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Smriti Irani, have a good cry. Then give 240m kids a chance
Smriti Irani should begin by asking why 15-year-olds from India who took part in a famous international test came second last — only ahead of Kyrgyzstan. Yes, Indians ranked 73 out of 74 in 2011 in a simple test of reading, science and arithmetic called PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). The response of the UPA government to this shocking result was to refuse to participate again in PISA.
We had been warned. The respected national survey, Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), has repeatedly shown that less than half of Class V students can read a paragraph or do a simple arithmetic sum from a Class II text. Teachers’ performance is worse. Only 4% of teachers pass the Teacher Eligibility Tests (TETs) and three in four teachers cannot do percentage sums from a Class V text in UP and Bihar. Learning outcomes have declined in recent years despite the nation spending tens of thousands of crores on the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and Right to Education Act.
I would hang down my head and weep if I were Irani and presiding over one of the world’s worst education systems. After a good cry, I would ask a second question: Why do desperately poor Indian parents pull their children out of government schools, which are free, and send them to low-fee private schools? A parent must be desperate to spend hard-earned income for what is available free. ASER data shows that the share of rural private schools has grown from 19% to 29% in ten years; it is over 50% in urban areas. India now has the largest percentage of children in private schools.
The problem, tragically, lies in the Right to Education Act 2009 (RTE), which assumed the problem was to bring kids into school. But in 2009, 96.5% of children were already in school. The problem was of learning and RTE is silent on learning outcomes or teacher quality. It made another bad assumption — assessing children’s performance is stressful on kids — and made it illegal to test students to find out if they are learning.
Instead of improving the quality of government schools, RTE has unleashed a corrupt inspector raj upon private schools, leading to the closure of many on dubious grounds. The Punjab and Haryana High Court stepped in to stop this. RTE also forced upon private schools a quota of 25% seats for children of poor families. In itself, this is not a bad thing. At least, it’s a chance for the poor.
Irani has recently invited suggestions from the public to mend the system. Here is my response in six simple steps. One, the problem is management, not money. It is an outrage that one in four teachers is absent and one in two, who is present, is found not teaching. UPA’s experts were good at spouting pedagogy but failed miserably to bring accountability. Two, focus on learning, not schooling. Follow Gujarat’s Gunotsav, which measures outcomes.
Establish regular nationwide assessments. Overhaul the National Achievement Survey (NAS), making it a barometer of learning.
Third, great leaders make great institutions. Stop appointing headmasters on the basis of seniority. A strong principal can turn around a weak school if he is an instructional leader, not only an administrator. Again, follow Gujarat and institute a headmaster eligibility test for selecting principals. Set up training centres to create school leaders. Four, since teacher salaries have improved after the last pay commission, create incentives to attract better talent into teaching. Instead of third-rate Teacher Education Institutes (TEI), build prestigious teaching institutes at India’s top 10 universities, while strengthening the State Councils of Educational Research and Training (SCERTs) and District Institutes of Education and Training (DIETs). Five, don’t harass private schools or treat them like cash cows. Get rid of ‘licence raj’, which will encourage genuine entrepreneurs to enter education. Six, learn from the best practices in Chile, Singapore, Sweden, Brazil and Poland which have invested significant energy in reforming education.
India has been historically unlucky in the poor quality of its HRD ministers — in persons like Arjun Singh, who cared only to play the OBC reservations card. If you want to be different, Ms Irani, stop obsessing over IITs, appointing RSS people to key jobs, and teaching Sanskrit and Vedic mathematics. Implement these six steps and save the futures of 240 million schoolchildren, and go to glory.
Gurcharan Das, October 13th 2015