As the education systems expand to deliver education as a public good to all children, they become more and more intractable. You must also have heard the elderly in the society talking about a long past golden age of schools and how such schools are no longer to be seen. What they say may have a large grain of truth. But it is also true that the public education departments had a much smaller number of schools to manage.
In the 1990s and succeeding decades, the state, in its attempts to deliver on its national and international commitments, significantly expanded the number of schools. The number of teachers in the public school also multiplied turning education departments into the largest employers of human resources second only to nation’s armed forces.
Increase in the size of education department brought with it the challenge to manage it, which the state was never able to equal. Only very recently, after the advances in information and communication technologies, does the state begin to demonstrate the ability to manage and sustain improvements in large-scale education systems. This is not to say that everything is hunky-dory now. It is only to describe ways in which the technology has come to the rescue of education departments by making independent, frequent, and effective monitoring of education possible.
Based on my experience as an architect of information-based planning and implementation systems, I will explain how evidence-based planning can, and should, become the preferred way of tracking education reforms in Pakistan.
The development of Independent Monitoring Unit (IMU) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) is an example of innovative use of technology to make schools accountable. IMU started collecting education data in 2014. The IMU hired 550 Data Collection and Monitoring Assistants (DCMAs) to work in every district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and collect data against key education indicators on a daily basis. The DCMAs are hired through a National Testing Service examinations. The numbers of DCMAs for each district depends upon the number of schools in a given district. Each DCMA is assigned to visit approximately three to four schools every day during school hours, unannounced to collect data.
The DCMAs, armed with smart phones loaded with carefully developed monitoring applications, stream into over 28,000 schools every month. They monitor more than fourteen indicators that, taken together, render an up-to-date assessment of the state of physical facilities as well as that of participation of teachers and students in the educational process. The IMU also helps in development of school improvement plans for the provision of missing facilities in all schools in the KP. It also tracks the implementation of these plans.
The monitoring apps beam the data collected by the monitors back into a central database. The database, which is being updated daily, shows the state of education system on a dashboard available to all the concerned officials in the department. The system is also capable of automatically generating actions to be taken by the responsible officials to effectively address a problem. For example, if a teacher is found absent, the action to be taken is immediately flagged for the education officers whose task it is to address such absenteeism. The system raises red flags if a required action was not taken. More often, due to the regular and, more importantly, independent monitoring the actions do get taken.
Using smartphones for monitoring has several advantages. Updating data through smartphones allows information to be available in real time. The data collection app documents the time of data entry by default to prevent the monitors from tampering with the data. This check allows data to be updated in a specific time limit.
The system also configures geo-location of the monitors’ phone thus preventing the possibility of misreporting or filling up the data without actually visiting the schools. This tracking allows IMU to validate the visits. Since the routes of the monitors can be tracked, it also assists the monitors when they need help. Once an IMU monitor lost his way when visiting a school in a dense forest in the northern areas of KP. The location of the monitor was tracked and immediate help was sent his way.
The results of independent and rapid monitoring have been staggering in terms of improving the education service delivery in the government schools. IMU identified many weaknesses in the system by providing solid evidence. Consider the problem of teacher absenteeism in the government schools. Given that the annual salary budget for teachers is approximately Rs90 billion, even one per cent absenteeism translates into a loss of around Rs900 million. Furthermore, teachers’ absenteeism is responsible for the damage which is uncountable and beyond any compensation.
Teacher absenteeism is one of the major reasons for poor delivery of education service, including low learning outcomes, dropouts, and decrease in completion rates and enrollments in schools. Dropouts are expensive and a burden on public money. It also costs high for the society. The presence of teachers in the classroom is a prerequisite for learning to happen. Researchers comparing outcomes of the public and private schools suggest that the presence of teachers, regardless of their qualifications and experience, explains the relatively better performance of students from the private schools.
This implies that ensuring presence of teachers in schools will improve the learning outcomes. Given this implication, the policymakers must come up with viable solutions to ensure that teachers remain in attendance during the school hours. This need turns teacher absenteeism into a public policy issue requiring a well-crafted and evidence-based solution. Prior to IMU, no school-based and actionable data was available to address this problem. Immediately after regular monitoring visits by the IMU monitors, rapid improvements in teachers’ presence have followed.
Due largely to the independent monitoring, the teaching staff absenteeism has been reduced 30 per cent to 12 per cent. Decrease in absenteeism has resulted in availability of additional over 20,000 teachers in schools. Many proxy teachers were dismissed and as many as 300 teachers went on voluntary retirement because they were not able to serve their duties. The provincial government could take targeted action against teacher absenteeism saving the public exchequer more than PKR 100 million. The numbers are likely to improve further in future with the development of an online action management system.
The ever-increasing volume of data has now been used by the department to generate pattern and trends on various indicators at different locations within and across different districts. It also allows the planners and educators to design interventions to suit learning needs of schoolchildren. Real-time access to IMU data facilitates such interventions at district level and informs planning for prioritising needs of each school. The IMU data is guiding the development of the school improvement plans and for financial allocation of resources to Parent Teachers Councils. It is also being used for teacher recruitment, rationalisation of teachers, textbooks and delivery of stipends to all girls enrolled in the middle and secondary schools.
IMU data has been able to reduce teachers’ absenteeism. Availability of current and valid data can lead to address other issues, particularly learning outcomes of students. Frequent monitoring can forewarn the education managers about schools performing low on indicators impacting quality of learning. Weaknesses identified through well-structured data collection can raise red flags and provide explanations for low student learning outcomes. The analysis of monitoring data can potentially remove the obstacles in the way of learning by designing targeted programmes and interventions. In future, the integration of student assessment in the existing IMU database will further enhance the usefulness of the IMU data.
In the beginning of this article, I had highlighted the challenge of managing large systems of public education. Under 25-A, the governments will be under pressure to expand the access to schooling even further. Management of these systems and delivery of education through them cannot be effective in the absence of information about their health.
No reforms are possible without availability of up-to-date, reliable, and valid information. Not in the too distant future, we could not even fathom the capacities that the expansion of powerful information and communication technologies has placed at our disposal. In this article, I have given example of the use of technology to produce the data that policy makers and implementers need to improve service delivery in education.
The governments, both federal and provincial, should learn from the current experiences regarding generation and use of data in education sector. They should find ways of introducing and sustaining the use of data to drive planning and implementation in all public services, including health and policing.