Analysis: Association between Public Investment in Education and Learning

24 June 2020

Public school education in India is funded through both Union government as well as the states’ own budgetary resources. The erstwhile Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) had been one such major Union government scheme that has funded elementary education for two decades, before becoming part of the umbrella scheme called Samagra Shiksha in 2018. But has SSA been instrumental in driving students’ learning? More specifically, has government investment through SSA played a significant role in improving students’ learning outcomes?

Even though research in the past has explored the positive impact of different school-level inputs on improved learning in India, there have hardly been  attempts to unpack the role of SSA expenditure in learning attainment.

Even after years of investment through SSA, poor learning levels of students in elementary grades in government schools have been of major concern. In 2017-18, grade and subject specific learning outcomes of children attending government schools measured through the National Achievement Survey (NAS), reinforced that learning levels at elementary level were quite poor. However, there were significant intra and inter-state variations in learning levels. In November 2018, the NCERT released skill-based learning outcomes at the district level.

This provided us with a unique opportunity to explore the causal effect of average SSA expenditure per student, collected through RTI applications, on average learning levels at a disaggregated district level. Accordingly, an econometric regression model with 383 districts across 15 states was run by us, correcting for other district level socio-economic and school-based factors that might influence students’ learning outcomes. 

The results revealed that average SSA expenditure per-student is not a significant determinant of 3rd, 5th or 8th grade learning outcomes in Mathematics or Environmental Studies (EVS). Simply put, public expenditure – controlled for prevailing school and socio-economic factors – does not seem to explain variations in student performance across districts. These findings, while disappointing, are not altogether surprising. Majority of research on the subject tends to agree that public expenditure is, at best, ambiguous in predicting students’ learning outcomes. Alternatively, students’ learning attainment is found to be more immediately influenced by a number of classroom, school, and teacher inputs.

These factors may include: access to textbooks and instructional time (Nannyonjo, 2007), access to visual and teaching aides, qualification of teachers and years of teaching experience (Glewwe et al, 2011), and remedial teaching expertise (Banerjee et al, 2005). Although many of these factors could not be taken into account into the current analysis due to absence of quantifiable data at the district-level, the results reveal important insights on the role of expenditure vis-à-vis other educational inputs and background variables, in driving learning at elementary level. 

The results also indicate that the proportion of affluent households in a district has a significant positive impact on average learning levels of students. This speaks to an underlying inequity in the delivery of public education, wherein students from more affluent districts tend to learn and perform better in the classroom, and students from less wealthier districts fare worse, academically. Conversely, districts with a higher share of population belonging to disadvantaged groups such as Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), are less likely to have better learning levels. 

Looking Ahead 

Our findings do not dismiss the crucial role of funding for education; instead, they urge us to question and redefine the priorities that guide education expenditure in elementary schools. A closer look at component-wise distribution of SSA expenditure suggests that it has been geared towards aspects such as providing incentives to students, school infrastructure, salaries to contractual teachers. While this made sense when the goal for elementary education was to get children into schools, the current needs require focus towards interventions that push learning in elementary classrooms. Quality interventions might range from teacher training, to pedagogical improvements, and physical and digital learning tools  (depending on the needs of a state).

Further, in an effort to drive equity in student learning, we need to minimise the advantages earned by students that stem from household affluence or from belonging to a socially advantageous category in the society. The results indicate a necessity to create a  sphere of learning that extends from classrooms to homes. This would entail programmes that engage parents more as stakeholders in a child’s education, through monthly parent-teacher meetings and sending regular feedback to parents. Equally important is to empower and create awareness among School Management Committees to monitor functioning of school and demand pedagogical accountability from the government. Finally, regular and rigorous teacher training on pedagogy, as well as programmes building students’ active participation in classrooms are extremely important. 

Considering that more than 60 per cent of elementary level enrolment in India (63 per cent in 2017-18) is still in government and government-aided schools, it is necessary that we reconsider the efficacy of education expenditure decisions. In an effort to reconcile elementary education financing with learning, we need to drive a conversation towards resource allocation for ensuring quality through a range of well-planned initiatives discussed above. This conversation needs to work towards an ideal beyond universal enrolment: the guarantee of universal learning.  

*Findings are from an upcoming note.

Banerjee, Abhijit V., Cole, Shawn, Duflo, Esther, & Linden, Leigh. “Remedying Education: Evidence from Two Randomized Experiments in India.” Quarterly Journal of Economics122 (August 2007): 1235–64.

Glewwe, Paul W., Eric A. Hanushek, Sarah D. Humpage, and Renato Ravina. 2011.“School Resources and Educational Outcomes in Developing Countries: A Review of the Literature from 1990 to 2010.” NBER Working Paper no. 17554, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA

Nannyonjo, Harriet. 2007. Education inputs In Uganda : an analysis of factors influencing learning achievement in grade six (English). World Bank working paper ; no.98. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Mridusmita is a Senior Researcher at the Accountability Initative and Rukmini is a Research Intern.

The views shared belong to individual faculty and researchers and do not represent an institutional stance on the issue.