The state of our schooling

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By Grace Jajo

India ranks second last in PISA, only scoring better than Kyrgyzstan among 73 countries. PISA, is an international comparative test of fifteen-year-olds’ launched by the Organization for Economic Cooperation Development (OECD) to evaluate mathematical, English and science abilities of students at the end of compulsory  elementary education. The survey is based on two-hour tests that half a million students are put through. It is done every three years and India voluntarily participated in 2009 where 16,000 students were randomly selected by OECD from 400 schools in Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. These two states are supposedly showpieces for education and development; hence they were selected by the central government to participate in PISA. Fifteen-year-old Indians who were put for the first time on a global stage to compete stood second last, whereas China`s Shanghai province, which also participated for the first time, scored the highest in reading and topped the charts in mathematics and science.

Let us reflect on a report that appeared on the January 15, 2012 edition of the Times of India: “Indian students rank 2nd last in global test”. According to the report ‘fifteen-year-old Indians who were put, for the first time, on a global stage stood second to last, only beating Kyrgyzstan when tested on their reading, math and science abilities’. The following points were mentioned:

• In math, considered India`s strong point, they finished second and third to last, beating only Kyrgyzstan.

• When the Indian students were asked to read English text, again Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh were better than only Kyrgyzstan. Girls were better than boys.

• The science results were the worst. Himachal Pradesh stood last, this time behind Kyrgyzstan. Tamil Nadu was slightly better and finished third from the bottom.

• The average 15-year-old Indian is over 200 points behind the global topper.

• Comparing scores, experts estimate that an Indian eighth grader is at the level of a South Korean third grader in math abilities or a second-year student from Shanghai when it comes to reading skills.

 Embarrassing evidence of our schooling status which the authorities have been trying to deflect, deny and dismiss was shocking for a country aspiring to be one of the global great powers. The PISA test which reflects India’s position in the international academic community has become a national scandal. It reveals the continued stagnation in our present pedagogy while the government continues to dismiss the relevance of renewing the existing curriculum.  

At such a juncture one can only ask: What is wrong with us?  Should we blame our students for not studying or the teachers for not teaching or the government for not spending enough on education? Does it spell the need to relook at our pedagogy and improve our methodologies in school environment? How should we improve our teaching skills to encouraging innate curiosity? Can we truly progress beyond rote learning and ‘teaching for the test’ towards stimulating analytical skills as a fulcrum of the new pedagogy? Have we equipped our teachers to introduce teamwork, cultural pluralism and civic values beyond the confine of the subjects?

Furthermore, according to the ASER (Annual Status of Educational Report) 2012, a massive annual survey of the educational health of the country since 2005, levels of reading and math was not only poor but declining in many states since 2011 indicating an alarming degeneration in elementary education. Interestingly this downward trend is not confined to government schools. Yet private schools are seen as a panacea and there is an increasing enrollment in most states with Manipur leading the race at 67.3 percent. “…in 2012 about 35 per cent or more of India’s  primary school children  in both urban and rural areas are attending private schools” notes Madhav Chavan, the CEO and President, Pratham Education Foundation, in his Introduction to the latest report. He goes on to add “It must be acknowledged that there is a national crisis in learning that permeates all schools…..the result of cumulative effect of neglect over the years.”

At first glance the report (ASER 2012) that more than 96 per cent of children in India are now enrolled in schools gives the impression that India is on the verge of achieving total literacy and thereby fulfilling one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Yet one of 2012 ASER’s major finding states, “Reading levels continue to be a cause for serious concern. More than half of all the children in Std V are at least three grade levels behind where they should be.” In English test, among all children enrolled in Std. VIII, only 47 percent could read sentences. Madhav Chavan rightly asked: “Will learning happen simply if children stay in school?”

The answer is also evident in the PISA result. One need to ask why the learning level in Indian schools is so low and, in some states, found declining compared to other nations. At the same time the reasons behind the disparities in terms of inter-states and the government schools versus private schools regarding enrolment and achievement of learning levels are also worth enquiring into. Enrolment in private schools across the country is reportedly on the rise; students of private schools are out-performing the government school students almost at all levels of schooling. Against such a backdrop it becomes pertinent to ask: Have the government schools simply failed to perform its role? Or is the state/government deliberately, albeit secretly, abdicating its responsibilities while favoring the neo-liberal forces in usurping the public spaces? Is the general failure of the government schools all over country consciously engineered to promote and validate the intrusion of private players in the field of school education? Is RTE just a smokescreen for keeping the lay masses from seeing the true motive of the state?

One of the most common reasons unfailingly put forward for the poor performance of the government schools is ‘lack of infrastructure’.  Infrastructure can refer to and mean thousand of things that go into teaching and learning at the school level. In my opinion, it is not as problematic as the ‘lack’ of it. The ‘lack’, by virtue of it being the most abused lingua-franca of those in power, is always presented to cover up the complete absence of accountability and supervision in the government undertakings. It makes the failure of the government sweet and pardonable in the eyes of the people. But why should a government ‘lack’ is never discussed. The government which spends millions to stockpile its armory with concocted threat perceptions cannot claim that it ‘lacks’ enough resources to invest in strengthening its greatest asset-the future generation! It simply could not get its priority right or is out rightly fooling its citizens.

The continued insistence on the ‘lack’ to navigate the state’s complete failure in providing quality school education to the upcoming generation is inexcusable. The ‘lack’ is a euphemism for the state’s illegitimate hobnobbing with the neo-liberal forces that will further deprive the already deprived sections of the population – the marginalized groups like the Scheduled Tribe/Caste, women, economically poor groups etc – from achieving respectable and equal standings in the society. It is a conspiracy by the state to keep the people immersed in false consciousness while it carries on unabated its unashamed agenda of profit-making. Token concessions are made from time to time to give the illusion that it is serious about social transformation through raising the literacy level of the masses. What a sham! It is very doubtful that the new legislation, hailed as a milestone in the post-British India, would make a dent in the existing school education scenario of the country other than giving one more reason (lack) why the state should abdicate its responsibilities in favor of the private players. It is like the common man and woman who have to choose between the devil and the sea. The one solution that could be proposed for the moment is to add a rider to the RTE Act, 2009 – summary execution of the non-performing entities!

Predictably the dismal performance has embarrassed and discouraged the authorities to participate in PISA slated for 2015.  India has also stayed away from the PISA evaluation round in 2012. PISA test results have confirmed the concerns in learning levels of elementary education yet this disastrous performance has not led to visible responses. India certainly needs to participate more in a broad based international test, to untangle the factors which stagnant our educational outcomes and more importantly to wake up from its fallacies in the sector. Perhaps we can draw from Finland whose investment in education @ 6.8 percent of GDP is one of the highest and their effort in strengthening public schooling system with a uniform curriculum was evident in topping the recent PISA test.

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