‘Political will is the missing catalyst for quality education’
Dr Manzoor Ahmed, professor emeritus at Brac University and vice-chair of the Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE) Council, talks to Eresh Omar Jamal of The Daily Star about a new book, of which he is a co-author, on the political economy of education in South Asia.
You and two other colleagues of yours recently published the book, "The Political Economy of Education in South Asia: Fighting Poverty, Inequality, and Exclusion." What inspired you to write it?
My colleagues and I have been concerned about the persistent quality deficits in South Asia, the region with one-fourth of the world's population and the largest concentration of poor people. John Richards, a public policy specialist at Simon Frasier University in Vancouver, has been interested in health and education services in Bangladesh and has visited the country frequently. Shahidul Islam, a former education adviser for USAID and my associate at Brac University, is a doctoral researcher at Queens University in Canada. I have been involved in education policy and strategy development at home and abroad. We observed that since the 1990s, there has been a major expansion of educational services in South Asia, but the countries in the region still were far off the track for achieving the 2030 SDG goal of equitable, inclusive and quality primary and secondary education for all. We decided to explore the reasons, probe if there were common factors and differences among the countries, and examine what might break the logjam in progress. The title of the book suggests a new perspective about the problems and the solutions that have not received enough attention.
The foreword to the book was Sir Fazle Hasan Abed's last written piece on education. In it, he wrote, "Public systems have not created the desired equal opportunities and learning outcomes—consequently, they are not preparing young people for the rapidly evolving employment, and social cohesion challenges." According to your findings, what are the main reasons for this?
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed was exceptionally insightful about grasping the essence of the problems of education and development and initiating creative solutions. In his foreword, he spoke about critical deficiencies: Despite expansion that allows most children to enrol in school, acceptable quality is not within reach "for the poor, those with special needs, ethnic and language minorities and those living in remote and ecologically disadvantaged locales" (p. XIII). He speaks about chronically low public investment and its inept use in education causing erratic learning outcomes. He mentions ineffective public education services and regulatory mechanisms that fail to produce efficient public-private collaboration; lackings in teachers' skills and motivation; and governance tradition and practices that do not promote accountable, fair, and effective management.
Preparing young people for life and work, in the face of a rapidly changing economy and job market, and the challenges of building a cohesive society, is the foremost task of the education system. Our message is that the problem is larger than finding technical recipes for matching training and jobs, and more about teaching of precepts about morality and ethics. In fact, it is necessary to think of transforming pedagogy and learning in order to nurture the new generation to be equipped with essential competencies for the 21st century. These include communication skills, reasoning, critical thinking, creativity and the ability to adapt to change.
The school systems have a tendency—in the curriculum, the organisation of learning content and school routine, preparation of teachers, and assessment of student learning—to treat the whole spectrum of conventional subjects as having equal importance. There is resistance in the education establishment to ensure results in the basic foundational skills of language, math and science. Experience has shown that building the foundational skills is the best preparation for the world of work and life.
You have dedicated nearly one-third of the book to diagnosing the quality deficits in South Asia's basic education. Can you summarise the most important points in relation to the basic shortcomings of providing quality education?
Before the pandemic, South Asia was the world's fastest growing region in terms of GDP and it is projected to perform creditably despite the pandemic-induced setbacks. This narrative, however, is only a partial story. The pandemic has demonstrated the vulnerability of those close to the poverty line, who comprise about half of the population of South Asia by the lower-middle-income countries' threshold of USD 3.20 per capita earning per day. Professor Rehman Sobhan, drawing on cross-country experience in South Asia, has argued that structural injustice—due to the failure of governance structures—has led to serious inequity in human development services such as health and education.
Acquiring foundational skills, literacy and numeracy, known as the tools of learning, by age 10 or at least by the end of primary education is critical. These skills prepare children to become self-reliant learners. Not having these skillsets, children fall behind in their grades and the gap accumulates. Many then drop out. Large-scale sampling of reading levels and basic math skills of the students shows a serious deficiency. A quarter to over 40 percent or more of primary-age children in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan do not acquire these skills expected of a grade three student (as measured by the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) Survey, or similar tools). There is no single or simple explanation for this disappointing learning outcome.
One factor, as noted, is the low level of public funding for education, in part due to the low share of GDP for public revenue across South Asia, and particularly so in Bangladesh at about 10 percent of GDP. There are also skewed allocations and inefficiency in the use of available funds. Investments have been made in classrooms, learning materials and textbooks, teachers and their training and supervision, but these have been short of a threshold level that would be necessary to ensure acceptable quality. And there is an endemic of corruption and wastage, which diminish the investment returns.
There have been innovations and randomised control trials, such as teacher compensation that includes a performance bonus, increased frequency of inspection and linking teachers' pay to days in class; remedial teaching for students with low test scores; and use of contract teachers (para-teachers) supplementing permanent teachers. As experiments, these have shown positive student outcomes. Institutionalising these at scale, however, became problematic. This next step requires that the goals of politicians, education establishments and teachers' unions converge and that the government is ready to challenge interest groups with divergent aims.
The analysis of the problems also points to the need for a realignment of the principal-agent relationship in education management—parents and the community being the "principal" and the school and teachers being the "agent." The agents have to be accountable to the principal, with a decentralised management structure. But change in this area requires a political settlement by stakeholders. Moving from the centralised and top-down management tradition and habits faces great resistance.
Bangladesh has made some remarkable economic progress in recent times. Yet, you have highlighted how we have failed to ensure quality education for all. How do you reconcile the two?
A functional and self-sustaining level of literacy and numeracy is the proxy for empowered and motivated humans who can exercise choices for themselves and participate fully in economy and society. The existing leaning opportunities in formal and non-formal education do not quite create the empowerment and self-confidence desired. As mentioned, the narrative of economic progress is half the story. Persisting inequality and exclusion in education and economy deny a stake in progress to at least half of the population. The aim of higher middle-income, and eventually high-income, status for the country may be reached by the GDP criterion. But inequality, exclusion and the resulting social tension will increase unless human capabilities and the capacity to exercise choices are expanded, in which a transformed education system has a central role.
Can you give us some other examples of how our failure to provide quality education is adversely affecting our society?
It is hard to ditch the last century's concepts of human capital—people as cogs in the economic production machine—and aggregate economic growth as the sole measure of a nation's worth. The existential threat of climate change, the "clash of civilisations" mentality, technologies creating new social divides, and the trend of rejecting pluralism and secular humanism challenge the idea of progress itself, as Abed has put it. The role of quality education and the education community of students, teachers and parents is vital in reclaiming the idea of progress.
As a society, have we been conscious enough of the important role of teachers? Why is it that we are still struggling to produce excellent teachers in Bangladesh?
We have argued that teachers are the pivot of change in education. Education research has shown that the characteristics of students and their familial circumstances are the most important determinants of student performance in school, but education policy and actions cannot change these conditions. The most important factor subject to intervention by education policymakers is "teacher quality."
It is necessary to reimagine the role, tasks, preparation, support, motivation, and social esteem of education workers. The objectives and structure of teacher preparation in South Asia, including Bangladesh, contrast sharply to those in high performing countries in East Asia and Europe. The general pattern in South Asia is that graduates of tertiary level are first appointed as teachers and then sent for a short training, in contrast to the practice of recruiting young people at post-secondary level for a four-year degree that includes general subjects and pedagogy. The latter approach allows a sufficient time for professional and personal grooming of future teachers. The South Asian approach fails to attract intellectually capable people to school teaching and the post-recruitment teacher training cannot compensate for basic deficiencies in subject knowledge and general basic competencies.
We have recommended adopting a genuine pre-service teacher preparation model of four-year degree that integrates professional preparation for teaching. This measure can work if adequate remuneration, a career path and enhanced social status are ensured by creating a national education service corps for school education. This would be the way to have skilled professional teachers who can be the role model for their students.
Can you share with us some of the solutions you have suggested in the book to the problems that you and your colleagues have identified? Are the solutions influenced by political economy factors?
We have examined a plethora of operational problems and technical solutions in the education system commonly brought up in education discourse, such as, improving access and participation, assessment of learning, pedagogy and teachers, financing, and management of education. The merits of the technical solutions of problems, we have found, are not the main determinants of educational decision-making. The dynamics of political power in a country, the bargaining and negotiations among interest groups, determine the policies adopted and pursued by the state.
We propose a framework of promoting structural changes in the education system. These include four key political commitments: a) a commitment to clarify key learning objectives, assess outcomes, and use the assessment as the basis for policy; b) a commitment to prepare the education workforce well and improve its performance as the pivot for change; c) a commitment to organise and govern the education system and institutions as instruments for learning, not to appease political clients and patrons; and finally d) a commitment to finance education adequately.
A strategic agenda we recommend is to promote the complementarity of public and private institutions and services within a regulatory framework aimed at optimising the "public good" aspects of education. Parents, teachers and young people themselves can be powerful champions of this agenda, if they can be helped to share a common vision and harness their energy to fulfil this vision.