A comparative analysis of how Tamil Nadu and Karnataka approach their education reveals what the former is achieving, and why.
Bharath Ram is a product leader in a top social media company and works on value optimisation via deep learning methods. He has studied in 14 different schools in both rural and urban parts of Tamil Nadu and in public schools in the US.
Tamil Nadu has one of the best public healthcare delivery systems in the country. It is a nonpareil welfare state whose public policy initiatives have set the benchmark for social justice and societal outcomes. It is a state whose gross enrolment ratio is twice the national average, and which has the highest number of medical colleges in the country. So how does Tamil Nadu react when a central government tries to dictate how it should run its education policy?
The former chief minister, J. Jayalalithaa, wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2016 that “the students of Tamil Nadu are already covered by a fair and transparent admission policy laid down by the Government of Tamil Nadu.” She was so confident because, when it comes to public policy and education, Tamil Nadu has got its citizen covered.
Imagine you own an e-commerce website (such as amazon.com or flipkart.com) that allows people to visit the webpage, prospect products, add items to cart and eventually buy. Imagine this process as a funnel. The top of the funnel is people visiting the webpage. Mid-funnel is people prospecting products. At the bottom is people adding items to the cart.
There are two strategies through which your website can be marketed. First, the upper funnel strategy. Your digital marketing efforts drives as much of the population as possible to simply visit your webpage. It is prospected by many – while a smaller subset will go on to add items to cart and fewer will complete the purchase. Second, the bottom funnel strategy. Your digital marketing efforts target people who are more likely to “add to cart”. You only want them to visit your website. As a result, your site gets lower traffic while the number of people who convert (into a customer) is higher.
People pick from these two strategies based on their constraints and priorities. If you want to keep your server capacity cost low, you go bottom funnel. If you want brand awareness of your webpage to be high, you go upper funnel. However, the definition of success depends on what outcomes you want to drive. The upper-funnel strategy can define success as ‘number of people who know about my website’ divided by ‘total population’. This strategy focuses on more people being exposed to your website so that they make a habit of visiting it when the need arises. Bottom funnel defines success as ‘people who actually purchased’ divided by ‘people who visit my webpage’. So, there is no consistent definition of success, and it is dangerous to evaluate one strategy using the same metrics used by the other strategy.
Tamil Nadu has an upper funnel strategy for college education. It wants as much of the population to either (a) get exposed to college education or (b) pass college and get exposed to professional careers. It wants people to consider going to college a habit and graduating from it a part of their second nature. And it hopes that the virtuous cycle will lead to both direct and indirect positive effects in the long term. Here, the definition of success is more social: “What percentage of the population receives exposure to college education?”
To achieve this goal, Tamil Nadu optimises one of the biggest levers an independently functioning state in a federal structure has: examinations and their syllabi. The state holds that examinations do not get to dictate a student’s career prospects, so it does not measure success by asking the question ‘what fraction of the population can meet rigorous exam standards’, etc. In the same vein, it does not construct its syllabi to meet such standards. Instead, it uses these levers to improve the number of people who get exposed to college education without affecting the career prospects. That is why Tamil Nadu has a class 12 pass percent of 92%.
On the other hand, Karnataka has a class 12 pass percentage of 52%. The difference arises from the fact that Karnataka has been going with a bottom funnel optimisation. Its definition of quality is ‘people who get jobs’ divided by ‘people who get to college’. Therefore, the state is okay with a large chunk of its population not attending college or not holding a job. While this may be bad for Karnataka’s population, it is the state’s strategy.
In effect, Tamil Nadu does not subscribe to a very common Macaulayian fallacy – that there exists a strict linear relationship between examination rigour/performance and later career success. It ascribes to the view that the relationship is nonlinear and that strategic affirmative action could pay off as both short-term and long-term gains (see chart on left). Tamil Nadu is also placing a social justice bet that it can reduce the rigour of exams and syllabi to neutralise the effect of coaching centres without hurting candidates’ future prospects.
Tamil Nadu’s position is this: a college education should be designed such that it prepares individuals to adapt to and learn in their professional lives, and if possible excel in that sphere. Working backwards: a high school education should prepare students to adapt to and survive the demands of college. In this context, it is ridiculous to assume that a person who scores a 100% will be guaranteed greater success and in turn will embody more potential than a person who scored 97% or even 92%. Tamil Nadu’s policies reflect a firm belief that rigour in school/college education has diminishing returns after a certain point (see chart on right, above). Incremental rigour beyond a particular level of academic quality serves merely to make a person good at writing exams as an end in itself. It does not contribute significantly to their professional excellence.
As the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) for the IITs has repeatedly shown, a rigorous entrance exam leads to an ecosystem of coaching institutions that is liable to being gamed. This ecosystem, as anyone who has attended a JEE coaching class will know, favours people who have money, the connections to get them into a reputed coaching centre and those who live near an ecosystem of coaching classes (e.g. Kota).
Since these such exams test a person’s aptitude for exam-taking aptitude more than they do a person’s aptitude to be successful at the next stage of their career, it follows that coaching centres operate in the same useless part of the curve. As a result, they serve to make these exams seem much less accessible to those from rural Tamil Nadu and/or those being educated in Tamil-medium schools, and contribute very little to their long-term prospects. Coaching centres are hacks and Tamil Nadu treats them as such.
Tamil Nadu has always been better at detecting ecosystem changes that widen the opportunity gap between people in different socioeconomic strata. It applies affirmative action to (a) push students to the next level, (b) make them more competitive at a national level, and (c) neutralise the effect of coaching centres (see below; axes same as from previous chart).
First, the state searches for an inflection point beyond where exam or syllabi rigour have marginal returns. Tamil Nadu has consciously made its syllabus and learning methodology consistent with what it believes to be good enough to prepare students to adapt to the next level. It has made clearing the 10th and 12th board exams easy. Finally, it has consciously allowed teachers to award 100% marks to students, including awarding high marks subjects like mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. While this has been criticised as the state inflating the performance of its students, it is in truth a form of affirmative action.
Given that some other state and central engineering and arts institutions rely on the class 12 marks for admissions, Tamil Nadu has strategised to give its students the best chance everywhere. So it has had great success in exposing students to a college education.
Quality of education
To invoke the analogy of the e-commerce website – the states has also increased its own server capacity, in terms of the number of colleges within Tamil Nadu, to ensure better infrastructural support (e.g., it has the highest number of medical colleges in the country).
However, does this mean students from Tamil Nadu are of a lower academic quality than their peers from the other states?
Policymaking is not one-dimensional. And as with any policies, long-term returns are important, ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few’ and, of course, success is measured differently. It is not important for Tamil Nadu that 92% on a paper graded using the state syllabus be comparable to a 92% from another state. It is also less important for Tamil Nadu that the number of students with successful professional careers, as a fraction of all of the state’s graduates, be comparable to that of other states. These are not meaningful metrics because they compare Tamil Nadu’s performance against the supply of graduates it has worked hard to create – and not against the demand of graduates that it has managed to fill up. For example, if the US has 1 million players in its national tennis association and if US players fill up 50 out of the top 100 men’s ranks, the quality of US players is measured by the fact that it filled up 50% of the top slots, not by the fact that only 0.0005% made it to the top 100.
However, it is important that Tamil Nadu’s students succeeding in their careers as a proportion of the total number of people (from all of India’s states) succeeding in their careers be high. In this context, Tamil Nadu inflating an 80% to a 96% must be evaluated against whether the candidate goes on to have a better career than a person who got 99% from another state.
As many people who have a decade of experience in any professional sphere will assure you, beyond a particular threshold, academic excellence is only a partially relevant factor. Your boss could have had a lower GPA than you secured, while being younger than you and better at your job than you will ever be! In the case of medical education, anecdotal reports in the press can be countered with empirical evidence.
The quality of the state’s education is such that education is equitable and there is a societal pursuit towards education across successive generations. Tamil Nadu has created a state where almost all people have college degrees and most have professional degrees. It is common knowledge that it is easier to look for alternative careers with a college degree than with a certificate claiming you’ve flunked the class 10 board exam. The state has also created a generation of highly valuable “graduate educated” parents to children just beginning primary school. And overall, Tamil Nadu has taken all castes along in this journey. Everybody has prospered. No one has been left behind.
In a toss-up between ‘Should I pass a person who is only semi-likely to succeed’ and ‘Should I fail a person who is semi-likely to succeed’, Tamil Nadu has reduced false negatives and increased false positives. It is a morally and ethically right strategy from a social justice point of view. It is okay for other states or institutions to not understand and/or agree with Tamil Nadu’s far-reaching strategy. Institutions outside of the state are free to adopt a examination system to regulate admissions to their institutions – but for the Centre to dictate a single syllabus and an examination system that Tamil Nadu should also adopt is an assault on state federalism. It stops a highly competent and successful state from determining its own destiny and pulls it down to the level of the lowest common denominator. This is why NEET is poison. It lets short-sightedness block visionary policymaking.