We need more research

Education’s Missing Priorities

PAKISTAN’s education crisis is often discussed in the news in the following terms: large numbers of out-of-school children, very low learning outcomes, wide achievement gaps and inadequate teacher efforts. How do we fix this?

Our current policies are ambitious and well intentioned. The latest provincial education-sector plans detail interventions ranging from teacher recruitment, professional development, public-private partnerships and learning assessments. Furthermore, focus has shifted from building infrastructure to improving the quality of learning.

But three actions to ensure all children get to school, remain in school and learn while in school are not receiving enough attention: making education inclusive for children from marginalised backgrounds; making school assessments focus more on systems than test scores and; including teachers in the policy design process.

These priorities were emphasised at a recent consultation I attended on teaching, learning and disadvantage, hosted by Collaborative Research and Dissemination in Delhi, where I was reminded that this is not just a Pakistani problem but a South Asian one. Learning from India’s experiences in education offer valuable insight for improving our own system.

In greater detail, this is why the aforementioned priorities matter:

Education must be inclusive for children from marginalised backgrounds. Marginalisation affects learning and teaching in many ways. Teachers’ attitudes may be biased against poor children, girls, children with disabilities and children from minority ethnicities or religions. Marginalisation also creates negative consequences outside the classroom. Children living in poverty, for example, may be deprived of proper nutrition and support from their parents, both of which inflict harm on their ability to learn.

A teacher’s understanding of the challenges faced by marginalised students can make the difference between a child being unfairly labelled as having a ‘behavioural problem’ and the same child being supported to learn. Good schools can nullify the negative effects of external circumstances by creating an environment in which all children can excel. This happens only through recognising differences in students’ backgrounds and building evidence to guide how policies can best intervene to address marginalisation in access and learning.

Assessments of schools should focus more on systems than test scores. Right now, determining progress in school quality focuses disproportionately on standardised assessments, which are an insufficient measure of learning. Focusing solely on test scores reduces the process of knowledge exchange and acquisition to what is quantifiable. This glosses over the challenges of the larger system in which teachers operate and the socioeconomic contexts that often give some children advantages over others.

Currently, assessments emphasise cross-school comparisons that fail to highlight how individual student achievements have changed over time. As long as students are performing relatively worse than other schools — regardless of whether they have improved by their own standards — they are still made out to be the problem. Failing to recognise these limitations can lead to policies that merely name and shame schools, teachers and students with low test scores rather than fix problems within the system.

This is not to say that there should be no assessments. If we do not assess students, we will not know the problems they face or how to fix them. But the education policy discourse in South Asia as a whole is missing an understanding of the limitations of assessments. By acknowledging where standardised tests fall short, we can begin to rethink them so that they account for disadvantage and incorporate student improvements over time into their measure of quality.

Teachers’ voices should be included in designing the policies that affect them. Provincial governments have expanded the standardisation of curriculums and pedagogies in response to the chronically low quality of teaching. In Punjab, for example, lesson plans are sent from the provincial capital to classrooms in all districts. Language of instruction policy is defined at the provincial level for all regions, rural and urban. Accountability measures, such as determining teacher appraisals based on test scores, are piloted by the provincial government in the hope of improving learning.

While policies are ultimately about teachers and what they do in classrooms, teachers’ voices are notably absent from the policy design process. There is also little recognition of the fact that teacher performance is reflective of the expectations and support provided by the systems they operate in. The demands of this system — such as non-teaching duties, political interference and lack of autonomy at the school and classroom levels — reduce the capacity of teachers to respond to the needs of their students.

So how do we incorporate these priorities into the reform agenda?

It may be as simple as tweaking existing mechanisms to improve sensitivity to marginalisation as opposed to major overhauls. For example, existing teacher-training mechanisms have the potential to influence teachers’ attitudes and equip them with pedagogical skills necessary for teaching children from challenged backgrounds. School-level programmes such as midday meals, remedial or extra support may be designed to provide support to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Existing mechanisms for assessments can be recalibrated to test broad, functional skills rather than narrowly defined curriculum requirements, and track achievements over time.

Channels for including teachers’ voices — as well as the broader voice of other stakeholders — into the policymaking process must be experimented with. The draft education policy in India is open for comment to the public. Can Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan also consider opening up the next education-sector plan’s documents to concerned stakeholders for public comment?

But in order for policies to work, we need more research conducted to compile evidences of linkages between disadvantage, teaching strategies and learning outcomes. That evidence is being collected in a project I am collaborating with international researchers on called Teaching Effectively All Children. As time comes for the next education sector reform plan to be drafted in 2017-2018, there may be an opportunity to base reforms for greater inclusivity in school on actionable data.

Leave a Reply