Monday, January 27, 2014

In need of a class act

The Annual Status of Education Report points out that the standard of rural education in India has slipped. Kalpana Pathak, Shashikant Trivedi and Vinay Umarji analyse what has caused this decline
The students of Class VI at a in Dewanganj village, about 25 km from Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, have been assigned a task. They are supposed to pick out difficult words from a chapter on Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the second president of India. One of the students asks the teacher, "What is Tiruchirapalli?" The teacher looks blank and then hesitatingly replies, "It must be a place."

At the government-run primary school in Kendai village in Chhattisgarh's Korba district, Khileshwar Patel, a Class II student, has not seen more than one or two teacher present in school on any given day. The primary school, run by the tribal welfare department, has around 155 students and six teachers, all (contract teachers). The village, located 70 km from the Korba, falls in a tribal-dominated pocket. "The women teachers all stay in Korba. They have to travel miles to attend school and have to return home by evening," says Dinesh Sharma, director of Karmadaksh, a non-governmental organisation which works in the education sector. So, the teachers have worked out a strategy - they take turns to attend school. The Korba district education officer could not be contacted for comment.

Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are not the only two states that have recorded a fall in the standard of education in government-run village schools. According to the Annual Status of (ASER) 2013 released last week, the quality of learning measured by the three Rs - reading, writing and (a)rithmetic - has either shown no improvement or has worsened in the nine years during the United Progressive Alliance government's rule.

The report, prepared by the non-profit after surveying 14 states, shows that since 2005, the number of children in Class V who can read a Class II level text has gone down by almost 15 per cent. In the same period, the number of students in Class VIII who can do divisions has declined by almost 23 percentage points. The data also shows that the proportion of children enrolled in private schools in rural India has been rising steadily. In 2005, 17 per cent of 6-14-year-olds were enrolled in private schools. By 2013, this number had increased to 29 per cent.

The question ASER asks is: why can't government schools deliver? The interventions needed to improve the quality of education in government schools are neither particularly sophisticated nor do they require huge outlay of expenditure. Besides, it is well documented that rural private schools have fewer facilities as compared to government schools, and their teachers are less qualified and paid less than their government counterparts. Similarly, private tuition classes tend to be crowded and are often held by government school teachers. Yet, evidence from various studies consistently shows that children whose education is supplemented with private interventions perform better than those whose isn't.

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Visits to some village schools in states that have recorded a slip in shed light on a few reasons responsible for this decline. Dharmik Raval of Class V is "the brightest student" at the government school near Gota on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in Gujarat. Yet, when asked to divide 513 by 4 - a Class III mathematics exercise - Raval fumbles despite prompting from his class teacher, Pramukhbhai Patel. "He is usually very smart with dictation and maths," Patel defends Raval, before asking the boy's "best friend", Pravin Damor, to solve the sum.

With nine teachers, including principal Pramilaben Patel, half of whom have only completed their primary teachers training course (PTC), while the rest are armed with a BSc or a BEd degree, the government school caters to around 308 students from the village which has 500 children. The remaining study in the private schools nearby. Today, however, only 217 students are present. "What can we do? Some of the parents come and take their wards away after the mid-day meals," rues Patel. This also explains the lock on the main gate during school hours. "If we keep it open, students will bunk classes and go home," she adds.

While classes I to V have only one PTC teacher teaching all the subjects, from classes VI to VIII, students have specific periods for different subjects. "This way each teacher is responsible for one whole class till Class V, which helps us to keep a tab on the weaker ones. While for students of Class I and II, we conduct monthly evaluations, from Classes III to VIII such evaluations are done twice a year," says Patel, adding that the weak students get special attention through additional classes of one or two hours.

Yet, the results of this "special attention" do not seem encouraging. A test of reading has Class III students Rahul Jasuji and Shailesh Hengaji fumbling through the text meant for Class II. Jasuji breaks each word and struggles to read a paragraph in continuation. Patel also claims that till Class V, at least, weak students are asked to attend classes of the previous years to brush up on their reading and maths. The tests which the students are put through might question this claim, but the school does score when it comes to infrastructure. It has a large playground, clean toilets and serves proper mid-day meals. The ASER report for rural India has, in fact, recorded improvement in infrastructure like playgrounds, drinking water facility, toilets and the pupil-teacher ratio.
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In Madhya Pradesh in 2007, the government had switched over from the exam-based pattern to activity-based learning (ABL) for elementary classes and activity learning method (ALM) for middle-level to higher secondary classes . These new systems were introduced to do away with the age-old board examination pattern for classes V and VIII. Unlike the easy ABL and ALM pattern, where elementary to middle school level students are assured of easy exams and no 'failure', the board examination was tougher and required each student to face question papers prepared by external moderators.

Most teachers in rural areas of Bhopal and its nearby districts like Raisen and Vidisha - the home turf of political heavyweights like Sushma Swaraj, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and former state finance minister Raghavji - say the quality of education has deteriorated since this was done. "The new pattern has almost ruined the entire education system, particularly in areas like Diwanganj," says Gopiram Katare, a teacher. "Even an elementary school student now knows that a teacher cannot fail him, else he will face stern action. So, teachers are simply promoting students to higher classes."

While ABL demands rigorous work, more time and a focused approach from teachers, students have the freedom to take it easy, says a teacher. Under the system, a primary school teacher is expected to focus more on a child who is not performing well and enable him to qualify to the next level. The problem arises when an elementary student is promoted to middle level school, or Class VI, without facing any examination.

Harishankar Nema, assistant director in the Vidisha district education department who monitors about 6,000 schools in rural areas, says that most teachers commute to school from the nearby towns. Often, they reach school late and leave early so that they don't miss the public transport. Besides, heavy documentation work like filing mid-day meal records and maintaining bank accounts for uniforms and scholarships consumes most of their time. "They hardly have four hours to spare for the students," Nema says. "Many students from the rural background are also expected to work in the fields in this peak rabi season," adds a teacher from the Diwanganj primary school.

To monitor and improve the quality of education in rural areas, the Madhya Pradesh district education officers have set up two teams: Gyan Punj, a platoon of nine expert teachers; and Jan Shikshak, a contingent of about 140 teachers. Gyan Punj includes teachers trained in different subjects who interact with students and the principal to extend academic assistance. Jan Sikshaks, meanwhile, have a regular route chart to visit various schools in rural areas. "They are supposed to cover 20 schools each day in six villages. They are the monitoring mechanism for ABL and ALM and share ideas with teachers," explains Nema.

The quality of teachers in several schools, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Like in other states, Chhattisgarh's teachers training institutes often conduct test for teachers. "Most of the teachers make serious mistakes in these tests," says a senior official in the education department. Many of the teachers cannot even multiply 11 with 11, he says.

Another problem in the state is that the shikska karmis come under the panchayat department, while the schools are managed by the school education department, says the official. As a result, the school education department has no control over contract teachers.

In Bihar too an official associated with the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan says that unavailability of trained teachers is the crux of the problem. "We have appointed more than 2.5 lakh teachers in the last five years, but most of them are not trained," he says. "We have started a programme to educate them." Others say teachers are overworked. "These teachers have to cook the mid-day meal, clean the classrooms and maintain the accounts of the school, besides teaching. In such scenario, how can you expect them to give their best," says one official.

R Krishna Das and Satyavrat Mishra contributed to this report

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