Renu Pokharna

Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Do Government School Teachers in Tamil Nadu educate their own children in Government schools or Private Schools?

In Education on June 24, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Detailed data obtained from the Tamil Nadu Government on this is interesting and revealing. Mr. T.K. Chandrasekaran, a retired Government official in Tamil Nadu, filed a Right To Information (RTI) application with the Tamil Nadu Government in 2009 asking for the following information:

  • Number of teachers teaching in Government or Government aided schools in Tamil Nadu
  • Number of teachers teaching in Government or Government aided schools in Tamil Nadu who send their own children to Government schools
  • Number of teachers teaching in Government or Government aided schools in Tamil Nadu who send their own children to Private schools

Mr. Chandrasekaran says he has received information from most of the districts over a two-year period. It has taken patient and persistent follow-up with every single District Education Officer (DEO). On occasion, he has had to go to the higher authorities including the State Information Commissioner, before the DEO acted on his request. The whole exercise, he says, cost him over Rs. 40,000. In one instance, the DEO of Kancheepuram district said he would provide the requested information only if a fee of Rs. 4,099 was paid to cover the costs of compiling and sending the information, which Mr. Chandrasekaran promptly did. He later filed a complaint against that DEO with the Tamil Nadu State Information Commission which ruled in Mr. Chandrasekaran’s favour and ordered the DEO to refund the amount to him!

Many DEOs provided the data requested. Some went beyond their call of duty and not only provided the data requested, but also listed the names of the individual teachers and their children as well! A few of the districts are yet to furnished the information, despite repeated reminders. Very little data has been received so far from the Chennai Corporation which runs the Government schools in Chennai.

Although data has been received from many districts, it is unclear if the data provided

  •  includes data on the schools and teachers in every single government school in those districts, or if some government schools have been left out;
  • refers only to Government school teachers or if it also includes teachers in Government-aided schools in Tamil Nadu.

The single-handed effort by Mr. Chandrasekaran, as a public-spirited and concerned citizen, in unearthing this data is most commendable. He has compiled all the information he has received so far and graciously shared it (data compiled by him is available in a spreadsheet). I have also crunched through the data provided by him to come up with district-wise summary spreadsheets  for high school and higher secondary school teacher data and primary and middle school teacher data. Further details can be had from Mr. Chandrasekaran (who can be contacted via email at tkcsekar2009_AT_gmail_DOT_com). He has the hard copies of all the responses received from the districts and communication with the DEOs, if someone is interested in documenting all of it.

Based on the data provided by him, which spans both rural and urban Tamil Nadu, here’re the findings:

Primary and Middle School Teachers in Tamil Nadu

Out of a reported total of 47,030 primary and middle school teachers in Government schools, 36,322 teachers (77%) were reported to have school going children of their own. Of these 36,322 teachers,

  • 27% (9,757 teachers) sent their children to Government Schools and
  • 73% (26,565 teachers) sent their children to Private Schools.

For perspective, there are 214,440 teachers in Primary and Middle Schools in Tamil Nadu including Government Schools, Government Aided Schools and Private Schools (Source: Tamil Nadu Govt. Policy Note on Demand No. 43 School Education, 2011-12 page 10).

High Schools and Higher Secondary School Teachers in Tamil Nadu

Out of a reported total of 50,782 high school and higher secondary school teachers in Government schools, 32,595 teachers (64%) were reported to have school going children of their own. Of these 32,595 teachers,

  • 13% (4,281 teachers) sent their children to Government schools and
  • 87% (28,314 teachers) sent their children to Private Schools.

For perspective, there are 130,000 teachers in secondary and higher secondary schools in Tamil Nadu including Government Schools, Government-Aided Schools and Self- Financed Schools (Source: Tamil Nadu Govt. Policy Note on Demand No. 43 School Education, 2011-12 page p29).

The data obtained by Mr. Chandrasekaran till date amounts to a sample of

  • 17%  (36,322 / 214,440) of all (Govt and Private) Primary and Middle School teachers, and
  • 29% (32,595 / 130,000) of all (Govt and Private) High School and Higher Secondary School teachers in Tamil Nadu.

The percentage sampled would be higher if taken as a percentage of Government and Government-aided school teachers alone and still higher if taken as a percentage of Government and Government-aided school teachers who have school going children of their own. This is a fairly large enough sample for the data to be taken very seriously.

The data clearly indicates that a substantial majority of teachers in Government Schools in Tamil Nadu don’t trust the quality of education in the schools they themselves are teaching in. They are voting with their feet when it comes to educating their own children. If the teachers have lost faith in Government Schools, what about the bureaucrats, politicians and policy makers who are responsible for funding public education as well as making policy decision relating to education? It would be interesting to collect similar data for all our MPs, MLAs and Central and State Government officers across India to find out whether their children and/or grand children are studying in, or studied in, Government schools or Private Schools. If the it turns out to be predominantly Private Schools, as I suspect it will, the politicians and policy makers will have a lot of explaining to do.

We must systematically compile similar data for every other state in India to obtain a nation-wide picture of the preferences of Government and Government aided school teachers when it comes to educating their own children. It would be worthwhile to file similar RTI applications in every state in India to obtain data for those states.

The nation-wide District Information System for Education (DISE) could collect this data as part of the annual national school census conducted by them. Since the 2011-12 school census conducted by DISE is already underway, it may be too late to incorporate it this year.

Data of this kind has tremendous value in helping us think about ways of improving our education system and making policy decisions about it. In the absence of data, inertia and dogma tend to overwhelm the debate on what can be done to improve education in India, resulting in choices and policy decisions which are not optimal, given our past history, current circumstances and national educational goals.

The data unearthed by Mr. Chandrasekaran is extremely important in the context of the debate on the role of the Government and the Private Sector in helping us achieve the national goal of providing a quality education for every single child in India by 2020.


30 Oct 2011,  Education in India

Tweaking IIT entrance: wrong diagnosis, wrong prescription

In Education on June 15, 2012 at 6:48 am

It began as an in-house debate within the IITs, that students coming through JEE were no longer as exceptional and talented as before. The villain was quickly identified: coaching classes that promote drill and rote rather than thought and creativity. So the government’s policy prescription: let’s underline the importance of the schooling system which ostensibly promotes original thinking, let’s tweak the entrance examination to factor in Class XII marks.

The entire debate revolves around students who take the IIT entrance: less than 6 per cent of the 8 million students who take the Class XII exam each year. But more of that later, first a story from The Indian Express, reported last month. About 16-year-old Ashutosh, who ranked No 2 in the UP Board Class XII examination. He woke up at 4 am every day, rode his bicycle 3 km from his village to Mohan, a small town in Unnao district. Then he took a three-wheeler to Lucknow more than 30 km away. Then he walked 2 km from the taxistand to his school in Rajajipuram (Lucknow) to reach there by 7.30 am. Ashutosh took the AIEEE (for entrance to NITs), but his real target, he said, is next year’s IIT-JEE.

Consider this: this student, who passed Class X with 79.5 per cent from a government school in Unnao, chose a private school 30 km away in Lucknow for his Class XII. Although he appeared for AIEEE, NITs, and IIT-JEE this year, he appears to have decided that he will try JEE next year again. His father, a tractor spare parts shopowner in Mohan, is likely to use his savings to keep his son out of university and enrol him in some coaching class.

You will find similar stories across more than 65,000 higher secondary schools in the country and these raise key questions: why did Ashutosh prefer a private school over a government school? Why do students and their parents go to such lengths as to exhaust their meagre savings to pay for coaching even after a good Class XII score? Will factoring in Class XII marks change this? The fact is that reforming the IIT entrance is way off the mark when it comes to solving the original crisis: the school system.

First, the data. IIT-JEE aspirants constitute only a fraction of the total number of students taking the Class XII examination across the country. A total of 4.79 lakh students took the IIT-JEE this year. This number includes many who graduated from Class XII last year. So, the number of Class XII students appearing in IIT-JEE is even lower than this number. Even if one assumes all of them are from Class XII, this number works out to be less than 6 per cent (5.79 per cent) of students enrolled in Class XII. All the debate ignores the 94 per cent.

Also, no one spares a thought for the 40 per cent of students who take Class X but simply vanish by the time their cohorts reach Class XII (all data is from HRD records).

Coming to coaching classes. Forget the 40 per cent weight (envisaged under the “one nation, one test” principle), even if Class XII scores get 100 per cent weight, it won’t wipe out coaching classes. For the simple reason that there are too many good students vying for too few seats available in the quality higher education system. It begets anxiety among students and their parents to leave no stone (coaching class) unturned to make it. It is a supply problem. The number of seats (about 10,000 in IITs) falls far short of students (about 20,000 selected for counselling) found suitable to take that course.

The IITs/ NITs/ IIITs, for their part, should not be faulted for being so selective about who they choose. They even go to the extent of differentiating one from the other through separate entrance examinations. They even strive to maintain a hierarchy among them, only to select the best.

Why use “one nation, one test” to demolish the healthy competition between them to attract the best? One can argue that too many tests put too much stress on students. But ask all the Ashutoshes across all higher secondary schools. They might not be sure of getting past IIT-JEE, but they remain hopeful either about AIEEE or about some other entrance exam down the ladder. Many of the students would not like to put all their eggs in one basket.

A more robust solution would be to enhance the supply of quality seats at the undergraduate level, not only in engineering or medicine but also in law, commerce, humanities and social sciences. Take away their (IITs/ NITs/ IIITs) luxury to “select” from the plentiful and force them to compete with others to “attract” the most suitable. This will also iron out the skew that these handful of institutions create.

The institutional response to the hegemony of the IITs lies in creating similar international brands in other streams: humanities, law, commerce, social sciences among others. This will force them to compete to attract suitable students. This, in fact, will revive interest in an interdisciplinary school curriculum instead of the current distortion towards Physics-Chemistry-Math/ Biology. The bottomline is that, first, it is not part of the IITs/ NITs/ IIITs’ mandate to strengthen the school system; second, a change of examination pattern, as is being envisaged, is not going to revive the school system.

The task of reviving secondary and higher secondary education, to give it the weight it deserves, is the biggest challenge to the system today. Tweaking the IIT entrance exam or doing away with marks in Class X is not going to make any difference. It’s not worth Kapil Sibal’s time or effort to lose his sleep over IIT graduates. The 94 per cent need him more.


13 June 2012,  Indian Express

What we can learn from Finland’s successful school reform

In Education on June 3, 2012 at 4:39 am

One wonders what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality, so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity, and put the millions of dollars spent continually arguing and litigating into building a high-quality education system for all children. To imagine how that might be done, one can look at nations that started with very little and purposefully built highly productive and equitable systems, sometimes almost from scratch, in the space of only two to three decades.

As an example, I am going to briefly describe how Finland built a strong educational system, nearly from the ground up. Finland was not succeeding educationally in the 1970s, when the United States was the unquestioned education leader in the world. Yet this country created a productive teaching and learning system by expanding access while investing purposefully in ambitious educational goals using strategic approaches to build teaching capacity.

I use the term “teaching and learning system” advisedly to describe a set of elements that, when well designed and connected, reliably support all students in their learning. These elements ensure that students routinely encounter well-prepared teachers who are working in concert around a thoughtful, high-quality curriculum, supported by appropriate materials and assessments—and that these elements of the system help students, teachers, leaders, and the system as a whole continue to learn and improve. Although no system from afar can be transported wholesale into another context, there is much to learn from the experiences of those who have addressed problems we also encounter.

The Finnish Success Story

Finland has been a poster child for school improvement since it rapidly climbed to the top of the international rankings after it emerged from the Soviet Union’s shadow. Once poorly ranked educationally, with a turgid bureaucratic system that produced low-quality education and large inequalities, it now ranks first among all the OECD nations (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—roughly, the so-called “developed” nations) on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessments), an international test for 15-year-olds in language, math, and science literacy. The country also boasts a highly equitable distribution of achievement, even for its growing share of immigrant students.

In a recent analysis of educational reform policies, Finnish policy analyst Pasi Sahlberg describes how, since the 1970s, Finland has changed its traditional education system “into a model of a modern, publicly financed education system with widespread equity, good quality, large participation—all of this at reasonable cost.” (Sahlberg, 2009, p. 2.) More than 99 percent of students now successfully complete compulsory basic education, and about 90 percent complete upper secondary school. Two-thirds of these graduates enroll in universities or professionally oriented polytechnic schools. More than 50 percent of the Finnish adult population participates in adult education programs. Ninety-eight percent of the cost of education at all levels is covered by government rather than by private sources.

Although there was a sizable achievement gap among students in the 1970s, strongly correlated to socio-economic status, this gap has been progressively reduced as a result of curriculum reforms started in the 1980s. By 2006, Finland’s between-school variance on the PISA science scale was only 5 percent, whereas the average between-school variance in other OECD nations was about 33 percent. (Large between-school variation is generally related to social inequality.)

The overall variation in achievement among Finnish students is also smaller than that of nearly all the other OECD countries. This is true despite the fact that immigration from nations with lower levels of education has increased sharply in recent years, and there is more linguistic and cultural diversity for schools to contend with. One recent analysis notes that in some urban schools the number of immigrant children or those whose mother tongue is not Finnish approaches 50 percent.

Although most immigrants are still from places like Sweden, the most rapidly growing newcomer groups since 1990 have been from Afghanistan, Bosnia, India, Iran, Iraq, Serbia, Somalia, Turkey, Thailand, and Vietnam. These new immigrants speak more than 60 languages. Yet achievement has been climbing in Finland and growing more equitable.

Strategies for Reform

Because of these trends, many people have turned to Finland for clues to educational transformation. As one analyst notes:

“Most visitors to Finland discover elegant school buildings filled with calm children and highly educated teachers. They also recognize the large autonomy that schools enjoy, little interference by the central education administration in schools’ everyday lives, systematic methods to address problems in the lives of students, and targeted professional help for those in need.” (Sahlbert, 2009, p. 7)

Leaders in Finland attribute the gains to their intensive investments in teacher education—all teachers receive three years of high-quality graduate level preparation completely at state expense—plus a major overhaul of the curriculum and assessment system designed to ensure access to a “thinking curriculum” for all students. A recent analysis of the Finnish system summarized its core principles as follows:

  • Resources for those who need them most.
  • High standards and supports for special needs.
  • Qualified teachers.
  • Evaluation of education.
  • Balancing decentralization and centralization. (Laukkanen, 2008, p. 319)

The process of change has been almost the reverse of policies in the United States. Over the past 40 years, Finland has shifted from a highly centralized system emphasizing external testing to a more localized system in which highly trained teachers design curriculum around the very lean national standards. This new system is implemented through equitable funding and extensive preparation for all teachers. The logic of the system is that investments in the capacity of local teachers and schools to meet the needs of all students, coupled with thoughtful guidance about goals, can unleash the benefits of local creativity in the cause of common, equitable outcomes.

Meanwhile, the United States has been imposing more external testing—often exacerbating differential access to curriculum—while creating more inequitable conditions in local schools. Resources for children and schools, in the form of both overall funding and the presence of trained, experienced teachers, have become more disparate in many states, thus undermining the capacity of schools to meet the outcomes that are ostensibly sought. Sahlberg notes that Finland has taken a very different path. He observes:

“The Finns have worked systematically over 35 years to make sure that competent professionals who can craft the best learning conditions for all students are in all schools, rather than thinking that standardized instruction and related testing can be brought in at the last minute to improve student learning and turn around failing schools.”  (Sahlberg, 2009, p. 22)

Sahlberg identifies a set of global reforms, undertaken especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries, that Finland has not adopted, including standardization of curriculum enforced by frequent external tests; narrowing of the curriculum to basic skills in reading and mathematics; reduced use of innovative teaching strategies; adoption of educational ideas from external sources, rather than development of local internal capacity for innovation and problem-solving; and adoption of high-stakes accountability policies, featuring rewards and sanctions for students, teachers, and schools. By contrast, he suggests:

“Finnish education policies are a result of four decades of systematic, mostly intentional, development that has created a culture of diversity, trust, and respect within Finnish society in general, and within its education system in particular.… Education sector development has been grounded on equal opportunities for all, equitable distribution of resources rather than competition, intensive early interventions for prevention, and building gradual trust among education practitioners, especially teachers.” (Sahberg, p. 10)

Equity in opportunity to learn is supported in many ways in addition to basic funding.

Finnish schools are generally small (fewer than 300 pupils) with relatively small class sizes (in the 20s), and are uniformly well equipped. The notion of caring for students educationally and personally is a central principle in the schools. All students receive a free meal daily, as well as free health care, transportation, learning materials, and counseling in their schools, so that the foundations for learning are in place. Beyond that, access to quality curriculum and teachers has become a central aspect of Finnish educational policy.

Improving Curriculum Content and Access

Beginning in the 1970s, Finland launched reforms to equalize educational opportunity by first eliminating the practice of separating students into very different tracks based on their test scores, and then by eliminating the examinations themselves. This occurred in two stages between 1972 and 1982, and a common curriculum, through the end of high school, was developed throughout the entire system. These changes were intended to equalize educational outcomes and provide more open access to higher education. During this time, social supports for children and families were also enacted, including health and dental care, special education services, and transportation to schools.

By the late 1970s, investment in teachers was an additional focus. Teacher education was improved and extended. Policy makers decided that if they invested in very skillful teachers, they could allow local schools more autonomy to make decisions about what and how to teach—a reaction against the oppressive, centralized system they sought to overhaul.

This bet seems to have paid off. By the mid-1990s, the country had ended the highly regulated system of curriculum management (reflected in older curriculum guides that had exceeded 700 pages of prescriptions). The current national core curriculum is a much leaner document—featuring fewer than 10 pages of guidance for all of mathematics, for example—that guides teachers in collectively developing local curriculum and assessments. The focus of 1990s curricular reform was on science, technology, and innovation, leading to an emphasis on teaching students how to think creatively and manage their own learning.

There are no external standardized tests used to rank students or schools in Finland, and most teacher feedback to students is in narrative form, emphasizing descriptions of their learning progress and areas for growth. As in the NAEP exams in the United States, samples of students are evaluated on open-ended assessments at the end of the second and ninth grades to inform curriculum and school investments. The focus is on using information to drive learning and problem-solving, rather than punishment.

Finland maintains one exam prior to attending university: the matriculation exam, organized and evaluated by a matriculation exam board appointed by the Finnish Ministry of Education. Although not required for graduation or entry into a university, it is common practice for students to take this set of four open-ended exams that emphasize problem-solving, analysis, and writing. Teachers use official guidelines to grade the matriculation exams locally, and samples of the grades are re-examined by professional raters hired by the matriculation exam board. Although it is counterintuitive to those accustomed to external testing as a means of accountability, Finland’s use of school-based, student-centered, open-ended tasks embedded in the curriculum is often touted as an important reason for the nation’s success on the international exams.

The national core curriculum provides teachers with recommended assessment criteria for specific grades in each subject and in the overall final assessment of student progress each year. Local schools and teachers then use those guidelines to craft a more detailed curriculum and set of learning outcomes at each school, as well as approaches to assessing benchmarks in the curriculum. According to the Finnish National Board of Education, the main purpose of assessing students is to guide and encourage students’ own reflection and self-assessment. Teachers give students formative and summative reports both through verbal and narrative feedback. Inquiry is a major focus of learning in Finland, and assessment is used to cultivate students’ active learning skills by asking open-ended questions and helping students address them.

In a Finnish classroom, it is rare to see a teacher standing at the front of a classroom lecturing students for 50 minutes. Instead, students are likely to determine their own weekly targets with their teachers in specific subject areas and choose the tasks they will work on at their own pace. In a typical classroom, students are likely to be walking around, rotating through workshops or gathering information, asking questions of their teacher, and working with other students in small groups. They may be completing independent or group projects or writing articles for their own magazine. The cultivation of independence and active learning allows students to develop metacognitive skills that help them to frame, tackle, and solve problems; evaluate and improve their own work; and guide their learning processes in productive ways.

Improving Teaching

Greater investments in teacher education began in the 1970s with the expectation that teachers would move from three-year normal school programs to four- to five-year programs of study. During the 1990s, the country overhauled preparation once again to focus more on teaching diverse learners higher-order skills like problem-solving and critical thinking in research-based master’s degree programs. Preparing teachers for a research-based profession has been the central idea of teacher education developments in Finland.

Prospective teachers are competitively selected from the pool of college graduates—only 15 percent of those who apply are admitted—and receive a three-year graduate-level teacher preparation program, entirely free of charge and with a living stipend. Unlike the United States, where teachers either go into debt to prepare for a profession that will pay them poorly or enter with little or no training, Finland made the decision to invest in a uniformly well-prepared teaching force by recruiting top candidates and paying them to go to school. Slots in teacher training programs are highly coveted and shortages are virtually unheard of.

Teachers’ preparation includes both extensive coursework on how to teach—with a strong emphasis on using research based on state-of-the-art practice—and at least a full year of clinical experience in a school associated with the university. These model schools are intended to develop and model innovative practices, as well as to foster research on learning and teaching. Teachers are trained in research methods so that they can “contribute to an increase of the problem-solving capacity of the education system.” (Buchberger and Buchberger, p. 10)

Within these model schools, student teachers participate in problem-solving groups, a common feature in Finnish schools. The problem-solving groups engage in a cycle of planning, action, and reflection/evaluation that is reinforced throughout the teacher education program and is, in fact, a model for what teachers will plan for their own students, who are expected to incorporate similar kinds of research and inquiry in their own studies. Indeed, the entire system is intended to improve through continual reflection, evaluation, and problem-solving at the level of the classroom, school, municipality, and nation.

Teachers learn how to create challenging curriculum and how to develop and evaluate local performance assessments that engage students in research and inquiry on a regular basis. Teacher training emphasizes learning how to teach students who learn in different ways, including those with special needs. It includes a strong emphasis on “multiculturality” and the “prevention of learning difficulties and exclusion,” as well as on the understanding of learning, thoughtful assessment, and curriculum development. The egalitarian Finns reasoned that if teachers learn to help students who struggle, they will be able to teach all students more effectively and, indeed, leave no child behind.

Most teachers now hold master’s degrees in both their content area and in education, and they are well prepared to teach diverse learners—including special-needs students—for deep understanding, and to use formative performance assessments on a regular basis to inform their teaching so it meets students’ needs. Teachers are well trained both in research methods and in pedagogical practice. Consequently, they are sophisticated diagnosticians, and they work together collegially to design instruction that meets the demands of the subject matter as well as the needs of their students.

In Finland, like other high-achieving nations, schools provide time for regular collaboration among teachers on issues of instruction. Teachers in Finnish schools meet at least one afternoon each week to jointly plan and develop curriculum, and schools in the same municipality are encouraged to work together to share materials. Time is also provided for professional development within the teachers’ workweek. As is true in many other European and Asian nations, nearly half of teachers’ school time is used to hone practice through school-based curriculum work, collective planning, and cooperation with parents, which allows schools and families to work more closely together on behalf of students. The result is that:

“Finnish teachers are conscious, critical consumers of professional development and inservice training services. Just as the professional level of the teaching cadre has increased over the past two decades, so has the quality of teacher professional development support. Most compulsory, traditional inservice training has disappeared. In its place are school- or municipality-based longer term programs and professional development opportunities. Continuous upgrading of teachers’ pedagogical professionalism has become a right rather than an obligation. This shift in teachers’ learning conditions and styles often reflects ways that classroom learning is arranged for pupils. As a consequence of strengthened professionalism in schools, it has become understood that teachers and schools are responsible for their own work and also solve most problems rather than shift them elsewhere. Today the Finnish teaching profession is on a par with other professional workers; teachers can diagnose problems in their classrooms and schools, apply evidence-based and often alternative solutions to them, and evaluate and analyze the impact of implemented procedures.” (Sahlberg, 2007, p. 155)

The focus on instruction and the development of professional practice in Finland’s approach to organizing the education system has led, according to all reports, to an increased prevalence of effective teaching methods in schools. Furthermore, efforts to enable schools to learn from each other have led to “lateral capacity building”: the widespread adoption of effective practices and experimentation with innovative approaches across the system, “encouraging teachers and schools to continue to expand their repertoires of teaching methods and individualizing teaching to meet the needs of all students.” (Sahlberg, 2007, p. 167)

A Finnish official noted this key lesson learned from the reforms that allowed Finland to climb from an inequitable, mediocre education system to the very top of the international rankings:

“Empowerment of the teaching profession produces good results. Professional teachers should have space for innovation, because they should try to find new ways to improve learning. Teachers should not be seen as technicians whose work is to implement strictly dictated syllabi, but rather as professionals who know how to improve learning for all. All this creates a big challenge . . . that certainly calls for changes in teacher education programs. Teachers are ranked highest in importance, because educational systems work through them.” (Laukkanen, 2008)

Finland has undertaken these elements in a systemic fashion, rather than pouring energy into a potpourri of innovations and then changing course every few years, as has often been the case in many communities in the United States, especially in large cities. And while this small nation has conducted this work on a national level, similar strategies have been employed at the state or provincial level in high-scoring Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, and provinces like Hong Kong and Macao in China, also with positive outcomes.

They demonstrate how it is possible to build a system in which students are routinely taught by well-prepared teachers who work together to create a thoughtful, high-quality curriculum, supported by appropriate materials and assessments that enable ongoing learning for students, teachers, and schools alike.


2010,  NEAToday


Classroom struggle

In Bizarre Laws, Education, School Vouchers on April 18, 2012 at 8:20 am

Court settles the class issue, but the real challenges of RTE have to be metThe debate over the Right to Education is beginning to display characteristic symptoms of Indian debates. Elites are inventing specious arguments to condone the economic apartheid in the current system. But India’s self-appointed anti-elites are often even more elitist. They are more fixated on taking down elites a peg or two rather than intelligently fixing real problems. There is also a good deal of unhelpful abstraction in the debate. The judgment on the Right to Education Act must be seen in this context. The majority judgment, rightly, comes to the conclusion that reserving 25 per cent seats for economically weaker sections is not unconstitutional. However, the reasoning in the judgment itself is perfunctory. It shoddily skirts difficult legal issues under the guise of uncharacteristically easy deference to Parliament; Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan’s dissent, on the other hand, has the greater internal integrity of argument.Ideally, a government should be able to create a school system that mitigates class bias and does not perpetuate it. Unfortunately, neither the poor nor the rich trust the government to do that. There are cries that the government should do its job. True enough, and the RTE is a prod in that direction. But there is a brute sociological fact: no government school system can run successfully if there is a large-scale secession of elites from the public system. The accountability dynamics are largely determined by the presence of the powerful. In India this secession is almost total. We can have a chicken-and-egg argument about whether quality comes first or elite involvement. Against this backdrop, closing pathways to elite schools would be an argument in bad faith.The serious problem with the RTE is not 25 per cent reservations. There is no expropriation insofar as schools are being compensated to some degree. But the court’s vague homilies on burden-sharing skirt a fundamental issue of fairness. In funding by taxation we usually adopt progressive taxation. In the current scheme there is a real danger that a proportionately much larger burden may fall on relatively lower middle class parents than rich ones. The argument for exempting minority institutions seems bogus. It says that all rights in the Constitution are to be interpreted in light of appropriate qualifications and directive principles of state policy, except minority rights, which have an “absolute” character. It is not clear why their minority status would be impaired by such reservation; at the very least they could admit weaker sections among minorities. If the objective is integrated classrooms, this goes against the grain.The judgment is a missed opportunity to clarify the real issues in the RTE. For the core issue is this. All professions have to be regulated to some degree. But is regulating wages (over general minimum wage regulations) and infrastructure, and how you admit and who you can promote reasonable regulation? These issues will be more consequential for the RTE. Everyone pronouncing on the RTE is very confident in their answers: they range from revolution to disaster. But my honest answer is the three words policy analysts hate using, but should use more often: “I don’t know.”This is because the real action is not in the act, but in the rules states are framing. These show wide variation on many issues. Is this going to be a disaster for the private sector or is it a voucher scheme in disguise that will lead to the expansion of the private sector? You could argue that there is going to be a minimum 25 per cent expansion in demand for new private schools among the moderate to high fee-paying population. There could also be political dynamics where citizens demand more private schools. Twenty-five per cent might turn out to be the beginning of a full-fledged voucher system. Will there be a supply response? It depends on land and labour markets. Complaints about the cost of schooling gloss over the fact that these costs are a function of these two markets.Will recognition requirements kill low-cost private schools? Again, it depends. On current evidence, state practice varies widely. The real backbone of the private school revolution in India was flexibility in teachers’ wages. From a pedagogic point of view, this flexibility is important. Wages have no correlation with quality, especially in elementary education. States seem to have wide variations in their rules. Will quality assessments happen? As Parth Shah has pointed out, Gujarat has come up with a very sophisticated school quality assessment programme, while others are floundering. Will this system achieve social integration? I suspect you will get a varied story. For one thing, the neighbourhood criterion for determining eligibility seems too narrow. What will be the eligibility criteria and design of the lottery that allocates kids?Everyone was so fixated on the 25 per cent reservation that the status of the real freedoms the schools need, on wages, infrastructure etc., were not clarified. The federalism currently being practiced is a good thing. But this will also be at some point litigated. We can only hope that the government and courts will go for more rather than less flexibility. It is something of a mystery the courts consistently choose to underemphasise the nuts and bolts of autonomy.The current system is not pedagogically child-centric. But it is an open question whether the new system will be. Teaching the child is easier said than done. The RTE does not allow a school to hold back a child, no matter what their learning attainments. How do we compensate for learning disparities that set in by age six? As Rukmini Banerjee of Pratham reminds us, the real issue is going to be curriculum and pedagogy, and the jury is out on that issue.Will the RTE improve accountability? Short answer: We don’t know. But the current system also has zero accountability. There are a lot of myths about prevailing structures of accountability. Even in high-end schools, teacher variance is very high. Would kids in most elite schools pass conceptual understanding tests in grades nine or ten without outside support? The RTE creates a new institutional locus for the politics of accountability that might be more tractable than the current institutional centralisation. It also creates incentives for a new politics of classification: it will be interesting to see whether there is a rush to establish “minority” schools. There will be the inevitable politics over inclusion in EWS. But sometimes opportunities to game the system also mean parents take more interest in it. Also, we may just be at a different historical moment in parental interest. The court has settled the class issue. But the real challenges of the classroom will not be solved by self-righteous elite versus anti-elite debates.

18 April 2012, Indian Express

State returned central aid for key schemes

In Bureaucratic Delays, Centre-State Relations, Education, Gujarat on April 6, 2012 at 5:59 am

While the state government often accuses the Centre of withholding financial assistance for various programmes, it turns out that 67% of the central grants for 2010-11 allocated for Kanya Kelavni, the prestigious annual girl child education campaign by the state government, was returned to Delhi because they could not be used, says the CAG report recently tabled in the state Assembly.

Kanya Kelavni is one of the several schemes that figures in a elaborate list of 86 “substantial surrenders”, where 75% of the total central grants worth 1,500 crore meant for various schemes were surrendered due to their non-implementation or slow implementation.

Kanya Kelavni was launched 2003 and it is inaugurated every year in June by Chief Minister Narendra Modi, after which his team of officers travel to remote villages to encourage parents to enrol girl children in schools.

The government’s official publication claimed that because of the Kanya Kelavni and Shala Praveshotsav, drop-out rate in 1-5 grade came down to 2.09% in 2010-11 compared to 20.93% in 2000-01.

Most of these cases where grants were partially or fully surrendered relate to education projects like Rashtriya Madhyamik Shikshan Abhiyan scheme, computer literacy studies in schools, Gujarat Teachers Education University, Saraswati Yatra, Gujarat Technology University and development of engineering colleges.

These figures have come to light in the audit report of appropriation accounts by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), which notes that there has been 100% surrenders of grants in 22 of the 86 cases of “substantial surrenders” (involving more than 50 per cent of the total provision or more than Rs 1 crore) during the financial year 2010-11.

“Out of the total provision amounting to Rs 1,543 crore, almost Rs 1,168 crore was surrendered, which included 100 per cent surrenders in 22 cases amounting to Rs 138 crore,” says the CAG report.

Apart from education projects, grants for improvement of justice delivery in the state, cyclone mitigation and setting up emergency response centres were also returned.

The entire Rs 20-crore grant for the state government’s disease control programme for foot-and-mouth diseases was returned since the vaccination campaign could not be carried out for want of vaccines.


6 April 2012, Indian Express

No teacher left Behind

In Education, School Vouchers on March 30, 2012 at 6:55 am

One of the great successes of global development over the past 60 years has been getting kids in school. In 1950, less than half the world’s primary-school-age children were enrolled. Today that figure is trending rapidly toward 100 percent. More schooling is associated with all sorts of good things — not least higher earnings as an adult, lower fertility among girls, and lower mortality among their kids. And the world’s governments are responsible for educating the considerable majority of those in school — perhaps one out of 10 students at the primary level is in private school. Kudos to the ministries, aid agencies, educators, and parents that made all of this possible.

The bad news is that many of the billion-plus kids in school today aren’t learning very much. In fact, in public schools in the developing world, many are learning close to nothing — many kids leave school unable to read or do simple sums. If we’re going to convert more kids in class into more knowledge in heads, we’re going to have to turn our focus from the students to the teachers — ensuring they have the incentives to perform.

In terms of access to schooling, countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America are massively ahead of where developed countries were only a little more than a generation ago. According to data from Robert Barro of Harvard University and Jong-Wha Lee of Korea University, Ghana’s population (ages 15 and over) had been in school for an average of nearly eight years in 2010. Zambia’s averaged nearly seven years, Bangladesh six, and Haiti a little above five. Now consider that France, Germany, and Spain — as recently as 1970 — were all below five years.

At the same time, developing countries have done a lot less well in ensuring kids actually learn something while sitting in class. Despite close to universal enrollment in primary schools in Bangladesh, over 50 percent of 11-year-olds are unable to write basic letters or numerals. International tests suggest the average math ability of Brazilian 15-year-olds is equal to that of the bottom 2 percent of Danish students. In South Africa’s Western Cape province, only two out of 1,000 sixth graders in predominantly black schools passed a mathematics test at grade level in 2005.

The problem isn’t that kids are incapable of learning. It is true that some children do arrive at school tired from a long walk, malnourished, or weakened by illness — and that can have an impact on test scores. But put even the most disadvantaged children in the right environment, and they learn lots very fast. Take one widely cited example: Sugata Mitra put a computer in the wall of a slum in New Delhi, and within days kids were surfing the Internet and playing games on Disney’s website — all without any formal instruction. In other words, slum kids in India can learn enough computer literacy to waste time online as fast as their Western counterparts.

If it isn’t that the kids can’t learn, is the problem that the teachers can’t teach? It is true that a study in southern Africa found many primary school mathematics teachers who actually scored lower than their students on math tests. But, as a rule, most teachers still know enough to help their charges learn. In fact, according to Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo at MIT’s Poverty Action Lab, the same teachers in an Indian experiment who proved atrocious at providing an education during the semester in public schools turned out to be very effective at teaching literacy in summer camps. Put the teachers in the right environment and kids learn stuff.

This points to another possibility: Teachers in government schools just have too little incentive to teach. In fact, the problem may start with the problem that they have too little incentive to bother turning up to class at all. On an average day, some 16 percent of teachers are absent in Bangladesh and 27 percent in Uganda, for example. In schools in India’s Andhra Pradesh state, the chance that a teacher was in class and actively engaged in teaching during the school day was only 28 percent.

Even if they do turn up and bother to teach, public school educators are often encouraged to deliver a curriculum that is pretty much destined to leave all but the most well-prepared students behind. And, of course, in places like Tanzania and Bangladesh, they face large classes and atrociously limited supplies. Perhaps worst of all, many parents of their students may be incapable of teaching the basics or helping with homework at home — because they did not attend school themselves. But there’s plentiful evidence that if you get the incentives right, teachers in public schools can provide a better quality of education.

Some of that evidence comes from nonstate schools. All over the developing world, there are private schools providing an education for as little as $1.50 a month, suggest Banerjee and Duflo. They often operate out of a teacher’s house and are frequently run by educated girls who don’t want to leave their home village and can find few other opportunities. For all their limited stock of books and supplies, and for all that the teachers are frequently unqualified secondary school graduates, such schools often do a better job than the public system. In Pakistan, kids in private school are two-and-a-half years ahead of their public school contemporaries in test scores as early as third grade. And it isn’t just that richer kids go to private schools — the impact of being in a private school on test scores was nearly 10 times the impact of being from a rich family compared with a poor one. Similarly, in India, according to nationwide surveys, 47 percent of government-school students in the fifth grade could not read a second-grade textbook — compared with only 32 percent of fifth-grade private -school students.

This suggests that efforts to ensure teachers turn up and teach could generate returns in the developing world. Additionally, curricula flexible enough to allow them to teach to the level of their students could make a big difference. Imagine a system that actually rewarded educators if their kids showed advances in learning basic skills over the year. Compare that with the present system in much of the world, which pays teachers more purely on the basis of seniority and encourages them to finish the national curriculum lessons — however inappropriate that is for the skill level their students start the year with.

An additional approach is to help kids learn outside the classroom — akin to the Indian hole-in-the-wall computer experiment, but on a much larger scale. One example is putting subtitles on TV programs in the same language as is being spoken on the screen. The approach has been tried in India — a country with a TV audience of about 600 million. In 2002, the producers of Rangoli — a very popular program that plays songs from Bollywood musicals — started subtitling the hit videos. Survey evidence suggests young TV viewers who watched Rangoli at home had half the illiteracy levels of TV viewers who did not watch the show after five years of schooling and watching.

The good news of the past 30 years is that we’ve made immense progress in ensuring that all kids — and girls especially — go to school. The better news for the next 30 years is that we have some understanding of the ways to ensure those kids actually learn something. All that is left is the willingness to confront the political challenges connected with rewarding teachers for learning outcomes — and ensuring they have the tools to help deliver inside and outside the classroom. That bit should be easy, right?


12 Mar 2012, Foreign Policy

The importance of stupidity in scientific research

In Education on February 17, 2012 at 7:39 am

I recently saw an old friend for the first time in many years. We had been Ph.D. students at the same time, both studying science, although in different areas. She later dropped out of graduate school, went to Harvard Law School and is now a senior lawyer for a major environmental organization. At some point, the conversation turned to why she had left graduate school. To my utter astonishment, she said it was because it made her feel stupid. After a couple of years of feeling stupid every day, she was ready to do something else.

I had thought of her as one of the brightest people I knew and her subsequent career supports that view. What she said bothered me. I kept thinking about it; sometime the next day, it hit me. Science makes me feel stupid too. It’s just that I’ve gotten used to it. So used to it, in fact, that I actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid. I wouldn’t know what to do without that feeling. I even think it’s supposed to be this way. Let me explain.

For almost all of us, one of the reasons that we liked science in high school and college is that we were good at it. That can’t be the only reason – fascination with understanding the physical world and an emotional need to discover new things has to enter into it too. But high-school and college science means taking courses, and doing well in courses means getting the right answers on tests. If you know those answers, you do well and get to feel smart.

A Ph.D., in which you have to do a research project, is a whole different thing. For me, it was a daunting task. How could I possibly frame the questions that would lead to significant discoveries; design and interpret an experiment so that the conclusions were absolutely convincing; foresee difficulties and see ways around them, or, failing that, solve them when they occurred? My Ph.D. project was somewhat interdisciplinary and, for a while, whenever I ran into a problem, I pestered the faculty in my department who were experts in the various disciplines that I needed. I remember the day when Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn’t know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn’t have the answer, nobody did.

That’s when it hit me: nobody did. That’s why it was a research problem. And being my research problem, it was up to me to solve. Once I faced that fact, I solved the problem in a couple of days. (It wasn’t really very hard; I just had to try a few things.) The crucial lesson was that the scope of things I didn’t know wasn’t merely vast; it was, for all practical purposes, infinite. That realization, instead of being discouraging, was liberating. If our ignorance is infinite, the only possible course of action is to muddle through as best we can.

I’d like to suggest that our Ph.D. programs often do students a disservice in two ways. First, I don’t think students are made to understand how hard it is to do research. And how very, very hard it is to do important research. It’s a lot harder than taking even very demanding courses. What makes it difficult is that research is immersion in the unknown. We just don’t know what we’re doing. We can’t be sure whether we’re asking the right question or doing the right experiment until we get the answer or the result. Admittedly, science is made harder by competition for grants and space in top journals. But apart from all of that, doing significant research is intrinsically hard and changing departmental, institutional or national policies will not succeed in lessening its intrinsic difficulty.

Second, we don’t do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid – that is, if we don’t feel stupid it means we’re not really trying. I’m not talking about `relative stupidity’, in which the other students in the class actually read the material, think about it and ace the exam, whereas you don’t. I’m also not talking about bright people who might be working in areas that don’t match their talents. Science involves confronting our `absolute stupidity’. That kind of stupidity is an existential fact, inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown. Preliminary and thesis exams have the right idea when the faculty committee pushes until the student starts getting the answers wrong or gives up and says, `I don’t know’. The point of the exam isn’t to see if the student gets all the answers right. If they do, it’s the faculty who failed the exam. The point is to identify the student’s weaknesses, partly to see where they need to invest some effort and partly to see whether the student’s knowledge fails at a sufficiently high level that they are ready to take on a research project.

Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and emotional resilience help, but I think scientific education might do more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries. The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.


9 April 2008, Journal of Cell Science

A Conversation with Peter Thiel

In Bureaucratic Delays, Business, Civil Services Reforms, Corruption, Education, Macroeconomic Policy, Trickle Down on February 17, 2012 at 7:11 am

Francis Fukuyama: I’d like to begin by asking you about a point you made about there being certain liberal and conservative blind spots about America. What did you mean by that?

Peter Thiel: On the surface, one of the debates we have is that people on the Left, especially the Occupy Wall Street movement, focus on income and wealth inequality issues—the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. It’s evident that both forms of inequality have escalated at a very high rate. Probably from 1973 to today, they have gone up faster than they did in the 19th century. The rapid rise in inequality has been an issue that the Right has not been willing to engage. It tends either to say it’s not true or that it doesn’t matter. That’s a very strange blind spot. Obviously if you extrapolate an exponential function it can go a lot further. We’re now at an extreme comparable to 1913 or 1928; on a worldwide basis we’ve probably surpassed the 1913 highs and are closer to 1789 levels.

In the history of the modern world, inequality has only been ended through communist revolution, war or deflationary economic collapse. It’s a disturbing question which of these three is going to happen today, or if there’s a fourth way out. On the Right, the Tea Party argument has been about government corruption—not ethical violations necessarily, but inefficiency, that government can’t do anything right and wastes money. I believe that is true, and that this problem has gotten dramatically worse. There are ways that the government is working far less well than it used to. Just outside my office is the Golden Gate Bridge. It was built under FDR’s Administration in the 1930s in about three and a half years. They’re currently building an access highway on one of the tunnels that feeds into the bridge, and it will take at least six years to complete.

Francis Fukuyama: And it will require countless environmental permits, litigation, and so on.

Peter Thiel: Yes. There’s an overall sense that in many different domains the government is working incredibly inefficiently and poorly. On the foreign policy side you can flag the wars in the Middle East, which have cost a lot more than we thought they should have. You can point to quasi-governmental things like spending on health care and education, where costs are spinning out of control. There’s some degree to which government is doing the same for more, or doing less for the same. There’s a very big blind spot on the Left about government waste and inefficiency.

In some ways these two debates, though they seem very different, ought to be seen as two sides of the same coin. The question is, should rich people keep their money or should the government take it? The anti-rich argument is, “Yes, because they already have too much.” The anti-government argument is, “No, because the government would just waste it.”

I think if you widen the aperture a bit on the economic level, though I identify with the libertarian Right, I do think it is incumbent on us to rethink the history of the past forty years. In particular, the Reagan history of the 1980s needs to be rethought thoroughly. One perspective is that the libertarian, small-government view is not a timeless truth but was a contingent response to the increasing failure of government, which was manifesting itself in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The response was that resources should be kept in the private sector. Then economic theories, like Laffer’s supply-side economics, provided political support for that response, even if they weren’t entirely accurate. We can say that the economic theories didn’t work as advertised, but for Obama to try to undo Reagan-era policies, he would have to deal with the political realities those theories were confronting. We cannot simply say things went wrong with credit creation in the 1980s; we also have to deal with government malfunction in the 1970s.

So you have these two different blind spots on the Left and Right, but I’ve been more interested in their common blind spot, which we’re less likely to discuss as a society: technological deceleration and the question of whether we’re still living in a technologically advancing society at all. I believe that the late 1960s was not only a time when government stopped working well and various aspects of our social contract began to fray, but also when scientific and technological progress began to advance much more slowly. Of course, the computer age, with the internet and web 2.0 developments of the past 15 years, is an exception. Perhaps so is finance, which has seen a lot of innovation over the same period (too much innovation, some would argue).

There has been a tremendous slowdown everywhere else, however. Look at transportation, for example: Literally, we haven’t been moving any faster. The energy shock has broadened to a commodity crisis. In many other areas the present has not lived up to the lofty expectations we had. I think the advanced economies of the world fundamentally grow through technological progress, and as their rate of progress slows, they will have less growth. This creates incredible pressures on our political systems. I think the political system at its core works when it crafts compromises in which most people benefit most of the time. When there’s no growth, politics becomes a zero-sum game in which there’s a loser for every winner. Most of the losers will come to suspect that the winners are involved in some kind of racket. So I think there’s a close link between technological deceleration and increasing cynicism and pessimism about politics and economics.

I think, therefore, that our problems are completely misdiagnosed. The debates are all about macroeconomics, about how much money we should print. I think you can print more money and have inflation, or stop printing money and have deflation. Bad inflation involves commodity prices and inputs, and bad deflation involves people’s wages, salaries and house prices. But the middle-way Goldilocks version, where commodity prices and consumer goods go down and wages go up, seems very farfetched. I don’t see how that sort of outcome can be crafted in a world with no growth.

Francis Fukuyama: I understand you’re part of the inspiration behind Tyler Cowen’s book The Great Stagnation. Apart from being a former colleague of mine, he’s on the editorial board of The American Interest.

Peter Thiel: He did very graciously dedicate the book to me, and it’s an incredibly powerful articulation of this theme on many different levels. I think the question of technological dynamism isn’t often examined, but when you look into it you see many problems, from transportation failures to the space program and the Concorde decommissioning to how the energy failure allows oil price shocks to undo the price improvements of the previous century. Think of the famous 1980 Paul Ehrlich-Julian Simon wager about resource scarcity. Simon may have won the bet a decade later, but since 1993, on a rolling decade basis, Ehrlich has been winning famously. This is something that has not registered with the political class at all.

Francis Fukuyama: That’s an early sign that we may be moving into a zero-sum world.

You made your fortune initially in Silicon Valley. Your assertions may raise a lot of eyebrows, because skeptics would say, “What about the whole boom of the 1980s?” There’s that famous Robert Solow quote from 1987, “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”1 Econometricians finally began detecting that productivity jump in a more significant way in the 1990s. I would think that rather than arguing in general that there has been a technological slowdown, the more socially important argument is that the distributional impact of all the cutting-edge technological changes that have occurred over the past generation go overwhelmingly to the smart and well-educated. If you had great math skills during the agrarian economy of the 19th century, there weren’t many jobs where you could exploit that and get really rich. Now you can go to Wall Street or become a software programmer. So there’s something about the progress we’ve had that has overlain the increasing inequality you’ve pointed to.

Peter Thiel: I don’t entirely agree with that description. My claim is not that there has been no technological progress, just deceleration. If we look at technological progress during most of the 19th and 20th centuries, it brought significant disruption. If you built horse buggies for a living, you would be out of work when the Ford Motor Company came along. In effect, over time labor was freed up to do more productive things. And on the whole, people got to be better off. I think the larger trend is just that there has been stagnation. There are debates about how to precisely measure these statistics, but the ones I’ve looked at suggest that median wages since 1973 have been mostly flat. Mean wages have gone up maybe 20–25 percent, which is the greater inequality, an anemic 0.6–0.7 per year. And if you confiscated the wealth of all the billionaires in the United States, the amount would pay for the deficits for only six months. There has been this increase in inequality, but it’s a secondary truth. The primary truth is this truth of stagnation.

As for why inequality has gone up, you could point to the technology, as you just have. You could also point to financialization of the economy, but I would say globalization has played a much greater role because it has been the much greater trend. Even though there have been a lot of bumps in the road, your “End of History” strikes me as very much true today. Globalization has been incredibly powerful, far more so than people could have realistically expected in 1970. The question is, what is there about globalization that creates a winner-take-all world? There certainly has been a labor arbitrage with China that has been bad for the middle class, as well as for white-collar workers, in the past decade or two.

Consider, too, that in 1960 we spoke of the First World and the Third World; today we speak of the developed world and the developing world, the part that is looking to copy the West. The developed world is where we expect nothing more to happen. The earlier dichotomy was fairly pro-technology and in some ways more agnostic on the prospects for globalization. The present dichotomy is extremely bullish on globalization and implicitly pessimistic about technology. Of course, we can point to the great fortunes that have been made in the tech industry, but of the great fortunes that have been made in the world over the past twenty or thirty years, most have not been made in technology. Look at the Russian oligarchs. Maybe one out of a hundred billionaires has a tech-related fortune. The others are a political thing linked somehow to globalization. So that’s why I think it’s important to quantify these things correctly. We tend to focus a lot on the optimistic tech narrative that notes a lot of progress, but I think the more important question is why it hasn’t been happening.

There certainly are a lot of areas of technology where, if it were progressing, we would expect a lot of jobs to be created. The classic example would be clean technology, alternate energy technology. If you were to retool the economy toward more efficient forms of energy, one would realistically expect that to create millions of jobs. The problem with that retooling is that the clean technology just doesn’t work—namely, it doesn’t do more for less. It costs much more, so it isn’t working—at least not yet.

Francis Fukuyama: Thinking again about inequality, the problem isn’t that people are lazy. It’s not that working-class people don’t have a work ethic. In a sense they’re victimized by the advances of technology and globalization and so forth. The classic response to that is to urge the state to protect them. Take Karl Polanyi’s view that these forces can’t be defeated or pushed back, but that there must be some form of guided social adjustment, because society on its own adjusts much less quickly than underlying technology and trade patterns change. But then, if you say we’re stuck because the government can’t do anything, there isn’t a solution. Or at least there isn’t the classic solution: more redistribution and active labor market policies like they have in Scandinavia, which arrange for worker retraining.

In terms of clean tech, I think the classic infant-industry argument might apply here. It’s true that it isn’t competitive with fossil fuel technology right now, but we’re walking very rapidly down a cost curve, especially in solar tech. Governments have provided a certain amount of help in commercializing technologies. Certainly the Chinese have been doing this big time, which is why they’ve undermined our alternative energy industries. Where do you stand on that kind of intervention?

Peter Thiel: We have different kinds of challenges on the government side. One is a little more philosophical in nature: We tend to think the future is indeterminate. But it used to be seen as a much more determinate thing and subject to rational planning. If it’s fundamentally unknowable, it doesn’t make sense to say anything about it. To put it in mathematical terms, we’ve had a shift from thinking of the world in terms of calculus to statistics. So, where we once tracked the motions of the heavenly bodies and could send Voyager to Jupiter over a multiyear trajectory, now we tend to think nature is fundamentally driven by the random movements of atoms or the Black-Scholes mathematical model of financial markets—the random walk down Wall Street. You can’t know where things are going; you only know they’re going to be random. I think some things are true about this statistical view of the future, but it’s extremely toxic for any kind of rational planning. It’s probably linked in part to the failure of state communist central planning, though I would argue that there is something to be said for some planning over no planning. We should debate whether it should be decentralized or centralized, but what the United States has today is an extremely big government, a quasi-socialist government, but without a five-year plan, with no plan whatsoever.

If you were to telescope this now down to a single issue like clean energy, the unplanned statistical view of the future is that we don’t know what energy technology will work, so we’ll experiment with different things and see what takes off. The planned view says that two are most likely to be dominant, and so the government has a role to play in coordinating resources and making sure they work. So if it’s nuclear power, it has to free up space at Yucca Mountain, deal with zoning rules and get plants built, and it’s a complicated project at the regulatory level. The same is true of solar or wind power. If government wants high-speed rail, it must overcome local zoning rules. My guess is that at best we can push on just a handful of these major things, but that sort of determinate push requires a view of the future that is very specific, and that’s not now the kind of view people have.

The Solyndra bankruptcy is a detailed example of this. It strikes me that the Obama Administration’s response should have been, “Well, Solyndra failed, but here are two or three companies we awarded loan guarantees that are working great.” They didn’t give that response. There’s a bad explanation and a worse explanation for that. The bad explanation is that none of these companies are working. The worse explanation—the one I believe is true—is that no one at a senior level in the Administration even thinks about the question of technology. It’s assumed to be a statistical, probabilistic thing that’s best figured out by portfolio allocations of capital to different researchers, and not a worthwhile subject to think about. This is a radically different position than, say, that of John F. Kennedy, who could talk about the nuts and bolts of the Apollo space program and all the details of what was needed to make it happen. So it’s a much different way of thinking about the future.

If there is going to be a government role in getting innovation started, people have to believe philosophically that it’s possible to plan. That’s not the world we’re living in. A letter from Einstein to the White House would get lost in the mail room today. Nobody would think that any single person would have that kind of expertise.

Francis Fukuyama: Well, clearly, Silicon Valley was in many ways the product of a government industrial policy, DARPA. So much of the early technology, the creation of the internet itself, the early semiconductor industry, were really spinoffs from investments in military technology that were obviously pushed very strongly by the government.

Peter Thiel: My libertarian views are qualified because I do think things worked better in the 1950s and 60s, but it’s an interesting question as to what went wrong with DARPA. It’s not like it has been defunded, so why has DARPA been doing so much less for the economy than it did forty or fifty years ago? Parts of it have become politicized. You can’t just write checks to the thirty smartest scientists in the United States. Instead there are bureaucratic processes, and I think the politicization of science—where a lot of scientists have to write grant applications, be subject to peer review, and have to get all these people to buy in—all this has been toxic, because the skills that make a great scientist and the skills that make a great politician are radically different. There are very few people who are both great scientists and great politicians. So a conservative account of what happened with science in the 20th century is that we had a decentralized, non-governmental approach all the way through the 1930s and early 1940s. At that point, the government could accelerate and push things tremendously, but only at the price of politicizing it over a series of decades. Today we have a hundred times more scientists than we did in 1920, but their productivity per capita is less that it used to be.

Francis Fukuyama: You certainly can’t explain the survival of the shuttle program except in political terms.

Peter Thiel: It was an extraordinary program. It cost more and did less and was probably less safe than the original Apollo program. In 2011, when it finally ended, there was a sense of the space age being over. Not quite, but it’s very far off from what we had decades ago. You could argue that we had more or better-targeted funding in the 1950s and 1960s, but the other place where the regulatory situation is radically different is that technology is much more heavily regulated than it used to be. It’s much harder to get a new drug through the FDA process. It takes a billion dollars. I don’t even know if you could get the polio vaccine approved today.

One regulatory perspective is that environmentalism has played a much greater role than people think. It induced a deep skepticism about anything involving the manipulation of nature or material objects in the real world. The response to environmentalism was to prohibit scientists from experimenting with stuff and only allow them to do so with bits. So computer science and finance were legal, and what they have in common is that they involve the manipulation of bits rather than stuff. They both did well in those forty years, but all the other engineering disciplines were stymied. Electric engineering, civil engineering, aeronautical, nuclear, petroleum—these were all held back, and attracted fewer talented students at university as the years went on. When people wonder why all the rocket scientists went to work on Wall Street, well, they were no longer able to build rockets. It’s some combination of an ossified, Weberian bureaucracy and the increasingly hostile regulation of technology. That’s very different from the 1950s and 1960s. There’s a powerful libertarian argument that government used to be far less intrusive, but found targeted ways to advance science and technology.

Francis Fukuyama: Let’s talk about the social impact of these changes. Those stagnating median wages basically translate into a guy who had been working in the auto industry or the steel industry at $15 or $20 an hour but is now a very downwardly mobile checker at Walmart. So does the government have a role in protecting that kind of individual? If, as you say, we’re up to 1789 levels of inequality, this could be a socially explosive situation—perhaps not now, but down the road. The classic response of many capitalists is that you have to save capitalism from its own excesses by some form of redistribution or protecting the people hurt by it.

Peter Thiel: I think most government welfare spending does not actually go to poor people. I don’t have a problem with the amount of money going to poor people, and perhaps we could do somewhat more. There are some very out-of-the-box solutions we could explore, such as a more protectionist trade policy, which would effectively raise taxes through tariffs and protect a range of domestic jobs. Even though that’s an inefficient move from a certain economic perspective, perhaps it’s a better way to raise taxes than a variety of other means. The argument has been that hampering free trade distorts markets, but every tax distorts markets, so you need to make a relative argument, not an absolute one.

The reality is that most government entitlements are middle-class in nature: social security, Medicare, a lot of the education pieces. One type of reform would be to means-test all entitlement spending, but you then run into these difficult political problems. My larger view is that all these fixes are simply provisional. The overarching challenge is that all the questions about how much the government should insulate people from what’s going on depend on how far we are from equilibrium. Take, for instance, competition with Japan in the 1970s, when people were being paid half as much and it was disruptive to the car industry. Was there something we could have done? Perhaps, but China has four times as many people and wages at one-tenth of the U.S. level. The disequilibrium goes much further.

On the one hand, we should streamline the welfare state to help those who are actually poor, as opposed to the middle class. But at the same time we need to do more to make people aware of the need to compete globally. One area where government has really failed is that its use of resources have encouraged people not to even think about the worldwide stuff. The U.S. government in 1965 made the American people much more aware of global competition and global trade than they are today. The economy has shifted from manufacturing to non-tradeable services. If you’re a lawyer, yes, there’s some complicated way in which you’re subject to international pressure, but you’ve basically chosen a career path that doesn’t force you to compete globally. The same is true of a nurse, a yoga instructor, a professor or a chef. So this skewing toward non-tradable service-sector jobs has led to a political class that is weirdly immune to globalization and mostly oblivious to it.

Francis Fukuyama: I agree with you that we’ve bought this line from the economists for the past thirty that globalization is inevitably going to be good without thinking through these points you raise.

I’d like to shift now to the question of biotech and biology. I know you’ve been an investor in companies researching issues like longevity, a personal interest of yours. This is one of those areas, I think, where there’s conflict between an individual’s interest in living forever versus the social good of population turnover. Steve Jobs said this in his 2005 Stanford commencement speech, that we should welcome death, because without it people wouldn’t see much change. It’s like Max Planck’s old saying, “Science progresses one funeral at a time.” Pick your discipline, and I think that’s largely true. And actually, it seems like a lot of our fiscal woes are due to the fact that people live too long now. We used to have population pyramids; now they look more like Greek vases, with a big mass of older people resting on a decelerating rate of population growth. So isn’t the cumulative impact of advancing biomedical research into longevity going to be to worsen every single one of the social problems you point to?

Peter Thiel: I don’t agree with the Steve Jobs commencement speech. I’m deeply skeptical about any sort of rationalization of death. It’s tricky to make the ethics too consequentialist, because even if it were true that longevity is bankrupting the welfare state or the healthcare system, we can’t unlearn the things we’ve learned. The goal of longevity research is for people to live longer and healthier lives. If it succeeds, the key thing is just to raise the retirement age. Retirement in many cases at age 65 is absurd given present life expectancy, which has been going up two and a half years each decade. In 1840, 46 years was the maximum life expectancy (among Swedish women); today it’s 86 years (among Japanese women). And every day that you survive, your life expectancy goes up something like five or six hours. So the policy calibration should be to have an automatic increase of the retirement age by three months per year.

The secondary, more scientific question is whether the claims are correct that these technologies are producing longer, healthy lives; perhaps they’re producing longer, unhealthy lives. I think the truth involves some of both. The average seventy-year-old is healthier, but at the margins there are longer periods of suffering, such as with Alzheimer’s. About a third of people age 85 have either Alzheimer’s or some incipient dementia. If we can’t cure some of these late-stage ailments, there’s a prospect of a very long period of debility before death. I think the jury is still out.

To take a step back, the entire longevity research program is the culmination of the Western scientific project. It was part of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, and has been a recurrent thread through much of the past 400 years of science. I don’t think we can abandon it or carve it out without abandoning technological progress altogether. It’s too closely linked to it.

Francis Fukuyama: One of the concerns is with innovation. Part of what produces innovation is generational turnover. You see this in academia all the time. The people with the best ideas are younger professors. When you get to be my age, you more or less stopped thinking 25 years ago. If you live another 25 years, you’ll probably have the same dumb ideas you do today. In a sense, there’s a remorseless evolutionary logic to the fact that one generation has to grow up in different circumstances, adjust to that and see the world differently.

Peter Thiel: One of the critical areas of research today is neurobiology. The trickiest organ to deal with is the brain system. We can imagine replacing other organs as they wear out with artificial ones, but you wouldn’t want to have your brain replaced. So the longevity project must look at brain functioning and find ways to improve it over time. I think significant drug advances in neurobiology have happened over the past 15 years, and there’s good reason to believe we’ll see more progress in the next few decades.

Even if mathematicians peak in their twenties, as you suggest, a writer-philosopher has a long shelf-life, so you’ve picked a good career path for the age of longevity. I still think the correct answer is to figure out ways to acknowledge the fact, to address tenure and other systems that privilege the old over the young.

Francis Fukuyama: Look at California, for instance, where we spend much more on Medicare and pensions for the old than on K-12 education.

Peter Thiel: It’s a political problem, I agree, because old people vote and young people do not or cannot. On the other hand, if you look at the venture capital industry, it tends to allocate a lot of capital to younger people who start companies. The university is a strangely problematic case where it’s hard for young researchers to get funding. I think the public sector is more broken than the private sector.

Francis Fukuyama: As a last topic, let’s turn to your thoughts on education. You’ve made the case that many people overinvest in higher education. So you offered fellowships to allow people to drop out and start companies. Beyond that, what’s the agenda in terms of reforming the system? More privatization? There was a recent piece about people connected to the Obama Administration lobbying for less regulation of for-profit education. It seems like that’s become a pretty politicized area. What’s the next step in fixing this overinvestment problem?

Peter Thiel: Again, I look at this through my overarching view of forty years of technological stagnation, and an attendant unawareness of it because a series of bubbles have distracted us. There’s an education bubble, which is, like the others, psychosocial. There’s a wide public buy-in that leads to a product being overvalued because it’s linked to future expectations that are unrealistic. Education is similar to the tech bubble of the late 1990s, which assumed crazy growth in businesses that didn’t pan out. The education bubble is predicated on the idea that the education provided is incredibly valuable. In many cases that’s just not true. Here and elsewhere people have avoided facing the fact of stagnation by telling themselves stories about familiar things leading to progress. One fake vector of progress is credentialing—first the undergraduate degree, then more advanced degrees. Like the others, it’s an avoidance mechanism.

The bias I had five years ago was that my foundation should start a new university and just do everything better. I looked into it in great detail, examining all the new universities that have been started throughout the world in the past ten years, and found that very little has worked. It has been a huge misallocation of capital, and donor intent got lost on all sorts of levels. I started out wondering how you could allocate money for the improvement of education and concluded that there was no way to do it.

This relates to the problem I mentioned earlier with taking a statistical, unplanned approach to the future: A student doesn’t know what to do, so he learns stuff. When I taught at Stanford Law School last year, I asked students what they planned to do with their lives. Most were headed to big law firms but didn’t expect to become partners and didn’t know the next step after that. They didn’t have long-term plans about what they wanted to achieve in their lives. I think the educational system has become a major factor stopping people from thinking about the future. It’s far from equilibrium. There is something like $1 trillion in student debt. A cynical view is that that represents $1 trillion worth of lies told about the value of higher education. There are incredible incentives to exaggerate its value, and the counter-narrative has been shaky but is coming to the fore. Bubbles end when people stop believing the false narrative and start thinking for themselves. So many students are not getting the jobs they need to repay their debts, are moving back in with their parents, and the contract both parties signed up for is being revealed as false.

I don’t know exactly what will replace it. I suspect the for-profit schools are like the subprime brokers. I’m not in favor of them and wouldn’t even describe them as private-sector entities, since they’re so enmeshed in the system of state educational subsidies. If you had a strong government that worked, it would be fighting to break these bubbles. One of the reasons I’m a libertarian is that our government does not act in a counter-cyclical way. When bubbles are at their peak, it actually reinforces them—makes them worse. Today, the courageous thing for the government to do would be to aggressively tilt against the prevailing psychology, to encourage the pursuit of non-college vocational careers rather than adding fuel to the fire, as it has been doing.

Francis Fukuyama: One last question. The New Yorker profile of you mentioned that you’ve been reading Leo Strauss. Why?

Peter Thiel: I’ve been interested in Strauss for a long time. I think Strauss was a very important and profound thinker. His essay “Persecution and the Art of Writing” shows how in all societies certain ideas are not allowed to be discussed. Properly understood, political correctness is our greatest political problem. We always have this question of how to build a society in which important problems can be thought through and tackled. It’s a mistake to simply fixate on the problem of political correctness in its narrow incarnation of campus speech codes; it’s a much more pervasive problem. For instance, part of what fuels the education bubble is that we’re not allowed to articulate certain truths about the inequality of abilities. Many of our destructive bubbles are linked to political correctness, and that’s why Strauss is so important today.

Francis Fukuyama: Excellent. Thank you very much.


Mar 2012, American Interest

Come June, behaviour will count for Class X students, will carry 10% weightage in Boards

In Bizarre Laws, Education, Gujarat on February 7, 2012 at 6:06 am

Apart from scholastic assessment of the students, children of the Class X would also be assessed on the basis of their “values and life skills” focussing on their behavioural aspects and marks obtained in it would be added to their final result of the board examinations.

Being introduced for the first time by the Gujarat Secondary and Higher Secondary Education (GSHSEB) from June 2012, 10 per cent weightage would be given to students’ skills like going beyond conditioned set up, showing creativity during class activities, showing patience during a group task for slow learners, getting along well with others and helping others in need of help or maintaining discipline and decorum during team work.

Termed as School-based Comprehensive Evaluation (SCE) system, the new system tries to minimise the “mechanical testing or examination” of students. It focusses on periodic and regular assessment of the students, using a number of techniques, involving greater participation of teachers as well as students.

In this system, 70 per cent of the weightage would be given to the board examinations based on the existing pattern, while 30 per cent weightage would be given to the assessment done by the schools themselves, including 10 per cent weightage for “values and life skills” or co-scholastic assessment and another 20 per cent for scholastic assessments, based on students’ understanding of the academic curriculum.

Speaking to The Indian Express, the GSHSEB chairperson R R Varsani said the new system aimed at giving relief to the students from the present rote system in which students had to memorise everything. It was considered to be very tough and caused lot of mental tension to the students during board examinations.

Varsani said there were two objectives of the new system of assessment. First, it would ensure continuity in evaluation and assessment of the learning and second, it would improve the behavioural aspects of the students including values and life skills which was as necessary as scholastic achievements for success in life.

The purpose of assessing co-scholastic performance of talents of the students, according to Varsani, is to encourage and promote the hidden talent of the students, which may not be scholastic in nature but may help in success of the students and his growth in non-scholastic field and settle in life better.

Elaborating on it, U N Rathod, a senior official in the board, said that scholastic assessment would consist of formative and summative assessments. Under formative assessments, the teachers, without any written test, would try to assess how much a student had grasped from the subjects taught to him.

For this, the entire syllabus has been divided in four parts, with each assessment to be held at an interval of 45 days.

In summative assessments, which will be held on half-yearly basis and syllabus would be divided in two parts, the students would be assessed on the basis of questions and answers in a written test.

According to him, another positive aspect of the new evaluation system is that the students in their board examinations would not be asked questioned from half of the syllabus that had already been covered under summative assessment by the schools themselves. According to Rathod, it would further reduce mental tension of students during examinations.


31 Jan 2012, Indian Express

Alike in incompetence

In Education, School Vouchers on February 3, 2012 at 1:54 pm

This sort of embarrassed silence is common across India. One can encounter it often in a room in a school, almost anywhere in India. The room has a group of 20 to 50 sitting on the floor, almost all rural government school teachers. This is a meeting of a voluntary learning group of teachers. They usually meet after school hours or on Sundays. They discuss academic issues, read out papers and try to solve each other’s pedagogical challenges. These are capable and committed teachers.

If you want hope, go to any of these meetings. Hope, that given support and enabling conditions, things will improve in public education. Hope, that there will always be people who will try to do the right thing, whatever the odds.

In every such meeting that I participate in, at some point I ask them: “So where do you send your children, a private school or government school?” The buzz dies away, embarrassed silence engulfs the room.

With sheepish smiles and mutual cajoling, the facts come out. The majority send their children to private schools. The discussion is not intended to stop there, we move on to discuss why they have made this choice.

he reasons that I have heard are exactly the same—across all such groups—everywhere in the country. The first reason is English. Private schools teach English from very early grades, often the first grade. They want their children to learn English. However vague or clear the articulation, it comes down to the fact that in their view English is the language of social mobility.

The second is social status. A child going to a private school is seemingly a very visible marker of the family’s (presumed) higher social status. It involves a complex set of factors, including that their children will have the “right kind” of schoolmates, and “wearing ties and shoes is very good”.

Rarely do any other reasons come up. I have never heard any such group say that they make this choice because education and learning are better in private schools. Let me remind you that this group has a better understanding of what good education is than most others, certainly in their communities.

My experience is not unique; it’s shared by many who interact with such groups. Let’s take quick a look at the reasons for choosing private schools, beyond such groups of teachers, a look at an average rural and semi-urban group.

This is a preview of a part of an ongoing research study that for the past four years in rural Andhra Pradesh. The study reaffirms English and social status as key reasons for choosing private schools. It brings out some other reasons as well. The school gives homework, the owner makes sure that the teacher is there and that the school makes the students “behave properly”.

The enrolment in private schools has been going up rapidly and sharply across India. According to the latest Annual Status of Education Report, over the past six years private school enrolment in rural India has gone up by 25%. In government schools, enrolment numbers have remained virtually stagnant. While there are distinct regional variations, this is the clear national trend. Despite some efforts to understand this phenomenon, including what I have described above, we don’t understand its reasons adequately. This requires a lot more research.

We need this understanding because the reasons have (or should have) implications for policymaking in our education system—both on the government and the private side. There would also be implications, more broadly, for society.

At the same time, we should not draw superficial or non-existent implications. For example, we should not get lulled in to believing, and actively advocating that private schools are in any way a solution to the problem of quality of education in this country. The reality is probably that learning levels and quality of education are equally bad in private schools.

The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment, which places us on learning levels at number 73 in a list of 74 nations, just above Kyrgyzstan, concludes that there is no difference in learning levels across private and government schools. The study that I refer to above concludes that learning is better for children who stayed back at government schools, versus those who were moved to private schools, using financial support on offer as a part of the research design.

Research that controls for socio-economic factors, for private schools “choosing” (i.e. good) students, etc., have usually come to the conclusion that there is little or no real difference between learning levels across private and government schools. These studies have also pointed out that we need to do a lot more nuanced research to understand what the real determinants of children’s learning are.

Mint suggested last week that we should not stifle but “embrace private schools”. I agree, we should not stifle private schools, but there is absolutely no reason to embrace them. Education in our country is in the same pathetic state, across private and government schools. What we need to embrace is fundamental and sustained improvement of the entire system.

Anurag Behar is chief executive officer of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability issues for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education. Comments are welcome at


25 Jan 2012,  MINT