This piece is in response to an article by Geeta Kingdon, Professor of Education Economics at University of London and President, City Montessori School (CMS), Lucknow, that describes the Right to Education Act 2009 of Government of India as disastrous and calls for scrapping of the harmful Act.

In this article we address the grounds Kingdon uses to criticize the Right to Education (RTE) Act. She argues that the Act is forcing closure of low fee private unrecognized schools and further this is harmful because the learning levels in private schools are higher than in government schools.

The article further argues closing of such private schools means children are forced to go to government schools with higher teacher absenteeism which means “The horrendous consequences for children’s learning levels, and ultimately for productivity and national growth, are nowhere in the calculation.”

Further the article states “The reason for this unholy mess is that the RTE Act’s framers disregarded the evidence on the emptying of government schools, and were in denial about the pitiably low learning levels, which were driving parents to private schools.”

The debate of whether students attending private schools perform better in learning outcomes compared to those in government schools is unsettled.

Better learning among students going to private schools can be due to selection of students from higher socio-economic strata (SES) into these schools as well as peer effects. Because parents choose which school to send their children to, it is hard to separate the impact of school quality from the myriad of other family, child and peer characteristics that affect learning.

In other words, if private schools perform better, it is at least in part because the student population is from a higher SES. Accounting for peer effects and selection is necessary when evaluating school quality difference between private and government schools.

A research study from two states in India, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, showed that low cost private schools, in smaller towns, semi-urban and rural areas, were marginally better or similar in learning levels to government schools once students’ SES was accounted for. More important, learning levels were still low in absolute terms in private as well as government schools.

International evidence from Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2011 across the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries shows that students who attend private schools perform better but (and this is key) students in government schools in a similar socio-economic context as private schools do equally well.

Another finding is that countries with a larger share of private schools do not perform better in PISA. Results from PISA 2012 across 40 countries, mostly OECD and Latin American countries, doubt the existence of a private school advantage in mathematics. In PISA 2015, students in private schools scored higher in science than students in government schools, but after accounting for the socio-economic characteristics of students and schools, students in government schools scored higher than students in private schools on average across the OECD countries and in 22 education systems.

So even if there is a private school advantage, we cannot be sure how much of it is due to unobserved family and child characteristics. In fact, it is common for high fee charging private schools to select students. For example, some high fee charging private schools in Lucknow practice screening students at the end of Class VIII to ensure high average performance in Board examinations in Classes X and XII.

Kingdon’s article suggests giving parents vouchers to choose school is one way to hold schools accountable. Teacher absence rates are indeed high in government schools. Teachers in private schools are likely to work harder than their government school counterparts because they are held accountable by private management.

But teacher quality in both school types is questionable. Note that it is clear in research from around the world that among the school characteristics that matter for student learning, teacher quality is the most critical. The quality of a school system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.

Both private and government school teachers in India come from a system that does not attract high calibre candidates into teaching and prepares teachers inadequately. Consequently, teaching is ineffective contributing to low levels of learning in private and government schools. There is a learning crisis in all school types. This was evident in PISA 2009 in which two states in India participated and their private schools performed way below the international average.

Kingdon’s article states private schools fear political capture, official interference, loss of autonomy, and consequent reduction in quality of education. The article further says the crying need is accountability, that government schools violate infrastructure norms and that the RTE act shelters government schools from closure and applies double standards.

No doubt, as Kingdon points out, there is a huge accountability issue in government schools that needs addressed. We need to be cognizant, at the same time, that private schools too suffer from an acute lack of accountability, perhaps not so much in teachers slacking but in schools violating rules and norms. A large number of private schools operate without any recognition from the government. And among the ones that have recognition, several may flout multiple norms.

As an example, some well-known and large private schools in Lucknow operate without the required No Objection Certificate and Certificate of Land from the State Government which are necessary documents for affiliation with the Council for Indian School Certificate Examination (CISCE) for the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE) and Indian School Certificate (ISC) but still somehow the schools are able to obtain CISCE affiliation. The schools report different student enrollment numbers to the different departments that need to give respective clearances for the schools to operate.

Similarly, some of the well-known and large private schools in Lucknow have been repeatedly denying admission on technical grounds to children in the last several years, admission orders for whom have been issued under the RTE act by the Basic Shiksha Adhikari (BSA) who is the district level education officer and by the District Magistrate.

These children usually belong to the Scheduled caste (SC). Some belong to the Valmiki community, also SC, which engages in sanitation work including manual scavenging. It is worth noting that in cities such as Ahmedabad and Delhi, private schools are more likely to admit children from weaker economic sections whose admissions are ordered by the District Education Officer as per the RTE. This is perhaps because laws and regulations are enforced more effectively in these cities or states compared to states like Uttar Pradesh (UP).

Therefore, the larger problem that needs addressed is the poor quality assurance in the education sector. Rules, norms and standards in the education sector need to be enforced across all school types. It is time to strengthen the intent behind the RTE act of providing every child with quality education and go back to the drawing board to reform fundamental aspects of education, including those that are a consistent feature of top-performing education systems in the world:

1. Improve teacher quality. Countries which score at the top of international tests such as PISA or Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) have teaching as a very well reputed profession, attract the best candidates, train them well and support them through their career.

2. Measure learning to find out how schools are doing. Use monitoring, evaluation, and assessment of schools for accountability and improvement in student outcomes.

3. Develop learning standards, and align curriculum, teacher training, and assessments with standards.

4. Focus on providing quality early childhood education so that children arrive in primary school ready to learn. Professor James Heckman who received the Nobel prize in economics in 2000 showed that investing in the first five years in a child’s life yields the highest return, even if we talk of economic returns to education alone. Investing in early childhood is not just equitable, it really is smart investment for economic growth.

5. Bring into policy discussion the need for schools to develop non-cognitive skills along with cognitive skills. The importance of social-emotional skills for academic and life success including financial success, health and other measures of wellbeing has been established in Heckman’s research and several other research studies. For example, one study found the most important predictor of success in adult life was self-control at age 5, not Intelligence Quotient, grades, or SES.

The question that policymakers, researchers, and civil society need to ask and address is what it will take to improve quality assurance in the education sector, both private and government schools. The government of Delhi has already shown the way. Significant education reforms have begun to be put in place in Delhi in the last few years. As a result, government schools in Delhi have started to see an improvement in quality.

Elements of the reform include stricter enforcement of norms and standards and evidence-based best practices such as effective teacher training, curriculum reform, and introduction of a social-emotional curriculum. States lagging in education outcomes such as UP can choose to learn from Delhi’s example to improve the quality of their education system.

Sandeep Pandey is a social activist and visiting faculty at different Institutes of Technology, Management and Law in India. Priyanka Pandey is a researcher and holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago.

Cover PhotographL Teacher climbs a tree for internal signal for online classes.