The government efforts to improve primary school education may be well meaning but are wrong headed and ignore evidence of what works. Improving education quality at scale is actually possible, but not the RTE way. This two part note examines why.
I am no fan of Narendra Modi, but I have to grudgingly admit he does know how to make a point. At one of his increasingly visible addresses in Delhi, he said good governance needs “Action, not Acts”. He then went on to make a pretty persuasive argument that the Right to Education (RTE) act is a prime example of legislation that is wasteful and distracts from the main issue of implementation. The constitution already has all the required provisions, and initiatives such as the Sarva Shiksha Abhayan (SSA) were in the right direction, he emphasized. Nonetheless, I disagree with him. Both the RTE, in thought, and SSA, in action, are off the mark and choose to ignore what actually works in school improving school education.
But first the facts. The truth is that so-called India story and education system has hinged on a thin layer of relative elites who have done well. The low hanging fruit plucked, it is becoming abundantly clear that 9 out of 10 of our graduates are unemployable, “double digit” is more likely to stand for rape cases per day in the national capital than our GDP growth, and in spite of populist MGNREGA-economics the gap between the rich and poor – people or states – has only increased. Erudite economist Ruchir Sharma should have gotten more attention when he raised the red-flag that the “great India hope trick” showing warning signs of “failed growth stories, including overconfidence”. So just maybe the foundation below needs examination.
There is significant evidence of link between sustained economic growth of a nation and its investments in the schooling system of country (college is too late!). Ours needs work. If you unsure about the state of schooling in our country, it won’t take you long to make up your mind. While access to schools and enrollment of children (supposedly now at an impressive 97%) has steadily gone up since independence, by any indicator– including the much-quoted ASER and PISA reports – student-learning levels are in bad shape. The absolute data is topped by grizzly tales of how majority of fifth graders cant read at grade 2 level, India (represented by our “best” states) stood 72 out of 74 countries tested, and on some areas our children score half as much as the international average. There is a flight to private schools at all levels of society, and across states. While the government will never admit it by some estimates over half of India’s children are in private schools – mostly the low-cost variety, or “teaching shops” as the babus snobbishly call them - of some sort already, even they comprise only a fifth of all schools.
My successful middle-class friends’ eyes glaze over when they hear these statistics. There is a firm belief that fragile learning of children an affliction of the poor or government schools alone. However, if you wake up to smell the coffee you will realize that children even in better off private schools too are affected by the culture of rote, superficial knowledge, and low confidence (remember the India Today story in 2010!). Yet the agony of the middle-class is limited to anxiety over having to pull every string to get their toddler admitted to a “good school”. Once that is done, they can sit-back-relax-and-enjoy the ride for a decade or more, till the next round of admissions for college come-up. Meanwhile the larger education tragedy continues to unfold.
Whats Wrong with RTE
If you look beyond the often-ignorant ideological debates, there is some pretty good evidence on what has worked to improving quality primary education at scale. As MIT academics Abhijit Banerjee and Ester Duflo hopefully declare in their celebrated book Poor Economics, “making sure every child learns the basics in school is not only possible, but surprisingly easy”. So it’s a pity, actually a crime, to waste time on badly written documents and poorly conceived schemes. But first, lets look at the RTE.
Shorn of bureaucratic-ese the RTE does two things: transfers the responsibility of educating children from poorer homes from the government to private schools; makes vague noises about quality by talking about inputs (“teaching and learning equipment will be provided as required”), procedural rules (“no child…will be held back or expelled”), and occasionally breaking in to a froth of philosophy (“discovery and exploration in a child-centered and child-friendly manner”). It completely misses the point that the “right to free and compulsory education” is meaningless unless it is quality education. It fails to define quality, and irresponsibly sidesteps the specific means through which it is to be achieved.
An obsession for “inputs” is what unites various government efforts in spirit. The RTE talks of “ratios”, “facilities and infrastructure”, and “resources”. The SSA too spent profligately on inputs, with 90% spending going on the three holy cows: school infrastructure, teachers’ salary & training, and mid-day meals. Karthik Muralidharan of the University of California San Diego, who has done extensive research and writing in this space, elegantly points to the little or no correlation between student performance and any of these: infrastructure, number of teachers, teacher training, teacher salaries, and populist schemes that dole out uniforms, books, or meals. All the things on which our tax-money has been spent on for decades. Are we then really surprised by the results?
Making the Right Turn
Unless there is a shift from “Label Capital” (marks, degrees, recognitions etc) to “Capability Capital” (ability to read, write, think, program, solve, learn, communicate etc) for a sufficiently large proportion of our large population all victories will be short lived. The clamor for skills in “English” (read employability) or “Computers” (read better pay in a software company) in India’s teeming muffosil towns, represents this need. However, ironically, this urge is driven not by schools but by industry demand; not by “well educated” middle-class but by those further below who desperately want to be a part of it. And for the most part these needs are met outside the schooling system – through extra-classes, centers, and private tutors – and not from within it.
So what is the way? The answer may lie in treating schools less like a “special-case” and more like any other ethical and responsible organization – one that respects its customers and delivers consistently on a compelling promise.