There are few urban legends about India quite as destructive as the one that leads us to believe that the education system is doing a good job of educating our children. Coming on the heels of a comprehensive study, which exposed how poorly our kids were doing in some of the country’s best schools, is an international study that evaluates 15-year-olds’ skills in reading and mathematical and scientific literacy on a comparative basis—and India didn’t do any better here.
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is conducted by the Australian Council for Educational Research, and in this edition, referred to as 2009+, evaluated 10 countries (including India, Costa Rica, Venezuela and Malaysia) that were not part of the larger survey conducted in 2009. In India, only two states, Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, were part of the survey. Now, these are both states that are thought to offer the best educational infrastructure to schoolchildren in the country. But the results on a global scale are abysmal, with Himachal Pradesh recording the lowest reading score in PISA 2009 and 2009+, on a par with Kyrgyzstan. Tamil Nadu did slightly better with its overall score, which was nonetheless lower than any other country’s, besides Kyrgyzstan. One shudders to think of the results in states with worse general indicators than these two, such as Rajasthan or Bihar.
We hear tales of Indians doing well abroad and assume that our system of education is producing young adults capable of taking advantage of the increased opportunities that are the result of India’s new openness to the world. But the fact is that not only is our public school system in a shambles, but the bulk of private schools also aren’t much better in the quality of education they offer. A lot of success stories we hear are despite the system, not because of it, and the sooner we recognize that, the better the chances that we’ll do something to fix the status quo.
The current state of affairs will lead to a future where we will have let down millions of young Indians, who will be shut out of the job market because they were failed by the state. The demographic dividend we keep talking about— the one that’s going to give us an edge over China in the decades to come—is going to be more of a demographic disaster if we cannot equip our young people with the skills required in this new global economy. The government must make school education a priority if it is to arrest the decline of this most valuable of institutions.
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