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The Pareeksha Pe Charcha that we need to have urgently

The deep failures of our school education system are well-known. According to the New Education Policy (NEP), 2020, an estimated five crore students enrolled in primary schools had not attained foundational literacy and numeracy, i.e., the ability to read and comprehend basic text and the ability to carry out basic addition and subtraction.
Last Updated 02 March 2024, 21:25 IST

It is that time of the year. Scores of schoolchildren (and their parents) are locked up in their homes, preparing for the annual exams. The pressure is high. You can see it on their harried faces, books open as they wait in queues for their coaching classes to begin, and in the early mornings on examination day as they walk to the bus stop. Another symptom of the problem -- paper leaks -- is back in the headlines: just this week in UP, paper leaks marred the Class 12 board exam. The stakes are just too high, the curriculum too vast, teaching quality mediocre (in the best of cases). Rote-learning rules. And it is no surprise that there are all forms of organised cheating.

This exam season, my household joined scores of Indian homes in the struggle against time to revise the enormous and, quite frankly, far too ambitious (for a 6th grader) syllabus to be exam-ready. On more than one occasion, I have added to the problem by throwing my arms up in frustration and encouraging my daughter to “just memorise it” and “get the marks”. Indeed, this is how I got through the dreaded school exams!

The deep failures of our school education system are well-known. According to the New Education Policy (NEP), 2020, an estimated five crore students enrolled in primary schools had not attained foundational literacy and numeracy, i.e., the ability to read and comprehend basic text and the ability to carry out basic addition and subtraction.

This is a sticky problem that begins early in a child’s schooling trajectory, as the ASER report highlights, beginning in Class 2. Worryingly, learning profiles are flat, and once children fall behind, their ability to “catch up” is limited. Studying learning profiles for simple skills like reading, economists Pritchett and Beaty estimate that 4 out of 5 students who go into the grade without knowing how to read, finish the school year, still unable to read.

Our school system is designed to teach the top of the class. Indian education has long been characterised as a “sorting mechanism”, one which is able to winnow out the best students, the top of the class. But it has very little to offer those who fall behind.

Inside the classroom, the pressures are unique. An over-ambitious curriculum which pushes syllabus completion over subject mastery as the goal; a classroom bound within an age-grade curriculum framework but with children across a wide range of learning levels – these push teachers to focus on the best students rather than those falling behind. While undertaking a three-year study based on classroom observations in government schools in Delhi, we saw this routinely. Teachers limited their interaction to students who were more responsive and engaged. Often, this is unconscious.

This is not a consequence of bad teaching. Rather it is on account of the fact that the only metric that the school system and parents hold teachers accountable for is the pass percentage. Rote-learning is the primary means to this end. This is the “classroom consensus” into which our school system is locked.

This consensus dates back decades. Back in the early 1960s, the first major policy document in Independent India, the Kothari Commission report, referred to the urgent need to build a school system based on active thinking, creativity and problem-solving rather than memorization, and proposed a continuous evaluation rather than a one-time examination. In the 1970s and 80s, policy documents warned against overloading children with an ambitious curriculum and substituting rote-learning with active methods of child-centric learning. In the 1990s, the Yashpal committee report, aptly titled “learning without burden” pointed to the tyranny of poor curriculum design and unimaginative pedagogy that had captured the classroom and burdened students. As we achieved near-universal schooling, the 2010 Right to Education brought in efforts like continuous and comprehensive evaluation. And more recently, emerging from NEP 2020, new ideas like open-book exams are being considered.

But implementation has been half-baked. It is my thesis that the failure to disrupt the classroom consensus lies in the fact that reform ideas never entered the domain of mass politics to build societal engagement over the purpose of education and the challenges of imparting knowledge to first-generation learners. As social aspirations for education increased in an economy where good jobs were few and far between, the broken education system doubled down on the one thing it knew to do -- operate as a sorting machine, compounding the burden on children. This, coupled with policy missteps that decimated the teaching profession, have left us with a school education system that only recognises syllabus completion and maximising pass percentages as its goals.

India desperately needs to break the classroom consensus. The pressures of an over-ambitious curriculum and rote-learning have created a ticking demographic time-bomb. Most elites in cosmopolitan India are switching away from Indian school boards to the more expensive and globally competitive international boards. The inevitable widening of the class divide will be serious if the Indian school system doesn’t reform. In an election year, this ought to be the only political debate. Sadly, our current preoccupations have distracted us from what matters. Perhaps this is why there are no real incentives for reform.

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(Published 02 March 2024, 21:25 IST)

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