Tuesday, May 23, 2006

What is the effect of job quotas on the quality of our government schools?

Professor P.V. Indiresan, ex-Director of IIT-M, has a rambling op-ed in the Business Line; he offers several familiar arguments against reservation. This one, however, is new:

[...] As a natural corollary of the Reservation Principle, teaching posts have been reserved on caste basis. That is a cardinal error. What poor students need most are the best teachers available, not the least qualified. [...]

First of all, by conflating reservation and the failure of our state-run schools, he isn't contributing meaningfully to a discussion on either. Second, while his argument, like those based on 'merit', has a certain appeal to it, it isn't difficult to show that it has very little basis.

Different states in our country have had different experiences with quotas, thus allowing us to check if, and how well, reservation correlates with poor quality of schools. Fortunately, we don't have to look far. Indiresan's article itself contains some:

In the past fifty years, the population of Chennai has increased almost ten times. Yet, many schools run by the City Corporation have been closed for "want of students". In truth, it cannot be that the students, but the quality of teachers selected that was found wanting.

It is a recorded fact that discipline among school teachers has come down. Across the country, half the time teachers are not attending to class work at all. It is a fact that most students in Delhi's Corporation schools cannot do simple arithmetic -- multiply two-digit numbers -- even after five years of education.

I believe his statements about the poor quality and work ethic of teachers are broadly true (but overstated) -- for both Chennai and Delhi, and indeed for most schools across the country. But, Chennai has had a long history of far more aggressive reservation than Delhi, thus debunking the correlation between reservation and poor quality schools/teaching.

* * *

Indiresan's bad analysis need not deter us from examining what ails our state-run schools. Most of us have our own views on this issue; here's my take. Feel free to to add your perspectives in the comments.

Heck, it's not just the schools that have difficulty attracting -- and retaining -- good teachers. This problem persists all the way upto the highest levels: colleges, universities, IITs, and IIMs. (Medical and law colleges don't seem to suffer from this problem, though. I wonder why ...)

The reality of our state-run schools (other than the Kendriya Vidyalayas) is quite well known: crowded classrooms, poor infrastructure, bad working conditions, poor pay, ... It's safe to say that teaching in government schools is not the career of choice for the vast majority of us. Yet, we are fortunate to find many, many competent, committed and inspiring individuals who choose to become teachers. The law of large numbers [er ... our population] continues to come to our help!

Sadly, however, not all the teachers are great. Our employment exchanges select teachers from a vast pool of applicants who span a huge spectrum in terms of competence and commitment. And, inevitably, they select a bunch of teachers who are neither competent nor committed. Further, our system doesn't have a mechanism for kicking anyone out for non-performance. So, the bad teachers, once selected, stick around for several decades, bringing the average quality down.

Here's the main point: our 'system' has -- and will have -- these problems, irrespective of whether the bad teachers are from the general category (GC) or the reserved category (RC).

The remedy isn't hard to guess: make teaching more attractive as a career, and enforce strict standards of accountability. With the former, capable people will choose teaching over other careers, and the latter will help get rid of poor performers. Other measures, such as de-centralizing our school system and giving parents a greater control over schools, are good in principle, but won't work if the system selects (some) bad teachers and isn't able to weed them out.

In pursuing accountability, state governments face significant opposition from the teachers (more specifically, teachers' unions) themselves. Amartya Sen refers to the phenomenon of "friendly fire" in which "these institutions of justice [Sen is referring to unions here ;-) ] seem to work largely against justice through their inaction -- or worse -- when faced with teacher absenteeism and other irresponsibilities".

Thus, the broad goal of 'improving our schools' takes us face to face with problems such as the above. These are real, hard problems that can be addressed only through popular awareness and political will. Instead of contributing to solving real problems, Indiresan has, sadly, chosen to foist on us a bogus problem that conflates reservation and poor quality of our schools.



  1. Anonymous said...

    Here again you have tried to twist his arguments in a not so artistic way. Forget reservations in primary schools for teachers. He never intends to say that reservations in primary schools is the reason for their poor performance. I and perhaps most others would concur with what he said which is the following:
    (1) The condition of primary schools is bad. There may be several reasons for this. You seemed to have put effort to reason some of them out.
    (2) It is better if we can somehow improve the condition of the primary schools rather than providing free sops like reservations, which require no real effort, are short term and whose real benefits are not surely researched upon. All governments have failed to improve primary education in successive years.
    (3) Reservation are a way for the governemnts to shroud their failure in being able to provide infrastructural facilities at every nook and corner of India. It is attractive for the backward classes who avail them and are aware of them. The price which the society has to pay for reservation is in terms of total neglect of sections of the society who live in far flung villages who don't even know what an IIT or AIIMS is. Hence reservation is intended for most of those who are not in a position to avail them.

  2. Anonymous said...

    1. The students going to Govt School is different from the guy who goes to private unrecognised school and is different from the guy who goes to Residential school. As such, it will be a very vain and COMPLETELY USELESS and idiotic attempt at comparing these as the USERS are entirely different economic and social strata and will have different priorities. It is like comparing cheese and chalk. For example, if you compare engineering college and medical college and come to a judgement (that the cost per student in engineering college is less than the cost per student in medical college), that shows the mental acumen of the person who did this study. On the other hand, a good study would have been comparing Govt schools across many states and private schools across many states (or Delhi medical colleges vs Maharashtra medical colleges or Orissa Engineering colleges vs Rajasthan Engineering colleges)

    The present study is like comparing shaving cream (or may be sanitary napkin) uses between boys and girls and is absolute bull shit

    2. Teachers in Private Schools have few work (but more working hours)... They are expected to
    a. Teach in the class room
    b. Correct Papers

    On the other hand teachers of Govt schools are expected to do every nonsense work including voter identification, verification of ration cards and even census. As such, it is very logical that their attendance in classrooms is less than the counterparts in private schools, but it is not the fault of the education department.

  3. Anonymous said...

    Two things: Amartya Sen himself mentions the lack of attendance by teachers in state run schools which was shown by the Pratrichi fund that he set up and highlights it as one of the main points.

    Do reservations currently exist in schools in Tamil Nadu???

  4. Anonymous said...


    This guy Indrasen has quoted Thomas Sowell. Just a simple Google search will tell how academics have ridiculed Sowell in US. This guy uses Sowell because it is convenient for him. Recently I saw an interview with one guy from under privileged sections who had the good fortune to go to the top without the help of reservations. He had the right kinda environment and he had other "external factors" that could help him get to the top. He criticizes the reservations saying that it is not needed for underprivileged kids to go to the top. His argument conveniently ignores the other "external factors" in play. His argument was so simplistic based on one data point. Thomas Sowell falls into similar category. If whatever Thomas Sowell says is true, Katrina shouldn't have happened and we should have had a big percentage of African Americans on the top of the society. The percentage of African Americans who are successful is still low. Thomas Sowell's argument has been rubbished by academics. He is supporting the concept of Bell Curve and uses it in his arguments. Science has clearly proved that the basic premise of Bell Curve (Intelligence is primarily genetically based) is plain wrong. This kicks out most of the arguments made by Sowell. This guy Indrasen, in spite of being Director of IITM, is basing his arguments on Sowell. This very fact clearly throws our the arguments of Indrasen to Garbage bin. His ramble lacks scientific logic. If you think he is making sense, I really don't know what to say. I can say one thing. There are many educated people in India who lacks the ability to comprehend science.

  5. Anonymous said...

    Thus, the broad goal of 'improving our schools' takes us face to face with problems such as the above. These are real, hard problems that can be addressed only through popular awareness and political will. Instead of contributing to solving real problems, Indiresan has, sadly, chosen to foist on us a bogus problem that conflates reservation and poor quality of our schools.

    In a similar vein, Arjun Singh too has avoided this problem, and chosen the easy (and populist) way out instead..

  6. Anonymous said...

    We have already exchanged views on this subject over email, so you know where I stand. There are two ways of looking at it -

    a - The state of education is already so bad that raising the bogey of dipping quality due to reservations for teachers is not right

    b - since the state of education is already so bad, why make it worse by enforcing reservations for teachers?

    You know my ideological viewpoint. Let the owner decide. Here since the owner is "our" government, we will all express what we think should be done, but in a democracy, the will of majority will be implemented.

    By the way, as an aside, please do read this report. Very interesting.

  7. Anonymous said...

    krish and abi: I have perhaps argued much in the preceding days with you on the need to implement reservations. I was and remain an ardent opponent to reservations per se and consider the idea itself as fundamentally wrong. According to me, if the externalities are the problem change them. And if you can't change them in 60 years, don't carry on reserving seats to get votes. Through all the blogs and newspaper reports on reservations which I have tracked and perhaps read, I have been able to conclude only one thing. There has been no substantive study on the impact of reservations, the number of people who can avail reservations, the number who actually get reservations and their social stratas. Whatever facts have been produced till now are muddlesome and do not support each other.
    Thus ideally and logically both the fans and opponents of reservations should yearn for an impartial enquiry which addresses all these questions.
    However the way the issue is being handled by the government leaves us all with a sense of hopelessness and utter despair. Decisions which require thought and thorough care and consideration are taken within a day.
    From all those who have gone through Arjun Singh's interview on IBN live it becomes very clear that he doesnt have any data, facts or tables to support himself. He isnt aware of the data which parliamentary commitees have produced. He is not afraid of questions, he is indiffernt to them. He is not fit to be an HRD minister.
    Tell me you are academicians, Is it possible to increase 27% seats within a year or even 3 years. Why don't they increase 27% beds in government hospitals every year. Isnt that required more than putting in 27% more people.
    I bring this talk to an end. Plainly stating I in future will never want to be a part of any such IIT or IIM which accepts such an assault from the government silently.
    I urge you all to use your influence (if you have any) to oppose such histrionics from the side of the government. I urge you to come ahead and speak in public, speak to newspapers and media to write to them instead of confining yourself to a blog ( if thats what you have been doing till now).

  8. Abi said...

    Cipher: You say "He never intends to say that reservations in primary schools is the reason for their poor performance."

    I am not sure how you arrived at this conclusion..

    As for the bit about primary education, we are all with you. It's important. But, it is not in competition with other means of achieving the goal of integrating disadvantaged groups into the mainstream.

    Dr. Bruno: Thanks for bringing the perspectives about govt. school teachers and their hardships. But the point is still valid: there are some bad teachers.

    Anon: I am not sure I get your point ...

    Shrik: Thanks for equating Indiresan's way with that of Arjun Singh's!

    Gaurav: Thanks for the comment, and for the link. I knew of that report, but never really got a chance to read it.

    Well, Cipher, we *are* airing our views in public, aren't we? We are asking for hard data about the impact of quotas, aren't we? To me, blogs are a public forum. Thanks for the suggestion, though.