Educating education: An academic's two cents on education reform
As a nation, we continue to have a lot to complain about. Today, students are still subjected to, more or less, the same so-called education that we or our seniors experienced. What can we do? My passion and interest being in matters of the education system, I've come to the conclusion that I can at least raise important questions that we have mostly overlooked in our approach to education in Bangladesh in the hope to accelerate critical conversations.
First, what is the purpose of education? What compels us to pursue education? In a thought-provoking article, published in 1997, David F Labaree, professor of education at Stanford University, highlighted three "conflicting" goals of education and discussed the growing dominance of the social mobility goal, and how it conformed education to a commodity for status attainment and incentivised the pursuit of credentials over knowledge acquirement. This is relatable because, in line with the aspects of credential inflation and the meritocratic labour-market-oriented ideology of "social mobility," educational pursuit in Bangladesh is mostly motivated by the desire to get a job. Any student growing up with the Bangladeshi education system has experienced the primacy of rote-learning methods, shadow education, and rat races to attain grades and certificates – all with the aim of attaining good jobs and social status.
If I were the education minister, I would specifically focus on substantially increasing the budget allotted to educational research – it should be a unique designated target. We have a terrible scarcity of longitudinal data, and of educational data in general, to be able to follow children from their childhoods in formal education to later years.
Then there's the fact that context matters and we should not always blindly implement findings from other contexts into our own, which is something we rarely consider when we think about reforms in our education system.What does this mean for international calls that we have adhered to in terms of training and skills? What about different types of schooling – do they each have different purposes? Can increasing teachers' salaries be the key to improvement in the lessons delivered in classrooms, if we don't simultaneously change our textbooks and our curriculums? What do we mean by "inclusive education"? Are there inequalities in aspirations at the root? Why is it that the child of a minister should not aim for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET), but the child of a tailor should? What does it say about the pedagogies we have adopted if a child selling fruit can count better than a child in formal education?
In answering these important questions, we must first remember to ask them. Once these questions are raised, how we answer them comes back to purpose and will. At the end of the day, no reform is above the politics and power dynamics that govern the uptake of an idea. And so, the first steps to take would involve three key aspects: budget distribution, investment in research, and carefully selecting the core teams that decide the trajectory of educational policies.
Yes, I agree that the share of the total budget allocated to education should be increased. However, my argument is that how we are using the allotted budget is as important, if not more, than how much budget we have. This is where the matter of educational goals becomes most important. Educational goals will ascertain our priorities, which will in turn drive the educational aspects we choose to invest in. While it is, of course, important to finance educational infrastructure equitably across the country so that each area, regardless of being rural or urban, has sufficient educational provisions – such as school buildings, sanitation, clean drinking water, access to educational materials and resources – it is also important to invest in the "inside" of classrooms, that is, in aspects that are abstract but directly linked to the quality of education. For example, in teacher training, in textbook content, in curriculum.
However, the crucial point is that all these investment decisions must be research-driven. We must invest in educational research to be able to upscale reforms that work particularly for us. And this is where we need to facilitate our educational researchers to gather evidence that can inform our ideas. It is time to rethink our usual practices of picking from research in other contexts and applying it to our own without considering the possibility that things may be different here.
If I were the education minister, I would specifically focus on substantially increasing the budget allotted to educational research – it should be a unique designated target. We have a terrible scarcity of longitudinal data, and of educational data in general, to be able to follow children from their childhoods in formal education to later years. Reforms should be backed by research and only then will investment decisions gain legitimacy, no matter what the outcome. This is where it becomes important to have institutions in place – to validate the quality of the research that informs policy, and then the effectiveness of the policy itself. No decision should be taken lightly. Each investment decision involves taxpayers' hard-earned money in Bangladesh, and they – the entire nation in fact – deserve transparency.
This brings me to the last point: we need a good team of people in positions of power making the main decisions. The most important criterion is balance. Meaning a good balance of voices that challenge each other. We need people in favour of the human capital theory and people against it. We need both advocates and opposers of school choice. We need balance in terms of people from different portions of society because often there is an underrepresentation of voices, such that one group sets the rules for all others. That is, privileged individuals set the standards for underprivileged groups. Choosing a good team is key, as it makes or breaks the progress we yearn for. Any education minister should first attempt to institutionalise the recruitment process by 1) going by work and not only by fame and political affiliation, and 2) by assuring a balanced representation of voices.
We need to choose the harder but right path of stimulating each other to reach the decision that best reflects our collective priorities, keeping an eye, especially on the needs of the marginalised populations who need us the most. Each of us must rise above our political beliefs and affiliations to unite for the better of not any political party, but for our Bangladesh, especially for the sake of future generations.
A recent study by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), presented at the BIDS Research Almanac 2023, revealed that there is an acute learning deficiency, whereby around 50 percent of children in Class 3 are unable to read in Bangla at their expected level. It's a finding that should be a national crisis, really. And it's a reminder that education remains in need of our notice and prioritisation. There remain much deeper issues in our education system often silenced and suppressed by attractive numbers and statistics. It's time to begin talking about these openly.
Admittedly, there have been times when I've preferred silence to speaking out. It was at a conference in Dhaka in December that I was apologising to a fellow academic for asking too many questions when a true educator, my teacher Dr Atonu Rabbani, said something along the lines of, "If you don't ask the questions, then I didn't do my job right." That one line, and the way my teacher said it, was an eye-opener to what my responsibilities are. Those of us who are old enough to voice our thoughts should do so. Change starts with us, and it is with the aim of playing my small part in the process that I, with this introductory article, begin my limited series of writings on the changes I would like to make in our education system.
Rubaiya Murshed is a PhD researcher at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. She is also a lecturer (on study leave) at the Department of Economics, University of Dhaka.
Views expressed in this article are the author's own.
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