Monday, March 25, 2013

What Are You Doing to Fix India’s Broken Education System?

What Are You Doing to Fix India’s Broken Education System?

Children studying in a government school in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, in this March 26, 2010 photo.Krishnendu Halder/Reuters Children studying in a government school in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, in this March 26, 2010 photo.
It is now almost four years since I first walked through a series of winding by-lanes in a Mumbai slum toward my new job as a teacher at a low-income school. I was forced to confront India’s educational inequities squarely in the eye. Students filed into a dilapidated old school building, and my own musty classroom, crammed with cupboards, barely left any room to move.
What was more jarring than my physical surroundings, however, was the magnitude of my students’ achievement gap. Only a handful of my third-grade students could read first-grade books, and almost all struggled with elementary arithmetic. Despite this being an English-language school, few teachers – and fewer students – could speak the language at all. Indeed, most of my students were unable to recognize basic alphabets or perform simple addition.

This was compounded by the sobering fact that families in my slum scrounged to send their kids – boys and girls – to the very best schools they could afford. Why? Because they recognized that education was their only weapon against penury and struggle. They dreamed of their children going on to build livelihoods in a burgeoning economy and pulling them out of the slums.
Rubina, a fourth grade student at the Umedbhai Patel School in Mumbai, Maharashtra, in this Aug., 2010 photo.Courtesy of Rakesh Mani Rubina, a fourth grade student at the Umedbhai Patel School in Mumbai, Maharashtra, in this Aug., 2010 photo.
Unfortunately, the poor quality of instruction (and high levels of teacher absenteeism) across the proliferation of shoddy schools ensures that they will hardly be able to compete – whether for university admissions or for jobs – with students who can afford expensive, high-quality schooling. Moreover, according to the National Family Health Survey, India now has the highest rate of child malnourishment on the planet – almost twice that of sub-Saharan Africa.
To be fair, successive governments have attempted to tackle this. The late M.G. Ramachandran, the development-focused chief minister of Tamil Nadu, believed offering free meals at school would not only address malnourishment but encourage more students to attend regularly. Despite initial skepticism from various experts, his school meal program was wildly successful and was gradually expanded nationally. Mr. Ramachandran’s effort gave birth to India’s landmark Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan program, which operates a multibillion-dollar annual budget for establishing new schools and providing students with free textbooks, uniforms and a midday meal.
Children eating a meal served as part of the midday meal program at a government school in Jammu city, Jammu and Kashmir, on Feb. 28.Channi Anand/Associated Press Children eating a meal served as part of the midday meal program at a government school in Jammu city, Jammu and Kashmir, on Feb. 28.
Indeed, it has helped raise enrollment rates dramatically but has failed in many other respects. First, it has not even dented the issue of child malnourishment. Also, it not been accompanied by an increase in the number of trained teachers, resulting in unwieldy class sizes and low-quality instruction. Although the government raised salaries to attract talented teachers, they have often lacked adequate training and have remained largely unaccountable. Finally, the enrollment rates distract from the fact that dropout rates are alarmingly high. In Mumbai, for example, enrollment rates surpass 95 percent, but only a small fraction of students will graduate.
The situation across the rest of the country is not much different – according to recent figures, 4 percent of Indian children never start school, 57 percent don’t complete primary school and almost 90 percent — around 172 million — will not complete secondary school. These numbers should deeply anger Indians and force them to question society’s priorities and values.
For several years, important voices have waxed eloquent on the sheer economic potential of India’s young population. Around 30 percent of the country – close to 350 million children – is under the age of 15. Given this, statisticians predict that India’s labor force will grow by a staggering 100 million over the next decades, over 10 times the corresponding figure in China. By some estimates, over 25 percent of the global workforce will be Indian by 2030.
These numbers make one thing clear: the entire world has a social and economic stake in ensuring that India provides top-quality education to its children. But the harshness of the inequity suggests that the debate ought to be more about what is morally right.
Despite India’s dazzling economic growth, the bigger growth story over the last two decades has been that of inequity, which is growing faster today than at any time since independence. Underinvestment and ineffective governance in health and education services have played a key role. The gross domestic product growth figures that many see as a vital barometer of the nation’s progress are merely a measure of economic activity, not public benefit. Indians must realize that, despite the self-congratulatory mood of the elite, economic gains have accrued disproportionately to a privileged few because the vast majority lacks the education and the health to participate in this progress.
Back in 1964, the government’s Kothari Commission advised that India spend 6 percent of its G.D.P. on education. However, in the years since, total educational outlays have consistently fallen short of that mark. This year, the Ministry of Human Resource Development has proposed a fresh commission to analyze the state of education in the country. What matters, however, is whether India can summon the political will to dramatically boost education spending.
The write-offs, on just direct taxes, that the government offers corporate India comes close to $20 billion. Directing even a fraction of this amount away from businesses and toward improving the access and quality of school education would make a monumental difference in the lives of the bottom four quintiles of the population. Otherwise, lopsided growth is bound to worsen India’s deepest problems – whether corruption, extreme poverty or religious conflict.
But money alone won’t be enough. It will have to be accompanied by prudent policy initiatives to attract more qualified professionals into the education sector, which many avoid because of low pay and prestige. One idea is for the government to introduce an All-India Education Service, much like the other civil services, that seeks to address this. Despite the good work of many private institutions and nongovermental organizations, it will be impossible to reach all sections of society, in all corners of the country, without a coordinated central government effort.
In just a few more decades, the implications of India’s apathy will have profound implications – not just within the country, but around the world as well.
Rakesh Mani is a columnist and writer focused on development and policy issues. He has previously worked with the Asian Development Bank and is an alumnus of Teach For India.

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