Education: The continuing tragedy

People are India’s greatest potential resource for sustained growth and development. With a population of 1.3 billion (over half below age 25 and nearly two-thirds below 35), a working age population of about 850-900 million and a labour force of about half that number, one might expect that it is simply a matter of time before India becomes an economic superpower. After all, just look at China. Unfortunately, unlike China and most other East Asian nations, India has woefully neglected basic education ever since Independence. Oh yes, we have dramatically expanded the number of schools and hired millions of teachers, so that over the last dozen years, enrolment rates of the age group 6-14 have been consistently above 95 per cent. But we have failed miserably in achieving halfway decent learning outcomes in our schools. And what is truly tragic is that no significant improvements seem to be under way.

The best window into learning outcomes over time in our million plus rural schools is provided by the Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER) produced by the NGO, Pratham Education Foundation. Each year’s ASER is based on a survey of over 600,000 children in more than 16,000 villages in over 560 (rural) districts. When the first ASER came out in 2005 and reported that barely half the students in government schools in Standard (Std) 5 could read a Std 2 text (that is, half could not!), the finding caused some consternation but little by way of effective corrective action by central and state governments. Successive ASERs reported broadly the same sad picture in the next few years (see table).

Then the Right to Education (RTE) Act came into force in April 2010, along with its formalisation of the automatic promotion policy. One would have expected that this would lead to a rise in the proportion of rural children in government schools and an improvement in learning outcomes. In fact, the opposite happened: The proportion of children aged 6-14 enrolled in government schools fell significantly, while the proportion in private schools rose from 24 per cent in 2010 to 31 per cent in 2014. Even more disturbing was the substantial decline in assessed learning outcomes in government schools: The proportion of children in Std 5 (typically age 10-11) who could read a Std 2 text fell from 51 per cent in 2010 to 41 per cent in 2013. Over that same period there was no perceptible change in this ratio in private schools, where it held steady at a far better 63-64 per cent. There is as yet no convincing explanation for this striking decline in assessed reading ability in government schools after the RTE Act.

The assessed trends in arithmetic learning are even worse and equally unexplained. In 2010, the proportion of children in government schools in Std 5 who could do simple division was already miserably low at 34 per cent. That is, two-thirds of the class could not! By 2013, the success ratio had plummeted to 21 per cent, that is, four-fifths of Std 5 students could not do simple division. In this domain, there is a noticeable decline in the learning ratio in private schools too, from an unimpressive 44 per cent to 39 per cent over the same period.

Taking all rural schools, by 2016, slightly less than half of children in Std 5 could read a Std 2 text and barely a quarter of them could do simple division. This dark snapshot of learning outcomes in India’s rural schools is a huge tragedy with enormous long-term consequences.

ASER 2016 also reports some assessments of the proportion of children in Std 3 at “grade level”, according to simple criteria on reading and arithmetic skills. According to these, only about a quarter of students in Std 3 in India’s rural schools are at “grade level”, with respect to both reading and arithmetic skills. This means that about three-quarters of students are already falling behind. And it is on this flimsy base that further teaching and learning is attempted in the school system. What’s more, the situation is much worse than the national average in the populous, poor states. Thus, in government schools in Std 3, less than 15 per cent of children were at “grade level” in arithmetic skills (two digit subtraction) in Uttar Pradesh (UP), Madhya Pradesh (MP), Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, and below 10 per cent in the first two. Think about it: In 2016, over 90 per cent of children in Std 3 in government schools in UP and MP were already unable to cope with the arithmetic expected of them. Imagine what happens to their numeracy learnings thereafter.

In the single year (2009) that 15 year-olds from Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu participated in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Indian students ranked 72nd out of 73 countries, just above Kyrgyzstan. In astonishing contrast, China’s Shanghai province (also participating in PISA for the first time) topped the charts in reading, mathematics and science.

These grim data point to an inescapable conclusion: We may have nearly achieved “schooling for all”, but we are very, very far from approaching acceptable levels of learning in our schools. For a variety of reasons, which probably differ across states, there is very limited learning going on in our schools. The economic and social consequences are long-term and devastating. With the very limited skills imparted by our school systems, how can the young men and women entering our labour force in millions each year possibly find reasonably satisfactory employment? How will they cope with the “digital age”? How can our economy possibly compete in the international arena with a semi-literate and minimally numerate labour force? How can we aspire to sustained and inclusive social and economic development without root and branch reform of our basic education systems? Without serious and systemic education reforms by the central and state governments, the future looks dark.
The writer is Honorary Professor at ICRIER and former Chief EconomicAdvisor to the Government of India. Views expressed are personal.

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