Residence Proof

January 30, 2014

In recent weeks, at the Khanna family breakfast table, we have increasingly been discussing the desirability of breaking our house down and rebuilding it.

This is actually something we have been doing for the past ten years. It happens in cycles. Every now and then, we go through the summer exasperated at how much we’re spending on water; or through the monsoon exasperated at how much our pipes leak, or through the winter moaning about the lack of insulation or central heating. (The last, admittedly, is more a point of exasperation for me than for the rest of the family.) We resolve to knock the damn pile over and rebuild it from scratch in a way that will stop all our whining. Then one of two things happens.

Either we fall into a financial crisis as a family and shelve the idea of reconstruction for better days, or we call the architects with great enthusiasm. And once the architects are there to discuss what it is we want, we fight bitterly in front of the architects about what it is that we want, accuse each other of not listening, being idiots, or making preposterous demands, and generally leaving the architects gaping in amazement. Then we sulk, and drop the plan. Until the next time.

For despite this track record, we always come back to this idea. Particularly in the last few weeks, as I was saying. As a result of the enthusiasm for reconstruction waxing, my father was telling me and my brother at the breakfast table that there was a new advantage to staying in our current location (Safdarjung Enclave, that is) instead of moving out to rented accomodation elsewhere – that is, under Delhi’s new rules for admission to primary schools, our kids would have a super advantage in getting into DPS RK Puram, which came within the eight kilometre limit.

Unfortunately, as my brother pointed out, my father was mildly wrong in the details. DPS RK Puram does not have a primary school, only middle and senior schools. From nursery to Class V, a DPS student goes to either DPS Vasant Vihar or DPS East of Kailash.

Fortunately, Vasant Vihar manages to be within even the original six kilometre limit, but East of Kailash is a little iffy – Google Maps claims you can get there with a 7.9 Km route, but if you take outer ring road it’s ten kilometres. That makes me wonder how the eight kilometres are calculated, anyway. Is it by taking a compass and drawing a circle around the school, or by measuring driving distance?

It also made me think, at first, that rents in areas which were within six to eight kilometres of of multiple good schools would probably skyrocket. This is really bad news for anybody thinking of renting a flat in places like Safdarjung Enclave, or Green Park, or or such like.

I then also wondered how long residence actually had to last in such places. If all you had to do was be a resident for the duration of the kindergarten year, Safdarjung Enclave might turn into a vast neighbourhood of transient renters with five year olds, all moving in a month before school admission began, and then moving out a year later once their child got into Class 1, making way for a new round of families. For a while, my imagination turned to Vasant Vihar landlords evicting expats and diplomats, and rebuilding their homes as dharamshalas to house as many families with children, in as small a space, as possible.

Pleasing as that image was, I finally realised that this is India, and that nobody will bother with an actual change of residence, when all they have to do is somehow jugaad a proof of residence.

I predict Green Park and Vasant Vihar landlords will now start charging the posh buggers who live in Chhatarpur and Sainijk Farms a small fee to issue a rent agreement for the duration of such time as it takes to get an electricity bill or bank statement or suchlike and establish that they live in a place surrounded by good schools, while they actually go on living in their secluded mansions and sending the kids to school with a car and driver.

I will leave it to the reader to decide whether the best way to deal with this is strong regulations or a dharna by the Chief Minister.

More Dreary Education Blogging

September 5, 2008

Faced with the same problem – most education having no relevance to job skills whatsoever – Charles Murray and S Mitra Kalita come up with diametrically opposite prescriptions. Murray recommends using certifications instead of degrees as entry requirements for jobs:

The solution is not better degrees, but no degrees. Young people entering the job market should have a known, trusted measure of their qualifications they can carry into job interviews. That measure should express what they know, not where they learned it or how long it took them. They need a certification, not a degree.

(Wall Street Journal)

while Mitra recommends degrees in vocational skills like plumbing:

Let’s promise purpose and stop separating education, training, vocations and “jobs”. Instead of letting first-generation learners enter the absurd pressure of arts versus science, we need to have a conversation, say by class VI, when dropout tendencies begin. It can be simple questions, such as “What do you like to do?” And then a skill can be imparted, alongside Tagore and civics, which I fear are often shafted.


They’re talking about different countries, but Murray’s plan is much more realistic than Mitra’s (if only for the reason that expecting someone in Class VI to know their purpose is sort of, well, futile). Offering certifications can be done my new organisations, offering degrees, alas, depends on our creaking and pathetic universities to come up with new degree programs and new infrastructure. Considering they don’t get the stuff they’re doing now right, I don’t have great hopes for the BA in plumbing.

The JEE Debate Rolls On

August 25, 2008

P V Indiresan, the former director of IIT Madras has a comment piece in the Times of India today on how the JEE has run its course. His prognosis is gloomy – there’s no way to improve the entrance test without decreasing the number of applicants:

World-class universities like Harvard and Stanford get 10-11 applications for each available seat. It would appear that the IITs are much better off with their ratio of 70:1. Yet, IITs are unable to select the best because the JEE is mechanistic; Harvard selections have greater depth. Harvard uses tests like SAT, GRE, GMAT for shortlisting only, not as the arbiter for final selection, the way the IITs use the JEE.

The enormous number of applicants is the problem. It requires hundreds of examiners working in tandem to correct papers. In order to prevent individual bias, questions have to be so set that answers are all in a standard format; answers that demonstrate originality are out. Therefore, the JEE can be mastered by drill; innovative thinking is not necessary. Only when the numbers are small, is there time to ask incisive questions, to separate the truly intelligent from the merely industrious. Two-tier tests have been attempted to prune the numbers. That mechanism is of little use; it merely separates the more industrious from the less industrious and not the intelligent from the industrious.

The IITs would do well to follow Stanford, Harvard and so on. That is, IITs should first identify good schools and let those schools do the shortlisting for them. If the number of candidates entertained from any school is linked to the performance of older students from the same school, the schools will be under pressure to make their recommendations as efficiently as they can. If enough scholarships are offered in those schools for poor but competent students, the selection will also be broad-based; bright children from poor families will have a chance they do not have at present.

(Times of India)

Alas, for Dr. Indiresan’s recommendations to work, all changes made would have to happen in schools, and non-IIT engineering colleges (and even non-engineering colleges and universities), and not in the IITs themselves. This is a systemic snafu, and India is not particularly good at dealing with those.

Re-engineering the IITs

August 19, 2008

Sorry, couldn’t resist that title.

Andy Mukherjee has a column about the IITs making the admission criteria public, how coaching factories are skewing the results, and how there’s no readily apparent way to get through this.

It doesn’t say anything that hasn’t already been said in Indian newspapers, but it puts everything together much better.

A Newfound Respect for Legal Sanctity

June 17, 2008

India Today (which I read only because my guesthouse had nothing else except Femina) has a report out on how Arjun Singh and/ or the Ministry of Education has found objections to all the National Knowledge Commission’s recommendations except the one on increasing government funding for university education.

It seems Arjun is determined to spoil the reforms party. A detailed comment prepared by the ministry in response to the recommendations blames NKC for its feeble grasp of ground realities.

The ministry says private sector investment in higher education and public and private partnership can be encouraged only within the ambit of the Supreme Court judgement, which clarifies that private investment in higher education will be based on the principle of nonprofit and non-commercial purpose.

On a cautionary note, it says appropriate policies should be made for the entry of foreign institutions in India: “The entry of sub-standard and fly-by-night operators has to be prevented.”

NKC observes that private investment in university education is almost negligible, whereas in professional education there is de facto privatisation.

(India Today)

Performance based pay for professors has also been rejected, as it is legally uncertain:

Another controversial proposal—salary differentials within the universities in favour of better performing teachers—has also been rejected as its legal sanctity is in question.

I recall the last time the legal sanctity of something was in question – reservations in private colleges, that is – the UPA amended the Constitution. This newfound respect for existing law is most heartening.

The Trouble With Exams

June 9, 2008

So the five month old DU Economics post had this reasonably long comments thread which instead of discussing DU or economics itself ended up discussing the stud-fighter framework, the best sort of examination system, what it is that an examination system should actually be examining, and the difference between CBSE Boards and the JEE. I promised a followup post by Sankranti, and then promptly forgot all about it and started blogging about other things like superhero underwear. However, I do get down to things… eventually, so here’s the post. Though by delaying it as much as this, I can now justifiably claim that it’s become topical.

Right. So. Question: what purpose do exams actually serve? I can think of:

  1. Establishing a minimum level of competence or knowledge or providing a pass-mark. Examples of this are getting 33% in the CBSE Boards, or 80% in my employer’s HIV-AIDS e-learning module, or 100% in my employer’s money laundering e-learning module (we take money laundering very seriously). Also, CA certification.
  2. Creating a filter so that you can select the top – the JEE works this way
  3. As a stage-gate between two-levels of education or employment, or between education and employment – in combination with #1 or #2 – the SAT/ GRE work a bit like this – being at the top isn’t essential because there are enough available seats to ensure that you can get in a long way down.
  4. To determine how much a student has learnt independent of formally certifying competence or university admission or things like that. For example, the practice tests a tutor or a coaching centre gives so that students can know how far ahead or far behind they are. Or the sample papers which a student practices ahead of the boards.
  5. To determine how successful the teacher or the examination system has been in passing on concepts. For example, the Azim Premji Foundation conducts its own tests at Class 5 and Class 8 (I think) for students in Chambal valley and North Karnataka rural schools to measure how well they are performing and which ones deserve aid.

Which is a fabulous framework if you stick to it. In practice, though, here’s the problem in real life. Where the CBSE is concerned, the board exam is being used for purpose #1: certifying minimum competence. Delhi University, on the other hand, uses it for purpose #2: as a filter to select top-performers, which is not what the boards are designed for. The boards are supposed to be high-scoring, easily crackable if you study the entire year, and use questions with standard answers that can be checked against a template to simplify the lives of the unfortunate examiner who has to check hundreds of answer sheets. Is it any surprise that college cutoffs start hitting 97% levels?

(An associated hoopla about the boards is that everyone taking them (and their parents, and their teachers) go up in arms every time a paper is difficult. All things being equal, it doesn’t matter, because a bad paper is just going to push the cutoff down – it’s still going to be the top five hundred people who convert the top five hundred seats. To be fair, all things aren’t equal, because students can have different subject combinations. So if the mathematics exam is particularly tough, someone who’s taken psychology or physical education instead gets an advantage.)

There’s another major problem with using the boards as an entrance / selection exam. To be fair, this is a problem with all entrance exams in India. It’s a one-shot exam which happens only once a year. It doesn’t measure how you perform in the classroom, and your long-term ability to learn, which is something that the teacher on the ground is much better placed to judge. And if you mess up a one-shot examination once, you don’t get a chance to make up for it until the next year. And by mess up I don’t only mean fail, I also mean get any score low enough to prevent you from getting the course/ college you want.

So basically, college admissions boil down to this: you get one opportunity once a year to display your excellence through an exam which is designed not to test expertise but minimum competence. As processes go, this is so thoroughly broken that re-engineering consultants would throw up their hands in despair and suggest restarting from scratch.

Not only is the process broken, it’s broken in a way that disproportionately hurts the poor. Why? Well, because:

  1. In the situation described above – you mess up your exams and need to wait another year, the opportunity cost of sitting out another year is much lower. If you’re rich, or even middle class, your family has enough savings (or enough of a standard of living to cut back a little) to not worry about starting your career a year later.
  2. If you have a one-year run up to the exams, that gives rich kids a year in which to hire tutors to help them prepare for the exams. This becomes even worse when the CBSE makes papers ‘easy’, because when papers are well-designed and difficult, topping them is truly a function of how smart you are. When they’re easy, students who have time to spare and money for tutors crack the scene. When they’re difficult because they’re badly designed, the top ranks become a lottery.

Which is why the new CBSE exam design scheme, called HOTS (Higher Order Thinking Skills) may turn out to be one of the more sensible things the CBSE has ever done:

HOTS was the new basis of the question papers in the Class 10 exams this year. It is an analytical problem solving process, geared to assess the students’ absorption of knowledge and its application.

“The average performance and pass percentage has increased across the board but the number of perfect scorers has gone down. The new question pattern to judge students’ knowledge base could be the reason,” said Ganguly.

There is a substantial decline in the number of candidates who have bagged the ‘perfect score’ in Mathematics. “As against 5,251 students last year, this year just 2,647 students have scored 100 out of 100 in Mathematics.”

Similarly, in Social Science, only 598 students have scored a full 100 as against 1,233 last year.

(Delhi Live)

In fact, HOTS may have resulted in better government school performance too, which sort of supports my point about conceptual examinations helping the poor:

That the results in government schools have improved is evident: it shows the largest increase in pass percentage, climbing from 77.12 per cent in 2007 to 83.68 per cent. And 100 of the 900-odd schools saw a pass rate of 100 per cent, as compared with 41 schools in 2007.

But Education Minister Arvinder Singh put the improved results largely down to “better teacher training” rather than HOTS.

(Indian Express)

So is it better training or HOTS? Probably both, but I suspect more HOTS than training – the effect of training shows up slowly over time, while HOTS was a sudden change. And I haven’t gone through enough data on the new HOTS papers to judge how conceptual they actually are.

But HOTS still doesn’t fix the core issue which is that university-entrance tests and school-leaving tests should be wholly different beasts. It also doesn’t fix the one-shot problem. Wonderful though the results of putting HOTS into place appear to be, HOTS is an incremental improvement on an examination system that needs radical redesign. Just to reiterate, the pieces which are still missing are:

  1. Measuring classroom performance
  2. Separating school-leaving competence and university entrance competence for everything, not just professional courses
  3. Making examinations better at measuring conceptual skills rather than mugging skills- HOTS is supposed to do this and may actually have accomplished it, but I would like that to be subjected to rigorous testing
  4. Redesigning exams (school leaving and university entrance ones) so that taking them over and over, or the amount of time you spend on preparation has less impact on how well you do- I think HOTS is meant to accomplish this as well, as was the JEE redesign a year or so ago.
  5. Making university entrance more dependent on multiple factors like extra-curricular skills, conceptual skills, ability to be a stud and a fighter, instead of just a since exam score. But this is probably not going to happen without a massive supply-side expansion of good universities (please see Abi and Ravikiran on this).

Tragically, I have been writing this post over a month and a half, after intending to write it six months ago, and it is now much less coherent than I hoped it would be. My apologies, and I aim to clarify confusion in the comments. Have away!

DU Economics

January 9, 2008

Skimpy has been writing about how people with an Economics background from Delhi University have abysmal conceptual clarity about the subject.

Ok I guess I’m likely to get flak for that comment about the “BA types”. I’ve had the opportunity to interact with a few Economics toppers (undergrad)  from Delhi University. And I’ve found them extremely weak on fundamentals. They know what the graphs look like. They know the definitions well. They know the formulae. But are frequently found wanting when it comes to absolute fundamentals.

Considering that there are hajaar people in my sample (technically, in IITese, anything greater than 2 is hajaar), and given that DU is considered to be the best univ in India for a UG in Economics, I think my generalization is justified.

Coming back, Aadisht says that this lack of fundamentals in these people might be attributed to inappropriate teaching. I won’t rule out that reason. I have the sneaking feeling that lecturers and professors in DU are also mostly from the same background – with an undergrad in Economics. And would have themselves learnt stuff the same way.

When I said inappropriate teaching, I was talking about the terrible textbooks and curriculum more than the teachers themselves. I haven’t seen it for myself, but I got the impression that the fundamentals of microeconomics and macroeconomics form only four papers out of about twenty or thirty in the Economics Honours course at Delhi University. Equal weightage is given to highly arbit courses like Economic History of India and whatnot.

After that GTalk chat, I realised that there are two other important factors at work: the DU admissions system and the DU examination system.

DU admission happens on the basis of your Class 12 board exam marks. Class 12 boards consist of one massive exam at the end of the academic year, with at least a month of study leave leading up to it. DU exams are the pretty much the same. Although some internal evaluation and mid-year exams have been introduced in recent years (I think), the major component of evaluation is still the end-of-year exam with lots of study leading up to it.

To use another framework invented by the Wimp, people who grasp concepts immediately are studs. People who can’t grasp concepts, but make up for it by devoting all their time to mugging and understanding the implications of the concept and how to use it without actually understanding the underlying logic are fighters.

The problem with a massive exam where you get a whole year to prepare for it is that unless you design it very well to test only for conceptual clarity, it ends up obliterating the differences between studs and fighters. The studs will always appreciate surprise quizzes where they can use their understanding of first principles to come up with answers while the more structured, studying-oriented fighters will be caught unawares. Similarly, studs will prefer open-book exams where you have to figure out which first principle to use, and then build theories from the ground up, while the fighters will prefer closed-book exams where they can peacefully obtain marks by regurgitating a given formula or derivation1.

So the DU admission procedure neutralises any advantage studs have over fighters, which leads to the intake consisting largely of fighters. And then three years of an examination process which once again neutralises the advantage any stud in DU might have, means that the toppers will usually end up being mugging-oriented fighters rather than concept-oriented studs.

By contrast, engineering colleges have semester-based continuous evaluation, where the advantage given to a fighter is heavily mitigated. For starters, you have only a four or five month semester to mug, instead of a whole year. Secondly, your concepts keep getting tested throughout the semester. This means that the lead time you have to absorb a concept goes down, and puts additional pressure on fighters.

In the IIMs, the situation is made even more brutal. You have trimesters instead of semesters, and the lead time for fighters to absorb concepts falls to almost Nil. Studs have a clear advantage in this environment (except in courses with lazy profs who set only a midterm and endterm).

Two related points:

  1. A couple of years ago, Annie Zaidi complained that she loved English literature, but used to keep getting outscored by people who didn’t understand it but just mugged it like robots; that this proved that merit in education was nonexistent, and so there was no merit-based argument against reservations.
    Actually, rather than proving that merit in education is nonexistent, it only proves that Annie’s university rewarded meritorious fighters rather than meritorious studs. The policy response therefore is to change the evaluation system, not to proceed with reservations.
  2. The question of what you should be evaluating in an educational system – actual conceptual clarity or the ability to be functional despite a lack of concepts of course remains open. Ideally, an evaluation system would reward both the ability to grasp concepts and derive from first principles, and the ability work with something even if you don’t understand it. But that only reinforces the case for continuous, multi-component evaluation systems.

1: Skimpy’s anguished outburst in the Financial Derivatives class on this very topic will remain forever etched in my memory. In the memory of everyone who attended that class for that matter.

Education is Evil

July 23, 2007

The most important question in the world is whether God exists or not. Once you’ve decided that he doesn’t – or that even if he does, it hardly makes a difference one way or the other – the most important question in the world reduces to ‘What should I do with my life?’

The thing about education (the formal sort) is that while you’re being educated you don’t really bother about this question. The more education you have, the longer it takes you to ask this question. In other words all education is a perverted conspiracy to keep you from getting at what really matters.

Aym Gramdian visions require education to be cut short and curtailed.

About Composite Culture

May 14, 2007

Jaffna has a post on the Left and it’s role in Indian history education (link via Varnam).

This reminds me of my experience in Class 7, where we used the NCERT textbook on medieval India. History classes mostly consisted of reading the textbook aloud. So eventually we got to a point where my teacher was reading aloud about how the Islamic invasions of India had led to cultural interchange as India absorbed Turkish and Persian influences in architecture and culture.

So I lifted my hand and pointed out that interchange meant that the other culture also absorbed influences, so what did India contribute to Persia and Turkey? At which my history teacher looked flummoxed and gave a confused reply.

I was twelve years old, so I wasn’t really trying to put Hindutva fundaes in the classroom. And it doesn’t even prove that whoever was writing the textbook (I think it was Bipin Das) had an Islamic bias- just that he (or the NCERT editor) was sloppy with language.

Ahem. But there’s still a sin of omission we have to deal with.

Let’s  accept the Leftist position that the Persian and Turkish invasions eventually led to a Muslim-Hindu composite culture. Yes, it may have come only after the invaders destroyed major existing cultural centres. and it may have been restricted to the nobility, but it was created and it was a good thing.

But if composite culture is such a good thing, why do the NCERT textbooks maintain such a deafening silence on composite culture created through peaceful processes?

From Class 6 to Class 10, the NCERT textbooks never mentioned the spread of a Buddhist-Hindu composite culture in South East Asia and Indochina through the Srivjayan Empire, driven more by traders and missionaries than by armies and navies. We get to know that there was a Roman trading outpost near Pondicherry, but we never learn that the outpost was there to trade spices, and the impact of the spice trade on the kingdoms of Kerala. Or about how Indian and Arabic shipbuilding techniques were exchanged across the Arabian sea along with Indian teakwood and how that contributed to the development of seafaring. And if I recall correctly, Bodhidharma’s journey to China, which is the origin of such rich seams of folklore, was never mentioned at all. I had to learn about all these things ten years later in quizzes and books (including this wonderful one by John Keay).

The Class VIII textbook (Modern India) was positively shy about the composite culture created by British colonisation (okay, to be fair, it was written by someone else). No mention of how Indian words swamped English, how Indian haircare and cuisine entered Great Britain, and on the long term cultural impacts of British technology transfers.

And in all this discussion, there’s no mention of composite culture in the current context- and how technology, trade and globalisation create new composite cultures faster than ever before – and do so without military campaigns or vandalising existing cultural structures. Nothing demonstrates that concept better, really, than the YouTube video below:

It’s almost as if our eminent historians prefer invasions and plunder to trade.