The Indian education system is creaking under the weight of educator indifference and outdated laws that have impeded the progress of learning, in the process, impacting the calibre of human resources in the country. One of the most important factors that have contributed to this state of affairs is the long-standing issue of chronic absenteeism and a sense of apathy among teachers, says Professor Geeta Kingdon, a development economist and a close observer of the quality of school education in India.
Kingdon, who holds a doctorate from Oxford and has done substantive research on the political economy of school education in India, says teacher’s laxity is worsening by the day. Kingdon, the president of City Montessori School in Lucknow, is the Chair of Education Economics and International Development (committee) at University College London. Previously a research fellow at the department of economics, University of Oxford, for 10 years, her research interests included economics of education, labour economics and the economics of happiness.
In an interview with Swarajya, Kingdon spoke about the ways to address the inherent challenges to India’s education system.
What, according to you, are the critical issues or areas which, if reformed, can drastically improve the condition of education in the country?
Teacher accountability is a major issue. The current paradigm does not demand accountability for laxity in work. So, chronic absenteeism and a general neglect have led to a poor performance by teachers. Various surveys and research have confirmed the prevalence of a high teacher absence rate, and it has worsened recently.
Teacher unions and teacher politicians sheltering erring or work-shy teachers is another issue. They are politically powerful as they man polling booths during elections and are also legislators themselves, thanks to Article 171(2)(c) of the Constitution that entitles teachers to elect one-twelfth of the members of the legislative council of a state. The culture of political activism has also encouraged teachers to contest elections to the lower houses of the state legislature. Thus, for example, on an average, over the post Independence period, teachers make up 17 per cent of the Uttar Pradesh legislature’s upper house and 6 per cent of the lower house. Thus, teachers have a substantive presence in the corridors of power where education policy – including policy relating to teachers – is formulated.
Funding is not aligned to learning outcomes. It is provided as a lump sum grant rather than on a per student basis. Theoretically, the block grant is meant to be dependent on the pupil teacher ratio, but there is no mechanism to ensure that it meets changing scenarios. For example, if a school, getting government aid initially had 210 students and seven teachers with a pupil teacher ratio of 30:1, and if the number of students subsequently decreases to 30, the number of teachers (and thus the total grant amount to that school) does not decrease as a response to the changed scenario.
However, per student funding would have avoided that and, in fact, led to penalties as soon as the student number begins to fall, and this would serve as a powerful motivation for better effort, keeping parents happy, being accountable and producing good results, so that children do not drop out of schools.
Subject matter knowledge among teachers is also poor. We tested about 650 primary school teachers in rural Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in 2007-08, the first such exercise to assess teachers’ subject matter knowledge in maths and language. We gave them questions that appeared in Class IV and Class V level textbooks for the children they taught. Nearly three fourths of the teachers were unable to do the maths that they were meant to teach in Class V. Government school teachers fared better than their private school counterparts, which is not surprising given that they were generally more qualified and well trained.
Soon after our study, the Bihar government announced that it would test para teachers before renewing their contracts, which led to massive demonstrations by them in Patna. The test was diluted so that a majority of them could pass. The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) shortly afterwards introduced the teacher eligibility test (TET) and their extremely low pass rates also corroborated our finding of their very poor levels in subject-matter knowledge. Among all the states, the highest pass rate in the first round of TETs was a mere 6.4 per cent! Thus, the competence, knowledge and ability of teachers were found to be weak and need strengthening.
Why do you think learning outcomes in our schools are so low and what can be done from a policy point of view to improve the current situation?
The prescription for a government policy lies in the diagnosis I have presented. An important step the government could take to address poor learning outcomes would be to initiate a per-student ‘school voucher’ funding mechanism. Changing the way funds are allocated to schools can significantly shore up incentives that drive performance. The current practice permits funding irrespective of results and outcomes. There are two types of funding, one on the demand side and the other on the supply side. We have been focusing on supply side funding, but the focus needs to shift to channelling funds to the parents, who then will have the right to choose the school best suited for their children.
This could be a politically astute move too, as parents (voters) realise the benefit of government funds thrust into their hands. The fact that parents would be able to select a school and ‘spend’ their voucher at a school of their choice would encourage competition between schools to attract voucher-bearing parents, thus driving up the quality of education in these institutions.
Are there any major loopholes within the Right to Education (RTE) Act? And what is your opinion on keeping minority institutions out of its ambit? Can the current act be improved by amendments or does the solution lie in a new law?
The problem with the RTE Act is that it bears a traditional concept of what constitutes quality of education, focusing on the provision of inputs. It is not evidence based, and scarce resources are being diverted to initiatives that are not likely to raise the standards of learning.
Research internationally show no consistent relationship between inputs and learning outcomes. The world has moved to judging the quality of schools on the basis of outputs produced, in terms of learning levels of children. The RTE Act’s prescription of a maximum pupil-teacher ratio of 30:1 in particular, is an extremely expensive indulgence without evidence, and leads to a distorted allocation of funds.
My research, earlier this year, revealed that the average government school size in a state like Uttar Pradesh was 179 students per school in 2005-2006. By 2010-2011 it had fallen to a mere 129 students per school, and by 2014-2015 it had dropped further to 106 students per elementary school.
Section 6 of the RTE Act obliges state governments to create a school in every locality, and huge amounts of money are being earmarked to meet the expenses. But setting up more of such schools that parents are abandoning is counterproductive. In India as a whole, as per District Information System for Education (DISE) data, 13 million children have abandoned government schools between 2010 and 2011 and 2015 and 2016, and migrated to private schools, where enrolment has risen by 17.5 million, with the difference being driven by the increase in the child population. In 2015-2016, the Rajasthan government shut down about 18,000 government schools, which had a total enrolment of less than 20 students as a whole, while Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh closed down about 4,000 and 3,000 government schools respectively, which had fewer than 10 students as a whole.
Section 12(1)(c) of the RTE Act focuses on reservations of at least 25 per cent seats in Class I for children from economically-weaker and disadvantaged communities, but the authorities do not appear to have the manpower to implement it properly, especially in terms of keeping a record of all students, especially the disadvantaged, from the time of their birth to the completion of their elementary education. There are also several instances of corruption where children not in real need are being given these coveted free seats in expensive private schools.
There are several ambiguities in the Act. According to section 2(c), a child is defined as a person of age 6-14 years according to the amended article 21-A of the Constitution, yet parents of children below the age of six are seeking admission under the RTE Act. This forces one to ask if ‘compulsory’ education also applies to children aged between zero and six. The central government is not providing funds to state governments for the reimbursement of student fees and admission expenses to children below Class I.
Section 15 of the Act says that the school has to admit children in the extended period, which in most states is a period of three months from the start of the school year, often from 1 April to 30 June. Even after the three-month period, if a child approaches the school, he or she has to be admitted and given additional coaching to make up for the lost classes and to bring him/her on par with the rest. The intent is good, but the schools are not reimbursed for keeping seats vacant and reserved for the whole year in case the authorities send some children for admission. About 25 per cent of the total capacity of private schools keeping seats vacant would be a preposterous wastage of scarce government resources. Private schools would have to raise the fees of 75 per cent of the rest of the children, to find funds for keeping 25 per cent seats vacant.
The reimbursement rates are also a problem. The lowest reimbursement rate is in Uttar Pradesh – Rs 450 per month per child. As per Section 12(2) of the RTE Act, the private schools are to be reimbursed an amount equal to either the actual fee they charge or the expenditure per child in government schools in the state, whichever is the lower. In UP the government schools’ per pupil expenditure, according to an estimate by me (based on the UP budget and the DISE enrollment data) came to Rs 2,340 per month, yet all schools are reimbursed on the basis of this blanket figure of Rs 450 per month per child, even in schools whose fee level is above Rs 2,340 per month. Thus, while on the one hand the state governments are compelling private schools to comply with section 12(1)(c) and admit children from the weaker sections, on the other hand they are not fulfilling their own obligation under the Act to reimburse schools properly. This seems unfair and asymmetrical, and it is likely to increase the burden of fee on the remaining 75 per cent of the fee-paying children.
Section 5(1) of the Act says that the child shall have the right of transfer to any other school, excluding private unaided and central government schools. Yet a lot of children are sent for admission to the bigger private schools who are already studying in the low-fee private schools, sometimes by paying bribes to those who are helping parents to apply, e.g. NGO workers, leading to corruption in implementation.
Under Section 18 of the RTE Act, government schools are not obliged to obtain a certificate of recognition, yet under Section 8 of the Act, they are meant to comply with the norms in the Schedule of the RTE Act. In an answer to a parliamentary question in August 2016, the government admitted that only 6.4 per cent of government schools comply with the norms of recognition specified in the Schedule of the RTE Act. This asymmetry – that private schools are closed down for not complying with the RTE norms of recognition, but government schools can continue running, is an absurdity that needs immediate reform.
The RTE Act is well intentioned but its formulation was ill informed. Its provisions were not first pilot tested, and untested propositions have been enacted to the detriment of the quality of education imparted to the country’s children. The path forward lies in a careful scrutiny of the provisions of the Act, to make them as evidence-informed as possible.
There have been positive moves to amend the Act by Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar through, such as inclusion of learning outcomes as criterion for school recognition and removal of the no detention clause.
The general consensus is that the government school teachers are way overpaid. What do you think about it and can it somehow be linked to the learning outcomes of the students? Also, what is your opinion on linking B.Ed qualification with teacher recruitment?
Whether teachers are over- or under-paid can be determined by looking at the market factors of demand and supply of those who are qualified to be teachers. The market clearing wage (where the supply of teachers equals the demand for teachers) in rural north India today is about Rs 2,000 per month, which is the salary that a private school teacher gets in rural north India today. Thus, anything above that, objectively, is ‘high’ pay. That is the only arbiter for how we could define salary as high or low, that I’m aware of as an economist.
In the normal course of things, there should be a link between teacher salaries and students’ learning outcomes, and that was the rationale for the doubling of teacher salaries in the 6th Pay Commission’s recommendations. As my paper “The Impact of the 6th pay commission on teacher salaries in India” published in May 2010 states, the fact that every teacher received the increased pay under the 6th Pay Commission, irrespective of teaching quality or effort level, shows that there is no link sought to be established by the government between teacher pay and teacher performance (as judged by students’ learning outcomes). The logic in the pay commissions, of raising salary to attract ‘talent’ to the teaching sector is again well-intentioned, but a very expensive reform for its likely impact: the big stock of teachers is already there – at a given level of talent/ability – and in any one year, not more than 1 or 2 per cent of the stock is changed, which means that pay increase was applied to the whole stock of current teachers, in order to attract 1 or 2 per cent of the new cohort each year. This blanket mechanism is a waste of scarce public resources, and it undermines any correlation between salaries and performance. A mild form of performance related pay is the chosen policy in many educationally-advanced countries, where performance is judged by the students’ learning outcomes.
If parents have a choice, they have generally preferred private schools over public ones. Even in rural areas, scores of private school buses ply daily to take kids to schools in cities. Yet we have, in the recent past, seen significant examples of public schools overhauling service delivery to responsive demand. Is a scalable model of the traditional public school defunct or can the situation be salvaged and if yes, how?
It would be wonderful if public schools could be overhauled, and that would be the best possible outcome in this situation, since choosing to send their child to a private school is not a happy choice on the parents’ part. It is a choice of anguish, driven by the loss of faith in government schools and they have to muster the necessary resources to pay for their child’s education when they bypass the free government school option.
In order to improve the quality of provision in public schools, however, the government would have to take a principled stance to reform schooling, instead of the kind of political expediency that has often driven education policy hitherto. It would have to agree to bear the political pain necessary to make teachers accountable, and take on any reform-obstructing teacher unions. In India, elections are not won and lost on issues such as education and health, but more on issues of caste, culture and identity. The politicians would need to transcend identity based markers and work for true development of education.
You recently wrote on the issue of marks moderation and how the reliance on a simplistic metric – of a 101-point (0–100) scale for awarding absolute scores in each subject – has resulted in a near-complete breakdown of the assessment standards in Indian board examinations. How can this be fixed?
The integrity of the exam system has broken down in India, and that has to do with inter-state and inter-board competition. The metric used for assessing students at the time of college admissions is their absolute score on a zero to 100 metric, which doesn’t allow for real comparability between boards. A simple way to fix this issue would be to use the percentile scores of the children. That is not without its own problems but it would be much better than the current state of affairs. Top colleges could then offer admissions to the top one or two percentile within each board. What we see today is competitive grade inflation, if the Tamil Nadu board has made its questions extremely easy, many more students would be eligible to apply to top universities, compared to the Central Board of Secondary Education. This incentivises boards to make their questions easier and allow for more marks in competition with each other. This phenomenon we see increasingly today, is ‘competitive grade inflation’.
The integrity of the exam system also is undermined because the number of students giving exams is very huge, and there aren’t enough teachers to properly assess narrative scripts. In this context, a good option is to adopt a test akin to scholastic aptitude test (SAT) wherein a portion (e.g. two-thirds of the test) could be multiple choice questions to be assessed electronically by a machine, and the rest (say one-third) of the exam paper could be narrative, assessed by a human script-marker/examiner, and therefore allowing for a reduction in the burden that teacher-markers face, allowing for better quality and reliability in testing.
Is 10+2+3/4 system relevant anymore given that most of the disciplines being taught in colleges become defunct in a few years. We are probably entering an era where people will have to keep changing jobs and hence keep arming themselves with new skills. How do you think school system should respond and prepare the students for this challenge?
The skills that children need to learn in order to be prepared for the contemporary market should be based on the application of knowledge. The current system assists the child to acquire knowledge, often at the cost of application, analysis, correlation and interpretation. Yet since knowledge is fast moving, it is far more important to learn generic skills such as analysis, correlation, application, communication, teamwork, computer literacy which are currently not being inculcated. At present, most children are taught through rote and aren’t encouraged to become critical thinkers in our country.
The solution lies in acknowledging that there is a thousand mile journey of reform in this area, and then beginning to opt for technology-assisted interventions accompanied by revamped teacher training. If we want to consider vocational streams, we need to address the ‘dignity of labour question’ and make sure certain professions and skills are not looked down upon. One way to increase the credibility and status of vocational skills would be by greatly strengthening the quality of the Industrial Training Institutes so that they produce very highly skilled mechanics and workmen.
This article is part of our special series on education where we interview prominent sector experts in the country and get their view on what ails this all important area and how we can reform it.
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