Spending more on education is not the answer

I have tons of friends (actually just 4, but doesn’t have the same effect does it?) who think that the way to solve the education problem of India is to spend more on it. They are well intentioned, but that’s all they are because that statement is simply not true.

Let me step back for a second and clearly define what I mean by the education problem of India. It is the low level of learning among students- simple things like reading and arithmetic. For example, more than 50% of students in Grade 5 cannot read a Grade 2 text or solve a simple subtraction problem.

Why is spending more not the solution? Because spending is typically directed to more of the same inputs like building more schools upgrading school infrastructure, more teacher training, increasing teacher salaries etc. But research shows that most of such interventions are not effective at improving learning outcomes.

Lant Pritchett writes:

Interestingly, Indonesia — the host country of the World Bank meetings where the HCI was launched — clearly illustrates both of these points: that “more only” cannot work and “spending ain’t investment.” A recent study used household surveys to compare the ability of recent cohorts of youth 18 to 24 years old to do simple arithmetic between 2000 and 2014. They find that the percent of youth who had completed senior secondary school increased by 20 percentage points — so a massive dose of “more.” Data also shows that during this period, spending on education tripled. So Indonesia clearly spent more. But the percent of arithmetic questions that youth could answer increased only from 31.2 to 31.4 percent.

And in India, between 2007 and 2011, the government increased expenditure on elementary education by 80 percent, but average learning outcomes reported by ASER surveys have slightly declined.

So it matters how you spend the money. Possible suggestions for primary and secondary education are Pratham’s flagship TaRL (teach at the right level) remedial coaching given to students according to their existing level of learning, and performance pay for teachers among others.

More generally, governments (and my four AAP supporting friends) need to shift focus from outputs (more schools better infrastructure, more teachers, more books, more “digital classrooms”) to outcomes (% of students who can do carry over subtraction, % of students who can read at grade level).

At the very least, every time you see a tweet by Kejriwal showcasing a swanky new government school classroom, resist the urge of re-tweeting.

Note: Thanks to Sabareesh Ramachandran for pointing out that we only have evidence that improving school infrastructure (and inputs in general) on the margin has little effect on learning outcomes in the short run.

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