National education policies in India, including a groundbreaking national right-to-education law passed in 2010, have flooded the country's schools with tens of millions of previously unenrolled students, many to its fast-growing private school sector that positioned itself as an alternative to the struggling public education system there.
Much like the school choice policies that brought the growth of charter schools and other educational models in the United States in recent years, the policy changes in India are now raising comparison questions: Are the new school models better than the old ones? Are private schools better than public schools?
Two Michigan State University professors have attempted to address those questions. A recent study they conducted about schools in India contends that when socioeconomic measures are factored in, public school students perform about evenly with private school students.
"I'm not disputing that the public system needs attention, but it would be wrong to claim that there is this perfect alternative that is coming into play and it's working," Amita Chudgar, a co-author of the study and an assistant professor of educational administration at Michigan State, said in a phone interview. Her study, co-authored with Elizabeth Quin, a doctoral student of economics at MSU, and partially funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute for Education Sciences, was published in a recent edition of the Economics of Education Review.
The study used data from a nationwide survey of more than 41,000 families in India conducted by the University of Maryland and the National Council of Applied Economic Research. Families were asked about their socioeconomic and education backgrounds. Children ages 8 to 11 within those families were also given assessments on reading, writing, and math skills developed by Pratham, an Indian nonprofit organization that focuses on serving low-income students.
Results from the survey showed that proficiency scores among private school students exceeded that of public school students. But as Chudgar and Quin note, tuition fees for private school students' families was exponentially larger than that of public school students, and household income was more than double. The comparison was "apples to oranges," Chudgar said.
So Chudgar and Quin used the survey data to create a socioeconomic indicator score for each family based on household income, English fluency, adults' education level, and several other factors. They then isolated a few thousand students that had similar socioeconomic scores and nearly identical household incomes, about half of which attended public schools and half attended private schools.
Among those students, public school students' assessment results on all subject areas were about the same as their private school counterparts.
Chudgar acknowledges there are limitations to the study. The assessments measured basic skills so the variance in schools' curricula wouldn't muddy results, but that approach sacrificed depth of learning. And she conceded that in a country of 1 billion people, 41,000 families is still a small sample size.
But the debate over private vs. public schools in India is a heated one, without much data to inform the conversation, Chudgar said. India is as troubled with the idea of for-profit education as the United States is, James Tooley, author of "The Beautiful Tree," a book about private schools in India, and a co-founder of Omega Schools, a for-profit chain of private schools in Ghana, said recently at a forum on for-profit education in Washington (more on that forum is forthcoming on this blog).
The Indian government is trying to bridge the two sectors—it offers "private aided" schools, which are government-funded schools that are privately operated, but the government has a larger role in those schools than American school districts have in charter schools, Chudgar said. In April, the government announced plans to open 2,500 new schools under public-private partnerships over the next five years, part of a larger plan to open 6,000 new schools over the next five years.
Chudgar said the study is merely meant to shed light on actual accountability measures in India's schools, rather than provide ammunition for either side.
"I would by no means say that this study says private schools don't work," she said. "It just says it's something to look at."