Not just their roll call

Indian Express, 20 January 2012

The PISA results show that education in India must now change its primary focus to the quality of education.The first internationally comparable measurement of what our children learn in schools has shown that India is second from the bottom among the 74 countries measured. Levels of enrollment in primary education in India are now nearly a hundred percent for boys and marginally less for girls. The challange is no longer how to get children into schools, but how to educate them.

As a country that needed to get its children away from farms, household work and taking care of younger siblings to schools, the government increased school infrastructure and provided mid-day meals. The existing school infrastructure was characterised by lack of buildings, blackboards, books, uniforms, school toilets, boundary walls and desks. More money was spent on all these. But we were yet to start measuring the infrastructure being created was at the same time a good learning environment for the children.

As questions of learning quality arose, there was a debate, nearly ten years ago, in Indian education policy between two viewpoints. One viewpoint argued that the basic strategy of public expenditure on education in India was wrong: that it was wrong to run government schools, it was incentive incompatible to have teachers as civil servants with zero accountability, etc. Some of these arguments were based on international experience, and some on anecdotal evidence from Indian schools, especially those run by state and local governments. However, at that time there was little state or country wide empirical evidence of educational outcomes in India which could offer conclusive evidence. This argument lost the debate.

The other side argued that the main problem with Indian education was the lack of resources. Looking at the lack of facilities in schools, especially at the disparity between school infrastructure in urban public schools and rural government schools, it was not surprising that the policy of mere intensification of existing policies won the debate. When Indian GDP growth took off in 2002, one target for more spending was education. `Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan' was the policy of doing more of the same: building more schools, hiring more teachers.

Tax payers supported effort to educate poor Indian children. When the UPA introduced the `education cess' in 2004, opinion polls showed that on average, voters supported the cess. This shows the extent to which the public wanted children to learn more.

But unfortunately, infrastructure was not merely the main focus of educational policy, it was the only focus. The establishment -- the coalition of Indian education bureaucracy, coupled with the World Bank, was very comfortable undertaking no reform and asking for more money and more taxation. The establishment posed the problem as getting kids into school, the learning would follow automatically. There was no need to test children or to measure educational outcomes. There was no need to hold the education establishment accountable for the money spent by them. This suited the educational bureaucracy.

The evidence gradually built up that there were serious problems. Often teachers have permanent jobs; they have no incentive to teach and often do not even bother to show up to work. Studies found that teacher absenteeism was as high as one-fourth. In addition, even when teachers turned up for work, often they did not teach. Pratham's evidence showed that the students were not learning much. E.g. Pratham found that in 5th class, in UP, only one in five children knew how to divide. But this evidence was broadly dismissed, and the bulk of the education bureaucracy insisted on increasing expenditure with unchanged processes.

The international standard for measuring what children know is called `PISA'. This is a system built by the OECD, which measures what 15 year olds know, in reading, mathematics and science. Performance on OECD PISA is a good measure of evaluating a country's progress on building a better education system.

The Indian education bureaucracy was insecure about what international comparisons would reveal, and tried to avoid PISA for a long time. Eventually the Government of India agreed to participate in PISA, but only for two states, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh, which were likely to be better than the overall average.

The results, which came in a few weeks ago, are devastating. In reading and in mathematics, of the 74 countries participating in PISA, the two states beat only Kyrgyzstan. In science, the bottom three ranks were Tamil Nadu, followed by Kyrgyzstan followed by Himachal Pradesh.

Particpating in PISA is an important first step towards a focus on learning. PISA should become a regular exercise and be conducted at the all India level. But this should serve as a wake up call. The focus on enrollment, physical infrastructure and hiring teaching now has to change. Many initiatives have been taken at state and local levels on how to improve education. These include hiring contractual teachers, providing scholarships or education vouchers for children to attend schools of their choice, providing money for travel to schools further away. There is a need to pull these experiences together and move towards a serious and counrywide reform of primary education that learns from the success stories and provides proper incentives. Today, unfortunately, when spending more money on education is seen to be an achievement. The challange is to get better bang for the buck. Spend less money and get better learning outcomes.

Better education is crucial for India's high long term growth scenario. The story of the demographic dividend can go completely wrong unless we undertake reforms in primary education on an urgent footing. An important element of this exercise will involve getting away from the present education establishment, ministries, World Bank line departments, teachers unions, and the like who have entrenched interests in keeping the present system unchanged.

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