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Math gap will widen India’s rich-poor divide

Math gap will widen India’s rich-poor divide

Among the many reasons for the growing rich-poor divide in India, the yawning disparity in math skills deserves urgent attention.

The “math gap," if it isn’t narrowed, may lead to a much sharper distinction between the haves and the have-nots a few years from now.

A new study by World Bank economists Jishnu Das and Tristan Zajonc presents some stark evidence.

The study links the results of a test given to 6,000 teenagers in two states — Rajasthan in western India and Orissa in the east — to students’ performance on the same exam in 51 other countries.

The researchers conclude that mathematical abilities of India’s 14-year-olds vary widely between the worst and the best students.

If other states are similar to the ones studied then it would mean that 17 million Indian students don’t meet the lowest international benchmark of “some basic mathematical knowledge." That’s 22 times the corresponding figure for the US.

Mind the gap

At the same time, the depth of India’s math talent—those whose test scores are considered to be of an advanced level —is also significant.

“For every 10 top performers in the US, there are four in India," the World Bank economists say. That’s 100,000 students, or more than any European country.

This latter group is supplying the bulk of India’s scientific, technical, managerial and entrepreneurial talent and is responsible for the country’s growing clout in the global knowledge economy.

It would be a perfectly happy situation for India, if so many other ninth-graders weren’t falling hopelessly behind.

Take a sample math question from the 36 that make up the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study: What’s the smallest number out of 0.625, 0.25, 0.375, 0.5 and 0.125?

The global average of right answers is 46%; in Rajasthan, it drops to 11%. Orissa fares only slightly better with 17%.

“The average scores of children in Rajasthan and Orissa place these states below 46 and 42 of the 51 countries tested in 1999 or 2003," Das and Zajonc say in their study.

Only in South Africa was there greater inequality in test-score distribution.

The variance has less to do with household income, caste, parental literacy or wealth; more of it may be due to the quality of schooling a child receives.

Hopeful sign

According to the researchers, this is a “hopeful sign" because “it is easier to change behaviour among teachers and to improve schools, than it is to do the same thing among parents."

The World Bank economists may be right.

Business Today, an Indian news magazine, reported last month on the impressive success of 560 well-equipped residential schools that the Union government runs in rural areas across the country, offering quality education that’s also affordable.

The annual family income of three out of four students enrolled in these schools is $1,000 (Rs 42,900) or less; and yet the academic performance of pupils at these model institutions is superior to those from other government-supported schools.

India needs thousands of comparable schools to improve the skill set of its future workforce.That’s the surest way to raise living standards for those at the bottom of the pyramid and prevent the disparity between the rich and the poor from stoking social unrest.

Disparity temporary?

The Gini coefficient for India, a widely used measure of income concentration, rose to about 0.37 in 2005, from less than 0.33 in 2000. With rapid economic growth in recent years, the inequality may have increased, though it is still nowhere close to the levels in China or the US.

To the extent that the rising tide of economic growth — fuelled by the well-heeled — is lifting millions out of poverty, some of the income disparity in India may be temporary.

However, if the government fails to mind the math gap, high levels of inequity may become endemic; and then it may be very difficult to reverse the trend.

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