No happy independence day for students

We need execution not more policy to avert a national crisis

Photo credit — Avanish Maurya

Our Prime Minister delivered his Independence day speech yesterday. Like most years before this he touched on what is most important to India and asked India’s 1.25 billion voters to continue to have faith in him and the government. This year, more than others, I’m finding it hard to feel festive and even harder to show faith.

Yet another central government has talked about education reform and achieved little. Governments before PM Modi’s have passed massive policy initiatives while learning levels have stagnated. In his 2016 address to the nation, Prime Minister Modi mentioned education and schools only twice — once in the context of building toilets for boys and girls and another time urging them to fly the national flag. There was not one mention of the severe shortage of teachers in our government schools. While he (rightly) cheered on our quest for an olympic medal, he (like those before him) ignored that fact that we were second from the bottom on the PISA 2009+ standardized test, designed to compare learning levels for class 7 students across the OECD and other countries (we beat Kyrgyzstan).

Like in sports, infrastructure and the economy, there is no silver bullet here. Fixing education requires cold, hard-nosed, gritty execution and unwavering political focus. Policy has a role to play but execution through the existing bureaucracy and the existing workforce must come first.

In his 2016 address to the nation, prime minister Modi mentioned education and schools only twice — once in the context of building toilets for boys and girls and another time urging them to fly the national flag.

For those of us in the space, the crux of the problem is clear. Too many students, too few teachers (too many open vacancies) and no accountability. As things stand we are more than 1M teachers short in government schools and in many states a mix of corruption, politics and a lack of budgetary allocation means that these vacancies will not fill anytime soon. The foundation of any classroom is the system’s ability to hire good teachers who want to teach, equip them with what they need and let them go to work. Everything else, the infrastructure, toilets, technology comes after this very basic requirement.

Until we have accountable teachers in classrooms every single new innovation will fall flat. This isn’t a secret. Every senior bureaucrat I have worked has pointed to the lack of teachers and the unpardonable delays in hiring them. Numerous scams around both teacher recruiting and teacher transfers haven’t helped.

Via Quartz

A promise to be left unfulfilled

As voters, we have to take part of the blame for this sorry state of affairs. Over time the electorate (rural and urban) have bought in to the convenient notion that government schools will never improve. White-collar India can see the government school system for what it is. But we also have the luxury of opting out. The state of our education systems causes a lot of outrage but little desperation. Education is not a major electoral issue for us. A few more IITs would be nice but most of us would vote for a tax waiver before we think of government schools. It will take a lot to get us to the picket lines.

Rural india is a different story. Education should be a major electoral issue. In several meetings with parents in rural India and several in cities I have always asked, “Are you not angry at your MLA about the state of schools?” and the answer has unequivocally been, “There’s nothing to be done about government schools. When I have money I will move my child to private school.” The electorate and the elected representatives are all convinced that the problem is unfixable. Accountability falls away at this very preliminary step.

A decade ago we had the same attitude towards corruption. Its unfixable. We would like our politicians to talk about it but we know nothing will change. And then everything did. The India Against Corruption movement shifted the political landscape not only for the AAP but also the BJP and Congress. The Prime Minister spent a good few minutes on his corruption report card this independence day.

The lack of accountability in our education system is as much of if not a greater crisis and it will take a genuine, widespread upheaval to create the political will to change things.

As a teacher, I see the crisis coming

I am a science teacher. Through our work at Avanti my team and I have spent more than six years working within the government system, running after-school coaching centres and working with private schools. Each year thousands of students join our programs — most in grade IX, X and XI. Of those that come from low-income homes (mostly from government schools) less than half can read fluently or do any mathematics beyond a grade V level. The ASER reports from 2005 to 2014 have repeatedly shown a failed primary school system. Less than a quarter of our fifth graders can divide 2-digit numbers and less than half of them can read a Grade II text fluently. That these learning deficiencies persist till high-school is no surprise.

As their teachers, we struggle to assure them that we know how to turn things around for them. We struggle to tell them that if they work hard, there is a better future for them. We continue on hoping that our students will perform well enough to beat the system.

We have over 150M students studying in amongst the worst educational systems in the world. There are 16M students enrolled in Grade X in India this year alone. By most estimates more than 60% of them will either fail and drop out or pass their exams without knowing how to read and write. That’s over 10M students. Of the 9M students who are enrolled in Grade XII, even optimistic estimates give only 15% have any real chance of employment post college (NASSCOM). This means that each year over 11M students will leave the school education system with no real chance of socio-economic progress.

Let’s reiterate that: more than 11M students each year have largely wasted 10 or more years in school. They will have a passing certificate but almost no upward mobility. We already have hundreds of millions of students in this exact situation.

Over 11M students will leave the school education system this year with no real chance of socio-economic progress.

Every single year, there is a new report that demonstrates the crisis we’re headed towards as a country. Youth Unemployment is over 25% and as the ILO and others have pointed out a generation of scarred youth cannot possibly sustain our growth. The NASSCOM data I mentioned above is not the consequence of poor higher education alone. Most students entering college aren’t really at grade level owing to the failing government school system. Our demographic dividend is not real and will not be real unless something changes and changes fast. No one, not the rich, not the middle-class and not the poor want hundreds of millions of unemployed, frustrated youth forming the bulk of our working-age population.

Action first

This article is not a cry for new policy, new budgetary allocations or privatisation. The current government has repeatedly talked about its ability to execute, to engage in effective system reform. As a teacher what would warm my heart is genuine intent to fix teacher shortages and an emphasis on increasing transparency on student learning levels in government systems. The existing system within the bureaucracy and school systems is designed for this and has the capacity for this. It should not need NGOs or external agencies to help to do this. All this will take is genuine political will and focus and for us as the electorate to realise that this crisis - like the environment, like taxation - will engulf all of us if we don’t act now.