hile India does relatively better than its South Asian neighbours—Pakistan and Bangladesh— in several educational indicators, it lags seriously behind other comparable countries, such as the BRIC (Brazil, Russian Federation, India and China) economies in general, and China in particular. India is at least 30 years behind China in terms of population with completed secondary schooling and its adult literacy rate is wholly 30% below that of China.
The silver lining in the cloud of Indian education is the substantial achievement that primary-school enrolment has come close to being universal, andschool attendance rates and literacy rates have risen encouragingly in recent times. Yet, achievements in other respects leave much to be desired.
First, learning achievements are very low, signalling poor-quality schooling. For instance, the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2006, which tested 6-14-year-olds across 509 Indian state districts, found that nearly 40% of children studying in grade 5 could not read a short text at grade 2 level of difficulty. Even among grades 6 to 8 attendees, 22% of children in government schools and 17% in private (aided and unaided) schools could not read the text. At the secondary level, Indian achievement rates are low as found in a recent application of international tests in Orissa and Rajasthan. Also, high-school pass rates are low. When the Kalyan Singh government in Uttar Pradesh brought in an anti-cheating rule to prevent mass-cheating in board examinations, the pass rate fell from 57% in 1991 to 14.7% in 1992. It is possible that achievement levels are better in other states
Second, while school facilities or inputs have improved compared with those reported in the 1999 Public Report on Basic Education (PROBE), these are still far from adequate, as highlighted in ASER 2006. Teacher absenteeism, another indicator of poor school quality, is a high 25%, both according to ASER 2006 as well as a 2003 rural survey in 20 Indian states by Michael Kremer and others. According to PROBE, poor teacher accountability is due to lack of incentives in teachers’ job contracts.
Third, partlydue to the low quality of public schools, private schooling has grown rapidly, with worrying implications for rising inequality in educational opportunity. According to the Sixth and Seventh All India Education Surveys, between 1993 and 2002, 96% of the total increase in primary-school enrolment in urban India and 24% in rural India was absorbed by private unaided schools, excluding the numerous ‘unrecognized’ private schools (non-official surveys show that unrecognized schools constitute more than 50% of all private schools). Private schools provide education at a fraction of the unit cost of government schools as they pay market wages, while government-paid teachers’ minimum wages carry large “rents”, which teacher unions have fought hard to secure.
The Constitution guarantees that one-twelfth of states’ upper-house membership will be composed of teachers. The existence of a teacher constituency to vote for teacher MLCs seems to have encouraged a culture of political activism among teachers, at least in the four states that still have upper houses. Some 11% of the lower house membership and up to 22% of the upper house of UP’s state legislature in the past 55 years has been composed of teachers. The National Commission on Teachers 1986, in a report written with much sympathy for the profession, stated that “the most important factor...vitiating the atmosphere in schools...has been the role of teacher politicians and teachers’ organizations”. Radical overhaul of teacher and school incentives is absent from the current reform agenda, perhaps because of its perceived political infeasibility.
Fourth, secondary-school participation is still modest (47%) and unequally distributed. The economic incentives for acquiring secondary schooling are high: The rate of return to each extra year of secondary education, estimated from National Sample Survey 2004 data, is 15% for men and 30% for women. However, greater participation is hindered partly by constrained supply of secondary schools: There are only one-third as many lower-secondary schools and one-fifth as many higher-secondary schools as upper-primary schools.
Several recent large-scale interventions, such as the many components of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the mid-day meal scheme, are good news (though their impacts have not yet been rigorously evaluated). These fiscally-demanding interventions to increase educational inputs, and the 2% education cess to fund these, testify to higher public commitment to school education and give grounds for optimism, but serious quality challenges remain. Bold incentives-focused reforms are needed.
Geeta Gandhi Kingdon is research officer at the Department of Economics, University of Oxford. She lectures in development economics. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com