Soon after taking office in June 2013, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif identified what he called the “3Es” as his government’s priorities. The government promised to focus its attention on extremism, energy and the economy in making public policy choices. It could have added a number of other ‘Es’ to the list of its priorities — employment, environment, external affairs and education — especially education.
That education is important for promoting political and economic development and bringing about social progress has long been recognised by academics and development experts. It is, therefore, worrying that Pakistan has lagged behind most Asian countries in bringing education — in particular quality education — to a significant number of its youth. Pakistan has many resources on which it could build a better future. These include a large and young population that could be turned into an economic asset rather than become a liability for society. But the development of the human resource will require a multi-pronged approach in which universal and better schooling will have to have a high priority. Pakistan has also not devoted much attention to clearing the backlog of illiteracy that hangs as a heavy burden on its future. Poor literacy reduces productivity and hence economic growth.
Without improving the situation of education, the country will continue to wrestle with the intertwined problems of political backwardness, economic stagnation and the rise of extremism. Education interacts with overall progress in many ways. Some of these are well understood and some are less well explored. It is only an educated citizenry that places emphasis on developing participatory and inclusive political institutions. It is only with the presence of inclusive political institutions that societies can hope to achieve sustained economic progress. This is the way causality runs — from education, to increasing the level of trust, to political development, to economic advance.
Focusing on education means much more than committing to and spending additional resources in the sector. Several other priorities should be identified and acted upon. Among them is the quality of teachers. Only well-trained and qualified teachers can equip a large human resource to contribute to economic progress, political development and social advance. In the Pakistan Economic Survey, the government estimates the number of teachers engaged in primary, middle and higher education at 1.25 million. Of these 730,000, or 58.4 per cent are women. Most women working in the education sector have basic education but they don’t have the needed training to teach in schools. Few have mastery of the actual subject matter they are dealing with.
Since there is little academic or policy work done in Pakistan on teacher quality and the contribution it makes to education, I will use the recent and well-received book by an American educationist to make some general points. In Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools, Joel Kline, who worked for eight years as chancellor of the New York City’s public school system reflects on what he believes and what he learned from his experience. In an interview with The New York Times’s Frank Bruni, the week his book was published, he made several points that are relevant for the situation in Pakistan. Three of these are of particular importance. He emphasised the need for good schools for teachers. Pakistan does not have many. Those that exist and those that need to be set up should stiffen their selection criteria in a way that raises the bar for those who go into teaching and elevate the public perception of teachers. However, for that to happen, teacher salaries and incentive structures will need to be improved. They will have to be paid better than the low and middle level government employees. A rational compensation system would pay more to those who teach subjects that require higher levels of skills. “If you have to pay science and physical education teachers the same, you’re going to end up with more physical education teachers,” he said.
Since women constitute a good part of the education work force, adopting policies such as those advocated by experienced educators like Kline will have the added advantage of improving the economic and social status of women in society. Improving the quality and reach of education, therefore, needs a combination of policy initiatives. These could be identified in a new National Education Policy that would go beyond the one adopted in 2009. The new policy should be developed by a group that has a significant presence of women from both public and private sectors.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 12th, 2015.