Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Fixing India’s broken school system

There is plenty of evidence that government schools are performing badly

At the start of each New Year, India is reminded of the abysmal state of its school system. This year has been no exception, with the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) published by the non-governmental organization Pratham showing that reading and arithmetic learning levels in schools have barely moved up over the past year. Depending on which indicator one looks at, there is either stasis or decline in learning outcomes among India’s school children. Barring a few exceptions such as Tamil Nadu, where learning levels seem to have improved over the past few years, learning levels seem to have regressed across most states.

The decline in learning levels is particularly acute among government school students. In 2009, the proportion of fifth standard students in government schools who could read a second standard text was below 30% in only two states: Tripura and Jammu and Kashmir. Five years later, the number of states in that low-reading category has increased to five, and includes two of India’s largest states: Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. In 2009, the proportion of fifth standard students in government schools who could do division was less than 40% in 12 states. In 2014, in almost all states, the proportion of fifth standard students in government schools who could do division fell below 40%.

The fall in educational attainment in government-funded schools has occurred at a time when the government has increased spending on primary education, after enacting the Right to Education Act in 2009. The dismal data on school learning outcomes five years after that law was passed is a rude reminder that merely legislating entitlements does not lead to better welfare outcomes. The latest data should prompt a radical rethinking of education policies.

The key weakness in the government’s education strategy is its thrust on school inputs and quantity rather than on learning levels and educational quality. What gets measured gets done, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the government-funded school system. The education law may have been initiated with the noble intention of promoting learning levels but since only enrolment rates are measured, success was achieved only on that score. The absence of rigorous evaluations of learning levels has meant that more and more resources have been funnelled into the sector without adequate accountability.

The education ministry compounded problems last year, when it mis-classified educational inputs as outcomes, and used metrics such as number of instructional days and average working hours for teaching to show progress on schooling outcomes. Worryingly, states which ranked high on the Union government’s “outcome" scale actually ranked very poorly when it came to learning levels, as a Mint analysis showed, indicating the investment in additional schooling inputs are not leading to the desired results. It should not come as a surprise that employers place little premium on school education and a secondary school graduate earns only a little more than his unlettered peer.

Learning levels can only improve if there is greater focus on improving pedagogy, and in devising regular and rigorous assessments of learning levels in schools. It is a shame that India needs to depend on a non-governmental organization to assess the state of school education in the country each year. The Union government must devise a credible testing system that allows comparison of schools across districts and states. Such monitoring will lead to greater public pressure on laggard schools and teachers, and also allow state governments to link teacher salaries to performance.

India’s economy cannot take wings if India’s children continue to be taught poorly. While policymakers have come to realize the importance of imparting skills to youth, they are unwilling to acknowledge that the ability to pick up skills rests on certain basic educational attainments in school, without which it is impossible to function in the modern economy.

If India has to produce employable youth in the coming years, and reap the benefits of its much touted demographic dividend, it must address its schooling crisis immediately.

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