[Guest Post]: Impersonal Education

By Shital Shah|25th Jun 2009
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Editor’s Note: Guest blogger Adrienne Villani is an Associate at Intellecap, where she is involved in the conceptualization and creation of content for Beyond Profit, Intellecap’s publication on social enterprise and social entrepreneurship, both in print and online. Trained as a demographer, she received her M.Sc. in Population and Development from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she concentrated on the demographic and socio-economic effects of son preference on the north Indian marriage market.

I think we can all agree on the merits of market-based solutions. They have attracted strong interest in the campaign against global poverty. They give low-income people better access to socially beneficial products and services. These services genuinely and directly improve the quality of life and livelihood for the poor. And the list could continue…

After recently reading Monitor’s “Emerging Markets, Emerging Models” Report, I was particularly taken by the concept of paraskilling. It was new to me, and it really struck a chord!

Essentially, paraskilling is when a service or a process is reengineered such that it can be performed by much lower-skilled workers. Tasks are disaggregated, simplified, standardized, and broken into discreet parts. Workers without specialized qualification can perform these tasks on a high-volume basis many times per shift or per day.

My initial reaction was, “oh yeah, you go get ‘em” paraskilling. I thought it a savior, that which we had all been waiting for. It could easily be applicable to healthcare, education, financial services.

In the main example cited in the Monitor Report, Gyan Shala, an Ahmedabad-based NGO provider of primary education to the poor, has started 330 one-room schools, located primarily in slum districts, that cater to 8,000 children whose households earn between INR 2,000 and INR 6,000 ($40-$120) per month. Gyan Shala schools teach children in grades 1-3 at a monthly cost of $3, roughly a quarter of the cost of a government school and about a sixth of the cost of a recognized private school. Most parents pay INR 30 ($0.60) per month per student because school budgets are often subsidized by third-party funds to ensure affordability.

Gyan Shala teachers follow a standardized curriculum and lesson plans, which are supplemented by extensive learning aids and continuous monitoring of classroom processes for regular staff feedback. Junior teachers, who teach for just 3 hours a day, deliver lessons out of highly-structured workbooks.

These junior teachers are recruited from the community in which the school is located, which is incredibly advantageous. They can relate well to their students, increasing children’s willingness to learn. They are provided with formal employment and a steady income. Their status increases in their community. Since they only work for 3 hours each day, time remains for them to accomplish their other household tasks.

The employer benefits because, generally, wage rates for skilled workers are the greatest fixed cost. With lower-skilled workers, wages are lower.

At first glance, particularly for me, paraskilling looks like a panacea!

But upon further thought, I have one main concern. You all may completely rebut me, and, in fact, I hope you do. But doesn’t this model lose sight of the bond that forms between student and teacher, especially in younger age groups? I still remember that bond with my first and second grade teachers, Mrs. Scharf and Mrs. Stevens. And that was almost 20 years ago! They taught me to read and to write in cursive script – but most of all, even from that young age, they made me want to always learn more.

Admittedly, I am probably being nit-picky and losing sight of the larger goal, which is educating children in order to pull them out of poverty.  But, I’m just not sure about the efficacy of giving students 20 minute lessons – each taught by a different teacher – multiple times a day. A strong rapport is just not built between student and teacher.

And you may say, “Yes, Adrienne, but having multiple teachers is better than not having one at all. Look at all the other good coming from this concept. The positive far outweighs the negative.” And you are probably right, but I still worry. Education – at every level, in every grade – is about relationship-building.

I also worry about the passion of these lower-skilled teachers. They are teaching to earn an income, not because of a passion for pedagogy. A child becomes passionate about something when a teacher is passionate.

I am probably jumping the gun here on education in India because, first we need to get the basics right. The needs are different in low-income markets. We need to increase literacy, we need to keep kids in school, we need to make sure that teachers show up. But I do think it is worth a thought.