Education with a purpose

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There are three broad demands that are often made on education systems: education should prepare the student for the role of the citizen, it should provide skills a modern economy needs, and it has to provide for ways for individuals to move within the socioeconomic hierarchy. Broadly, the first two objectives are the public good elements in education and the third is a private good demand.

Major education reform movements have been ways of addressing one or more of the above demands, and sometimes the need to balance the claims of all. A priori one can see that the three objectives need not be compatible or possible to achieve completely from within one system. The demand for citizen education requires some common and uniform elements. Private ends of individuals require distinction and differentiation. We cannot have both things through one system. Balance is needed: balance that caters to both the public good element and the private demands for mobility.

Reform movements in the US that shaped the education system in profound ways were all attempts to balance one or another element of the private or the public aspect of education. Common school movement had to deal with people coming from very diverse backgrounds and needing a common core. The progressive movement of the fifties and sixties had elements of opening access to all, including immigrants, equipping them for demands of a modern economy and bringing more equity in the system. 1980/90s movements about standardised testing and charter schools have been demands from consumers to ensure that differentiation still exists. But differentiation limits universality by definition, so before things go too far in one direction, there are calls for reforms on the basis of other desirables. As one side gains momentum there is a rise of demands from the other side to restore balance and we see a continuous to and fro between these demands.

The nationalisation of education in the 1970s, in Pakistan, could be seen as a response to a demand for universalisation and uniformity. The attempt failed as the state could not create a good enough universal system and the elite managed to safeguard the schools that were meant for them. The private school expansion, 1980s onwards, can be seen as the triumph of the market/consumer demand for differentiation.

Where it is true that the elite expensive private schools give decent education, are able to impart middle/upper middle class values to children, and even ensure children have a certain accent to their Urdu and English, there is no public good element left in this education. The demand, to have good citizens being trained in educational systems, is left to whatever curriculum these schools choose to follow. And though curriculum might be based on government curriculum, what is actually taught and how is not controlled by the society.

Apart from the elite schools, most schools in the private sector are low fee institutions. They do not have the resources to compete in the differentiation market. Their best bet is to signal that they are mimicking elite schools in an effort to convince buyers that their children will get at least somewhat differentiated education but charge as much as possible from children coming from middle or lower middle class, from parents desperate for their children to get a good break. Most of these schools do a poor job of educating children, as shown by a number of good studies. These private schools end up doing neither the public nor the private element well.

The case of public schools is even more tragic. Their main task was to prepare good citizens and provide the basic skills that our economy needs. Given the lack of importance that the state and society have accorded education, most of these schools, if functional, are doing a very poor job of even basic teaching. Studies show that children who have completed primary education can often barely read and write and even those who have gone up to matriculation often do not have the basic skills needed for being able to manipulate scientific concepts.

There is a need to go back to the drawing board to rethink what we want from our education system. The fragmentation that we are seeing is not good for us. Granted there is a minority of elite schools that are giving decent training providing some advantages to these children in securing places in good colleges and universities and then in places of work but the majority of schools are not being able to do that. And more importantly, the public good element of education is being completely ignored.

Though talk of education reform keeps reverberating in the mass media there does not seem to be resonance that we need to have a fairly basic debate and dialogue on the ends of education and then think of reform in conjunction with the ends. Reforms that do not address the basic issue of purposes of education will not go deep enough and will not be able to address the problems we have with education today, whether it be Madrassah reform, the issue of language or issues of social and economic opportunity and equity.

The writer is an Associate Professor of Economics at LUMS (currently on leave) and a Senior Advisor at Open Society Foundation (OSF). He can be reached at [email protected]