost India $1.5 billion a year

A new study led by Karthik Muralidharan of University of California, San Diego, points out that the cost of teacher absence in India costs more than $1.5 billion per year, reports Quartz India

This is a big problem:

According to a World Bank study based on unannounced visits to government schools, 25% of teachers were absent from school, and only about half were teaching. Absence rates varied from 15% in Maharashtra to 42% in Jharkhand. The study also found that salary is not the determinant of teacher absence—the more educated and experienced teachers who are paid more are as frequently absent as contract teachers who are paid less.

What is the solution?

Apparently, incentives work. Here are the suggestions:

  • Daily cash incentives for coming to work
  • Inspect schools regularly
  • Have better infrastructure at schools
  • Have a paved road to or near the school
  • Monitory teachers daily by cameras


CBSE Board is micro-managing schools says @MeetaSengupta

One of the big problems facing the education system in India today is that the boards are micromanaging the schools, under the assumption that teachers will be bad, and school administrations will be focused on commerce rather than education – and while this might, in some cases, prevent bad schools from harming students, often it prevents good schools from doing good things.

For example, @MeetaSengupta has an interesting article titled “Integrated coaching in schools – efficiency or commerce?” where she points out that the CBSE board has recently issued circulars banning the integration of coaching for competitive exams, including IIT-JEE, in school classrooms.

Here are some points she raises:

It raises a few questions – First of course – why is a board of examinations talking about school timetabling? Is it not upto the school to set its own timetables? How and when did the right to decide what happens in a classroom get taken away? This has been a slow and steady attrition of school autonomy as has been seen in the admissions cases in Delhi.

A school and a teacher must have the right to decide what works best for the students they have taken responsibility for as long as they adhere to the standards set for them. Any micro management of classroom time gives the teacher community leeway to merely read out the textbook and do no more – indeed, they could claim that they have permission to do no more than that. It is also extremely insulting to a highly trained and experienced (many are excellent) cadre to distrust their commitment and engagement with their students.


They do not ban coaching for IIT-JEE (nor should they) – the ban is merely on the efficient use of class time and student effort. Consequently (and does anyone ever think this through?!!!) the life of a student becomes one long haul from school to coaching class and then homework and revision while doing their daily tests and preparation for the coaching class. Any integration of learning that could have eased their lives is now barred. 

In such cases, there is usually a knee-jerk reaction that coaching classes are bad, but that’s not a realistic position to hold today:

In a perfect world I would whole heartedly support having a system that requires no preparation for examinations. I would even, in principle, support a ban on all exam preparation. Students either know their stuff or they don’t – and any test is a stepping stone to identifying gaps for further work, or for choice in moving towards an area of aptitude or away from one there is clearly no talent. Schools are supposed to prepare students for life, and tests in life rarely come with a timetable. 

We are nowhere near that utopia yet, so let us come back to real life.  

Read the full article for a detailed discussion.

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.


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