Lack of Shared Vision, Commitment to Public Education Are Behind India's Learning Crisis

Neither smart and shiny technocratic interventions nor the commercialisation of education will solve this problem for us.

Whenever a new edition of the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) comes out, India discusses the abysmally low learning levels in its schools – government and private ones alike. The quest for solutions usually leads to a whole laundry list of required reforms: decentralise, privatise, increase funding, teach at the right level, focus on the basics, invest in teacher education and increase monitoring efforts among other.

Yet, learning levels remain relatively low, especially in states like Bihar.

Bihar has undertaken quite a few reform efforts, including the appointment of para-teachers and Mission Gunvatta, among others. However, learning in schools has not improved – it has rather gone further down.

Certainly, the technicalities of a large-scale and complex system like the education setup in any Indian state are not trivial. They require expertise, experimentation and evaluation. But in the end, these aspects are often fine-tuning efforts. A lot of money goes into randomised controlled trials to find out whether certain monetary or non-monetary incentives, teacher education, school management trainings or the introduction of information and communications technology (ICT) can push the learning levels slightly upwards.

The solutions marketplace

The development business is in full swing. It loves what it does: learning levels can be relatively well measured and put into a single number. The impact of interventions can then be quantified in terms of standard deviations. This allows the creation of value-for-money calculations that enable policymakers to pick what is the best offer on the solutions marketplace.

For instance, contract teachers showed learning gains similar to regular teachers for a fragment of the costs, so let us employ those. Or: teachers are often below the required proficiency levels, so obviously, teacher training sounds like a good idea.

Different organisations specialise on providing different kinds of solutions. Some look into pedagogy, ed-tech companies provide ICT solutions (they have the term “solution” literally in the name of their product) and others provide an entire management system for public-private-partnerships. If the Indian education system is not lacking one thing, it is choice in the market of solutions.

Also read: The Branding of Indian Education

Yet, after more than a decade of solutions being offered and bought on the solutions marketplace, learning levels have gone downwards rather than upwards. Is it possible that the problem faced by our schools is of a kind that does not lend itself to be offered a solution which is a part of the marketplace?

We think that this is precisely the case. Even though teachers may not be fully qualified, it does not explain why children struggle even with class II texts – something most teachers easily master. The binding constraint seems not to be a lack of proficiency. Rather than looking into a specific element of the system (teachers, infrastructure, teacher-training, monitoring mechanisms, ICT, etc.), it seems that given the stock of elements in the system, the system as a whole performs below expectations.

We argue that the reason for this is neither inadequate formal rules (even as we acknowledge that there are issues) nor a lack of inputs (even as we acknowledge that there is serious underfunding) nor missing incentives (even as we acknowledge that incentives for learning are hardly adequate) as such.

The real issues in our education system

The reason, we argue, is more of a political nature. It is an issue of a missing consensus, a shared vision and a clear commitment to public education.

We argue that there is a ‘permanent state of emergency’ in our education system. Teachers and their unions are fighting against governments in court. Governments openly express their dissatisfaction with teachers and distrust them. They replace them with unqualified contract teachers and give a clear signal of disvalue to the profession. Teachers don’t get salaries for sometimes as long as eight months in a row and thus justify their lack of effort towards teaching.

They write four lines on the blackboard in the morning and then go sit in the veranda or in the headmaster’s office, sip some chai and do little else apart from the required paperwork. Block and cluster-level officials are fixated on paperwork and care little about everything else that is not tightly monitored.

There is distrust among parents and schools. While schools complain about the irregularity of children, parents complain about a lack of motivation and qualification of teachers. Everyone finds someone else to blame for the state of affairs nobody is satisfied with.

And then there is the solutions market with shiny technocratic interventions, now preferably at least partly involving some ICT. This is the mismatch between what is offered on the apolitical solutions market and the real problems that impede the elements of the systems (teachers, parents, bureaucrats, local governments, etc) to combine their efforts in a shared goal of good education for all children.

The privatisation trend is a further disincentive to fix things. It provides a seemingly clean alternative to the messy process of political negotiations: escape the mess by sending your child to a private school. Yet, and here we get back to the ASER data, this is a fallacy. Private schools provide equally poor learning. Their perceived superiority stems largely from sorting effects rather than differences in value added.

Our conclusion then is rather simple: neither technocratic interventions nor the exit to private schools is a real solution. All actors must rather come together. Governments, teacher unions, parent representatives, local governments, bureaucrats and our entire society must have a word.

Also read: The ‘Hidden Curriculum’ of New India

Governments must fulfil their commitments in the Right to Education Act, provide infrastructure requirements and pay salaries on time. They must stop to employ unqualified teachers on a contract basis in an attempt to get rid of regular teachers. There needs to be a solution for the para-teachers who became regular. A recent court decision in Bihar makes it compulsory to pay them an equal wage for equal work.

Teacher unions must stop only demanding salary increases and protecting teachers who are regularly absent, unqualified, uncaring or unmotivated. They must reorient themselves away from party-politics and towards professionalism. If a state is not able to fulfil the recommendations of the latest pay commission without squeezing the budget of plan expenditure and other quality-related improvements, a programmatic view must be maintained, and a settlement reached. This will avoid the public image of teacher unions as rent-seeking entities. A guarantee for timely salaries can be something that is offered in return.

What parents can do

Parents must give up the illusion of simply escaping to private schools. They must be willing to engage in a dialogue with teachers and headmasters. They must support teachers, ensure children go to school on a regular basis and be willing to contribute to their schools in any way they can. They should promote and encourage teachers who go beyond their duty – as many do.

Further, parents are not a united force. Caste and class divisions impede their collective power. This must be overcome, and a sense of solidarity must be established. School management committees also need strong facilitation by the state to become operational and effective.

Other efforts

Local governments must take an active stake in the process and take pride in their government schools.

Bureaucrats must demand changes in the administration that allow them to focus on learning. The current stringent rules in many states impede them from fulfilling this role.

Finally, our entire society must have a debate. Our school system is segregated. School education has become a commodity and many middle-class parents moved their children out of the government system before things starting going downhill in order to avoid desegregation. The middle-class has to become comfortable with the thought that maybe children of those that are economically weaker are equally worthy of an education and might be even more talented in certain areas.

Solving the learning crisis requires, therefore, an honest introspection of everyone in our society. The solutions marketplace and privatisation are illusionary chicaneries. Neither smart and shiny technocratic interventions nor the commercialisation of education will solve this problem for us. Because we are the problem. And only we can solve it. Neither experts nor businesses can, want and will do this work.

Rakesh Kumar Rajak has a master’s degree in social work from Delhi University and is the project manager at the Bihar Education Policy Center. He tweets @mannu_rakesh.

Martin Haus is a master’s student at the London School of Economics and Political Science and an advisory board member at the Bihar Education Policy Center. He tweets @MartinHaus93.