What do Indian parents want? Indian parents want their children to get a ‘good’ education. Given their resources and their understanding of education, they look for the best school their money can buy. They send their children to tuition or coaching classes and they buy other school materials.
The assumption is that ‘more is better’ — more years of schooling, more supplemental inputs into schooling and more expenditure. For most parents, whether rural or urban, high income or low income, ‘success’ means doing well in exams. Exam performance is the only way to get to the next stage, whether it is to further education or into the workplace.
What does the government want? The Right to Education law requires government to ensure that every school in the country has a specified set of inputs and processes.Here the belief is that once these are in place, ‘education’ will be guaranteed. Underlying the government’s push to provide inputs is the assumption that more is better but appropriate number of qualified teachers, classrooms, days of teaching are needed. Going by what is stated in the RTE document, ‘success’ means that all schools have all the mandated inputs and processes, all children in India in the age group 6 to 14 are enrolled in school and all children complete eight years of schooling.
What does the evidence say? Data from all sources in India point to enrollment levels that are well above 96%. Putting both centre and state together, expenditures on elementary education in India have risen from Rs. 62,000 crores in 2006-7 to an estimated figure of Rs. 112,000 crores in 2010-11.
While there are still input gaps, the number of teachers and basic facilities is rising consistently each year.
What is stuck is what children are learning in school. Regardless of what you feel about learning outcome measurements done by Assessment Survey Evaluation Research (ASER) or by Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the evidence points to the fact that the value added for every year spent in school in India, is low and unchanging.
ASER uses basic reading and arithmetic tasks for assessment; the same set of tasks are given to all surveyed children from age 5 to 16. The exercise is carried out in every rural district in India every year.
While there could be discussion on the measures and methods, the fact remains that without basic reading, and arithmetic skills, children will not go far in school or in life. PISA is a more sophisticated international effort which measures what 15 year-olds can do. Again, there can be debate on how or what PISA does but the message from both exercises (as well as from any recent empirical evidence on student outcomes in India) is clear.
There is a crisis. The crisis is about the capabilities that every child in India should have by the time she or he finishes each stage of schooling. This crisis cannot be tackled simply by believing that more is better or proceeding as if it is business as usual. Concrete, clear, new pathways connecting inputs and processes to outcomes have to be built.
These pathways must be understood and must be implementable by schools, parents and teachers.
Clarity is key
Both in policy and in practice, our education system needs at least three fundamental and urgent shifts. First, capabilities and learning goals need to be articulated for each stage of the education system. These goals need to be clearly stated and be understood by ordinary people. Goals need to be such that most children can achieve them at each stage.
Clear articulation of goals will help everyone to understand that simply knowing textbook content or doing well in exams is not the objective of the education system. Parents and communities must understand what the school system is supposed to achieve. This understanding can lead to local accountability and also to support for schools.
Second, all elements in the school system need to be aligned in both design and implementation to maximise the possibility of reaching the goals.
These elements include appropriate allocation of funds, teacher preparation, curriculum, textbooks, methods of teaching, materials, organisation of schools and monitoring. A continuous system of field support and review will allow refinements and changes to be made to figure out what works.
Third, in a country with a weak culture and appetite for measurement, simple methods have to be used on scale to gauge the progress being made every year. Such measurements need to be carried out by both the government and citizens.
The measurements should help school systems internally to refine and review their procedures and enable parents to pressurise schools to do better.
Measurement also means engagement — in understanding the situation and figuring out what to do next.
India has almost reached universal enrollment. This is an impressive achievement. This happened because everyone understood the goal. Policymakers, planners, practitioners and parents all understood what had to be done: get every child in school. To have every child in school and learning well, we need a similar clarity, priority and alignment for a new set of goals and figure out new effective pathways for achieving them soon.
- Rukmini Banerji is with Pratham and ASER Centre.