• Joanna Härmä

What are ‘A-grades’ really worth? The invisible damage from our educational ambition

In my last blog, I wrote about our peculiar struggle with parental attitudes and priorities with regard to when it is and is not alright for children to miss school. The blog received a highly pertinent comment from Poonam Sharma who noted that parents and school management in the Delhi/Haryana border area seem to engage in a sort of ‘barter system’ with parents. As fee-paying ‘clients’, parents can now put pressure on school proprietors and Head Teachers to change exam dates and allow absences and the like that would, in the old days, not even have been asked for by parents, any parents, irrespective of status.

This points to the already-documented shift from parents being supportive, concerned school community members to clients or consumers of a privately-provided and paid-for service. The enormous numbers of private schools now available in densely-populated areas, even rural areas, means competition to attract and retain ‘clients’, and this competition is stiffest at the slightly more expensive end of the market. Increasingly the customer is always right, because it is more in the interest of schools to allow on-demand flexibility to families than it is to lay down certain principles of seriousness and dedication, or rules that pupils and their families must abide by to participate in the school – a sort of compact between schools and parents in the pursuit of actual learning.

So, to the issue of growing educational ambition and the resulting competition between schools, and the power of parents’ priorities and beliefs in bringing about the miracle of straight-As.

Many children who transfer into our school come with report cards full of consistently high marks. However, once in our school many of these ‘A-grade’ students end up getting Cs or Ds. Parents have been shocked by this, assuming either that the child’s learning has deteriorated after coming to our school, or that they would get the same ‘customer service’ that they got at their previous school. Gaurav then has to explain that no, the child really was at that level when she came to us, and has made whatever extent of progress that she has. What we have gathered from these experiences and the word of mouth about other schools, is that there is rampant grade inflation happening - yet I could find no reporting of this online, just reporting on grade inflation in board exam results. But it is happening in schools, and it is a very simple and very obvious result of the commodification of education.

School proprietors are just giving consumers what they want, what makes them feel good in the here-and-now, without worry about the consequences for the child and the wider society, later on down the road. I hope this sounds familiar – because it is essentially exactly what happened with the rise of fast food. Burger-and-chips and fried-chicken shops do not worry about the quality and healthfulness of what they are offering, and they don’t worry about contributing to the wider health crisis from the obesity epidemic that has engulfed so many countries; nor do they worry about the contribution of animal agriculture to the climate crisis. It is therefore fitting that at least one chain of supposedly low-fee private schools should emerge, consciously following the fast food chain model[1]. Such ‘burger joints’ and ‘teaching shops’ would not exist without consumer demand.

There are some parents who suspect that high grades do not always reflect true learning, and who want to know the truth. Gaurav heard from an older man whose grandson had been studying for the first few primary grades in the best-respected, most expensive private school in a nearby provincial town. The grandfather went to the school with the child’s report card to ask about the basis for the straight A grades the child was receiving. The Head Teacher stated that he should be very happy and proud that the child was doing so well. The response: ‘but the child knows absolutely nothing, so how can he be getting these high marks? I would like to see his test papers to see what is the basis of these grades’. Despite much argument and even eventual threats to summon the police, the school steadfastly refused to show the child’s test papers or provide any foundation for the grades.

With so many schools engaging in the same grade inflation practice, it will clearly be hard to know which school proprietor to trust, and the picture I am painting is not far-fetched even on international standards: the same thing has happened in Sweden’s schools, where grades have gone up while performance on international assessments has gone down. It is also happening at the university level in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, as a result of the consumerisation of students and their families, a by-product of the marketisation of the formal education meat-grinder.

As the comment on my last blog rightly pointed out, there is still much to unpack with regard to parental beliefs, understandings, agency and involvement in education. We live in rather extreme times when the schooling choices are government schools where parents are not heeded by unaccountable teachers[2], or private schools where parents are heeded too much. Yes, the situation I describe is clear evidence of the fact that parents can indeed be heeded too much, because it is down to their pressure exerted through fee-based accountability that this situation has arisen.

Grade inflation is pervasive and corrosive, with India’s states and their State Boards competing to out-do each other in senior secondary exam results; and schools competing similarly to gain clients, the logical outcome is worsening quality and crushing disappointment. This disappointment comes where ambitious students score 94%, one percent too low for the ever-increasing cut-off points for the good universities; then there is a crashing to earth when they find at some second- or third-tier university or in trying to find work that they are not genuinely as learned as they believed themselves to be. The losers in all of this are the young people whose expectations have been raised falsely, and, where many private schools are concerned, in bad faith.

This is all a logical outcome of the circumstances we find ourselves in, and the endless push for higher and higher levels of educational attainment is a dumpster fire that has been fuelled in good part by the well-meaning pushers of the Education for All movement. This movement speaks out of one side of its face in saying that education is a precious thing of overwhelming importance; so important that all children must have it now, even though the wherewithal is lacking. Out of the other side of its face, the movement has devalued education to a devastating degree, by acting like education could happen by gathering children at a location to be ‘taught’ by people manifestly unprepared to be teachers, and so the thing goes on to this day, in government and private schools. And in reports written in the Global North, or by northern consultants, developing country governments get criticism for deploying relatively untrained teachers and allowing low-fee private schools to operate unregulated with unqualified teachers.

A parallel can be drawn with our National Health Service in the UK. We do not have enough home-grown doctors and nurses in the UK, but we do not just get people in off the street, give them a couple weeks of training, and set them to work. We hire well-qualified staff from abroad, and still lacking sufficient people, we ration access to services (through waiting lists for non-life-threatening surgeries and the like). This is despite the fact that access to healthcare is considered a human right, just like the right to education, and it is because immediate injury and death would result as a very tangible outcome of incompetence in that field. But in education, the invisible damage and devastation wreaked by poor-quality education that falsely raises expectations are not widely discussed. I am not arguing in favour of rationing education, as the UK has had to do with regard to some health services - I am just raising this as a serious issue to which there is no easy answer. Perhaps those who accept that they are not gaining anything and drop out of a formal system that is failing them may at least begin the rest of their lives with a more accurate view of the type of role that they can reasonably expect to play in their society, and such roles should not be under-valued as they are usually necessary (e.g. farming, bus driving, various service industries...).

It is clear that the entire argument for market-based solutions to the ‘global learning crisis’ is shown to have very shaky foundations. At the same time, there is no doubt that for many, the government option is totally unacceptable (or even non-existent). What markets can vary ably provide, however, are things that look like schools – if consumers continue to demand these, then no problem. Doubtlessly for many parents struggling to make a living, they can at least be places where their children are kept safe all day (particularly pertinent for those living in poor, urban environments).

Last Friday (November 22nd) it hit the Indian headlines that nearly half a million applicants, many having degrees and post-graduate degrees in engineering, business and computing, came forward from numerous states within India to apply for 166 Group D government jobs (which include sweepers/cleaners, office peons and the like) – in Bihar. They cited inability to find good jobs in the private sector, where salaries are often well below the approximately 20,000 rupees per month paid to Group D workers. For the job security, salary level and benefits of a government job (and as a result of parental pressure), educated people are eager to take these jobs, while their educational attainment – generally considered an asset – will have made them unfit (in their own world views) and unwilling to work in farming or the like. The fact is that many of these graduates may also have qualifications on paper that are beyond their actual learning levels and yet that have made them unfit for the type of work that might be more readily available. At the same time, there is the question as to what the people with only lower-secondary school education (the required level for group D jobs) are to do in the face of such competition. Chasing this formal schooling dream is causing enormous invisible damage, which sometimes becomes all too visible.

[1] However, there appear to be serious difficulties in making such a model work profitably in education, as Edison Schools found out rather painfully in the United States. I believe this model may be consigned to a footnote in history, and the company will increasingly have to morph into another guise and another model, just as Edison Schools turned into EdisonLearning Inc, which provides support services rather than actual schools. Bridge is already doing this through pursuing 'partnership' with government in Liberia, Nigeria and India.

[2] This week Gaurav and I drove around my doctoral research villages stopping at a few government schools as well as seeing the various levels of private schools prevailing in the market at the present time (very few are now on the lower end and many more cater to the middle to higher-end of the market). The government system here seems to have crossed a tipping point as the 5-6 schools seen were even more devoid of students than in 2005-06. Many teachers were absent. At one school, just 2 teachers and 3 pupils were present (a favourable PTR?) and zero activity was going on. A few schools had no pupils present at all. The busiest school we visited had some 15 pupils present who were playing cricket instead of studying, while the two teachers present watched… everyone just hanging out in a very relaxed manner. These teachers were happy to chat to us, but told us not to visit the school in the next village as they knew no one would be there (of course we visited anyway – finding no activity going on at all - but that was fine anyway; it's not like anyone was embarrassed and we had a nice chat with the teacher).

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