Pakistan has extremely low learning levels and poor education service delivery is a driving factor. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government has expressed a strong desire for evidence on how to design evaluation and oversight systems for the education sector, with the goal of improving learning.
Accordingly, we conducted an International Growth Centre (IGC) supported study of primary school education in KP - one of Pakistan’s four main provinces - that offer some interesting insights about the country’s education system. The study focused on 240 rural primary schools in three districts: Charsadda, Mardan, and Nowshera.
The districts were chosen by the KP government and the study was co-led by researchers from the Consortium for Development Policy Research, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), and the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government.
Education challenges: Schooling versus learning
At first glance, the education system of KP might appear well-positioned to deliver. Inputs are high: In 2017, KP’s infrastructure score - based on the availability in schools of basics such as electricity, water, toilets, and a boundary wall - was the highest in Pakistan. KP is also a top performer on school attendance by 10-14 year-olds. But inputs and schooling do not necessarily equate to learning, and it is student learning where our study reveals that KP’s education system is struggling.
Table 1 presents data from the Learning and Educational Achievement in Punjab Schools (LEAPS) study alongside data from our study in KP. This data is directly comparable: The Grade 4 math students that we tested in KP were asked almost the same questions (testing the same concepts - for example, two-digit addition) from the LEAPS item bank. Therefore, in both sets of data, students are in Grade 4, are tested on math, and are enrolled in government primary schools.
While Grade 4 math students in rural Punjab struggle on some topics they should know - like three-digit addition with carrying - their counterparts in KP lag even further behind. In Punjab, nearly all (97 percent) of Grade 4 math students in rural primary schools could correctly answer a first-grade question regarding which of the two boxes has more objects in it. In KP, this figure was just 43 percent. That is, less than half of fourth graders that we tested in rural primary schools in KP could answer a simple first grade question.
Table 1: Share of Public-School Grade 4 Students Who Can Answer Math Problems, by Province
Source: Data on rural public schools in Punjab are from the Learning and Educational Achievement in Punjab Schools (LEAPS) Study (2011) in Attock, Faisalabad, and Rahim Yar Khan districts. Data on rural public schools in KP are from the Improving Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Accountability in Schools (IKAS) Project (2017) in Charsadda, Mardan, and Nowshera districts. The average education ranking of the three districts in each of the two studies is very similar.[/caption]
Rural teaching and student learning
Data from our study also offer insights into why student learning in KP’s rural primary schools is so low. As part of the study, government inspectors made unannounced visits to study schools to observe teaching and student learning. These visits revealed that:
- Over three quarters of Grade 4 math teachers’ teaching time was devoted to non-active teaching methods, such as lecturing at students and promoting rote learning.
- Under a quarter of classroom time was spent on active teaching methods, such as group learning activities, using pre-prepared materials to elucidate teaching concepts, or asking and answering students’
- Near the start of the school year, only 61 percent of the students that we surveyed said their teacher sometimes offered them individual help, during or after school.
- Teaching primarily consisted of the teacher lecturing at students.
- Less than half of students reported their teacher would occasionally split them into groups for learning activities.
- Only 28 percent students said their math teacher provided any feedback to their parents about their progress in mathematics.
In sum, school infrastructure may not be bad in KP, but teaching, as well as interactions between teachers, students, and parents, showed severe problems.
Evaluating teacher performance
In light of this data, a key question is whether the KP education system creates effective incentives for teachers and school administrator to improve learning. In theory, the KP education system has two accountability systems that should encourage teachers to improve learning:
- Teachers are evaluated annually using a Performance Evaluation Report (PER), usually completed by headteachers, which feeds into promotion decisions.
- A school inspection system exists whereby a district education official (a district inspector who is independent from the school) should conduct quarterly school visits and report findings to the district education office.
For teachers, performance evaluations should carry rewards and consequences for promotions. For schools, inspections should reward and punish school principals, inducing them to motivate their teachers. In practice, both systems are largely ineffective, and promotions are based on seniority, education, and connections. Notably, this is in stark contrast to countries such as China, Cuba, and Singapore, where promotions are based on merit-based accountability structures.
The PER system suffers three main problems:
- There is no teacher-specific PER - only a general civil servant PER that does not directly measure aspects of teaching.
- PERs are conducted at an inappropriate time of year - at the end of the calendar year, so mid-way through the school year - making it unclear which teacher deserves the credit or blame for student outcomes.
- PERs are carried out by the headteacher, who in Pakistani society is likely to find it difficult to criticise colleagues. This limits the quality of the information of PERs. All teachers tend to receive the same, passing score, rendering the exercise largely meaningless.
The current system of school inspections is also highly problematic. Inspections are irregular, there is little guidance on what should occur, the inspectors observe and note criteria that are not directly meaningful to learning (e.g. school and students’ cleanliness), and warnings and feedback are rarely provided to higher levels of government.
Our focus group discussions with KP inspectors also revealed that inspectors feel they do not have enough time to really check how schools and students are doing during their school visits. District government officials were also expected to perform several duties unrelated to school performance and they felt that this prevented them from focusing on the important task of improving student learning. Given the research showing the value of effective monitoring of schools, these shortcomings are unfortunate.
Accountability for underperformance
Compounding these problems with system-level accountability structures, during the focus group discussions, headteachers complained they lacked authority to discipline underperforming teachers. For example, all teachers are permitted two absences (excused) from school per month. Their “best hope” was for an inspector to catch under-performing teachers with an unexcused absence and to use this as grounds to reduce pay.
Equally, top-performing teachers were frustrated that their hard work and good results did not earn them recognition and that, instead, promotions were based on experience and qualifications that did not necessarily translate into more effective teaching.
Conclusion: Lack of accountability undermines teaching
Initial observations from our study suggest that learning in KP’s rural primary schools is low, and substantially worse than in comparable schools in Punjab. This is not because KP’s schools lack infrastructure or because students fail to attend. Rather, our data point to a lack of quality in teaching. Given the observed shortcomings in accountability structures within the KP education system, this is perhaps not surprising. Improving accountability in KP’s schools has recently been a priority for the Government and is an area that later phases of this project will address.