By Aayushi Gupta
“Humari teachers bohot achi hai. (We have really good teachers)” Vipin said, with a half-glance at his class-teacher, who was looking at us curiously as we ‘interviewed’ her student.
“Acha? Kya acha hai? (Really? What’s so good about them? )”, I asked, off hand.
“Hmmm.”, he mumbled, suddenly extremely interested in the grass, prodding it vigorously with his foot.
“Acha padhati hai? (Do they teach well?)”, I prompted.
“Hmmm.” He looked really uncomfortable.
We were 20 minutes past the ‘official recess’ time, and the students were still out, playing.
India opted out of PISA 2013. Again.
Reason? The government feels the students are not ‘ready’ for international evaluation. Surprisingly, the news got little or no coverage in the mainstream media. The booming silence was a painful reminder of how much of a national priority providing quality education is in India.
PISA (or Program for International Student Assessment) is a global student evaluation program conducted by the OECD secretariat. India didn’t always abstain from PISA. Back in 2009, it did put itself out to test its education standard vis a vis other OECD countries. It came second last, ranking 72 among 73 countries, outperforming only Kyrgyzstan. PISA isn’t the only study that tests student performance in India. In the study conducted by Pratham, proportion of class 3 students who could read a class 1 text was as low as 30%, a dip from 50% in 2010. Just over half the class V students could read a class 3 text. The report, worryingly, points out that the learning levels in 2012 actually showed a negative trend.
So, while the government proclaims that we aren’t *ready* for international evaluation, our students have been lagging so far behind the international metric that it is a collective failure. It isn’t as if the government has ignored the education sector, there have been considerable efforts to address the enrollment ratios and the ‘reach’ of the public schools. There have been efforts to universalize the primary educations through programmes like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the mid-day meal schemes, the Right to Education Act, 2009. Primary education is not only being made universal; it has been made compulsory too.
But the very fact that EVEN after the efforts put in (and considerable expenditure too, although there is a huge scope of improvement there), the deplorable performance of the students point at a serious charge- the efforts aren’t being brought to fruitation. Either the intentions are not translating to results, or it is a classic case of misplaced intentions.
Universal education means nothing if its quality isn’t sustained.
Much of the political focus till date has been to ensure that as demand for education develops, The mid day meal schemes, the free uniforms and books handed out to students, special credit to a girl child are a few of the schemes that focus on developing the demand for education rather than ensuring quality education. In fact, some of the policies like refusal to fail anyone till 8th grade have been downright regressive to provision of quality education.
Why? Why is the quality of education in such a state of turmoil in India? What shall be done to correct it? Unfortunately, there are no clear answers. What is ‘fundamental’, however, is that the answer lies in the relationship between the state and the schools. A lot of the literature addressing this issue focuses on the reforms, but most of the suggestions have been one-off recommendations rather than a wider policy recommendation pointing out the structural deficiency in the education sector we face. What is imperative, if we are to define a ‘policy recommendation’, is to define which aspects of the schooling system would be under the control of the state, and which of them would be under the control of the school itself. It is only when we define the level of autonomy of schools, can we talk about the ‘ideal’ government’s role in the education sector of the country. It is perhaps much easier to imagine government ‘setting everything right’ if there was adequate government will, but the intricate working of the system of incentives and results says otherwise. What our education sector needs, is an intricate amalgamation of public and private enterprises, the focus needs to be on defining their respective fronts. PISA 2009, after an extensive study throughout OECD economies, found a positive relationship between autonomy of a school, and the student performance- given a level of accountability.
Surprisingly, there has not been much study on the matter in India. Where do we fare on the autonomy index? Especially considering how imperative having a measure of autonomy is, having no measure of the level of autonomy was surprising. Researching on the issue, trying to understand the scope of government intervention in the economy, I conducted a comparative analysis of the autonomy level of various schooling systems in Delhi last summer. Considering the wide variety of schooling systems India has; comparison of their autonomy levels and its correlation with student performance would give a much needed perspective into the presently frayed debate.
The findings were surprising, to say the least. The amount of regulations in various schools was extremely high, even by Indian standards. Even private recognized unaided schools (which are the most autonomous recognized schools), had to follow the rules laid down by the government regarding the size of classrooms, the procedure of electing a new teacher, the salary to be paid to the teachers, the fees to be charged from the students, hiring and firing decisions (which were governed by extremely cumbersome laws). Much of it is cloaked under the blanket of ‘good intentions’, but the fact remains that the regulations do not correlate incentives to student performances. Promotions? Seniority based. Monetary aid? Based on your ‘requirements’. Student performance? Don’t you worry. You’ll be passed regardless of your performance before grade 8th. The sad thing is that even though you aren’t rewarded for doing your best, you can potentially be penalized for not doing well.
The regulations act as ‘barriers’ rather than facilitators of quality education. They do not aim to increase the ‘accountability’; they aim to ‘restrict’ the entities. The major fail of the government comes when we point out that the present schooling reforms focus on reducing the accountability of institutions (by policies like mandatory passing of students till class VIII), AND the autonomy of the institutions. Something in direct contradiction to the accepted wisdom.
This is regressive on both the fronts.
With a focus on improving enrollment numbers, we are losing out on the quality. With an increased reliance on the government, we are losing out on efficiency. We need to restructure the education system, and the answer lies not in one-off laws, but deciding the ‘structure’ of education to be imparted to the students. Some of the decisions have to be left to the schools to decide. There is an urgent need to roll back the disastrous pass-everyone-before-eighth-grade policy, and strengthen the legal redressal mechanisms while allowing greater autonomy to schools to operate.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that regulating everything does not equal a good system. Quite the opposite in fact.
“Ma’m kahan hai tumhari? Class kab start hogi?” (Where’s your teacher? When will your class start?)” I asked him.
“Woh shayad forms bhar rahi hai. MCD se log aaye hai. Paisa dene hume.” (She’s probably filling up forms. There are some people from MCD. To give us money.) He said, finally a hint of smile on his face.
Maybe we need to have a hard look at the incentives we are providing our teachers, and the students.
Pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Economic Honours from Hans Raj College, Delhi University, Aayushi has a passion for economics and politics. A libertarian with some reservations and a pacifist at heart, she believes in the power of knowledge and critical thinking. She has represented various countries at MUNs and interned at Centre for Civil Society as a research intern, and researching is where she believes her future lies. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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