While India may have taken giant strides in ensuring a universal access to primary education, some serious concerns remain unaddressed on the quality front. A visit to a neighbourhood government school can give you a clear picture of the manifestation of a crisis in our public school education system.
Almost 30 percent of the teachers are absent on any given day, and most of the teachers present in school spend only about 2 hours teaching in the classroom, as the rest of their day is spent on completing administrative tasks.
Over 50 percent of children studying in class 5 cannot read class 2 textbooks, and over 75 percent of them can’t solve a two-digit multiplication problem.
These numbers have been stagnant over the last decade or so, and political apathy towards outcome-based reform process is to be blamed for this situation. Now, the question is why do our politicians shy away from investing in a turnaround?
Apathy by the Political Class
The education reform process has a high gestation period (8-10 years) and as a result, the political returns on investment don’t fructify within the five-year term of an elected representative.
Therefore, there is a strong tendency among the political class in India to focus on providing input based factors, such as infrastructure (access to a school), mid-day meal scheme, laptop and cycle distribution scheme instead of dedicating their efforts towards improving the student’s learning outcomes (SLOs).
This is because input based factors are tangible and can be easily marketed to a largely uneducated electorate, whereas SLOs are not deemed worthy to be considered as vote garners in an election. This lack of political will and focus on low hanging fruits is the biggest roadblock towards undertaking reform measures to bridge the achievement gap in government-run schools.
However, Prime Minister Modi stands in a unique position to carry out some radical reforms, and leave behind a lasting legacy by overhauling the school education system in India.
Turnaround of the Education Sector
With an overwhelming majority, not only at the Centre, but also in some of the most populous states in the country, and a virtually assured second term, the PM doesn’t need to worry about electoral gains in the short-run.
During his tenure as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he was instrumental in launching initiatives such as Gunotsav and Head Teacher Aptitude Test, which helped in bringing about the much-needed accountability and transparency in the system.
However, in the three years so far, we have not seen any reform measures from him on the education front. The much touted New Education Policy (NEP) fails to define what quality education should look like in a classroom, and is silent on quantified targets for improvement in SLOs.
The policy is, at the most, a problem defining piece rather than a solution oriented document. Unfortunately, this policy will not be able to bring about any change in the way our school system functions.
Revamping Education Sector
To kickstart the reform process, he needs to first rein in the teacher unions who resist any form of accountability structures. As an effective communicator, he can reach out to the unions and convince them to do away with tenure-based promotions and adopt an outcome based career advancement structure. This will incentivise teachers to perform in classrooms as their growth will depend on it.
This step will also make sure that teachers take their in-service training more seriously and attend school every day. Most developed countries have impact based evaluations for teachers which have a proven track record in improving SLOs.
India’s current education outlay as a percent of GDP stands at a dismal 4 percent as compared to the global average of 4.9 percent. Since the government has been successful in plugging leakages in subsidies, and has also benefited from the widening of the income-tax base, they now are in a position to expand the central spending on education to almost 6 percent.
This additional spending should be used to set up state of the art teacher training institutes on the lines of IITs and IIMs, which will produce the next generation of highly qualified teachers and administrators. Teacher training colleges in India are currently controlled by politicians, and function like printing presses for Bachelor of Education degrees with very little focus on actual training of teachers.
PM Modi, with his clout over the ministers, can check the proliferation of sub-standard establishments and bring about laws to maintain quality of the training imparted at these institutes. These measures will encourage talented youth to consider teaching as a career and will go a long way in reducing teacher shortage in India, which currently stands at 9 lakhs.
Charter School Movement
Another major reform pertains to allowing a charter school movement in India. Charter schools are run on a public-private partnership model, whereby, the school receives government funding but operates independently of the established public school system. They have greater operational flexibility, and are accountable for their academic performance.
The world over charter school chains have produced better outcomes at a more cost efficient structure than their public school system. However, India has failed to devise a comprehensive policy for allowing charter schools to operate and compete with the public school system. As a pilot, PM Modi can ask the newly elected CM of Uttar Pradesh to frame guidelines for providing licenses to operate charter schools in the state.
Time for Course Correction is NOW
The prevailing political conditions present PM Modi with the ripest conditions for a course correction on the school education front. There are no coalition compulsions and neither does he have to fear antagonising any key stakeholder such as the teacher unions.
If he chooses to ignore this period, he may look back in 2024 and regret the fact that he had a golden opportunity to bring about sweeping changes in the system. However, if he chooses to act, he may go down in our history books as the modern day Nehru for the children of the country.
(Prateek Kanwal is a World Bank Scholar currently pursuing his Masters in Public Policy at the Harvard University. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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