Friday, November 21, 2014

The state of primary education in rural India

Education in India has come a long way over the last two decades, with the adult literacy rate increasing from 48% in 1991 to the 63% in 2006, the last year for which data was available (according to the World Bank).

But the quality of the country’s education system leaves much to be desired. India ranked 72nd out of 73 countries in the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide study of pupil performance in Mathematics, Science and Reading. Shockingly, the only Indian states involved in the assessment were Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu - two of the best performing states in the country according to the NCERT’s National Achievement Survey.

Legislators need to do much to improve the country’s performance, but they need to get an accurate picture of the country’s educational position before formulating their policies. While the government’s NCERT NAS - a survey spanning ~100,000 students and conducted in schools - paints a rosy picture of the country, a well-respected non-profit’s survey (ASER) - spanning ~300,000 students and conducted at randomly chosen homes in villages - presents a bleaker picture.

Let’s talk about the data
Both survey’s have their limitations. Dr. Karthik Muralidharan from UC San Diego notes that “Both the NAS and the ASER data have limitations, and more importantly they are not designed to be comparable. By testing in schools, the NAS numbers could be skewed upwards because the weakest students would likely to be those away from school. It is possible that both are correct and that scores are improving at the top of the distribution (as shown by NAS), while averages are going down (as shown by ASER) because we are not paying enough attention to basic literacy and numeracy.”

He also notes that “inequality in learning outcomes in India is among the highest in the world (second highest in ~50 countries after South Africa). I think a big part of the ‘elite illusion’ regarding quality of education in India (that is punctured by the ASER data) is that the Indian education system has always been good at the top of the distribution (which is where the elites are drawn from), and so it is a big cognitive disconnect to be told that average learning levels are so low (driven by a complete lack of focus on basic literacy/numeracy at the lower half of the distribution).”

Furthermore, organizations like UNESCO chose to use ASER’s data instead of the government’s NAS to monitor student performance in India. In view of this, the ASER data has been as a starting point for analysis.

Abysmal student performance is declining further
Performance of rural students has been abysmally low over the years years. Over 23% of rural 2nd graders cannot recognize letters (in any language). Moreover, the number of students who are unable to perform basic tasks like identifying letters or single-digit numbers has risen dramatically since 2010.

At the same time, only 1 in 4 rural Class 5 students can perform basic division - a task that is a part of Class 3 curriculum. This number has decreased significantly since 2010.

This change seems to coincide with the implementation of the Right to Education Act (RTE). We will investigate the reasons behind this later in this article.

Further cause for concern
A major cause for concern is that the states with the youngest population are the ones performing the worst in most measures of student performance.

Low performance of young states (like Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh) is a major concern because they will be a major source of labour in the coming years, and need to be well-educated and skilled if India is to meet its vision of transitioning to a resource-based primary economy to a skill-based tertiary economy.

What is wrong with the current system?
There are 3 systemic failures in particular that are throttling student performance.
1) The RTE is a deeply flawed act
While much of the mainstream’s media discussion about the RTE has revolved around 25% of all seats from Classes I-VIII being reserved for underprivileged students, there are deeper issues with the act.
  • Students from Class I-VIII cannot fail under RTE: This has led to a decline in effort from students, parents, and teachers according to various education ministers. With no immediate incentive to study in the short-run, students are not putting in the effort to gain skills that will form the foundation for education. Moreover, many state governments had suspended school examinations in the aftermath of the RTE due to a “misunderstanding" about what the RTE would entail, further exacerbating their lack of motivation.
  • The RTE requires that schools that do not meet its standards be closed. This means that schools that do not have atleast one classroom per teacher, or do not have a playground, will be closed down. This affects students studying in poor private schools in rural India. (You can read more about this, as well as other shortcomings of the RTE act, here and here)
2) The country has a one-size-fits-all policy for education
  • The needs and abilities of students in poor or less literate students are likely very different from those in richer or more literate states, as shown in the graphs below.

  • Yet, most schools are given the same curriculum and are required to meet the same standards. This could further exacerbate the learning gaps in the country. This is corroborated by a UNESCO report found that the Indian curriculum “outpaces what [most] pupils can realistically learn and achieve in the time given, is a factor in widening learning gaps”.
3) Teachers are poorly qualified, and pedagogy is boring (all points paraphrased from Makarand Sahasrabuddhe’s answer to this Quora question)
  • The child usually needs to work, at home or in the family enterprise (farming, trading etc) or in another enterprise to bring in money to help feed the family. But the curriculum is not designed to leave the kid with skills or perspectives related to his/her working life. Instead it teaches them in a dry, academic manner that has nothing to do with what they study.
  • Teachers are often uninterested in teaching, and their knowledge is limited. Delhi University is offering students options of quitting a 4 year diploma course in 2 years, if they want to be primary school teachers. What message are we sending? That it is all right for poorly qualified people to be primary school teachers?

What policy changes do we need?
1. Substantial revisions to the RTE Act
The RTE Act needs to reinstate the promotion and failure system to ensure that students have an incentive to study. At the same time, regulations like compulsory playgrounds must be scrapped (particularly in poor areas) to ensure that low-cost private schools can continue operating. Lastly, the education ministry needs to have better coordination with the states so that lamentable (and, at this level, laughable) “misunderstandings” like scrapping examinations do not happen.

2. Different educational materials for different regions
Most of India uses the same educational materials (NCERT textbooks, translated into the local language) across the country. Customizing these materials to match the local context (such as questions related to farming in Uttar Pradesh, or fishing in Andhra Pradesh), might the curriculum more relatable to students at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.

3. Funding independent testing, and better incentives for teachers
Primary school teachers are paid handsomely, but they are not held accountable for student’s results. An incentive system where teachers get a bonus if their students perform well in tests that are held by independent, external parties might lead to a better quality of education for students. At the same time, teachers whose students consistently underperform (normalized for factors like parent’s income and education level) should be held accountable for their results.

A change in legislative mindset
Unfortunately, the UPA government’s response to the ASER survey was to ignore it altogether, focusing only on the NAS survey (which painted a rosy picture of the country, claiming that there was no significant gap between rural and urban areas and between genders). Assuming that the ASER data paints representative, its parochial vision coincided with a significant slump in education performance.

The current government needs to acknowledge the problems that exist in the country, and formulate its policies accordingly. While the government’s focus in the previous decade has been on increasing enrollment numbers and basic literacy (the ability to read and write) over the past decade, it should now focus on improving the quality of education in rural India. India’s “demographic dividend” of a young population can turn out to be a recipe for social unrest if our youth are uneducated or poorly educated.
The author would like to express his deep appreciation to Amitabh Chaudhry for his invaluable feedback and insights for this article.

This article originally appeared at


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