Renu Pokharna

Archive for December, 2011|Monthly archive page

How to Rescue Education Reform

In Education on December 15, 2011 at 8:44 am

THE debate over renewing No Child Left Behind, the education reform act that will be 10 years old in January, has fallen along partisan lines even though school improvement is one of the few examples of bipartisan cooperation over the last decade.

Though the law was initiated and signed by a Republican president, presidential candidates like Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, who once supported it, now talk about getting the federal government out of education, echoing Tea Party members who deem federal involvement a constitutional travesty. Democratic reformers, meanwhile, insist that the federal government has a role in telling states how to identify, punish and fix low-performing schools — despite little evidence that Washington has been good at any of these tasks. To existing mandates, they would add heavy-handed, unproven teacher-evaluation requirements that could stifle innovative teaching and school design.

We sorely need a smarter, more coherent vision of the federal role in K-12 education. Yet both parties find themselves hemmed in. Republicans are stuck debating whether, rather than how, the federal government ought to be involved in education, while Democrats are squeezed between superintendents, school boards and teachers’ unions that want money with no strings, and activists with little patience for concerns about federal overreach.

When it comes to education policy, the two of us represent different schools of thought. One of us, Linda Darling-Hammond, is an education school professor who advised the Obama administration’s transition team; the other, Rick Hess, has been a critic of school districts and schools of education. We disagree on much, including big issues like merit pay for teachers and the best strategies for school choice.

We agree, though, on what the federal government can do well. It should not micromanage schools, but should focus on the four functions it alone can perform.

First is encouraging transparency for school performance and spending. For all its flaws, No Child Left Behind’s main contribution is that it pushed states to measure and report achievement for all students annually. Without transparency, it’s tough for parents, voters and taxpayers to hold schools and public officials accountable. However, No Child Left Behind also let states use statistical gimmicks to report performance. Instead of the vague mandate of “adequate yearly progress,” federal financing should be conditioned on truth in advertising — on reliably describing achievement (or lack thereof) and spending. To track achievement, states should be required to link their assessments to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (or to adopt a similar multistate assessment). To shed light on equity and cost-effectiveness, states should be required to report school- and district-level spending; the resources students receive should be disclosed, not only their achievement.

Second is ensuring that basic constitutional protections are respected.  No Child Left Behind required states to “disaggregate” assessment results to illuminate how disadvantaged or vulnerable populations — like black and Hispanic students and children from poor families — were doing.  Enforcing civil rights laws and ensuring that dollars intended for low-income students and students with disabilities are spent accordingly have been parts of the Education Department’s mandate since its creation in 1979. But efforts to reduce inequities have too often led to onerous and counterproductive micromanagement.

Third is supporting basic research. While the private market can produce applied research that can be put to profitable use, it tends to underinvest in research that asks fundamental questions. When it comes to brain science, language acquisition or the impact of computer-assisted tutoring, federal financing for reliable research is essential.

Finally, there is value in voluntary, competitive federal grants that support innovation while providing political cover for school boards, union leaders and others to throw off anachronistic routines. The Obama administration’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition tried to do some of this, but it ended up demanding that winning states hire consultants to comply with a 19-point federal agenda, rather than truly innovate.

Beyond this list, the federal government is simply not well situated to make schools and teachers improve — no matter how much ambitious reformers wish it were otherwise. Under our system, dictates from Congress turn into gobbledygook as they travel from the Education Department to state education agencies and then to local school districts. Educators end up caught in a morass of prescriptions and prohibitions, bled of the initiative and energy that characterize effective schools.

The federal government can make states, localities and schools do things — but not necessarily do them well. Since decades of research make it clear that what matters for evaluating employees or turning around schools is how well you do it — rather than whether you do it a certain way — it’s not surprising that well-intentioned demands for “bold” federal action on school improvement have a history of misfiring. They stifle problem-solving, encourage bureaucratic blame avoidance and often do more harm than good.

Perhaps No Child Left Behind’s most enduring lesson is the value of humility — a virtue that must be taken to heart in crafting a smarter, more coherent federal role in schooling.


5 Dec 2011, The New York Times

In Education, School Vouchers on December 15, 2011 at 8:39 am

Kerala has the highest literacy rate in the nation, above ninety percent.  The way Kerala spends its education money is also strikingly different from the other states.  For illustration, I compare it with the state of West Bengal.  Ideologically the governments of both states are equally committed to basic education and literacy.  Both states have for long had popularly elected Marxist governments.  The conclusions of the comparative analysis are however generally valid.

Table 1 highlights some of the crucial differences in the educational structure and the nature of government spending on education in the two states.  Table 2 shows the effect of those differences on the performance of the education system in terms of literacy rate and the proportion of children never enrolled in school.  (All data are from the NSSO 1991, 1993 and NCAER 1994; see also Tilak 1996.  The data are for the year 1986-87 or 1991-92.)  Kerala is one of the few states in the country were elementary education is not made compulsory by law.  Both governments spend almost equal fraction of the total budget on education (about 25 percent).  In West Bengal, 84 percent of rural children do not pay any fee for primary education but that number is only 48 percent in Kerala.  Sixty percent of rural primary school children get free textbooks and supplies in West Bengal, only two percent in Kerala do.  Households with less than Rs. 3000 in annual per capita income spend 25 percent of the income on elementary education in West Bengal but in Kerala it is 36 percent.  The poor in Kerala spend the highest fraction of their income on their children’s basic education compared to the poor in any other state in the country.

Table 1: State Commitment to Education

Characteristics West Bengal Kerala
Elementary Education Compulsory Yes No
Fee-Free Primary Education 84% 48%
Free Textbooks and Stationary 60% 2%
Proportion of Income Spent on Primary Education by Households in the Lowest Income Quintile 2.5% 3.6%
Share of Education in the State Budget 26% 25%

Given these facts—more children get free education and supplies in West Bengal and the poor are asked to spend more of their own money in Kerala—one would expect that West Bengal would have a much higher literacy rate than Kerala.  The facts speak otherwise (Table 2).  Kerala has 91 percent literacy rate while West Bengal has only 57 percent.  Moreover, in West Bengal 46 percent of children in the age group of 6 to 14 have never enrolled in school, only two percent in Kerala suffer from that fate.  What explains this vast difference in performance?

Table 2: State Performance in Education

Characteristics West Bengal Kerala
Literacy Rate 57% 91%
Children (age 6-14) Never Enrolled 46% 2%

Kerala and West Bengal: Unfair Comparison – Kerala undoubtedly has had a head-start: There have been strong education movements in the state since the pre-independence days and the government has consistently spent a much larger proportion of its budget on education since independence.  It then seems unfair to compare the two states in terms of their educational performance.  The cross-section comparisons at a single point in time do not control for variations over time.  Kerala’s current spending on education is almost the same as West Bengal, but since Kerala had a head-start, current literacy rates and the reach of education are likely to be different.  Nonetheless it is instructive to examine the distribution of their education spending.  Kerala and West Bengal have chosen to spend their education money rather differently.  The difference in the nature of their spending is the real purpose of this comparison.

Table 3: Distribution of State Education Spending

Characteristics West Bengal Kerala
Free Primary Education in Government Schools 84% 48%
Free Primary Education in Private Schools 15% 48%
Grant of Scholarship 0.5% 10%
Transport Subsidy 2.3% 5.4%
Proportion of Private (aided) Primary Schools 11% 60%

It is surprising that in a thoroughly Marxist state like Kerala, 60 percent of the rural primary schools are private, as compared to only 11 percent in West Bengal.  The proportion of private primary schools in Kerala is the highest in the country; the second highest is Maghalaya at 21 percent, and the national average is only five percent.  The government of Kerala also pays expenses of almost half of the students enrolled in private primary schools.  The number for West Bengal is 15 percent which is the third highest in the country (Tamil Nadu is at 20 percent); the national average is again about five percent.

Kerala has the highest proportion of private primary schools and it also subsidises the highest proportion of students in private schools.  Both of these facts give the citizens of Kerala wider effective choice in selecting primary schools for their children.  Many of the private schools are run by various religious groups in the state.  They are generally more likely to be successful in exerting pressure on parents to send their children to school.  The choices available to parents must increase attendance as well as retention rates in the state.

Kerala uses its public funds to encourage competition among schools.  To avoid transportation costs, most parents generally send their children to the nearest school.  The resulting “geographical clustering” of schools and their customers lessens competition among schools.  Each school has a captured customer base.  By subsidising transportation costs, Kerala helps parents send their children to the school they consider best, irrespective of the distance.  This increases competition among schools.  The provision of direct scholarship to students in Kerala also leads to the same result.  With the scholarship money, students can go to any school of their choice.  Among all the states in the country, the highest proportion of children in Kerala receives transportation subsidies and direct scholarships (Table 3).

The focus on how the two governments spend their education rupees indicates that Kerala by offering more choices to parents and increasing competition among schools actually practices market principles.  Kerala’s citizens have received far better educational service than those of almost any other state in the union.  The Kerala model of education—of choice and competition—is unique in the country, and so is Kerala’s educational performance.  It is not just how much a state spends on education but how it spends that determines efficiency and effectiveness of the education system.

The status of higher education in these two states is also worth comparing.  State universities in West Bengal receive 91 percent of their budget from the government.  In Kerala it is only 54 percent, the remaining amount is generated by fees, donations, endowments, and other sources.  Again Kerala requires its universities to raise almost half of their budget from the customers and communities they serve.  This fosters accountability and more attention to the needs of those who help finance state universities.  This is one of the important reasons that Kerala performs better also in higher education than many other states in the union.

Source of Funding and the Nature of Spending

Central Universities State Universities
Percent of Budget from the Government 90% 50%
Percent of University Budget Spent on Administration 41% 18%
Percent of University Budget Spent on Academic Programs 33% 55%

It may be pertinent to note that in general the higher the funding from the government, the lower the spending on academic programmes at universities.  Central universities receive more than 90 percent of their funds from the central government and spend about 33 percent on academic programs and support and 41 percent on administration.  The state universities on average get a little more than 50 percent of their money from state governments and spend 55 percent on academics and only 18 percent on administration.  The state universities that are more dependent on non-government funds pay more attention to their students and less to their bureaucracy.

In Kerala, the government has been spending more on education but so do the people of Kerala.  The poor in the state spend about 3.6 percent of their annual per capita income on elementary education—the highest proportion in the country (Table 1).  Contrary to the conventional wisdom, government spending is not a substitute for private spending.  Both seem to grow together; they are complementary.  Parents’ financial commitment to their children’s education is a crucial component of quality education.  Moreover, as the empirical evidence suggests, schools and universities that depend on non-government funds manage their finances more responsibly and are more attentive and responsive to the needs of their customers.


25 April 1998, Economic Times

Can the Private Sector Play a Helpful Role in Education? It Can, If it Targets Disadvantaged Students

In Bureaucratic Delays, Education, School Vouchers on December 15, 2011 at 7:37 am

A good public education system means public spending – but not necessarily public provision.

In OECD countries, more than 20% of public education expenditure goes to private institutions – communities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), faith-based organisations, trade unions, private companies, small informal providers and individual practitioners – and about 12% is spent on privately-managed institutions.


But does private participation mean higher quality education? Does it bring better exam results? Can it encourage greater equality?


Evidence shows that in the independent sector, where schools depend on fees, it is often the case that once you control for family background, the actual benefits of private schooling disappear. But in systems where access is not limited by selection or wealth, privately-managed schools can contribute to better outcomes.


In the Netherlands, 70% of enrolments are in “private” schools that receive a fixed amount of government funding per student (with extra funding for disadvantaged students). On average, families tend to be from a lower social class than those of pupils attending “public” schools, and yet test scores achieved are higher. The level of choice offered appears to provide incentives for Dutch schools to keep improving.


Japanese high schools use private tuition support, which has been shown to lower drop-out rates among students taking less academic study pathways.


The Charter schools in the US have had a real impact on narrowing achievement gaps. The Harlem Children’s Zone, which combines schooling with community support such as help with healthcare and meals, could reverse the black-white achievement gap in maths, according to trials; the Knowledge is Power schools have been criticised for only improving test scores through selection, but evidence shows that the largest gains are among young people with special educational needs and limited English.


The picture internationally is that involving the private sector can improve school performance – through competition, accountability and autonomy – as well as expand access. However, without strong systems of accountability, private schools with public funding aren’t likely to produce large gains.


The best results come where competition is enhanced through choice, disadvantaged areas are targeted and there is plenty of autonomy at school level.


Any new approach – such as the free-schools model in the UK – needs to be subjected to rigorous evaluation of its impact. Small-scale pilots are needed initially, with investment going only to projects that have been proved to work.


And moving forward, each country has a lot to learn from others. Keeping a watch on the international picture, benchmarking education policies, will be important for raising standards and addressing inequality.


15 Aug 2011, World Bank Blog

Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?

In Bureaucratic Delays, Education, Red Tape, School Vouchers on December 15, 2011 at 7:30 am

It was the end of term at Kirkkojarvi Comprehensive School in Espoo, a sprawling suburb west of Helsinki, when Kari Louhivuori, a veteran teacher and the school’s principal, decided to try something extreme—by Finnish standards. One of his sixth-grade students, a Kosovo-Albanian boy, had drifted far off the learning grid, resisting his teacher’s best efforts. The school’s team of special educators—including a social worker, a nurse and a psychologist—convinced Louhivuori that laziness was not to blame. So he decided to hold the boy back a year, a measure so rare in Finland it’s practically obsolete.

Finland has vastly improved in reading, math and science literacy over the past decade in large part because its teachers are trusted to do whatever it takes to turn young lives around. This 13-year-old, Besart Kabashi, received something akin to royal tutoring.

“I took Besart on that year as my private student,” Louhivuori told me in his office, which boasted a Beatles “Yellow Submarine” poster on the wall and an electric guitar in the closet. When Besart was not studying science, geography and math, he was parked next to Louhivuori’s desk at the front of his class of 9- and 10-year- olds, cracking open books from a tall stack, slowly reading one, then another, then devouring them by the dozens. By the end of the year, the son of Kosovo war refugees had conquered his adopted country’s vowel-rich language and arrived at the realization that he could, in fact, learn.

Years later, a 20-year-old Besart showed up at Kirkkojarvi’s Christmas party with a bottle of Cognac and a big grin. “You helped me,” he told his former teacher. Besart had opened his own car repair firm and a cleaning company. “No big fuss,” Louhivuori told me. “This is what we do every day, prepare kids for life.”

This tale of a single rescued child hints at some of the reasons for the tiny Nordic nation’s staggering record of education success, a phenomenon that has inspired, baffled and even irked many of America’s parents and educators. Finnish schooling became an unlikely hot topic after the 2010 documentary film Waiting for “Superman” contrasted it with America’s troubled public schools.

“Whatever it takes” is an attitude that drives not just Kirkkojarvi’s 30 teachers, but most of Finland’s 62,000 educators in 3,500 schools from Lapland to Turku—professionals selected from the top 10 percent of the nation’s graduates to earn a required master’s degree in education. Many schools are small enough so that teachers know every student. If one method fails, teachers consult with colleagues to try something else. They seem to relish the challenges. Nearly 30 percent of Finland’s children receive some kind of special help during their first nine years of school. The school where Louhivuori teaches served 240 first through ninth graders last year; and in contrast with Finland’s reputation for ethnic homogeneity, more than half of its 150 elementary-level students are immigrants—from Somalia, Iraq, Russia, Bangladesh, Estonia and Ethiopia, among other nations. “Children from wealthy families with lots of education can be taught by stupid teachers,” Louhivuori said, smiling. “We try to catch the weak students. It’s deep in our thinking.”

The transformation of the Finns’ education system began some 40 years ago as the key propellent of the country’s economic recovery plan. Educators had little idea it was so successful until 2000, when the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide. “I’m still surprised,” said Arjariita Heikkinen, principal of a Helsinki comprehensive school. “I didn’t realize we were that good.”

In the United States, which has muddled along in the middle for the past decade, government officials have attempted to introduce marketplace competition into public schools. In recent years, a group of Wall Street financiers and philanthropists such as Bill Gates have put money behind private-sector ideas, such as vouchers, data-driven curriculum and charter schools, which have doubled in number in the past decade. President Obama, too, has apparently bet on compe­tition. His Race to the Top initiative invites states to compete for federal dollars using tests and other methods to measure teachers, a philosophy that would not fly in Finland. “I think, in fact, teachers would tear off their shirts,” said Timo Heikkinen, a Helsinki principal with 24 years of teaching experience. “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.”

There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. Finland’s schools are publicly funded. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians. Every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of university-trained educators. The result is that a Finnish child has a good shot at getting the same quality education no matter whether he or she lives in a rural village or a university town. The differences between weakest and strongest students are the smallest in the world, according to the most recent survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “Equality is the most important word in Finnish education. All political parties on the right and left agree on this,” said Olli Luukkainen, president of Finland’s powerful teachers union.

Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States.

Still, there is a distinct absence of chest-thumping among the famously reticent Finns. They are eager to celebrate their recent world hockey championship, but PISA scores, not so much. “We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test,” said Pasi Sahlberg, a former math and physics teacher who is now in Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture. “We are not much interested in PISA. It’s not what we are about.”

Maija Rintola stood before her chattering class of twenty-three 7- and 8-year-olds one late April day in Kirkkojarven Koulu. A tangle of multicolored threads topped her copper hair like a painted wig. The 20-year teacher was trying out her look for Vappu, the day teachers and children come to school in riotous costumes to celebrate May Day. The morning sun poured through the slate and lemon linen shades onto containers of Easter grass growing on the wooden sills. Rintola smiled and held up her open hand at a slant—her time-tested “silent giraffe,” which signaled the kids to be quiet. Little hats, coats, shoes stowed in their cubbies, the children wiggled next to their desks in their stocking feet, waiting for a turn to tell their tale from the playground. They had just returned from their regular 15 minutes of playtime outdoors between lessons. “Play is important at this age,” Rintola would later say. “We value play.”

With their wiggles unwound, the students took from their desks little bags of buttons, beans and laminated cards numbered 1 through 20. A teacher’s aide passed around yellow strips representing units of ten. At a smart board at the front of the room, Rintola ushered the class through the principles of base ten. One girl wore cat ears on her head, for no apparent reason. Another kept a stuffed mouse on her desk to remind her of home. Rintola roamed the room helping each child grasp the concepts. Those who finished early played an advanced “nut puzzle” game. After 40 minutes it was time for a hot lunch in the cathedral-like cafeteria.

Teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than American teachers. Teachers use the extra time to build curriculums and assess their students. Children spend far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter. Homework is minimal. Compulsory schooling does not begin until age 7. “We have no hurry,” said Louhivuori. “Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?”

It’s almost unheard of for a child to show up hungry or homeless. Finland provides three years of maternity leave and subsidized day care to parents, and preschool for all 5-year-olds, where the emphasis is on play and socializing. In addition, the state subsidizes parents, paying them around 150 euros per month for every child until he or she turns 17. Ninety-seven percent of 6-year-olds attend public preschool, where children begin some academics. Schools provide food, medical care, counseling and taxi service if needed. Stu­dent health care is free.

Even so, Rintola said her children arrived last August miles apart in reading and language levels. By April, nearly every child in the class was reading, and most were writing. Boys had been coaxed into literature with books like Kapteeni Kalsarin (“Captain Underpants”). The school’s special education teacher teamed up with Rintola to teach five children with a variety of behavioral and learning problems. The national goal for the past five years has been to mainstream all children. The only time Rintola’s children are pulled out is for Finnish as a Second Language classes, taught by a teacher with 30 years’ experience and graduate school training.

There are exceptions, though, however rare. One first-grade girl was not in Rintola’s class. The wispy 7-year-old had recently arrived from Thailand speaking not a word of Finnish. She was studying math down the hall in a special “preparing class” taught by an expert in multicultural learning. It is designed to help children keep up with their subjects while they conquer the language. Kirkkojarvi’s teachers have learned to deal with their unusually large number of immigrant students. The city of Espoo helps them out with an extra 82,000 euros a year in “positive discrimination” funds to pay for things like special resource teachers, counselors and six special needs classes.

Rintola will teach the same children next year and possibly the next five years, depending on the needs of the school. “It’s a good system. I can make strong connections with the children,” said Rintola, who was handpicked by Louhivuori 20 years ago. “I understand who they are.” Besides Finnish, math and science, the first graders take music, art, sports, religion and textile handcrafts. English begins in third grade, Swedish in fourth. By fifth grade the children have added biology, geography, history, physics and chemistry.

Not until sixth grade will kids have the option to sit for a district-wide exam, and then only if the classroom teacher agrees to participate. Most do, out of curiosity. Results are not publicized. Finnish educators have a hard time understanding the United States’ fascination with standardized tests. “Americans like all these bars and graphs and colored charts,” Louhivuori teased, as he rummaged through his closet looking for past years’ results. “Looks like we did better than average two years ago,” he said after he found the reports. “It’s nonsense. We know much more about the children than these tests can tell us.”

I had come to Kirkkojarvi to see how the Finnish approach works with students who are not stereotypically blond, blue-eyed and Lutheran. But I wondered if Kirkkojarvi’s success against the odds might be a fluke. Some of the more vocal conservative reformers in America have grown weary of the “We-Love-Finland crowd” or so-called Finnish Envy. They argue that the United States has little to learn from a country of only 5.4 million people—4 percent of them foreign born. Yet the Finns seem to be onto something. Neighboring Norway, a country of similar size, embraces education policies similar to those in the United States. It employs standardized exams and teachers without master’s degrees. And like America, Norway’s PISA scores have been stalled in the middle ranges for the better part of a decade.

To get a second sampling, I headed east from Espoo to Helsinki and a rough neighborhood called Siilitie, Finnish for “Hedgehog Road” and known for having the oldest low-income housing project in Finland. The 50-year-old boxy school building sat in a wooded area, around the corner from a subway stop flanked by gas stations and convenience stores. Half of its 200 first- through ninth-grade students have learning disabilities. All but the most severely impaired are mixed with the general education children, in keeping with Finnish policies.

A class of first graders scampered among nearby pine and birch trees, each holding a stack of the teacher’s homemade laminated “outdoor math” cards. “Find a stick as big as your foot,” one read. “Gather 50 rocks and acorns and lay them out in groups of ten,” read another. Working in teams, the 7- and 8-year-olds raced to see how quickly they could carry out their tasks. Aleksi Gustafsson, whose master’s degree is from Helsinki University, developed the exercise after attending one of the many workshops available free to teachers. “I did research on how useful this is for kids,” he said. “It’s fun for the children to work outside. They really learn with it.”

Gustafsson’s sister, Nana Germeroth, teaches a class of mostly learning-impaired children; Gustafsson’s students have no learning or behavioral issues. The two combined most of their classes this year to mix their ideas and abilities along with the children’s varying levels. “We know each other really well,” said Germeroth, who is ten years older. “I know what Aleksi is thinking.”

The school receives 47,000 euros a year in positive discrimination money to hire aides and special education teachers, who are paid slightly higher salaries than classroom teachers because of their required sixth year of university training and the demands of their jobs. There is one teacher (or assistant) in Siilitie for every seven students.

In another classroom, two special education teachers had come up with a different kind of team teaching. Last year, Kaisa Summa, a teacher with five years’ experience, was having trouble keeping a gaggle of first-grade boys under control. She had looked longingly into Paivi Kangasvieri’s quiet second-grade room next door, wondering what secrets the 25-year-veteran colleague could share. Each had students of wide-ranging abilities and special needs. Summa asked Kangasvieri if they might combine gymnastics classes in hopes good behavior might be contagious. It worked. This year, the two decided to merge for 16 hours a week. “We complement each other,” said Kangasvieri, who describes herself as a calm and firm “father” to Summa’s warm mothering. “It is cooperative teaching at its best,” she says.

Every so often, principal Arjariita Heikkinen told me, the Helsinki district tries to close the school because the surrounding area has fewer and fewer children, only to have people in the community rise up to save it. After all, nearly 100 percent of the school’s ninth graders go on to high schools. Even many of the most severely disabled will find a place in Finland’s expanded system of vocational high schools, which are attended by 43 percent of Finnish high-school students, who prepare to work in restaurants, hospitals, construction sites and offices. “We help situate them in the right high school,” said then deputy principal Anne Roselius. “We are interested in what will become of them in life.”

Finland’s schools were not always a wonder. Until the late 1960s, Finns were still emerging from the cocoon of Soviet influence. Most children left public school after six years. (The rest went to private schools, academic grammar schools or folk schools, which tended to be less rigorous.) Only the privileged or lucky got a quality education.

The landscape changed when Finland began trying to remold its bloody, fractured past into a unified future. For hundreds of years, these fiercely independent people had been wedged between two rival powers—the Swedish monarchy to the west and the Russian czar to the east. Neither Scandinavian nor Baltic, Finns were proud of their Nordic roots and a unique language only they could love (or pronounce). In 1809, Finland was ceded to Russia by the Swedes, who had ruled its people some 600 years. The czar created the Grand Duchy of Finland, a quasi-state with constitutional ties to the empire. He moved the capital from Turku, near Stockholm, to Helsinki, closer to St. Petersburg. After the czar fell to the Bolsheviks in 1917, Finland declared its independence, pitching the country into civil war. Three more wars between 1939 and 1945—two with the Soviets, one with Germany—left the country scarred by bitter divisions and a punishing debt owed to the Russians. “Still we managed to keep our freedom,” said Pasi Sahlberg, a director general in the Ministry of Education and Culture.

In 1963, the Finnish Parlia-ment made the bold decision to choose public education as its best shot at economic recovery. “I call this the Big Dream of Finnish education,” said Sahlberg, whose upcoming book, Finnish Lessons, is scheduled for release in October. “It was simply the idea that every child would have a very good public school. If we want to be competitive, we need to educate everybody. It all came out of a need to survive.”

Practically speaking—and Finns are nothing if not practical—the decision meant that goal would not be allowed to dissipate into rhetoric. Lawmakers landed on a deceptively simple plan that formed the foundation for everything to come. Public schools would be organized into one system of comprehensive schools, or peruskoulu, for ages 7 through 16. Teachers from all over the nation contributed to a national curriculum that provided guidelines, not prescriptions. Besides Finnish and Swedish (the country’s second official language), children would learn a third language (English is a favorite) usually beginning at age 9. Resources were distributed equally. As the comprehensive schools improved, so did the upper secondary schools (grades 10 through 12). The second critical decision came in 1979, when reformers required that every teacher earn a fifth-year master’s degree in theory and practice at one of eight state universities—at state expense. From then on, teachers were effectively granted equal status with doctors and lawyers. Applicants began flooding teaching programs, not because the salaries were so high but because autonomy and respect made the job attractive. In 2010, some 6,600 applicants vied for 660 primary school training slots, according to Sahlberg. By the mid-1980s, a final set of initiatives shook the classrooms free from the last vestiges of top-down regulation. Control over policies shifted to town councils. The national curriculum was distilled into broad guidelines. National math goals for grades one through nine, for example, were reduced to a neat ten pages. Sifting and sorting children into so-called ability groupings was eliminated. All children—clever or less so—were to be taught in the same classrooms, with lots of special teacher help available to make sure no child really would be left behind. The inspectorate closed its doors in the early ’90s, turning accountability and inspection over to teachers and principals. “We have our own motivation to succeed because we love the work,” said Louhivuori. “Our incentives come from inside.”

To be sure, it was only in the past decade that Finland’s international science scores rose. In fact, the country’s earliest efforts could be called somewhat Stalinistic. The first national curriculum, developed in the early ’70s, weighed in at 700 stultifying pages. Timo Heikkinen, who began teaching in Finland’s public schools in 1980 and is now principal of Kallahti Comprehensive School in eastern Helsinki, remembers when most of his high-school teachers sat at their desks dictating to the open notebooks of compliant children.

And there are still challenges. Finland’s crippling financial collapse in the early ’90s brought fresh economic challenges to this “confident and assertive Eurostate,” as David Kirby calls it in A Concise History of Finland. At the same time, immigrants poured into the country, clustering in low-income housing projects and placing added strain on schools. A recent report by the Academy of Finland warned that some schools in the country’s large cities were becoming more skewed by race and class as affluent, white Finns choose schools with fewer poor, immigrant populations.

A few years ago, Kallahti principal Timo Heikkinen began noticing that, increasingly, affluent Finnish parents, perhaps worried about the rising number of Somali children at Kallahti, began sending their children to one of two other schools nearby. In response, Heikkinen and his teachers designed new environmental science courses that take advantage of the school’s proximity to the forest. And a new biology lab with 3-D technology allows older students to observe blood flowing inside the human body.

It has yet to catch on, Heikkinen admits. Then he added: “But we are always looking for ways to improve.”

In other words, whatever it takes.


Sep 2011, Smithsonian



From Finland, an Intriguing School-Reform Model

In Education, School Vouchers on December 15, 2011 at 6:53 am

Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and author, had a simple question for the high school seniors he was speaking to one morning last week in Manhattan: “Who here wants to be a teacher?”

Out of a class of 15, two hands went up — one a little reluctantly.

“In my country, that would be 25 percent of people,” Dr. Sahlberg said. “And,” he added, thrusting his hand in the air with enthusiasm, “it would be more like this.”

In his country, Dr. Sahlberg said later in an interview, teachers typically spend about four hours a day in the classroom, and are paid to spend two hours a week on professional development. At the University of Helsinki, where he teaches, 2,400 people competed last year for 120 slots in the (fully subsidized) master’s program for schoolteachers. “It’s more difficult getting into teacher education than law or medicine,” he said.

Dr. Sahlberg puts high-quality teachers at the heart of Finland’s education success story — which, as it happens, has become a personal success story of sorts, part of an American obsession with all things Finnish when it comes to schools.

Take last week. On Monday, Dr. Sahlberg was the keynote speaker at an education conference in Chicago. On Tuesday, he had to return to Helsinki for an Independence Day party held by Finland’s president — a coveted invitation to an event that much of the country watches on television.

On Wednesday, it was Washington, for a party for the release of his latest book, “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland?,” that drew staff members from the White House and Congress.

And Thursday brought him to the Upper West Side, for a daylong visit to the Dwight School, a for-profit school that prides itself on internationalism, where he talked to those seniors.

Ever since Finland, a nation of about 5.5 million that does not start formal education until age 7 and scorns homework and testing until well into the teenage years, scored at the top of a well-respected international test in 2001 in math, science and reading, it has been an object of fascination among American educators and policy makers.

Finlandophilia only picked up when the nation placed close to the top again in 2009, while the United States ranked 15th in reading, 19th in math and 27th in science.

The Finnish Embassy in Washington hosts brunch seminars with titles like “Why Are Finnish Kids So Smart?” and organizes trips to Finland for education journalists eager to see for themselves. In Helsinki, the Education Ministry has had 100 official delegations from 40 to 45 countries visit each year since 2005. Schools there used to love the attention, making cakes and doing folk dances for the foreigners, Dr. Sahlberg said, but now the crush of observers is considered a national distraction.

Critics say that Finland is an irrelevant laboratory for the United States. It has a tiny economy, a low poverty rate, a homogenous population — 5 percent are foreign-born — and socialist underpinnings (speeding tickets are calculated according to income).

Its school system has roughly the same number of teachers as New York City’s but far fewer students, 600,000 compared with New York’s 1.1 million. Finnish students speak Finnish and Swedish and usually English. (Patrick F. Bassett, head of the Washington-based National Association of Independent Schools, a fan of what Finland has been doing, said one of the things he learned on his own pilgrimage to Finland was that the average resident checks out 17 books a year from the library.)

“There are things they do right,” said Mark S. Schneider, vice president of the American Institutes for Research, “but I’m not sure how many lessons we get are portable.” Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said Finlandophilia was “totally deified” and “blown out of proportion.”

But Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford, said Finland could be an excellent model for individual states, noting that it is about the size of Kentucky.

“The fact that we have more race, ethnicity and economic heterogeneity, and we have this huge problem of poverty, should not mean we don’t want qualified teachers — the strategies become even more important,” Dr. Darling-Hammond said. “Thirty years ago, Finland’s education system was a mess. It was quite mediocre, very inequitable. It had a lot of features our system has: very top-down testing, extensive tracking, highly variable teachers, and they managed to reboot the whole system.”

Both Dr. Darling-Hammond and Dr. Sahlberg said a turning point was a government decision in the 1970s to require all teachers to have master’s degrees — and to pay for their acquisition. The starting salary for school teachers in Finland, 96 percent of whom are unionized, was about $29,000 in 2008, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, compared with about $36,000 in the United States.

More bear than tiger, Finland scorns almost all standardized testing before age 16 and discourages homework, and it is seen as a violation of children’s right to be children for them to start school any sooner than 7, Dr. Sahlberg said during his day at Dwight. He spoke to seniors taking a “Theory of Knowledge” class, then met with administrators and faculty members.

“The first six years of education are not about academic success,” he said. “We don’t measure children at all. It’s about being ready to learn and finding your passion.”

Dr. Sahlberg, 52, an Education Ministry official and a former math teacher, is the author of 15 books. He said he wrote the latest one, which sold out its first printing in a week, in response to the overwhelming interest in his country’s educational system. It was not meant to claim that Finland’s way was the best way, he said, and he was quick to caution against countries’ trying to import ideas à la carte and then expecting results.

“Don’t try to apply anything,” he told the Dwight teachers. “It won’t work because education is a very complex system.”

Besides high-quality teachers, Dr. Sahlberg pointed to Finland’s Lutheran leanings, almost religious belief in equality of opportunity, and a decision in 1957 to require subtitles on foreign television as key ingredients to the success story.

He emphasized that Finland’s success is one of basic education, from age 7 until 16, at which point 95 percent of the country goes on to vocational or academic high schools. “The primary aim of education is to serve as an equalizing instrument for society,” he said.

Dr. Sahlberg said another reason the system had succeeded was that “only dead fish follow the stream” — a Finnish expression.

Finland is going against the tide of the “global education reform movement,” which is based on core subjects, competition, standardization, test-based accountability, control.

“Education policies here are always written to be ‘the best’ or ‘the top this or that,’ ” he said. “We’re not like that. We want to be better than the Swedes. That’s enough for us.”


12 Dec 2011,  The New York Times

Extra Contract Teachers in Andhra Pradesh, India

In Civil Services Reforms, Education, School Vouchers on December 15, 2011 at 6:51 am
Policy Issue:

Over the past two decades, attempts to achieve Education for All (EFA) goals has led to dynamic improvements in school access and enrollment for many developing countries, but has also created difficulties with regards to maintaining and improving school quality.  Increased primary school enrollment has, in some areas, resulted in classroom overcrowding, which can negatively impact student learning. However, recruiting enough teachers and posting them in areas where they are needed remains a persistent problem.  The challenge is both fiscal (since teacher salaries account for the largest component of education spending) and logistical (since teachers are less willing to be deployed to underserved and remote areas where their need is the greatest).

Governments in several developing countries have in many places responded to this challenge by staffing unfilled teaching positions with locally-hired contract teachers who are not civil service employees. These teachers are hired locally on renewable contracts, tend to be less qualified and less trained, and are typically paid much lower salaries. This has been a controversial policy, with advocates citing higher teacher accountability and lower costs of contract teachers, and critics arguing that using untrained teachers would not improve learning and would de-professionalize education in the long-run.

Context of the Evaluation:

Contract teacher programs in India were originally initiated as a way to staff remote and underserved areas, however, their use has since expanded due to fiscal pressures. For example, in the large Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh, over 25% of primary school teachers are on short-term contracts, rather than regular civil service teachers.

Andhra Pradesh (AP) is the fifth largest state in India, with a population of over 80 million, 73% of whom live in rural areas. There are a total of over 60,000 government-run schools in AP and over 80% of children in rural areas attend such schools. All regular teachers are employed by the state and their salary is mostly determined by experience, with no component based on performance. These salaries and benefits comprise over 90% of expenditure on primary education in AP. Contract teachers, on the other hand, are generally hired at the school level. They usually have either a high school or college degree, but typically have no formal teacher training. Their contracts are renewed annually and they are not protected by any civil-service rules. With a salary of Rs.1,000-1,500/month, they are paid less than one fifth the average salary of a regular government teacher.

Details of the Intervention:

Researchers sought to investigate three questions using a randomized experiment: (i) What is the impact of contract teachers on student learning? (ii) Which students benefited from the additional teacher and (iii) How the behavior of contract teachers compared with those of regular teachers. While the three questions above were answered using a randomized experiment, the rich data collected also allowed for non-experimental comparisons of the effectiveness of regular teachers and contract teachers. The study was conducted across a representative sample of 200 government-run schools in rural AP, with 100 schools selected by lottery to receive an extra contract in addition to their allocation of regular and contract teachers.

Schools that were selected for the program were informed in a letter from the District administration that they had been granted authorization and funds to hire an additional contract teacher, and that they were expected to follow the normal procedures and guidelines for hiring such a teacher. The teachers were allocated to the school, allowing the school administrators, not the state, the ability to choose the teacher’s specific grade and role most tailored to their needs.  Since this is the typical procedure for hiring and using contract teachers, the intervention was designed to be an “as is” evaluation of the contract teacher policy of the Government of Andhra Pradesh.

Researchers gathered data from independent learning assessments in math and language conducted at the beginning of the study and two years later. Data was also collected from regular unannounced “tracking surveys” made by staff of the Azim Premji Foundation to measure variables such as teacher attendance and teaching activity. Researchers also collected data on private school teachers in the same districts for additional context on teacher labor markets.

Results and Policy Lessons:

At the end of two years, students in schools with an extra contract teacher performed significantly better than those in comparison schools by 0.15 and 0.09 standard deviations in math and language test scores respectively. While the modal assignment for contract teachers was to the third grade, the greatest test score gains were found for treatment students in the first grade in both years of the program. The program also led to a significant reduction in class size for all grades in both years of the program, suggesting that smaller class sizes matter most in younger grades.

Evidence suggests that contract teachers face stronger incentives than regular civil-service teachers to perform well. Contract teachers were significantly less likely to be absent than regular teachers (16% versus 27%) and more likely to be engaging in active teaching (46% versus 39%) when they were present. The study also finds some evidence to suggest that teachers with higher rates of absence were less likely to have their contracts renewed, indicating a plausible a channel for superior incentives faced by contract teachers.

The experiment establishes that the impact of contract teachers is positive. The authors then use the data collected to compare non-experimental estimates of the relative effectiveness of regular and contract teachers. They use four different methods (two at the school-level and two at the student level) and two different estimation samples (the full sample of 200 schools and the experimental sample of 100 schools) and find in all eight estimates that contract teachers appear to be as effective as regular teachers even though they are less qualified and paid much lower salaries.

The authors also collect detailed data on private schools in the same districts and find that private school teacher salaries are very similar to that of contract teachers, suggesting that the market wage for teachers in rural Andhra Pradesh is close to that being paid to contract teachers.  Private schools also hire more teachers and have much lower average class sizes than government schools.

These results suggest that the relevant policy question is not the comparison of one regular teacher and one contract teacher, but rather one regular teacher and several contract teachers. Expanding the use of contract teachers at the current margin could therefore be a highly cost-effective way of improving learning outcomes.

Opponents of the use of contract teachers worry that their expanded use may lead to a permanent second-class citizenry of contract teachers, which in the long-run will erode the professional spirit of teaching and shift the composition of the teacher stock away from trained teachers towards untrained teachers. One possible course of action is to hire all new teachers as contract teachers, and measure their performance on a regular basis. The most effective teachers could get promoted to regular teachers over time, while the least effective teachers would not have their contracts renewed. Such a system would resemble a “tenure track faculty” model as opposed to an “adjunct faculty” model and would create a teacher career ladder based on continuous performance.


Dec 2011, JPAL



Lessons from Brazil

In Bureaucratic Delays, PDS, Progressive Panchayat, School Vouchers on December 15, 2011 at 6:45 am

I RECENTLY spent a week in Brazil studying its much-talked-about conditional cash transfer programme, Bolsa Familia. It is seen as a successful poverty reduction and food security programme. My interest in it stems from the recent push towards a similar programme in India in lieu of the public distribution system (PDS). The fourth meeting of the National Council for Food and Nutrition Security (CONSEA) in Brazil, held from November 7 to 10, provided me a great opportunity to meet some of those involved in policymaking and implementation in that country. Besides this, I visited two municipalities (the lowest administrative unit in Brazil) to speak with the people who run local administrations and some beneficiaries of government programmes.

During my short visit, I was struck by how different Brazil was from India. To someone who comes from India, it is hard to believe that Brazil still counts as a developing country. The comparative data for the two countries confirm this impression. For instance, in 1990, Brazil’s GNI (gross national income) per capita per annum (in terms of purchasing power parity, or PPP, dollars) was five times as high as India’s and is now approximately thrice as much (see table on page 62).

Poverty in Brazil has been the problem of a small minority of the population. In a paper that compares Brazil, China and India, Martin Ravallion calculates that in 1981, less than one-fifth (17.6 per cent) of Brazil’s population was in “extreme poverty” (that is, living on less than $1.25 a day). This proportion came down to less than 10 per cent by 2005. In India, on the other hand, up to 42 per cent lived in extreme poverty in that period. That is, in 2005, the level of extreme poverty in India was still higher than that in Brazil nearly 25 years ago.

Going beyond income and poverty, even 20 years ago Brazil was ahead of India on most development indicators. In the past two decades, it has consolidated its position: as the table shows, it has almost achieved full literacy, infant mortality rates are low and, very importantly, has favourable gender-specific indicators (for instance, in Brazil, female literacy is marginally higher than male literacy and the female labour force participation rate is almost double that of India’s female labour force participation).

Further, Brazil has well-developed public infrastructure. A very small proportion (less than 15 per cent) of Brazil’s population is in rural areas. Adjusting for the different definition of “rural” in the two countries is unlikely to bridge the gap. According to the 2011 Census, nearly 70 per cent of India’s population still lives in villages. Comparing infrastructure indicators is even more revealing: nearly all households in Brazil have access to electricity, with reasonably regular power supply (I did not experience any power cuts during my visit); access to piped water is impressive compared with India (see table). The reach of the banking system is better than in India.

Most of Brazil is administered through lively municipalities that are functional bodies with proper administrative infrastructure, including staff, buildings, furniture and computers. The municipalities are also given financial incentives for the proper implementation of federal programmes.

It is important to bear in mind these basic differences between India and Brazil while designing food and nutrition programmes or poverty reduction policies in general. In Brazil, these issues came to prominence when Luís Inácio Lula da Silva came to power in 2003, when poverty, hunger and nutrition afflicted less than one-tenth of Brazilians. In 2003, Lula’s government emphasised that Brazil was a country with intolerable inequality. The problem of deprivation was concentrated in such a small segment of the population that it tended to be ignored. His government sought to put the spotlight on them, with the resolve to eliminate such deprivation.

In India, by contrast, the problems of poverty, ill-health, under-nutrition and illiteracy remain pervasive – and perhaps because of being so pervasive, they seem to be tolerated.

Social Security in Brazil

In spite of the fact that the size of the problem in the two countries is different, Brazil’s achievements in the past 10 years have been commendable. Indeed, reaching out to the most deprived groups tends to be the most difficult part of the battle against poverty and hunger. This section describes some aspects of Brazil’s successful strategy to deal with this leg of the journey.

Whenever I mentioned my interest in Bolsa Familia in my discussions, the first thing that people told me was that Bolsa Familia was just one among a range of interventions by the government. Isis Ferreira and Marcelo Saboia, who work at the Ministry of Social Development, said that Fome Zero was a strategy and Bolsa Familia was one programme of that overall strategy. In fact, health, access to water, higher minimum wages are all seen (and rightly so) as essential to achieve food and nutrition security.

In general, the reach and quality of basic services are quite high in Brazil. As the table indicates, Brazil spends nearly 10 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on education and health. India’s public expenditure on health and expenditure pales in comparison, barely crossing 5 per cent of the GDP. The higher levels of expenditure are visible on the ground as well. In Formosa, we visited a public health centre (PHC) which serves a population of 4,000. It has 13 field health personnel, a general doctor, a nurse and a dentist. Similarly, access to schooling is impressive; for a total population of 100,000 the district has approximately 60 government schools.

Brazil has an extensive network of social protection programmes. The range of schemes is mind-boggling: a “food basket” programme (providing fresh food); popular restaurants (which provide nutritious meals at one Brazilian real (BR) per meal); a new “food bank” programme (which procures perishables from farmers); a programme for the eradication of child labour (PETI – not just for child labourers but also for children vulnerable to child labour); a housing programme; youth shelters for children from battered homes; and a programme of “entertainment” for the elderly. The municipalities also seem to play a role in the formation of cooperatives and run skill development and training programmes (hairdressing, manicure, and so on) for some Bolsa Familia beneficiaries.

Many of these are now legal entitlements – there is a law for a unified health system (1990), a law on social assistance (1993), a basic income and citizenship law (2004), and, of course, the food and nutrition security law of 2006 and the long-running school meal programme (enacted as a law in 2009).

What seems to be really special about Brazil’s battle against poverty and deprivation is an “intensive care” approach whereby every needy person receives personal attention. In 2001, Brazil introduced the Cadastro Unico, a single registry that allows people to come forward and register for various government programmes. People register at their local municipal office by filling a detailed 10-page booklet, which helps the administration “diagnose” the problem and make a customised prescription for each family. Some families may require only income support through Bolsa Familia, while others may require food assistance; children from vulnerable families may need to be enrolled in the programme for the eradication of child labour.

The intensive care approach, operationalised through a network of CRAS (Referral Centre for Social Assistance), has been possible for two reasons: one, it is focussed on the most deprived sections of the population and, two, Lula’s regime since 2003 came with the political will to deal with the problem.

Cash transfers

In this larger frame of social interventions, it was not easy to tell whether Bolsa Familia was the most important intervention though it certainly has the largest budget (0.5 per cent of GDP in 2006) and is widely appreciated as a successful intervention. Bolsa Familia assistance is based on self-reported income. It is supposed to be given to any family whose per capita income is below BR 70 a month and to those families with children whose per capita income is above BR70 but below BR140.

It seems well recognised that those in the informal sector have variable and uncertain incomes and that there will be periods when their incomes exceed the Bolsa Familia cut-off and other times when the family earns nothing. For that reason, families are allowed to stay in the programme for at least two years regardless of what happens to their income over this period.

Brazil has a large formal sector (approximately 60 per cent), and when people enter employment in the formal sector, their employment and wage information is uploaded on to the registry of the Ministry of Labour. Every two years, the Cadastro Unico database is updated and cross-checked with the Ministry of Labour to ensure that ineligible persons do not get Bolsa Familia cash transfers. Those in the formal sector are covered by social security benefits such as retirement pension, survival pension, sickness benefit, and unemployment benefit.

Bolsa Familia includes an unconditional cash transfer component as well as a conditional transfer component, which is tied to school attendance and immunisation of children. Initially, benefits were provided for up to three children; this limit has now been relaxed and benefits are given for up to five children. Since school attendance and immunisation are close to universal in the first place, the conditionalities are easily met in most cases. When they are not, remedial action is supposed to be taken – discontinuing the transfers is the “last resort”.

The popularity of Bolsa Familia became clear from my interview with Hilma, a class 8 graduate, currently a Bolsa Familia beneficiary. She lives in Formosa, 80 kilometres from the capital, Brasilia. Her husband is a truck driver with an irregular income. I asked her what she felt was the most significant about getting Bolsa Familia money. She said it was the financial autonomy. Earlier, when she wanted to buy things for her children (she has three daughters), she had to “beg” her husband for money. Now, she is free from that dependence on him. Her mother had been a beneficiary of the programme when she was growing up, so she is accustomed to such assistance. Initially, she spent all the money on food. She was under the impression that nothing else was allowed. Then she enquired at the local municipality office and was informed that she could spend the money as she liked. She now spends some part of it to buy milk and other food items, clothes and schooling material for her girls, but most importantly, over the years she has bought a cooking range, a refrigerator and a sofa set.

Emerging from a long period of dictatorship, Brazil adopted its Constitution in 1988 and immediately began the task of building a welfare state. A strong and comprehensive legal framework, political priority to the issue, allocation of adequate financial resources and public mobilisation have all contributed to Brazil’s impressive achievements in this field in the past two decades.


Dec 2011, Frontline

Free run for autorickshaws within NCR

In Livelihood on December 13, 2011 at 8:35 am

This should cheer you up if you live in the National Capital Region (NCR). The Supreme Court’s decision last Friday to allow at least 45,000 more auto-rickshaws to ply between Delhi and NCR cities like Gurgaon, Noida, Faridabad and Ghaziabad will ensure that you don’t have to haggle over

extra fares.

The governments of Delhi, Haryana, UP and Rajasthan had signed an agreement to allow buses, taxis and autos to move freely in their states. While buses and taxis have no restriction, the decision on the limit of autos, a key mode of transport for office-goers, was stuck for a while. The apex court had fixed this number at 55,000 autos in 1997.

Since the number of people commuting between Delhi and NCR towns is huge, the state government has decided to give its transport plan a boost.

“While registering new autos in Delhi, we will leave a window for enough autos registered in other states to come to Delhi,” the transport department official said.

Not just that. The department is also planning to rope in firms managing radio taxis in Delhi to run autos on NCR routes.


13 Nov 2011, Hindustan Times

Rs 32 and an invisible line

In Poverty Eradication on December 13, 2011 at 8:32 am

Thirteen is an awkward number in Waseema Khatoon’s household. “That means that even if we buy a dozen eggs, it won’t be enough for all of us,” she says, smiling.

It’s not just the number of members in her family that is stopping Khatoon from buying eggs. The family buys them so rarely, the lady of the house isn’t very sure how much they cost: “I think they are going at Rs 4 an egg. We use them in curry, and that too, once a month or so.”

Khatoon, her husband Mohammad Shareef and their 10 children and one grandchild live in Sunlight Colony in the Old Seemapuri area of Delhi, a family of 13. At a time when the Planning Commission has indicated that spending more than

Rs 965 a month on a city-based individual will keep you above the poverty line, this household lives on the Rs 6,000 that the second daughter brings home every month by working at a mall.

“Umaira buys most of the groceries together, after she gets her salary. She has to take care of her conveyance, which costs her Rs 15, up and down, by bus,” says Khatoon. Six of her nine girls and the lone boy are enrolled in the neighbouring school.


The Dilshad Garden Metro station is barely two kilometres away. “Most of us don’t use the Metro. It’s comfortable, but we usually travel to interior areas. That means getting off the Metro and then spending on another mode of travel. In Umaira’s case, she has to change over to the Yellow Line, and then to the Blue Line before she can reach the mall,” says Azra, 24, the eldest, and the mother of three-year-old Ikra.

“We got her married, but instead of one member less, we now have to take care of one more,” says Khatoon, patting three-year-old Ikra, sitting on her lap. Azra’s husband is a labourer in Surat and he cannot afford to have his wife and child living with him. In fact, he cannot even afford to send them a monthly allowance.

August was a cruel month. “Ikra broke her left hand,” says Azra, extending her daughter’s hand gingerly. “I rushed her to a nearby private clinic. They charged Rs 300, and told me that they would have to break her bones again to set them right. I got scared,” she says. Azra had to rush Ikra to a different nursing home—a trip that cost her “20 rupees each side”—and get the hand plastered for Rs 1,500. There was also an additional charge of Rs 160 for an X-Ray.

The family has learnt to cope with medical emergencies. One of the nine daughters has a kidney stone, so they have abandoned tomatoes altogether, and hopes the stone will go away. “We bought two kilos of potato for Rs 12 a kilo two days back, and that should do for another day,” says Khatoon.

Vegetables and milk are bought on a need-to-buy basis. “Nobody drinks milk here. It all goes into making chai. I buy a litre for Rs 27 everyday,” says Shareef, Khatoon’s husband. The last job he held was three months ago, a porter at the Anand Vihar Railway Station.

The family is officially the poorest of the poor and has an Antyodaya Anna Yojana card. They get 10 litres of kerosene at Rs 15 a litre, 25 kilogrammes of wheat at Rs 2 a kg, 10 kilogrammes of rice at Rs 3 a kg and six kilogrammes of sugar at Rs 13.5 a kg every month with the card.

However, when the scheme began in 2002, they never got what they were entitled to. “The ration shop went on charging us market rates for whatever they gave us. Most of the time, we did not get much. The maximum quantity of sugar I got with my AAY card was three kilogrammes in a month,” says Khatoon. The women of the locality got together and filed an application under the Right to Information Act, which revealed how much they were entitled to with their ration cards.

Kerosene is a worry. “We used to get 11 litres for Rs 142 till recently. Now, there are rumours that even this will stop. They plan to give us some money in hand and ask us to get gas cylinders,” says Azra, referring to the proposed cash-transfer scheme, where the government will hand over the money it provides as fuel subsidy to the household, expecting them to chip in the rest.

“These are their rates. The government fixes the price of petrol, gas and milk, and tells us to live on Rs 32 a day,” says Khatoon.

Except for urad dal, of which the family consumes two kilos monthly, the family consumes four kilos each of three varieties of pulses. They also buy seven litres of oil— five of mustard and two of refined—at about Rs 80 a litre. They need 30 kilos of atta (“Loose, we cannot afford to buy the ones in packets,” says Khatoon) at the rate of Rs 16 a kg. Besides, the family has to buy rice and wheat from the open market, as the quantity they get from the ration shop is never enough.

August was a cruel month, also because of Ramzan. “I spent almost

Rs 500 every day on fruits, shikanji and food. We also donated quite a bit. We didn’t buy any mutton, though—it costs Rs 280 a kg.” Eid is also when the family makes its annual purchase of clothes. “We buy 14 pairs every year. Each suit (salwar) costs about Rs 250. Thankfully, there are only two men; their dresses cost at least Rs 500 each,” says Azra. The extra three kilos of sugar that the government gifts for Ramzan has still not arrived—the ration shop, which opens only once monthly, has still not opened for the month.

“The problem with Ramzan is that the happier we are, the more we give. This year, we were quite happy,” says Azra.


25 Sep 2011, Indian Express

In Bellary, illegal mining and gun permits hit simultaneous high

In Corruption, Tribal Development on December 13, 2011 at 8:26 am

In the iron ore mining district of Bellary, guns have grown alongside illegal mining. The district authorities issued the maximum number of gun licences in the year that illegal mining hit an all-time high.

A number of the licences were to members of what has now been described as an organised illegal mining syndicate from Bellary with its pivotal figure being former district-in-charge minister G Janardhan Reddy, arrested by the CBI as part of investigations into his illegal activities.

Data obtained from the office of the deputy commissioner of the Bellary district under the Right to Information Act shows that the district authorities issued an all-time high of 54 gun licences in the year 2009-10. According to a July 27 report on illegal mining by the Lokayukta, in 2009-10 illegal exports of iron ore from Bellary touched 1,27,99,396 metric tonnes, surpassing the previous year’s record of 53,55,660 tonnes.

Sources involved in the investigations into illegal mining said many of the licences in Bellary were issued to members of the mining syndicate since the district administration between 2008 and 2010 was completely under the control of the Reddy brothers’ group comprising mining-businessmen-turned-politicians.

Mehfouz Ali Khan, 25, a former employee of G Janardhan Reddy’s Obulapuram Mining Company, a personal assistant to the former minister, and who floated Devi Enterprises — identified by the Karnataka Lokayukta as a Reddy group front company that was muscling into iron ore resources, got a licence for a non-prohibited bore pistol in 2009-10.

Madhu Kumar Varma, 24, managing partner for Madhushree Enterprises, again identified as a Reddy group front company that was managing illegal extraction, transport, exports and channelisation of money from the business for the group, too got such a licence that year.

Swastik Nagaraj or K V Nagaraj, another of the members identified by the Lokayukta as being part of the mining mafia — by transporting illegally obtained ore for various Reddy front companies — too received a licence for an NPB pistol.

“The majority of gun licences issued from the year 2006-07 when illegal mining began its climb to peak at the 2009-10 figures were issued to people involved in the mining business in some way or the other. The licences in the two years between 2008 and 2010 went largely to what is now identified as the mining mafia,” said a member of the Lokayukta’s probe team for illegal mining.

According to the Lokayukta’s report, 2,98,60,647 tonnes of iron ore was exported without government permits from 2006-07 to 2009-2010 (before exports were banned in July 2010), causing losses to the state exchequer of an estimated Rs 12,228 crore. For the period 2009-10 alone, the loss has been estimated at Rs 4,635 crore.


26 Sep 2011, Indian Express