Do not micromanage, let the invisible hand rule

“The size of the library must be 14m x 8m and it must stock a minimum of 1500 books.”

“The head of the school must hold staff meeting at least once a month, review the work done during the month and assess the progress of the pupils.”

“The head of the school should have a master’s degree and a degree in education and at least 8 years of teaching experience or 5 years of administrative experience in a recognised high school.”

Those are some of the sample rules if an Indian school is to be affiliated with our central board of education. According to the first rule, we don’t have to care about what sort of books we stock in a school library, we must be concerned more about its size. According to the last rule, our revered ex-president APJ Abdul Kalam will not be eligible to run a school, if he chooses to set one up. Forget about running one - he would not even be eligible to teach - as he does not have a degree in education.

We can be sarcastic about the rules. We can make fun of them. But for an entrepreneur who wants to set up a school, the outcome is not funny. The affiliation rulebook for CBSE board is 89-page thick. You need more than fifty different government permissions to set up a school. There are multiple approvals you have to take from the land office, fire-safety office, tax department, local municipality, state education board and of course, the central education board. As far as education is concerned, the license-raj has never really ended in our country.

These rules reflect our society’s curious obsession about input rather than output. It displays a Soviet-style mindset that quality can be controlled by central diktat. Well, we all know about the shoddy consumer goods that the former Soviet Union produced. And we of course know about the army of educated, yet unemployable youths that Indian schools and colleges churn out.

It is not difficult to see the parallel. Excessive regulation and micromanagement do not result in quality. In international tests like PISA and TIMSS, which benchmark school students in various countries, India languishes at the very bottom. Surely that should tell us something about the quality about our so-called best schools?

So what’s the solution? Nothing complicated - we don’t need a PhD thesis or a committee of educationists discussing for years to solve this. It’s simple - we must incentivize organisations to provide quality service, rather than issuing detailed instructions. Most firms try to provide good service because they would otherwise lose customers and money. A bank, or a telecom company does not have a detailed recruitment guideline specifying the qualification to recruit their CEO. They have no guideline related to sizes of the offices and meeting rooms. They convene meetings when they are needed - which is much more frequently than once a month. Those private organisations work much more efficiently than schools. They respond to changes much better. They have to be in sync with the times, otherwise they will perish.

Why can’t we let our schools also function that way? Why can’t our private schools be judged by results, rather than by the size of their classrooms? Why do we need to micromanage the size of the library when we should assess reading skills instead? Why do we need to specify the qualifications of a math teacher when we should evaluate the math scores of her students? If a school does well, parents would naturally send their children there. If a school does not produce results, it will lose students and will close down. The CBSE board does not need to do the job, the market will.

I understand that there are some problems with the results driven approach. Firstly, this must go hand-in-hand with exam reforms. Our exams, as they currently stand, do not test the right skills. Secondly, we must not assess only the final results-but year-on-year improvements. A school with reputation built over years tend to get good students - so they produce good results. We must have a measure to find out the value-addition over years. This could simply be done by a standardized test conducted every two years (Class III, Class V and so on) and observing the incremental change. In the US, various states have their own standardized tests (e.g. California STAR tests) by which they assess the improvement in their children every year.

Finally, a market-driven approach must not exclude poorer sections of the society. At the same time, private schools must be allowed to charge everybody based on their quality and cost structure. The solution is for the government to provide direct cash-transfer to the parents of poorer students and reimbursing them for the cost of education.

The invisible hand of market works better than the heavy-handedness of the government.