Children are the future of the republic but our schools are failing them
Happy Republic Day to all! As you enjoy watching the parades and celebrate President Obama’s presence in our midst, i would like to draw your attention to something important. A significant survey was released two weeks ago with major implications for the future of our republic, even as it got lost amongst the politics served hot by TV channels.
Called the Annual Status of Education Report or ASER 2014, it is the tenth such survey. Facilitated by NGO Pratham and conducted by local district-level organisations, ASER is the largest, most comprehensive annual household survey of children in rural India. ASER 2014 reached 16,497 villages and about 570,000 children were covered.
First, the good news. Enrollment levels at schools are 96%. Most of our kids go to schools now. Other good news includes a functioning mid-day meal programme (over 85% of schools) and improved infrastructure. Around 75% of rural schools have drinking water while 65% have toilets, significantly higher than five years ago.
However, the biggest concerns arise from what is actually happening inside the school. Which is to say, how the school does in terms of what it is meant to do — teach students.
Detailed results are available online, but here are three quick data points. Half the kids in class V cannot read simple sentences that are taught in class II. Half the kids in class V cannot do basic two-digit subtraction which is taught in class II. Half the kids in class VIII cannot do simple division that is taught in class IV.
There you go. Half of our school students, after spending six years in school, cannot read basic sentences or perform simple arithmetic. The same could have been learnt within two to three years in a good private urban school.
So what are we doing in our rural schools, and what kind of talent are we creating? Are we simply going to celebrate enrollment and mid-day meal figures, and forget about the school’s core job — to educate? What is literacy anyway? Is it just being able to write one’s name, or is it at a minimum being able to read and solve basic arithmetic problems?
Why is basic reading and arithmetic vital? Because almost all education in subsequent years assumes these skills. Adding more years of education to such students will be a waste. Data shows if basic skills are not learnt well early they won’t be learnt later, nor would anything advanced. These students will be the laggards, counted in our enrollment but eventually not getting educated.
If this were a small percentage of students, we would live with it. That it is more than half our students shows a major failure in our educational system. This can be changed. It is fixable provided we first realise the gravity of the problem and then prioritise it in government.
Sadly, our so-called intellectual and political debates have been reduced to personality contests. With no known face attached to this problem we don’t care much, hence the media ignores it as well.
However, these millions of kids and their families are being cheated and shortchanged by us. We, the well educated, frankly don’t give a damn about rural kids as they are too different from people like us. However, if we don’t fix the problem, we will have hundreds and millions of job seeking, hungry youth with little qualification and no educated worldview in the next decade or two. If we don’t want this time bomb of human mediocrity to explode on us, let us work on reforming rural education now.
Here are some workable ideas. First, use technology. There is a shortage of good teachers, but if we bunch up a few schools in the same area and use a combination of virtual classes (conducted by more senior teachers) and physical classes (with less skilled teachers), we can have significant efficiency gains. A national classroom won’t work given early education requires individual attention. But local clustering using technology will work well.
Second, have reporting systems. Opening a school and admitting students is not enough. Like any service provider, it needs to run well on a daily basis. Tracking actual change in skill level of kids, rather than counting bodies in the building, will go a long way. For this, centralised technology can be used.
Third, change the class- and grade-based system. The class I to XII system may not work so well for early years. Unless a student has basic skills, he or she should not be sent to higher classes. While nobody wants to stress little kids with exams and tests, we have to create hurdle markers based on actual learning in the early years.
Fourth, modify the course content. Our course materials are dated. The rote learning we subject our kids to not only prevents grasp of a concept, it allows students to keep moving up the system despite not gaining any real skills of comprehension or logic.
These are just a few suggestions. Many brilliant minds in the country can suggest more. Solutions will come, but what is needed is a desire among citizens to address what is important rather than what is sensational. More than half our students are not even being half educated. Now does this deserve our full attention or not?