For over a decade now, January has served as an annual reminder of how India’s school system is failing our children. This month, almost every year, non-governmental organization Pratham brings out the annual state of education report (ASER), which has shown, year after year, how little is being taught in schools across rural India. This year too, the much-awaited ASER report has shown how high levels of learning deficit still persist across the country despite marginal improvements in learning outcomes compared with the last round in 2016.
While the learning deficit in schools, especially government ones, has been recognized as a problem in the country, the role of privilege in driving differences in learning outcomes often does not get the attention it deserves. An analysis of unit-level data sourced from the ASER Centre in Delhi shows that household characteristics shape learning outcomes of children much more than the type of school (government or private) children attend.
Among children in classes III-V, an overwhelming majority from highly privileged families could read a class I text while an overwhelming majority from underprivileged families failed to do so. The difference is similar at higher levels of schooling (classes VI-VIII). Even when it comes to basic numeracy, there is a significant, though less stark, difference between children from underprivileged families versus those from privileged ones (chart 1).
The analysis is based on the ASER 2016 survey, the last survey on learning outcomes for which final results are available (only the provisional results of the 2018 survey have been published so far, and the 2017 survey covered an older cohort and asked different questions).
The categorization of households into the three buckets of affluence or privilege is based on their access to basic household amenities (such as electricity connection, pucca house, etc.,) and to resources that could potentially influence learning outcomes (presence of an educated member in the household, reading material, etc.,). Overall, roughly 30% of over half-a-million students surveyed in 2016 fall in the highly privileged category, 16% in the underprivileged category, and the rest in the moderately privileged category.
Differences in privilege get accentuated by differences in educational attainments of parents, the analysis shows, with underprivileged children born to illiterate parents learning the least in schools.
This also means children from underprivileged families can rise above the station of their birth if they are lucky to be born to well-educated parents. Underprivileged children born to parents with a high school or college degree tend to do as well as highly privileged children born to parents with secondary schooling. But the share of underprivileged children who are lucky to be born to well-educated parents is quite small, given that the well-educated also tend to be more affluent in the country . While 65% of the highly privileged families had at least one parent with a high school or college degree, only 5% of the underprivileged families had at least one such parent.
The analysis also shows that there is indeed a difference between government and private schools in learning outcomes for both privileged and underprivileged children (charts 3a and 3b).
However, it is worth noting that the learning outcomes of underprivileged children attending private schools are considerably worse than the learning outcomes of highly privileged children attending government schools. This suggests that household status rather than school type is the key driver of differences in learning outcomes.
The analysis suggests that the accident of birth has an overwhelming influence in determining school learning outcomes in the country, and helps perpetuate the cycle of inequality across generations. While such inequities are prevalent in most parts of the world, the intergenerational persistence of such inequities is exceptionally high in India, research by a team of World Bank economists showed last year .
While the 2018 survey numbers are still being analysed, initial analysis of the spread of the distribution of learning outcomes suggests increasing inequality, said Wilima Wadhwa, director of the ASER Centre, over email.
It is the inequality of opportunity and education that ultimately drives both the inequality in wealth and incomes in the country.
And it is inequality that is perhaps driving the cycle of competitive populism in India’s polity today.
This is the first part of a two-part data journalism series on learning outcomes in India. The second part will examine the outperforming and underperforming districts of the country.