Rich schools, poor students

Published On: November 20, 2017 01:00 AM NPT By: Niranjan Khatri

There was no link between school cost and cognitive abilities while the link between cost and pre-SEE exam scores was negligible.

The popular consensus that expensive schools provide ‘quality’ may only be a myth.
The past two decades have witnessed significant advances in adult literacy and education access. These decades have also witnessed private market share in education more than quadruple. Institutional schools are providers of quality education, because of their continued monopolized success in the nationalized examination. 

World Bank under the Structural Adjustment Programs lobbied for more institutional schools throughout the world for greater efficiency, improved quality, and competition. Since then, the reality of institutional schools in Kathmandu valley has evolved to become exactly as envisaged by the bank. There are expensive schools for the rich people, and budget schools for poor. Sending one’s child to class ‘A’ school became marker of social status, and coupled with herd mentality, opportunities are plenty for private sector. 

Institutional schools in the past 20 years have mirrored other firms, but exhibited huge discrepancy in cost. If quality provided by an ‘A’ school and a ‘D’ school is to be measured by test score in the common nationalized examination, why should there be such discrepancy in cost—when they are basically selling the same product?

With experts intimately tying ‘life chances’ to performance in SLC, it was called the ‘Iron Gate.’ But no study has yet empirically investigated the association between SLC performance and life-chances. However, there is plenty of evidence that nationalized examination does not evaluate cognitive abilities. 

Evaluating cognition 

Therefore, I sought out to evaluate cognition: the catalyst for students’ social development in terms of learning, thinking, and reasoning within school environments. I wanted to explore association between the ‘cost’ and cognitive ability. For this, I used the three-question Cognitive Reflective Test (CRT). Shane Frederick, the MIT Professor who founded CRT, called it ‘a simple measure of cognitive ability: the ability or disposition to resist reporting the response that first comes to mind.’ The CRT was easy to administer; moreover, it had also been used to draw association with other cognitive and assessment tests like SAT, ACT, NFC, and others. 

The CRT has been one of the most relevant assessment tools for the dual-theory of higher cognition. The dual-process distinguished two kinds of thinking: intuitive reasoning as the brain’s fast, automatic approach, where intuition dominates (or System 1), and the elaborate reasoning as the mind’s slower, analytical mode, where reason dominates (or System 2). The MIT professor, through a series of experiments, concluded that students who scored high on CRT were more patient. He also concluded that students with higher CRT score were calculated risk takers. 

I administered CRT to 322 10th graders. Additionally, I recorded mid-term scores of students. Ideally, I would have wanted to use the nationalized examination score, but it would have been impossible to congregate graduates in a classroom setting. However, most schools believed mid-term score were significantly correlated to nationalized examination score and so I could study association between CRT and mid-term to make broader inferences.

Curious results 

There were some interesting findings. The correlation coefficient between the cost and CRT and Pre-SEE scores were .00 and .05 respectively. While there was no association between cost and CRT, the association between cost and Pre-SEE scores can be considered negligible. The correlation between CRT and Pre-SEE was .32 which was weak. Students attending expensive schools did not have better CRT or Pre-SEE scores than students attending cheap schools. Although there was strong correlation between cost and ‘teacher salary’ (.77), teacher salary had negative and negligible associations with CRT and Pre-SEE (-.06 and .20) respectively. More analysis in regard to teacher salary offered an intriguing insight: students with lower CRT score had higher salaried teachers, while students with higher CRT score were taught by less salaried teachers. 

Mother’s employment was a telling factor in students’ cognitive ability. Children of employed mother had better cognition than children of unemployed mother. The average CRT score of students whose mothers were employed in service sector was significantly higher than the mean scores of students whose fathers were employed in the service sector and also significantly higher than the average score of all the participants.

Nonetheless, some findings lead to distressing conjecture of Nepali education system and nationalized examination. A total of 215 students out of 322 scored 0 on the CRT. It is worrying that 90 percent student responses were posited intuitive answers: the ones that came to their minds first. For example, the posited answer to one of the questions: (A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? ) is .10. The students had failed to recognize that the difference between $1.00 and 10 cents is only 90 cents, not $1.00 as the problem stipulates. 

Finding the purpose 

The ease with which the students were convinced to stop thinking and write attractive answers is alarming. Perhaps the claims that unchanged curriculum and examination structure of the nationalized examination has resulted in teachers teaching for one big centralized test are true. With stagnant curriculum and examination structure, students know what to expect, which then activates their intuitive reasoning or System 1. In fact, the entire preparation on the basis of expectations continuously works up System 1. The associative memory, that is, the tasks related to memorization and recall, is at the core of System 1. 

From very young age, students are made pawns in education system obsessed with high scores. The pressure to get high scores only taps into System 1, and renders System 2 void. Inadequacy in System 2 may ultimately rob students of many opportunities. Teachers, parents and students need to ask what the purpose of teaching and learning is: Is it to find meaning in one’s life and work? Or is it to merely pass an examination? 

The author is associated with Harvard Kennedy School’s ‘The Center for Asia Leadership’ (CAL)

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