Incentives to learn

Narayan Ramachandran has a column in today’s Mint, talking about India’s missing educators – focussing on absenteeism among teachers in India’s schools (a point we have been referring to on-and-off in this blog).  He states that there seems to be a clear correlation between improving teacher attendance and student learning.  However, teacher absenteeism is a very complex problem.  For e.g.:

* Higher pay is not associated with lower absence

* Para-teachers, who work on contract and whose jobs are not guaranteed, are equally likely to be absent

* Attendance in unaided and government-aided private schools is only marginally higher than at government schools

All this points to a lack of dis-incentives (or, in less polite terms, the stick).   Which is then the focus of most interventions.  Narayan lists out several of the good ideas floating around:

1. Introduce a voucher system that allows households to choose between public and private schools

2. Introduce a credible process of monitoring teacher attendance, and link it to some form of variable pay

3. Create an output orientation that is around student learning and use that to measure quality of teaching (not the input metrics like classroom ratios etc)

The first solution is probably a good one, but has too many complex implications – and will be difficult to push through politically.  The second and third ones are good too, but have limitations.  For instance, measuring the output ignores the quality of the input.  Something that the schools in LA have discovered (covered in our previous post “Scoring the Teachers”)

An aspect I find less talked about is the student’s incentives to learn, and parents’ incentives to make sure they do.  Many people struggle to understand the cost-benefit of a good education.  It’s hard for them to see the NPV of investments in education – and many of them fail to take it seriously.  I’ve encountered a few volunteer groups in Bangalore that try and educate students about this – by displaying heroes from their community and educating them about employment (and salary) opportunities.  But these may be sporadic efforts.

We’ve assumed that there is a demand for education, and are killing ourselves on a supply solution.  But what if we focussed on strengthening the demand instead?  Would that not help create a stronger supply base?

We’ve seen it work everywhere else.  Why not in education?