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I came across this interesting paper by Gustavo Ventura and his coauthors titled “Talent, Labor Quality, and Economic Development” in which they use PISA scores as a measure of quality of labor. They show that there are huge differences between labor quality between rich and poor countries based on these scores and they could explain some of the income differences across the world. Developed countries like the US, Canada and Western Europe have been investing in education for the past 200-300 years. The dividends that are being reaped now are because of this huge investment. Unfortunately, India does not figure into the analysis because we have shied away from taking the test. Only two states, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh, volunteered and the results are not at all encouraging. You can find some analysis here, here and here.

Employers in India have been lamenting about quality of human capital for a while now. There is an urgent need of reform starting from schooling to address such concerns effectively. Of course there are Indian kids who could surpass the rich country kids in these tests- all the ones who would eventually go to IIMs, IITs, and other elite educational institutions in India for example could do that. Students who come from educated families in general will be also in this list. But all said and done this is still a tiny winy percentage of the population. To reap the demographic dividend for economic growth, skill improvement needs to happen at much broader level than that. One could also argue that PISA tests does not really measure skills. Pratham has been conducting its own tests and the results are not very different!

How are we going to do this? Poor infrastructure, Teacher absenteeism,  and quality are some of the major problems at all levels of education in India. Some of it would need more investment but a lot could be achieved if incentive structures are changed to motivate the stakeholders to improve outcomes. For example, curriculum and school calendars may have to be revised to meet the local constraints and maximize attendance and learning. Research shows that poor quality of schooling reflects on performance in higher education and eventually the job market outcomes. This provides additional rationale for improvement of schooling across the board.

As we are on the topic of unused capacity and perverse incentives it has to be noted that this problem is not only limited to schooling. I know colleges in Pune, India where the classrooms are empty while students pay through their nose for coaching classes. The quality of education provided is overall abysmal. In order to get as many students through the college system as possible, there has been significant dilution of syllabus for almost all the courses through out. Centralized and standardized examination system has only made matters worse. It has taken away the agency from college teachers- no wonder there is huge apathy towards increased effort.

Moral of the story: education in India needs reform! This is one area where government spending and investment could really make a difference. The story about India’s PISA scores only underscores the dangers of continued neglect of such impetus to education.