Learning curve: Primary School education in Nepal

High educational quality at the secondary level (grades 6-12) cannot be attained unless learning at the primary level is completely mastered. Second, higher payoffs are associated with public sector interventions conducted at early stages of learning than those done at later stages.

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Nepal’s most successful education reforms date back to the Panchayat regime, to a stupendous primary school enrollment increase from 10 percent in 1960 to 80 percent in 1990. However, as Nepal advances, the evaluation of current educational snapshot at the primary level (grades one–five) is inevitable for two important reasons. First, high educational quality at the secondary level (grades 6-12) cannot be attained unless learning at the primary level is completely mastered. Second, higher payoffs are associated with public sector interventions conducted at early stages of learning than those done at later stages.

While I acknowledge the merits of rich educational data that Department of Education (DOE) has made public, I would like to highlight the limitations of current educational research at the primary level from policy perspective in light of School Sector Reform Plan (a long-term strategic plan to achieving fundamental objectives of basic and secondary education for the years 2009/10 to 2013/14), and make the following recommendations:

Shift to performance
Like any typical country, Nepal spends 4.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on education. Since the focus of primary education policy in Nepal has largely centered on expanding budget and increasing the resource base (includes promoting input-based programs), it is high time we gave up the traditional approach and emphasized an incentive-based mechanism. This shift in emphasis is necessary because several rigorous studies have concluded low correlations between school spending and student learning outcomes. I believe that expanding the budget is not the complete solution, but a portion of a broader solution. We need to think of better ways of spending our money, in such a way that we experiment with incorporating accountability for performance (for instance, teacher performance) in the existing education production function and improve the learning levels of children.

Student enrollment
In the midst of unveiling the annual budget for fiscal year 2010/11, the former finance minister Surendra Pandey came up with incentive-based policy of PIM (program implementation manual) that ensures that girls who attend government schools nationwide will receive Rs 400-600 on average for stationery and uniforms per year. Though the PIM initially may appear like a panacea because it intends to enhance enrollment growth and lower drop-out rates of girls attending government schools, the fact remains that a child merely attending schools does not guarantee her mastery of needed skills and competencies. Sadly, policymakers in Nepal have solely concentrated on student enrollment since the last 40 years as a proxy for children’s educational progress.

Net Intake Rate (NIR) is an indicator that shows the level of access to grade 1 level education of the eligible population of primary school-entrance age. Similarly, NER is an indicator related to total enrollment of the official age-group for a given level of education expressed as a percentage of corresponding population. While Nepal enjoys a healthy NIR in grade one of (89 percent), net enrollment rate (NER) of 94.5 percent and gross enrollment rate (GER) of 139.5 percent in 2010-11, one cannot ignore the fact that enrollment data mask (a) the difference between gaps in attainment due to never enrollment versus drop-out, and (b) the actual learning attained by the child. Moreover, enrollment data cannot provide evidence on attainment differentials by the socio-economic characteristics of the households. This is crucial because, say, if the gap in attainment between richer and poorer household is substantial, one would want to design policies to address both higher drop-out rates and low enrollment of poor children. Because attending schools does not completely translate into effective learning levels, one needs to observe learning trajectory of school-going children over time. This is beyond the scope of existing educational statistics that the report aspires to provide us.

Shift to global scale
National level average score for grade five in core subjects (53 percent), the only available proxy for learning achievement and a key SSR indicator during the base year 2009-10, is not a meaningful measure to study variation in learning levels of children within Nepal and across countries in the world. The performance on internationally comparable assessments of learning achievement in math, reading and science shows that average developing country student ranks very low in a typical Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) country distribution, and that even the best students rank only equal to the average OECD student. Consequently, it is necessary to evaluate the learning levels of our children on a global scale to find out whether our children are as equipped with the range of competencies (includes both cognitive and non-cognitive skills) required to lead productive lives as children from the rest of the world. In other words, we need to incorporate item response theory (IRT) model (response of an examinee in each item of the test as a function of one’s ability) rather than classical test theory framework (percentage correct in the entire test as a measure of ability) to evaluate the performance of students on a global distribution.

In conclusion, although the report generated by the MOE is a step in the right direction, we need to undertake more substantial and rigorous research to better understand the current status of children attending primary schools. It behooves the government, policymakers and researchers to seriously consider making the aforementioned shifts so that we come up with a more objective picture of primary school going children.

source: PAUDEL,JAYASH (2013),"Learning curve: Primary School education", republica, 30 sep 2013
photo courtesy: republica
The author is a PhD candidate in economics at the University of Virginia

2013-09-30 | EducateNepal


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