Nayan Chettri should have learned how many metres make a kilometre in class 3. But the boy, now in standard 4, still doesn’t know the answer. Chettri, who studies in a Nepali medium school in Guwahati, also draws a blank in his science and social science classes.
His teachers have never explained what they teach. Chettri and his classmates are at best asked to read aloud from their books. And his school has no mechanism for remedial learning to help weak students like Chettri.
US President Barack Obama famously declared in 2010 that America was in an “education arms race” with China and India. But India, the challenger, is in a race with itself — to ensure that it doesn’t fritter away the demographic advantage of its young population against that of the aging West and China, because of inadequacies in its own education system.
The Right to Education Act aims to ensure that every child between 6 and 14 gets schooling. The law bars schools from failing students till they complete class 8, a move aimed at eliminating early academic pressure on children, and at getting rid of a reason many students drop out of school. But while Chettri will not fail at least till class 8, Indian education is struggling to make the grade in ensuring that children like him actually learn in school.
Less than half of the country’s rural children in class 5 can read class 2 texts, and 20 % of students even in class 8 can’t read texts meant for children six years younger, according to the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) released by NGO Pratham. Math, a subject India has traditionally proclaimed relative mastery in, represents an equally worrying picture.
A quarter of class 5 students can’t recognise numbers to 99, and 45% of class 8 students can’t divide. Worse still, the number of students who can’t do the math they are expected to for their class is bloating.
The gloom isn’t uniform — some urban centres like Chennai have better learning outcomes, argued VR Devika, founder of Aseema Trust, an NGO that works with school children. Devika conducted a small but indicative experiment with four Chennai municipal schools that showed most class 3 and class 4 students could read and recollect a story, and answer questions on it.
But Devika, who plans to expand the experiment to more schools next year, accepted that the ASER findings reflected the plight of rural schools, including private institutions.
Rote-based teaching in most schools is a major reason students fail to learn and understand what they study in class, Devika said. But the absence of remedial teaching in most schools means that struggling students like Chettri are left to fend for themselves or give up.
It isn’t easy to put a robust remedial learning structure in place.
The Assam government has joined hands with the National Institute of Open Schooling and the KK Handique Open University for training teachers and preparing teaching learning material. The state is also taking assistance from the Guwahati-based Don Bosco Institute to train teachers on how to “banish fear and infuse fun” in the class.
But the strategy is predicated on the availability of remedial teachers. In a country short of six lakh regular teachers, that’s a steep challenge.