Anurag Behar’s article on ‘the OEPS Phenomenon’ is yet another tirade against low-fee private schools, and disdain for the school choices of poor parents. Invoking an Azim Premji University (APU) report on school choice in low-information environments for his assertions, Mr Behar argues that parents choose schools on the basis of ‘educationally irrelevant factors and sociocultural aspirations’. We examined the report in great detail: its findings, at best, are insufficient to support his claims; at worst, incorrect. In spite of spending almost 70 crores rupees annually, APU—a stalwart in the education sphere—does not conduct its research with a genuine spirit of enquiry. Instead, it feeds an existing bias.
The report, based on a survey of ten districts across Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand, compares parental perceptions of private schools with their reality. It argues that parents make irrational choices in a low-information environment. It also proposes that advertising by private schools reinforces the cultural aspirations of parents and vice versa, and dilutes the importance of actual educational outcomes in school choice.
However, APU’s report rests on a weak foundation. We highlight the top-three errors in its findings.
First, exercising school choice is a complex process. Despite acknowledging this, APU bases its arguments on only three aspects—teacher characteristics, medium of instruction, and marketing—and ignores the rest. Its data says that teaching-learning (33%) is pivotal for parents. APU should have ideally analysed how parents monitor teaching-learning in schools. Instead, it focuses on elements such as ‘teacher characteristics’ which is relevant for only 8% of the parents. Somehow, a Jewish parable about a drunk man comes to mind. Instead of hunting in the dark bushes, this man looks for his keys under the streetlight because he can see better there.
Second, parents assess the quality of teaching through multiple lenses, but APU relies on an incomplete metric. The report evaluates academic qualifications and work-experience of both government and private school teachers. Its appraisal shows that the former has more degrees and experience. Based on this, it argues that parents who prefer ‘teacher characteristics’ (a factor the report does not define clearly), but choose ‘schools that have lesser qualified teachers than other schools’ make sub-optimal choices.
While qualifications and work-experience may give an insight into the quality of teaching, they are not sufficient if examined stand-alone. Teachers’ presence and involvement in the classroom should be equally pertinent. Even though government school teachers tend to be more qualified, everyone—including parents—is aware of their high rate of absenteeism (25%) and non-involvement (55%). Muralidharan and Sundararaman show that private school teachers are more active and involved with their students. The report itself points out that private school teachers give more homework and remedial classes for students who are unable to cope up in English.
Third, what is ‘quality education’ is not a settled matter. Yet, the report argues that marketing undertaken by private schools targets the more-visible aspects of schooling such as the use of English for everyday conversation. These ‘non-educational parameters’ tend to align with the aspirations of parents to gain cultural capital, and divert focus from the features of quality education.
It is difficult to fathom why advertising these parameters is offensive. If parents aspire for their children to harness ‘easily visible parameters’ and private schools can provide them, then there is no mismatch between perception and reality. It would be a different issue if private schools were falsely advertising such aspects, but the report does not shed any light on this matter.
The study is patchy when it comes to other aspects as well. Despite 33% parents citing ‘teaching-learning’ as the reason for preferring a specific school, it does not explain what that entails clearly. It also attempts to attack private schools by cherry-picking citations. Centre for Civil Society systematically reviewed research conducted on the impact of low-fee private schools in India between 2000 and 2017. Six out of seven studies on learning outcomes found that these schools performed better than or on par with government schools: yet, APU overlooks them.
People forget that government schools are not actually free. Nearly all citizens pay for them through taxes. When parents switch to private schools, they choose to incur the cost of education twice to get what they deem best for their children. Interestingly, an increasing number of government schools are trying to emulate private schools. In Assam, the state government has opened 14 model English-medium schools which are a ‘hit’, as each school has more than 600 students. Similarly, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and Karnataka government schools are moving towards English-medium instruction. They are also trying to provide technical facilities such as access to tablets, that were hitherto only found in private schools. These amenities are strikingly similar to the ones APU says parents desire and private schools advertise.
School choice is a difficult exercise for all households and parents. Instead of chastising parents for making misinformed choices, we need to bridge the gap between their perceptions and reality. If low-information exists in the schooling environment, we can address it using tools like report cards as demonstrated by Andrabi, Das and Khwaja in Pakistan. Mechanisms such as the Dubai school ratings system and NITI Aayog’s School Education Quality Index can also be effective. However, in the longer run, we should increase the number and quality of schools by easing entry for new players and bolster parental choice by funding children instead of schools.