This is part of a series of reports from Harvard students who have traveled to South Asia with support from a SAI grant.
By Zayan Faiyad, Harvard College ’18
Faiyad conducted field research during winter session to identify root causes of the achievement gap in state-regulated Madrasas in Bangladesh
In Bangladesh, 13.8% of total primary school and over 20% of total secondary school enrollment are in Islamic schools, popularly known as Madrasas. An overwhelming majority of Madrasas are in rural areas, comprise primarily of students coming from low income families and are known to have a persistent achievement gap. Over winter session, I conducted interviews in several state regulated schools (Aliya Madrasa) across 3 districts: Dhaka (2 schools), Mymensingh (3 schools) and Chandpur (7 schools). I conducted interviews with 2 officials from the Madrasa Education Board in Dhaka, Madrasa administrators (mostly school principal or next point of contact), teachers and students.
Experience with interviews: Although we had received prior commitment from 13 Madrasas allowing us to visit and speak with stakeholders, 1 male-only Madrasa denied our request to enter. The only admin official present in the premises said that that he was not informed about our arrival and the principal (our contact) was unreachable by phone. Other institutions were relatively welcoming. Some institutions had pre-designated which teachers we could speak to while others allowed us to interview any and all teachers. About half, generously allowed me to sit in classes and follow the lessons. Administrator and teacher responses varied in openness: most answered our questions with sufficient details, some sounded more guarded in their response and a few asked us what we hope to do with their answers.
In the first few schools, we held focus groups within the school premises with students selected by the teachers. We realized that we were not getting many responses: some students were shy and others did not want to identify any shortcomings due to trust issues, (i.e. if we were trustworthy or how responses might be perceived by their peers). Therefore, we changed our method and selected individuals or groups of friends to speak to us as they were leaving classes. That exhibited some improvement in the responses that we were getting.
Government regulations both a boon and a burden: Contrary to my previous understanding, state regulated Madrasas were not entirely funded in the categories of expenses designated under the Madrasa Education Board. For example, although teachers at state regulated Madrasas are supposed to be on government payroll and registered in a government MPO registry, only a handful are actually MPO registered and receive state funding. The rest of the teachers are paid by the institutions’ fund, creating a huge disparity in the pay of teachers within an institution that leads to stratification within the teaching staff and lower morale for non-MPO teachers.
If a Madrasa would like to be eligible for state funding, they have to teach the state designed curriculum and have to commit to following certain state recommendations. The government provides books free of cost for adopting the standardized curriculum but the cost of stationary, classroom furniture, upkeep of premises are often paid for by the school. While coming under government regulation reduces some of the financial uncertainty faced by previously autonomous schools that were dependent on donations, they also impose certain extra administrative costs. For example, state regulations require that the maximum class size has to be 40 students. So, some institutions have to open another section if they exceed the limit by even 5 people while not having enough teachers to service both classes. Sometimes teachers have to cut down total instruction time to be able to teach both sections.
The state provides funds allocated for miscellaneous administrative costs but often these schools do not receive them in practice. Some administrators complained that they can only pick up the checks from the local government offices if they provide a hefty bribe to the officials. Sometimes, there is no check to be picked up. Once a school becomes state regulated, donors automatically become less likely to donate to the school assuming they have adequate funds. Therefore, traditional methods of fundraising become less available for these schools and some have introduced tiered school fee systems to cope (no school fees charged previously).
Same learning challenges, different cultural challenges: Many of these schools face the same challenges as most under-resourced schools: some teacher absenteeism, low teacher morale, student absenteeism, etc. However, there are also some unique challenges.
Strong religious sentiments are at odds with the more secular undercurrents of the state designed curriculum. Some administrators openly expressed sentiments that they feel their religious identity is under attack from anti-Islamic, pro-modern, pro-globalization forces. As such, some teachers may disagree with certain aspects of the curriculum and may not be willing to teach students those lessons. Other teachers feel stretched thin and expressed dissatisfaction with having to teach subjects that they have no training in. It is important to note that many of these teachers are products of the previously non-regulated Madrasa system that focused excessively on religious education and many start their jobs with no prior teaching experience or training.
The stratification among teachers is not the only form of discrimination prevalent in the system. Teachers seemed to have knowledge about the financial background of students and often discriminate based on that knowledge, providing less attention to students with high financial need. Madrasas almost always have a boarding option for students, unlike mainstream schools. There is also discrimination between day and boarding students, provided that most boarding students come from families which are unable to support their children and relegate the responsibility to these institutions. Discriminatory behavior from teachers and administrators seem to impact the attitudes of the students themselves; day school students start to bully boarding students, who seem to suffer from self-esteem issues that could be impacting their learning outcomes.
To summarize, Aliya Madrasas face financial constraints that have not been mitigated by coming under state regulation, while learning outcomes have been kept low by a combination of resource constraint and socioeconomic disparity.