Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Education in India needs intensive care, not a quick fix (Part II)

Devendra Kothari PhD
Population and Development Analyst
Forum for Population Action

Right to Education with quality must be available to all, since deep frustration begins with half or low quality education.

We have seen in the preceding post (part I) that future of our children is at stake. They are attending schools, government and private, but not learning enough. The enjoyment of the right to education could be enhanced if there is an acknowledgement of the problems that beset our educational system and if there is a willingness to solve such problems. We must explore issues which need urgent attention. And this concluding part of the post aims in this direction.

Although myriad views exist on what constitutes Quality Education, majority of them relate it to be a reflection of the scholastic, co-scholastic and affective (specifically values and attitude) outcomes. It is often closely linked with what experts refer to as quality learning environments and holistic development of students, as argued by UNESCO.[1]  In other words, the learning outcome largely revolves around two factors — first, classroom environment and second, societal environment. First refer to the management of school education while later relates to the quality of living environment. 

Improving the Management of the Education:
While Indian students have always been praised for being better than those from other countries in the three R's (reading, writing and arithmetic), the Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER) and others show a shocking decline among the children in these abilities.[2] Further, the quality of education being imparted in India has proved far below average in an international rating system for schools, carried out by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Indian students did so badly in the 2009 PISA test that they were practically at the bottom. The main reason behind this pathetic situation lies in the way we manage our education system or teach in India, say experts.

Dr. Vimala Ramachandran, National Fellow at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, says, "Our children are very good at rote learning. But higher analytical skills and comprehension are poor, which are what PISA checks. They need special coaching for IIT and MBA exams to think differently. There is an information overload on children." [3]  Indian experience illustrates how quantity is chosen over quality in the areas of teacher recruitment, training, research in education, size of curricula and the length of textbooks, and the quality was not given priority.  These are very important issues having impact on class room environment and need further analysis.

Improving classroom environment: The enjoyment of the right to education could be enhanced if teachers are well trained and are committed to their duties. For this, adequate attention should be paid to their qualification, recruitment, training, motivation and remuneration. The issue of qualification of teachers is very important. However, what sort of education they need is not clear. For example, in Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics, Liping Ma relates that the Chinese elementary teachers she studied had only nine years of compulsory education and two or three years of normal teacher training school. The American teachers, in contrast, had bachelor’s or master’s degrees. Despite this, the Chinese teachers outperformed the Americans in content knowledge and understanding.[4] Similarly, although Singapore ranked first in the world in mathematics achievement on the TIMSS tests, its primary school teachers have considerably less college education than their U.S. counterparts.[5] On the other hand, overwhelming primary school teachers in India are graduates or even post graduates. Do we really need such qualifications to teach elementary education?  Does it create frustration among teachers?

Another key factor affecting the quality of Indian school education is the lack of a practical, teaching-related knowledge base and training. For example, sizable amount of money that has been poured into Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the government's flagship programme for meeting the target of universal elementary education, have gone into teacher training. But no one asks the teachers what training they want. Somebody else plans and the teachers are forced to go. “I have interviewed some 1000 teachers and most said the training was irrelevant," noted Dr. Ramachandran.   Further, we have to agree that no training programme can fix a bigger problem - a basic lack of knowledge. In September, 2013, for example, 43,477 primary and middle school teachers recruited by the Government of Bihar took the mandatory "competency test", which is based on the syllabi of classes 3-5. Of these, 10,614 teachers, or about 24%, failed the test. The test had objective questions in English, Mathematics, Science, Hindi and General Knowledge, with no negative marking.[6]  This shows what type of teachers are being recruited to teach. There is an urgent need to analyze what sort of qualification is required for teachers and the format of training.

Ad-hoc appointment of primary teachers is another important issue affecting quality of education. The Supreme Court on May 20, 2013 accused State governments of compromising children's right to education by appointing Vidya Sahayaks or Shiksha Sahayaks (education assistants) in place of regular primary school teachers to save money in payment of salaries. Every year, thousands of such education assistants are being recruited in Gujarat, UP, Bihar, Odisha, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh among others. For states facing financial crunch, appointing such sahayaks who perform the task of a primary school teacher is quite beneficial, since the ad hoc teachers are paid less than one-fifth of the salary given to the permanent teachers. It is shocking. How a teacher can serve better with this salary? How quality of education can be ensured? The Supreme Court strongly disapproved of the appointment of ad hoc teachers in primary schools, saying that it would spoil the entire education system.  This needs detailed  analysis.

Rationalizing curricula and pedagogy: The system of education in India should be learning-centric rather than exam-centric. Instead of gaining knowledge from voluminous books and lectures, children must be made to interact in groups and express their views on various topics. Rather than taking notes from the teacher and textbooks, children must be made to research information on their own from library books and the Internet and share them in the class. This will help them develop good reading habits, self-confidence and openness to criticism. It will also help them in developing critical reading and analytical skills. Children must be taken on field trips to museums, labs, planetariums, excavation sites, botanical gardens, etc. where they can learn by interacting with knowledgeable and experienced people in varied fields. It will also help them improve their communication skills. It is true that teaching pedagogy in our schools today is rigid, and it must be thoroughly revised.

For Indian teachers one of the most frustrating aspects of their job is the excessive length and irrational structure of the curricula they are expected to teach. The data on topics per grade show emphasis on quantity carried to an extreme degree. For example, in first and second grades the number of topics in mathematics covered in India is almost five times that of Japan and other eastern Asian   Countries. This is at a stage in a child’s development when the greatest care should be taken to foster understanding and mastery of the basic ideas that form the foundation of all later learning in mathematics and other subjects. This excess in curricula precludes anything but the most superficial treatment of the topics studied.

Further, the current talent pool has very low employability. To improve its competitive advantage, it is important to understand skills that are lacking in the school students. The National Employability Report 2013 [7] reveals that India graduates more than five million graduates every year. A significant proportion of graduates, nearly 47%, were found not employable in any sector, given their English language and cognitive skills. “Since a graduation degree is considered a pathway to a job in the knowledge economy, substantive intervention at school level is needed to improve basic skills of students”, the report concludes. This clearly shows that maximum effort is required to hone Math skills of students, whereas consistent effort is needed in English as well as mother tongue communication and writing skills as well. For students residing or studying in villages and towns, the maximum gap is observed in English and Computer skills. Since both these skills are rated as enablers and useful skills in knowledge sector jobs, they demand early but focused intervention. We should analyze what skills create the employability gap.

In addition, extra curricular or co-scholastic activities serve as catalyst in individuals all round development. Does the society, parents like such school which give more emphasis on the extra co-curricular activities? No way. For this we must review our examination system. Why a student who is good at dancing, singing, drawing, etc. does not get any extra marks? The examination system should be changed in such a way that the parents, teachers and society start giving importance to conceptual understanding and overall development instead of just memorizing power. Students must be set free to explore their own potentials. This requires interventions in curricula and pedagogy.

Expanding digital technology: In addition to rational curricula and pedagogy, we must explore how unconventional methods of teaching and learning could be used in improving the quality of education.  Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen in their book - The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business - sketch a future dominated by technology.[8] With vivid examples and brilliant analyses, they show how the internet and other communications technologies will empower individuals and transform the way nations and businesses operate. The authors  believe that “the most important pillar behind innovation and opportunity – education- will be tremendous positive change in the coming decades as rising connectivity reshape traditional routines and offer new paths for learning” (p21). According to the writers that in 2012, the MIT Media Lab tested this digital technology in Ethiopia by distributing preloaded tablets to primary-age kids without accompanying teachers, the results were extraordinary: within months the kids were reciting the entire alphabet and writing complete sentences in English.

For children in countries like India, the digital technology promises new access to educational tools, although clearly not as in developed world. And we must explore the implications of the burgeoning digital technology to improve the quality of education in India, because “physical class rooms will remain dilapidated; teachers will continue to take paychecks and not show up for class; and books and supply will be scare. But what’s  new in  this equation  - connectivity- promises that kids with access to mobile devices  and internet will be able to experience school physically and virtually, even if the latter is informal and on their own time”(p22).  And this must be analyzed.

Privatization of education: We have believed for a long time that the governments will provide school education of a large majority of children. This premise is likely not to be valid ten years from now. The more worrying aspect highlighted by the ASER the increase in enrollment in private schools, which has risen from 19% in 2006 to 28% in 2012. At this rate, it is predicted that in a country of 1.4 billion, over 50% children will pay for their PRIMARY education by 2020. It is time to wake up and take note of the rapidly changing scenario. Clearly, people even in rural areas are choosing private schools over government ones. It appears that children in private schools seem to be doing better academically than their counter parts in government schools. Further, the students attending the government schools across States tend to patronize private tuition classes more than their counterparts in private schools, as noted by the ASER report 2012.[9] The point of consideration in this regards is that while government teachers are comparatively more qualified and better trained and also paid reasonably better salaries coupled with better service conditions as compared to teachers of private institutions. [10]  Then what prevents government teachers from teaching? 
Enhancing accountability: It appears that no matter who is in power, private school enrollment will go on increasing till it hits family budget constraints. As this happens, unless the quality of government schools improves substantially, the gap between children who attend one and the other will create a big divide in every aspect of life and opportunity. The lack of accountability of teachers in government schools may be a real problem, and it must be analyzed. They are not accountable whether children are learning or not. “Some of my studies have shown that most government primary school children study less than half-an-hour at school”, noted by Dr. Vimla Ramachandran. “Many government teachers come to school, mark attendance, do some administrative work and leave. Where there are three teachers in one school, only one would be present; they take turns in coming to school”, she notes further.

No doubt the public education infrastructure is crumbling and the commitment of teachers in government schools leave much to be desired. A lot of these problems arise from incompetent management of resources. To resolve the problem, the Government of India is mulling over the idea of establishing an Indian Education Service (IES) on the lines of the IAS, IFS and IRS. The new service will apparently recruit and train a dedicated set of officers who will then be deployed as education administrators.  Whether we like it or not, bureaucrats are already an integral part of the education system. There is no point in having officers who have no special training to cope with the challenges posed in running schools and colleges. Counter view is that India has more bureaucrats than necessary; and the general ineptitude of our babus is well known. So it is argued that why an already flabby establishment should be further fattened at taxpayers expense.[11]  However, this suggestion must be evaluated on its merits.

Regulating private schooling: It is time to start looking at private schooling more carefully and understand problems of education planning especially in urban areas as also to regulate private schooling without taking away the essential strengths of the private school. Government funded and regulated, but not controlled, private schools- like the “aided schools” - replacing government-run schools seems to be the way of the future, argued by Madhav Chavan, of the Pratham Education Foundation. RTE has already introduced the concept of funding private schools on a per child cost basis. There is no reason why this cannot be extended further. Aided schools exist in large numbers in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Goa, and Meghalaya. Existing practices can be looked into to create new governance mechanisms so that there is a right balance of freedom and accountability. This could be another way to improve the standards of education.

Learning from success stories: The latest PISA survey 2012, in which India did not participate, indicate Eastern Asian countries (like China, Singapore, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan) outperform the rest of the world. The test evaluates the knowledge and skills of the world's 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics, and science literacy.   China took the ratings by storm and topped the rankings as she did in 2009. It appears that education system of East Asian countries is excellent in preparing outstanding test takers, and we must learn from them. China was smart enough to change itself to meet the challenges of the market economy by leaning from Japan among other countries. Andreas Schleicher, who was responsible for PISA tests, noted: "Even in rural areas of China, you see a remarkable performance". It was reported that when Schleicher visited a poor province in China, the most impressive buildings were often schools, not shopping malls. And the amazing thing is that China, too, had rote learning but a concerted effort was made to change the curriculum and the education system based on the experience of other countries. Does India have the will to learn from success stories?

Reviewing Right To Education: The fundamental idea behind decision RTE may be sound, but the execution is hasty. The move is supposed to introduce interdisciplinary pedagogy, enhance the quality of education and impart employable skills. At present, however, the move is creating more problems than it is solving. It has made the mockery of education, students, teachers and evaluation system. There is tremendous need to amend some provisions of RTE in national and social interest. There has been a feeling that RTE may have led to relaxation of classroom teaching since all exams and assessments are scrapped and no child is to be kept back. It means that “the student’s failure to grasp what is being taught does not ring any warning bells before class IX”, as noted by the   Economic and Political Weekly of February, 2, 2013.  Although the ASER has pointed to this as one reason for the decline in quality and it is an issue that requires a detailed analysis.

In short, reforms, based on the scientific analysis of above points, are necessary if the management of education system is to improve.

Enhancing Living Environment:
No doubt, school is first and foremost a place where teachers and pupils come together to teach and to be taught. Teachers play a very big role in what is called a school. However, a school is a part of the larger society and therefore what happens in society is reflected in the school. India may have notched up high enrolments to school riding the success of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the Midday Meal scheme, but we did not prepared ourselves to teach this new group of learners, mainly coming from the bottom of the pyramid, which do not have educational background. As a result, none of the factors discussed above can alone make difference. The other dominant factors such as physical capability of a population - the brawn factor the energy yielding capability built on food and nutrition and  health as well as living conditions  have telling impact even on quality of education independent of institutions of learning. In this connection, less said is better about the demographic dividend for the present about a population which is high on hunger, malnutrition, and low on healthcare indices than talking about education in isolation from the stark realities of human development indices and general development.  Ensuring quality of living    must go hand in hand. The following section discusses some important factors concerning living environment.

Abbreviating poverty and unwanted fertility: More than three-fourth of Indians (950 million) lives in poverty on less than the equivalent of US$2 per day, as per the World Development Indicators (2011). Further, relatively high population growth mainly due to unwanted fertility makes it more difficult to lift large numbers of people out of poverty. [12] More than two in five pregnancies are unintended/unplanned or simply unwanted by the women who experience them and more than half of these pregnancies result in births that spur continued population growth. As a result, a substantial proportion of pregnancies (21% of all pregnancies that result in live births) are unplanned or unintended. Around 26 million children are born in India every year and out of this about 6 million births were classified as unwanted in 2005-06. Further, based on the National Family Health Survey-3, [13] it is estimated that   about 30% or around 220 million people in the young age group  0-35 years in India was the product of unwanted childbearing in 2005-06. The level of unwanted fertility in this age group has increased from 23% in 1992-93 to 30% in 2005-06.[14]

The consequences of unwanted fertility are serious, slowing down the process of socio-economic development as well as learning capacity. It is because unwanted childbearing results in poor physical growth and diminished   concentration in daily tasks thus impacting learning capacity. There may be several reasons behind unwanted childbearing, but most important one is related to the imperfect control over the reproductive process.  So letting women have the means to manage their childbearing will help to make India a more stable place. Key to this new approach should be to provide quality reproductive health services with contraceptive choices. [15] 

Improving living conditions: Physical living conditions are equally important in producing an enabling environment for learning. Findings of the Census of India 2011 – Tables on Houses, Household Amenities and Assets indicate that   sub-human living conditions still haunt people.  Only 47% of households have a source of water within the premises while 53% of households travel more than half a kilometre in rural areas and more than 100 meters in urban areas to fetch their supplies. This problem is further compounded by lack of access to sanitation. About 53% of Indian households do not have a toilet within their premises. Only 28% of the households use LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) as a cooing fuel. Around two-thirds of the total households have electricity as the main source of lighting in the country in 2011. Any improvement in access to toilet facilities, water, electricity and LPG is likely to result in a considerable reduction in domestic drudgery especially for girls/women, freeing up their time for other activities including schooling and monitoring children performance.  [16]

Discussion and Conclusion:
The promise of demographic dividend will not last long. Can India take advantage of this demographic window in the next few years and benefit from it? One cannot be too optimistic about this considering its poor education system from bottom to top. The largest part of India's schools is of poor quality. Teachers are inadequately prepared, weakly motivated, poorly paid, and frequently absent. At the same time living environment is not very encouraging or fascinating. Big changes in the management of education, as noted above, are needed. As such, education is too important to be held hostage to outmoded thinking. The time has come to reform it, based on a progressive vision, a clear understanding of ground realities, as noted above and the courage to cut through the nettles it is enveloped in. Whether India will be able to take challenge?

The Constitutional amendment in 2002, imposition of education cess in 2004 leading to increasing financial allocation for elementary education, and finally the passage and enforcement of the Right to Education Act in 2010 after a long wait were all step-wise demonstrations of increasing political desire, although not quite the WILL. For a country that is undergoing huge economic, social, and demographic changes, education requires a much more resolute political direction, as argued by Madhav Chavan.

It is important for political leaders to realize that education has been in a deep crisis. We are chasing ideals while practical realities limit what is possible on the ground. The Government of India must play a leading role in pushing the educational reforms and high standards we need, however, the impetus for that change will come from States, and from local schools as well as community. So, we must also involve the educators and community to reach it. For this, the Government of India must constitute a high level committee or involve educational institutes to analyze above issues to suggest a plan of action. 

[2] See article: “Enrolment rate very high, learning abilities very low” by Payal Gwalani at: http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-08-26/nagpur/33401983_1_primary-education-resource-centre-computer-education.

[4] Ma, L. (1999). Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics: Teachers’ Understanding of Fundamental Mathematics in China and the United States. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 

[5] Ginsburg, A., Leinwand, S., Anstrom, T., & Pollock, E. 2005. What the United States Can Learn From Singapore’s World-Class Mathematics System. American Institutes for Research. Also see:  http://www.keysschool.com/Documents/SingaporeReport.pdf. 

[8] Refer: Eric Schmidt  and Jared Cohen. 2013. The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, Kindle Edition. 

[10] The starting salary of a government primary school teacher is Rs 20,000 after the Sixth Pay Commission, and even the work is reportedly much less than in private schools.

[12]  Refer post by the author: What the poverty debate in India misses? at http://kotharionindia.blogspot.in/2011/10/what-poverty-debate-in-india-misses.html.

 [13]India: National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), 2005-06, IIPS, Mumbai, 2007.

[14] For further details, see ,”Managing unwanted fertility in India: Way forward”, a paper prepared by the author for the National Conference on National Rural Health Mission: A Review of Past Performance and Future Directions, organized by the Institute of Economic Growth, New Delhi  and held on August 6-8, 2013.

[15] Kothari, Devendra. 2012. “Empowering Women in India through better Reproductive Healthcare”, in Sheel Sharma and Angella Atwaru Ateri (eds.) Empowering Women through Better HealthCare and Nutrition in Developing Countries, New Delhi: Regency Publications, 2012, pp 68-86.

[16] Refer post on: “Quality of life and living environment in India”, Blog Entries by the author at http://kotharionindia.blogspot.in/2012/09/quality-of-life-and-living-environment.html.


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