A Lesson from West Bengal

A Lesson from West Bengal

Kaushik Basu,NEW DELHI – The world has reached a major turning point. As artificial intelligence increasingly edges out traditional labor, it becomes clear that the future belongs to countries that can adapt to the changing nature of work. But adaptability requires an education system that nurtures creativity.

This is particularly true in countries like India, where the growing digital divide threatens to widen existing inequalities.

I have been on the road in India over the past month, interacting with people engaged in education and research.

I happened to arrive in Delhi just as the 2022 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), the most important source of information on schools and education in rural India, was released.

This year’s report, the first to rely on in-person interviews since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, is based on the accounts of volunteers who visited more than 17,000 schools across the country.

Given the four-year gap, this report provides the first meaningful glimpse of the pandemic’s devastating effect on learning outcomes for Indian children.

It also provides crucial insights into the experience of millions more pupils in other developing and emerging economies.

The report shows that Indian children’s basic reading skills have dropped to pre-2012 levels across all ages, reversing the slow improvement that was achieved before the pandemic began.

For example, the share of third-grade students who can read at a second-grade level dropped from 27.3% in 2018 to 20.5% in 2022.

One area where India did make progress is in public-school enrollment. While the share of children aged 6-14 enrolled in government schools had been dropping steadily between 2006 and 2014, the trend has reversed.

In 2018, 65.6% of children in that age group were enrolled in public schools; in 2022, this figure increased to 72.9%. Current initiatives to reform education in India, if adopted and fully implemented, offer cause for optimism.

During my journey, what encouraged me the most was the progress made in one poor region, the Purulia district, a tribal hinterland in West Bengal that is home to a large number of Santals, an Austro-Asiatic tribe that moved into India from Southeast Asia some 10,000 years ago.

I arrived at the Filix School, located in the middle of this impoverished rural area, to give some lectures to tenth-grade students on game theory.

The Filix School is an ambitious experiment that aims to provide modern, English-language education covering mathematics, science, and the humanities – the full range of subjects that a child would learn at a top school in New York City or New Delhi.

Established in 2014, the school now has more than 500 students, almost half of them girls. Most of the pupils come from households below the official poverty line, a disproportionate number of whom are Santals.

Purulia is quite remote. To get there, I had to fly from Bangalore to the Kazi Nazrul Islam Airport in Durgapur.

From there, we drove on the highway crossing the Damodar River before veering off to narrow country roads that meander through ramshackle villages and fields. After more than two hours, we arrived at the school.

The lecture itself turned out to be a revelation. The bright-eyed students took in every word, were troubled by the Prisoner’s Dilemma, delighted by the Surprise Test paradox, and argued with me about my logic before playing an animated game of Hex on the blackboard. They seemed to me to be significantly ahead of their peers in other schools.

An ongoing statistical study by C-DRASTA, a research group in Kolkata, appears to confirm my intuition.

The Filix School’s success is now being emulated via the Education for All program in schools for poor children in the jungles of the Sundarbans and the foothills of the Himalayas in northern West Bengal. But what is it that makes this school’s model a success?

It is true that the school has capitalized on ideas for education from around the world, perhaps most importantly from Finland.

But another explanation has to do with India’s ongoing struggle with teacher apathy and absenteeism in public schools.

In their efforts to address this problem, economists typically focus on financial incentives, such as monetary penalties and rewards.

While such measures can help, my four-day stay and earlier visits to Purulia convinced me that instilling professional pride among educators matters as much, if not more.

As economists, we underplay the power of self-monitoring. The truth is that innate pride in the work is a more powerful motivator than financial sanctions.

The Filix School is a case in point. In their efforts to export their model to other regions, the school’s teachers reached out to their community and asked for the support of the local police, taking advantage of the unique civic police volunteer force that was started in 2012.

One cannot generalize this to all, but the police officers who are helping the teachers set up learning centers in the remote tea gardens of northern West Bengal are exemplary in terms of enthusiasm and a sense of mission.

This type of anecdotal evidence suggests that employees’ pride in their work and personal identification with its mission are critical sources of product quality.

The Greek military leader and historian Xenophon made the case powerfully when he famously noted that Socrates not only did not charge fees to his students, but he enjoyed teaching so much that he would have been willing to pay to give his lessons.

Kaushik Basu, a former chief economist of the World Bank and chief economic adviser to the Government of India, is Professor of Economics at Cornell University and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.www.project-syndicate.org