Illiterate literacy

Our education crisis

India lags behind in the quality of its primary and secondary education, considering that 75% of children in Std III of government schools across the country cannot read and perform basic calculations like subtraction and division. BH Shivakumar

Comparisons between India and China to gauge progress in various sectors make sense given that both countries emerged as independent nation-states in the post-Second World War period. Clearly, India lags behind in the quality of its primary and secondary education, considering that 75% of children in Std III of government schools across the country cannot read and perform basic calculations like subtraction and division. Also, one out of four children who progress from Std VIII to higher classes lacks basic reading skills, according to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), which is the primary document that drives policy implementation in the primary and secondary education sector. It revealed some alarming figures in its 2018 report, released in January 2019. Comparative figures for private schools do not show any drastic improvement either.

According to ASER 2018, while a few states like Kerala, Assam, Gujarat, Haryana have shown an increase in learning levels over earlier years among Std III students, a few other states, namely Himachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Bihar and Uttarakhand, witnessed a decline. Uttar Pradesh especially requires urgent attention as over 60% of students in Std III cannot read words. Helping children acquire skills of reading and basic math by the end of Std II or beginning of Std III will significantly reduce learning gaps in later stages.

China, on the other hand, has successfully overcome this challenge through adoption of the mastery approach, which teaches students to learn specific reading, writing and arithmetic concepts in an intuitive manner before they progress to more complex ideas. This approach is steadily gaining traction in other countries. The Chinese education system, unlike India’s, does not cover a huge curriculum but transmits a narrow amount of content -- but makes sure the students learn it thoroughly before progressing to higher grades.

Even developed countries like the US and UK struggle to improve the learning levels of 15-year olds according to the Programme for International Assessment (PISA). The Organisation for Economic Cooperation Development (OECD) conducts the PISA, which tests the learning level of 15-year olds across subjects like mathematics, reading, financial literacy and science. Asian countries like Singapore and China have mastered the art of teaching primary children. The latest PISA rankings, released in December 2016, puts Singapore right on top, China in 10th, and the US and UK are nowhere near. According to Professor Sing Kong Lee, Vice-President of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, the key factor for Singapore’s success is its teaching quality.

While developed countries are finding ways to improve their rankings, India, on the other hand, boycotted PISA after its maiden participation in 2009, when it ranked 72nd among 74 countries. The NGO Pratham  started the ASER in 2005. In 2017, it was aided by around 30,000 volunteers, across 596 districts that cover 17,730 villages, with a sample size of 5,46,527 children. Of the total number of schools in the country, nearly 72% are government and government-aided schools. In 2017, the World Bank warned about a learning crisis in India and stated that schooling without real learning is a wasted development opportunity and also a great injustice to children.

Over the years various, government initiatives like Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, mid-day meals scheme, Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan and the Right to Education Act have helped to stabilise the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of primary and middle schools (I-VIII) at 96% since 2010. The drop-out ratio has been falling over time. Gender gaps in enrolment have also narrowed down. Moreover, amenities provided to schools have improved considerably, especially provision for toilets that encourages girl students to join. The focus now needs to shift towards improving their learning levels.

However, the challenge is to achieve growth at such a massive scale within a short span of time. Perhaps reducing the curriculum and increasing training programmes for school teachers in new pedagogies will no longer be sufficient. What India now needs is not a linear solution to this problem of “illiterate literacy” but a paradigm shift in its outlook towards the education system. In India, linear growth is never enough, it has to look for exponential growth.

Stagnation in education quality

Today, teaching as a profession is not among the attractive careers one could choose in the country. The top graduates prefer to work in any sector but education. This explains why the quality of education and level of learning have stagnated. While everyone wants quality education, no one wants to enter the school education sector. Invariably, school teachers merely aim to complete the syllabi, without any clarity about the learning outcome expected from children. It is time to come up with innovative ideas to solve this daunting problem. Perhaps, a clear mapping of teaching goals, learning outcomes and assessment methodology could be the start.

Education is the backbone for any progressive economy. If India wants to achieve its target of becoming a developed country by 2030, it has to concentrate not on creating jobs, but on preparing the youth for jobs. The world is moving towards Industrial Revolution 4.0, with automation and robotics disrupting every sector. Yet, a majority of children lack basic reading and math skills. India figures among the top global labour forces in the next decade. Western industrial democracies will look towards developing economies like India and China for their workforce as these two Asian neighbours enjoy a “youth bulge” in the near term. If India does not wake up and improve its primary and secondary school education, then it will lose out to China, which will attract the western world in the war for skilled human resources.

(The writer is an Assistant Professor, Department of Commerce, CHRIST Deemed to be University, Bengaluru)  

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