Education Times Features Ashwin's Article

Why our 8th grade student can’t do what a 2nd grade student is supposed to

The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 was released with a lot of hoopla and fireworks. The new 5+3+3+4 format, ‘encouragement’ to regional languages and centralized regulatory bodies are being touted as the elixir that will solve all problems in the current education system. But are we solving the right problems? Are the NEP proposals rather solutions to a different problem? Change for the sake of change is pointless. The gap in education quality and learning outcomes has always been executional, not the inefficiency or inadequacy of the current structure.

A recent study by Central Square Foundation says students from even private schools can’t do a simple math operation that they should have learnt 4-6 years back. A couple of years back, Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER) found that a substantial number of government schools have 14-year-old students six years behind what would be expected of them on average. Children in 8th grades are often unable to even read texts which a child in 2nd grade could be expected to read.

Some issues are better hidden under the carpet, and the government has been doing the same all these years on issues about the quality of education in our country. But, what is the reason why these students are in such a bad state? Well, plenty.

Let’s start with problems out of student’s control or influence

1. Quality of teachers: Easy targets right? We have to blame the poor quality on someone, and who better a scapegoat than teachers? Teachers haven’t adapted their learning methods to changing times, changing syllabus, changing technology, etc. And are they even making the effort to improve the learning outcome of their students, or are they going through the motion when they do their job? Well, individual teachers are not incentivized for better performance or performance of their batch or subject. And just like individual performance assessment incorporates individual growth; it’s about time to consider enforcing a similar practice in the educational sector.

2. Poor infrastructure: The District Information System for Education (DISE) data shows only 53% of total government schools, which form a majority of schools in rural India, have electricity connection. Only 28% schools (18% government schools) have a computer and 9% (4% government schools) an internet connection. Well, a large number of government schools don’t even have a working, clean toilet – forget about separate ones for boys and girls. So are we making it easy or difficult for children to stay in school?

3. School budget: Government schools get standard budgets based on their enrolment, and often clearance of any budget is driven by their relationship with the government officials. Schools get high level performance targets mostly related to aggregate pass percentage in board exams. And this leads to the practise of school invigilators often giving students full freedom to cheat in exams, and at times even abetting the act of cheating. There is limited assessment on dropout rates at every standard, representation of students in other areas or competitions, or assessment of learning outcomes outside of exam performance.

4. Teacher attendance: Ask top officials managing government schools and you will find teachers, even principal, don’t even bother to show up to school every day. Many times they have part-time jobs, like their private tuitions or even as LIC agents. Enter their staff room and you can see teachers cutting vegetables for their homes, or doing another kind of household or a personal chore. People who we are entrusting to teach discipline to our students must be reminded of the value of discipline themselves.

5. Teacher salaries: 
No doubt about it. Teachers are paid less. Way less. A significant revision in teacher salaries will solve a lot of commitment and disciplinary problems from the teacher side. And it’s a no brainer that the people who we are entrusting to shape the future of the country should be paid at par with other sectors. The funds to run schools can be arranged, raised and deployed if the intent is there. And that itself is a big if. Does the government even have intent to make this happen?

6. “One size fits all” style of teaching: Different students learn at a different pace, and in different styles. We all know many people who were “slow learners” in school but went on to achieve academic excellence and even a great corporate career in India and abroad. While the teachers are aware of these, they must be consciously reminded and advised to use a combination of different styles to ensure learning is effectively grasped by all students who are willing to learn. Teachers and other staff need to motivate students regularly to ensure their commitment and dedication doesn’t waver, and they don’t give up on studying altogether just because they could not understand few topics at the pace his or her other classmates could. The Benjamin Franklin quote “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn” needs to be printed and pasted on walls of every staff room in the country.

7. Are we asking the wrong questions? Test patterns: We have seen the joke that ridicules current testing methods when all jungle animals are waiting to take a tree climbing test, and the teacher points to an audience that included elephant and fish, that their smartness will be graded based on their proficiency in climbing the tree. Are we doing the same with our children when we conduct standardized tests that have not gone through any reforms or revisions in patterns for over a century? We still give marks for memorizing concepts, rather than the ability to apply the concepts. In a real-world where google is accessible with all the information points, shouldn’t we convert all exams into open book exams where they can refer the information and concepts, and have to instead solve a problem using that information?

Now, let’s look at factors within the influence of students or their parents.

1. Realization of the value of education in poorer, socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods: Families, especially poor families, need to be reminded continuously about the value of education and the potential power of education to transform their condition. How many such families even keep books (other than children’s school-books) in their houses? Another issue is a lack of social and literary equity in disadvantaged households. It is not easy, or intuitive, for uneducated, poor households to instill the importance of education in children. Often, a large number of children, especially girls, are pulled in to working part-time, which soon becomes full-time, when the family goes through a rough patch. The mind-set of making children work to support the family at the expense of education must be changed. A conscious, continuous effort to create awareness in these neighbourhoods is the need of the hour.

2. Distractions to the student: A child today is growing up with a lot of distractions around him, and how s/he tackles them is ultimately responsible for whether the child ends up educated or drop out, and eventually employed vs. unemployed. YouTube, WhatsApp, social media are sucking up a lot of their time and feeding junk in their minds. Often the same media that the child is addicted to can be used for learning purposes. Both schools and government must act on creating awareness around controlled social media usage by children.

Can any of these things be changed? Yes, of course. Are we taking conscious and significant efforts towards those? No. The current education system in our country needs a total overhaul, and it is a matter of urgency and criticality. A multi-pronged approach focussed on teacher training, social awareness, better infrastructure, better compensation to teachers, and performance assessment of teachers, schools and even government measures – all of these are the ways to do it. And we continue dropping our educational budgets, the share of education as % of GDP keeps declining, etc.

As far back as the 1960s, the Kothari Education Commission had suggested that budget allocation for education should be 6%, and the governments have always promised to meet this figure. Despite these promises, the current budget allocation is just 3.8%. NEP 2020 mentions 6% as the target but doesn’t mention the time frame to achieve the same. Mentioning the 6% of GDP target for education budget is futile if we are not setting an allocation target for this year or the method to achieve the ambitious target in the coming years.

And why? Because we don’t consider it a priority. And why is that? Because children of none of the people who make policies go to government schools, so it doesn’t affect them directly, unlike roads, infrastructure, technology, etc.

The proposed NEP policy seems aspirational, it references and glosses over high-level desirable attributes, but doesn’t bother to work out the feasibility or the methodology to make the plan work. Like most initiatives by government in recent times, the policy is vague, the outcomes not measurable, and no mention whatsoever of details and specifics on how the policy will be implemented.

And a major drawback is that because the new policy has been proposed now, all efforts from the government will go into defending this policy and making the modifications in the format and the regulatory bodies. The country needs a real change, not a PR stunt. India needs a real transformation in education system. And we need it now.

(The author is IIT Bombay alumnus and MD at a US-based Artificial Intelligence company, Entrepreneur)

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