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What Is Learning and Where Is It Happening?

"Learning Levels and Gaps in Pakistan: A Comparison with Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh" (EPW, 30 June 2012) overgeneralises the fi ndings of the study on which it is based without bothering to analyse them to throw light on why children learn the way they do, or why children do not learn enough, leave alone contemplating what constitutes meaningful learning.

The recent past has witnessed a spate of studies which have expressed concern over students’ learning in schools across different geographical locations and social contexts. Most of these studies define learning as “acquisition of grade-specific competencies” and point to a lack of learning in formal spaces, especially in public schools.

Drawing upon research data, both primary and secondary, they make a case for privatisation of primary school education, an idea which is in sync with the current neoliberal discourse which views private players as providers of qualitatively better and efficient services in the social sector and urges for shrinking/withdrawal of state funds towards the same. World over, commitments are being made by countries to achieve uni­ver­salisation of elementary education and time lines are being set to achieve them. International tests are being devised to make comparisons of children’s performances across diverse socio-economic contexts and connections are being established between high levels of learning and better wages, health, living conditions and countries’ economic growth. “Learning Levels and Gaps in Pakistan: A Comparison with Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh” (Das et al 2012) falls within a similar framework.

Learning Achievements

This study, supported by the World Bank, reports the findings of an independent survey of schools in rural Pakistan. It focuses on learning achievements of children studying in primary grades in both government and private schools. Using weighted test-scores, the study identifies learning gaps across households (parental wealth and education), children (age and gender), schools (public-private) and geographical locations. The paper highlights three take-home messages – (1) children know little relative to what they need to know to function in society and relative to their curriculum; (2) differences in schools (essentially private and government) overshadow differences in parental backgrounds, i e, income and education levels; (3) low achievement is not a Pakistan-specific problem – using data from Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Madhya Pradesh (MP), it states that children know little, and like in Pakistan, most variation is across schools rather than across households.

One important finding of the study from the point of view of policy implications is that, “schools” are potential spaces for obliterating/homogenising differences across households. Since schools have long been recognised as sites of social reproduction, it may be a bit difficult to imagine or even conceptualise how they can cut across variations in students’ home backgrounds and produce uniformity of results in terms of their performances in school. However, even if one were to agree with this finding, it may be heartening to believe that schools can potentially emerge as spaces where individual differences can be addressed and such educational experiences be provided which can diminish the effects of socio-economic disadvantages that some children may suffer from.

Students’ Performance

Looked at from a Colemanian (1990) framework of equality of educational opportunity, it recognises that there are inputs from both home and school, which affect a student’s performance and while it may be a bit far-fetched to imagine removing all the debilitating home influences, it may still be possible to enhance the relative influence of the inputs received from school so as to offset the differential influences of home backgrounds. This would also imply that the school administration, government or private, can no longer justify its own inability to provide good quality education to children by putting the blame squarely on children’s home backgrounds. So if one is talking about equality, one can no longer be content with providing educational access to students, while putting the entire responsibility of making the most of their schooling on them.

Equality by a Colemanian framework would mean the school taking major responsibility and measuring it in terms of not just inputs that get into the school but by its resultant effects/outputs – the extent to which children’s performances are on par with each other. Having said that, the study does not even attempt to engage with those factors which apparently bridge the gap between children who are located in unequal and hierarchical social spaces in society, an analysis which would have certainly been more fruitful than simply reiterating that there are differences in schools, which affect what children learn.

Overall Assertion

Also, what is bewildering about one of its important findings is that despite its recognition that there could be differences within government and private schools, its argument tilts towards unilaterally accepting that children in private schools perform better than those in government schools in all subjects. Though somewhere the study does suggest that the gaps between the best and the worst private schools may be just as important as the gaps between the average public and average private school, this gets brushed under the carpet by its overall assertion that there is a huge gap between public and private schools.

This assertion is in tune with a series of studies emerging from certain advocacy groups that favour privatisation and critique the public school system without taking note of the constraints under which they function and the demographic features of the student population that mostly attend such schools. However, such studies have also been accused of having a superficial understanding of learning, mostly restricted to skills of rote memorisation (Sarangapani 2009). Communities both in India and Pakistan are socially and economically segregated and just as they are differentiated both internally and externally, to present private and public schools as internally homogenised and mutually segregated spaces would seem a bit improbable.

Variation in Scores

The study recognises that in both the countries, one does not have a comprehensive understanding of a variation in students’ achievements scores across relevant socio-economic dimensions and this is because of differences in sampling methodology, the tests used and the child characteristics. The study itself draws data from the Learning and Educational Achievements in Punjab Schools (LEAPS) project in the three districts of Pakistan.

All children enrolled in Grade 3 in public and private schools were tested in their teachers’ absence in Urdu, mathematics and English. Test questions centred around addition, subtraction, division, fractions, reading and writing, the time and diagrams in mathematics, and matching correct answers to pictures, filling in the missing letters, writing sentences with words given, etc, for English. Similarly, children from 31 districts of UP and nine districts of MP in Grade 4 were selected from government schools in India for testing literacy and numeracy skills. With all the data thus collected, the study laments the poor performance of children in government schools and brushes aside the possible reasons for those children performing well in the same schools by stating that they were “truly exceptional”. This is tantamount to saying that despite what the results show, all children in government schools perform badly. So while a few children were performing well in those schools, to say that they were exceptions is a rather convenient way of avoiding examination of those variables which could have caused that difference. One is forced to wonder whether such a tweaking/neglecting/underplaying of the research findings is done to substantiate a foregone conclusion, or a research finding is ignored simply because it does not support one’s thesis. There should be no reason for a research study to avoid critical and nuanced examination of the data and arrive at a hurried and rather simple conclusion about a complex reality.

The study also examines differences in children’s performance as a result of variation in parents’ economic backgrounds and literacy levels, while simultaneously assuming that “parents of children in richer households are also likely to be more educated and the children are more likely to be enrolled in private schools”. Cursorily acknowledging, but essentially dismissing the impact of variables such as educational levels of parents or the economic capacity of parents to make available resources which help their children perform better in schools, it arrives at a tautological explanation and states that “these gaps disappear or reduce sharply (with some exceptions) in a multivariate context, and once we control for the school that the child is attending...these gaps are small and insignificant”.

Bizarre Conclusion

To say the least, this is a bizarre conclusion, especially when one knows the multiple ways in which the home environment, its accompanying sociocultural capital and the ways in which the curricular and pedagogic processes in school interact with these affecting a child’s performance in school. This does not refer to the cultural deficit which some communities are accused of suffering from, for their poor performance, but the ways in which their concerns, knowledge systems and world views are often under or misrepresented in the school curricula and the manner in which they are systematically margin­alised are often reasons for their poor performance in school. If the study findings noticed a merging of socio-cultural-­economic differences in school, which for years have been found to be significant variables in affecting schooling, then the study should perhaps have high­lighted those processes which diminished those differences, rather than simply stating that differences disappear if one “controls” for the school that the child is attending.

The study makes a case for privatisation, and by declaring that children in government schools are not learning enough or are underperforming, it is similar to the ones, which state that children in low-cost private schools are all performing well (Tooley and Dixon 2006; Jain and Dholakia 2009), the obvious implication being that the government must pack its bags and continue to withdraw and reduce its support for providing public education to all and entrust the responsibility to private players – treating all private players alike. It willy-nilly establishes a connection bet­ween richer households and private schools, and leaves one wondering about the ­solution it offers for the poor parents who cannot possibly afford the schools that their “rich” counterparts are accessing.

One important reiteration the study makes is that the quality of teachers and the effort that they exert in teaching is critical to improving the quality of education. Even if one were to buy the argument that “in all subjects, the best schools are private” and “the worst schools are always government schools”, it would have been beneficial if the researchers had also invested themselves in discovering and explaining the reasons why children studying in these schools performed better than the non-performing schools. Though the study does point out the contribution of teachers, it hints more at their presence or absence making that difference, essentially pointing to factors like “teacher commitment and motivation”.

By referring to studies which connect higher teacher absenteeism with poorer districts, older teachers and permanent contracts (Kremer et al 2005), it sidelines factors like their educational journeys and work conditions – nature of contracts, salaries and teacher-pupil ratio. It further reduces the complex issue of teachers’ work, commitment and ­effort to their absence and presence alone. One needs to examine the ways in which the work of teachers is systematically being contractualised, diminished and controlled, so also the role of measly ­salaries in under­standing underperformance. Without doubt, teachers are the most important players after children in a school system and need to be given the professional autonomy and support that they deserve, rather than being identified as “reasons” for poor teaching-learning.

Besides the nature of conclusions about children’s performance in schools and the manner in which they were drawn, the study also has a few other limitations.

Other Limitations

One is left wondering, why Punjab in ­Pakistan, which is economically and educationally the most dynamic province, was compared with UP and MP – two ­educationally backward states of India. While the study admits that unavailability of data constrained examining Grade 3 in Pakistan and Grade 4 in India, and lack of a parallel framework of research (unequal data sources) in both the countries limited gathering data only from government schools in India, yet it suggests that the performance of children in ­private schools in general is superior to those studying in public schools.

Drawing from other research, the study uncritically accepts connections bet­ween “years of formal schooling” with “better wages”, and “more learning” (essentially literacy and numeracy) with higher returns, without even reflecting on the possibility of several inter­vening sociolo­gical variables influencing these relation­ships. At the outset it states that, “children know little relative to what they need to know to function in society and relative to their curriculum”. Whereas the latter is understood with acquisition of grade-specific competencies, there is no analysis of the former – how would one be able to function better in society with formal know­ledge of multiplication, division and making sentences with “school” and “beautiful” is beyond one’s comprehension.

To reiterate, if one were to assess the study in terms of the contribution that it makes to existing research and ongoing debates on the issue of learning, its conceptualisation, its acquisition in formal spaces – both private and public – the role of government in providing good quality equitable education to all, legitimacy of the assessment tools used, examination of variables influencing children’s learning and performance, methodological rigour used to arrive at generalisations and larger policy implications, it falls short on all counts. It presents its findings and overgeneralises without bothering to analyse them to throw light on why children learn the way they do or why children do not learn enough, leave alone, contemplating what constitutes meaningful learning.


Coleman, James (1990): Equality and Achievement in Education (Boulder: Westview Press).

Das, J, P Pandey and T Zajonc (2012): “Learning Levels and Gaps in Pakistan: A Comparison with Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol XLVII, Nos 26 & 27, pp 228-40.

Jain, P S and Ravindra H Dholakia (2009): “Feasibility of Implementation of Right to Education Act”, Economic & Political Weekly, 44(25), 20 June, pp 38-43.

Kremer, M, Nazmul Chaudhury, Hasley Rogers, Karthik Muralidharan and Jefferey Hammer (2005): “Teacher Absence in India: A Snapshot”, Journal of the European Economic Association, 3 (2-3): 658-67.

Sarangapani, P (2009): “Quality, Feasibility and Desirability of Low Cost Schooling: What Is the Evidence?”, Economic & Political Weekly, 44(43), 24 October, pp 66-69.

Tooley, J and P Dixon (2006): “Defacto Privatisation of Education and the Poor: Implications of a Study from Sub-Saharan Africa and India”, Compare, 36 (4).

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