We are failing our children

We are failing our children

A World Bank study released in October has expressed serious concern over  "extreme shortfalls" in the learning levels of school children in India and various other  low and middle-income countries.

It has called the situation a "global learning crisis," observing that the elementary and secondary schools in these countries are not equipping their students with the education and skills they must acquire in order to lead "healthy, productive and meaningful lives."

Millions of young students in these countries face the prospect of lost opportunities and lower wages in later life as consequence of their "learning deficit," the study, titled 'Learning to Realise Education's Promise,' warned.

"The average student in low-income countries performs worse than 95% of the students in high-income countries, meaning that the student would be singled out for remedial attention in a class in high-income countries," it noted.

Many "high-performing" students in middle-income countries (like India) - young men and women who have risen to the top quarter of their cohorts - would rank "in the bottom quarter in a wealthier country," it added.

The study placed India at second position after Malawi in a list of 12 developing countries, observing that over 80% Grade 2 students of Indian schools in rural areas failed in reading a single word of a short text during a survey.

With nearly 80% of Grade 2 students in rural schools failing to perform two-digit subtraction, too, the study placed India at the top of a list of seven developing countries, including Uganda and Ghana, on that measure.

 "Schooling is not the same as learning. In rural India in 2016, only half of Grade 5 students could fluently read text at the level of the Grade 2 curriculum, which included sentences in the local language such as 'It was the month of rains' and 'There were black clouds in the sky.' These severe shortfalls constitute a learning crisis," the study observed.

The report attributed the shortfalls in learning among schoolchildren to various factors, including lack of motivation and required pedagogical skills among teachers and poor management of schools.

It has identified "unhealthy politics" as one of the "deeper system-level problems" in India so far as actualising the reforms in school education to scale up learning outcomes is concerned.   "Many education systems encounter political impediments and rent-seeking, making alignment in education systems much harder to achieve. Unhealthy politics can intensify misalignments in education systems," the study said.

It cited the infamous Vyapam scam in Madhya Pradesh as a case in point.  

"In the Vyapam case, several bureaucrats, fearing adverse career repercussions, allegedly joined the scam, making it much worse than otherwise possible. What started out as a small-time operation allegedly became informally institutionalised as people began to believe they would lose out if they questioned the status quo," the report noted.

The report also identified the designing of an appropriate curriculum as another major problem in India.

The curriculum in India has been designed "for the elite," it underlined. "Teachers and textbooks focus on advanced topics that are of little use in helping struggling students. These students then fall even further behind- eventually so far that no learning whatsoever takes place." Most such students belong to the disadvantaged sections of the society, it noted.

"Schools do not offer struggling students a chance to catch up. In many contexts, the pace of classroom instruction is determined by the need to cover an overly ambitious curriculum rather than by the pace of student learning."  This leaves teachers no choice but to ignore students who are falling behind.

 "Schooling without learning is a wasted opportunity. More than that, it is a great injustice: the children whom society is failing most are the ones who most need a good education to succeed in life," the report said, warning that such an education system would further widen social gaps.

The study noted that education systems in India and other lagging countries are delivering learning outcomes "well below" what is possible given the current levels of funding.

"In India, excess teacher absenteeism in the public sector is estimated to cost $1.5 billion a year," it underlined, suggesting that teacher attendance would improve if their accountability is "strongly aligned" with learning.

The report recommended three policy actions to address the crisis. "Assess learning, to make it a serious goal. Act on evidence, to make schools work for learners. Align actors, to make the system work for learning," it said.

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