Like much in the northern Indian state of Bihar, education has been improving faster than in the rest of the country. But as this column reminds us, Bihar is starting from the bottom. For education to continue to improve, Bihar needs to universally provide drinking water facilities, separate toilets for girls in schools, and more teachers and classrooms per student.
One thing that development economists agree on is the importance of education. Put simply, if development is to be sustainable, people need to be better educated. Just looking at economic output, education contributes to growth by increasing the level of human capital of the workforce – as India has discovered in the IT sector. Looking beyond the statistics, education can equip people with the tools for a more fulfilling and enjoyable life.
The government of Bihar, one of India's poorest states, has recently undertaken several policy initiatives to make education more affordable and accessible to children. These initiatives have focused on reducing the ‘opportunity cost’ of schooling and providing incentives for enrolment and performance.
In my study with Priya Ranjan, we look at the state of education in Bihar and analyse the policies of the Bihar government (Ranjan and Prakash 2012). We draw on our own research, publically available data, and previous studies on education in India. We find that while Bihar has made several impressive steps, there is still a long road ahead.
The state of education in Bihar
Using data from District Information System for Education (DISE), we find that starting in 2006-2007 the enrolment rate at the primary level in Bihar – has been increasing and is now higher than the median of the 20 large states. However, the enrolment rate at the upper primary level is right at the bottom of the 20 major states in India with less than half of eligible children attending school. Since the DISE enrolment data for primary grades are not available for Bihar after 2007, we use an alternative measure from Assessment Survey Evaluation Research (ASER) called the ‘out of school rate’ which is the percentage of school age children not attending school. This measure is far less impressive for Bihar. We find that Bihar has a higher out of school rate than the median state in India, though the percentage has been declining over time. In line with the enrolment numbers, the out of school rate is higher among older children.
We use ASER scores for Reading and Maths as our measures of quality of education. While Bihar’s performance in these areas is close to median average among Indian states, there is still a lot of scope for raising the quality of education. To cite a couple of stark statistics – one third of students in Class 6 (on average ages 11-12) cannot read a paragraph taken from a Class 2 textbook (for ages 6-8), and half of Class 5 (age 9-10) students cannot solve a simple division problem.
One way of assessing school performance is by looking at ‘schooling inputs’ – that is, what is being provided in the schools. We find that Bihar performs very poorly in the provision of basic schooling inputs, both in absolute terms and in relation to other states in India. Bihar has the highest student-teacher ratio as well as the student-classroom ratio among Indian states. In 2009-2010, which is the last year for which data are available, Bihar had 53 students to every one teacher, while the national median was 26. The student-classroom ratio is also very poor, with over 80 students per classroom in all years surveyed, far above the national median. We also find that the proportion of classrooms in good condition is 60%, which in addition to being below the national median is 20 percentage points below the best performing state in India.
Among some other measures of schooling infrastructure, Bihar has made some progress in recent years in the provision of drinking water, and is now ranked above the median in India on this measure. However, the fact that roughly 10% of the primary schools lack access to drinking water facilities is clearly unacceptable. Other studies have found availability of a separate girls' toilet to be an important determinant both of female schooling and teacher attendance (see for instance Glewwe et al. 2011). This is particularly important in Bihar, which despite focusing on hiring female teachers for primary school, has only 20% of schools with separate toilets for girls – a very low figure in both relative and absolute terms.
Unsurprisingly, we find several of these schooling inputs to be key to providing a good education. Disease transmission within and across schools adversely affects both the amount of schooling received and its quality. While the Bihar government has taken some steps in this direction by implementing a massive deworming programme in 2011 with a follow-up planned later this year, we argue that the policy imperative should be on providing access to drinking water and separate girls' toilets in school.
Teacher absenteeism and perceptions of schooling
In addition to the infrastructural challenges identified above, Bihar needs to consider other important determinants of a good education. Previous studies, such as Chaudhury et al. (2006), highlight the problem of teacher absenteeism in several developing countries, including India. This body of research highlights a strong connection between poor school infrastructure, such as lack of drinking water, and teacher absenteeism, but also suggests that improved monitoring by authorities can improve teacher attendance. Indeed, data from a field experiment in Kenya suggest that scholarship incentives, where good grades were rewarded with grants and payment of school fees, helped to motivate both students and parents as well as reduce absenteeism (Kremer et al. 2009).
Focusing on the teachers themselves, most studies on the link between performance-related pay and educational outcomes find the effects to be positive (see for example Muralidharan and Sundararaman 2011). An essential prerequisite to the implementation of any kind of incentive pay scheme, however, is to set up a data system for monitoring the performance of schools and teachers. Such a data system is essential in linking student performance to teacher effectiveness. Developing such a data system will have the additional benefit of allowing the administrators to monitor the performance of schools and take remedial action in poorly performing schools. Put simply, if Bihar is to implement such a policy of incentivising teachers and measuring school performance, it needs to have the data system in place first.
But the problem is not just teachers. There is a problem with parents and children demanding enough education. Our survey of existing research suggests that many parents and children perceive the returns to schooling as much less than the returns from starting work earlier in life. The result is people choosing to ‘under-educate’ themselves in many developing countries (otherwise known as ‘underinvestment’ in education). Experimental studies suggest that public campaigns aimed at informing parents and children of the benefits of education are extremely cost effective at increasing school enrolment. Given the current lack of public information in Bihar, we strongly recommend the government launches such a campaign. In Bihar in particular, it would be a good idea to emphasise the development of English language skills, given their high returns in the job market (Azam et al. 2011).
The road ahead
Recent policy initiatives and improvements in primary school enrolment show that Bihar is making progress in improving its education. Recent policies have focused on lowering the cost of schooling through subsidising or providing textbooks, uniforms, bicycles and cash transfers for attendance. While these have reduced the costs of schooling in Bihar, much remains to be done to boost schooling infrastructure and improve conditions for both students and teachers.
We re-emphasise that policymakers must universally provide drinking water facilities, and separate toilets for girls in schools. They must also improve the student-teacher ratio and ensure that classrooms are in good condition. Finally, given the high cost effectiveness of information campaigns regarding the returns to education, the government of Bihar should seriously look into this policy option. More generally, understanding the determinants of household’s decision to ‘invest’ in education should be an important component of academic research and policy in the area of education, which has previously tended to focus more on improving the quantity and quality of educational inputs.
Looking to the future, performance-related pay (or incentive pay) for teachers can play an important role in improving the quality of education. However, to be able to link student performance to teacher effectiveness, a state-wide data system needs to be put in place.
- Azam, M, A Chin, and N Prakash (2011), “The Returns to English-Language Skills in India”, Forthcoming, Economic Development and Cultural Change.
- Chaudhury, Nazmul, Jeffrey Hammer, Michael Kremer, Karthik Muralidharan, and F Halsey Rogers (2006), “Missing in Action: Teacher and Health Worker Absence in Developing Countries”, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20(1):91-116.
- Glewwe, Paul, Nauman Ilias, and Michael Kremer (2008), “Teacher Incentives in the Developing World”, Manuscript, 2008.
- Glewwe, Paul, Eric Hanushek, Sarah Humpage, and Renato Ravina (2011), “School Resources and Educational Outcomes in Developing Countries: A Review of the Literature From 1990 to 2010", NBER, Working Paper No. 17554.
- Muralidharan, Karthik and Venkatesh Sundararaman (2011), “Teacher performance pay: Experimental evidence from India”, Journal of Political Economy, 119(1):39-77.
- Ranjan, Priya and Nishith Prakash (2012), “Education Policies and Practices: What Have We Learnt and the Road Ahead for Bihar”, Manuscript, 2012.