How Rajasthan Is Fixing The RTE

Prasanthi Ramakrishnan

Sep 10, 2015, 08:48 PM | Updated Feb 11, 2016, 09:16 AM IST

Rajasthan takes the first steps in amending the enormous tragedy that is the RTE Act by proposing repeal of ‘no detention’ policy, and evaluation of teacher performance. 

After leading the way in amending labour laws, Rajasthan has now turned its attention to gaps in the Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009. On September 4, chief minister Vasundhara Raje cleared a proposal to amend the RTE Act, something that had been in the works since last year.

Like labour, education too is a subject in the Concurrent List, which means that both the centre and the state can make laws on the subject. But if the state law is in conflict with the central law, the latter will prevail, unless the President approves it. However, no state has hitherto attempted to amend the RTE Act even though it has received a lot of flak ever since it was introduced.  

The Rajasthan government proposes two major amendments in the RTE Act. One, the repeal of the ‘no detention’ policy and, two, the monitoring of teacher performance by School Management Committees (SMC). Instead of ‘no detention’, the amendments propose to introduce exams in at least three classes between Class 1 and 8. While there was talk of the state government shifting focus from infrastructure norms to learning outcomes over the past year. this does not appear to figure in the current proposal for amendment.

‘No Detention’ Policy

Section 16 of the RTE Act mandates that no student can be held back in any grade, before completing elementary education (Class 1 to 8). This translated into a no-exam policy and automatic promotion to the next class till Class 8. In lieu of final exams, a Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) is supposed to be carried out for each child. This was done to spare the children the agony of repeating a class and thus, demotivating them.

In theory, this is a positive step. Several studies have noted that repeating a year proves detrimental to the learning of a child. But for a ‘no detention’ policy to work, the CCE has to be conducted in a proper manner. Unfortunately, as is always the case with India, this system was directly lifted from developed countries and no proper thought was given to how it needs to be implemented in Indian conditions. The rollout of the CCE happened with great haste and no proper training was provided to the teachers.

According to the Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER) 2015, 88.5 percent of schools across the country had heard of CCE but only 61.5 percent of these had received manuals for all teachers.  In Rajasthan, while 72.8 percent of schools had heard of CCE, only 22 percent of these had received manuals. Without proper materials, it is extremely difficult for teachers to even understand what CCE entails, especially in schools in remote and rural areas, let alone implementing it. While CCE may have started out as a novel idea, without strong systems in place, it does not prove effective. And, as a result, a ‘no detention’ policy possibly ends up being a ‘no assessment’ policy.

Given the lack of proper monitoring of teachers, they have no incentive to teach properly. Similarly, even if the children were to submit blank sheets in any evaluation, they would still get promoted to the next class till class 8. Without a strong foundation of basic education, they are certain to face difficulties in coping in higher classes, leading to dropouts or rise in failure rates. Therefore, without proper CCE, the ‘no detention’ policy will turn out to be a bane for the children, even though this may not be initially apparent to them.

A sub-committee of the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) was set up in 2012 under Geeta Bhukkal, former education minister of Haryana, to assess the implementation of CCE in the context of the ‘no detention’ provision. The committee’s report, submitted in July 2014, pointed out that a lack of detention leads to both low student motivation and low teacher accountability.  

Noting that “the practical reality and experience across the country, across the stakeholders, clearly shows that ground is not ready to receive this positively”, the report recommended assessment at grade 3, 5 and 8, with ‘no detention’ up to grade 5, provisional promotion after grade 5 and detention after level 8. The Rajasthan proposal appears to be similar to this. While this is certainly better than a full ‘no detention’ policy throughout, it still leaves a lot to be desired.

The no-detention policy figured in the 63rd meeting of CABE on 19 August. All education ministers and state representatives unanimously pressed for a repeal of this policy. Rajasthan has showed how they can do it, even if the centre does not take the initiative.

Teacher Performance

Another drawback to the RTE Act, which links to the failure of the implementation of the CCE, is that there is little monitoring of teachers’ performance. Teachers are the backbone of the school and are crucial to the learning outcomes of children. Therefore, Rajasthan’s plan to enable School Management Committees to review and monitor the performance of teachers is a step in the right direction.

The RTE Act itself lays down minimum criteria for teacher qualifications; however, these are not enough to understand the actual performance of a teacher. While details about how Rajasthan will go about this monitoring and evaluation are not available, some suggestions by Azim Premji Foundation for the National Advisory Council in 2011 are worth considering – improving the teacher eligibility tests to focus more on the competencies of a teacher rather on information recall and provision of more autonomy to teachers.

Importance of Learning Outcomes

Rajasthan’s pioneering reforms notwithstanding, a very basic problem with the RTE remains to be addressed – it is silent on learning outcomes and instead focuses on infrastructure norms and pupil-teacher ratios. As Karthik Muralidharan, professor at the University of California San Diego, who has done significant work on education policy in India, notes in an essay, “Priorities for Primary Education Policy in India’s 12th Five Year Plan”published in the India Policy Forum 2013:  

“While these norms may be well intentioned and have the goal of raising education in all states to a minimum standard, there are two problems with this approach. The first problem, which is a conceptual one, is that mandating these norms across the country magnifies the risk of making well- intentioned mistakes… The second problem, which is an empirical one, is that these are all input-based standards, and none of these inputs appear to matter much for learning outcomes.”

Therefore, any amendment of the RTE is preliminary, unless steps are taken to link each school’s performance to, first, its learning outcomes and, second, infrastructure norms. While there was talk in September 2014 of Rajasthan planning to reduce the weightage of the infrastructure norms to around 30 percent for deciding recognition, and put more focus on learning outcomes instead, this does not seem to have appeared in the present proposal.

Let’s compare the change in some of the norms mandated by the RTE and the learning outcomes (as measured by ASER). According to District Information System for Education (DISE) statistics, the elementary pupil to teacher ratio was 25 in 2014-15, as opposed to 36 in 2005-06. The student-classroom ratio has improved from 39 in 2005-06 to 27 in 2014-15. Schools having a separate girls’ toilet has risen from 37.4 percent to 87.1 percent over the same period.

Most mandated ‘school’ norms have seen a positive improvement. However, is this improvement translated into children learning better?

The ASER 2015 clearly states that it hasn’t. While the percentage of children in the 6-14 age group not enrolled in school has halved from 6.6 percent to 3.3 percent in the 2006-14 period, the learning outcomes paint a different story. While 53.1 percent children of Standard V could read a Standard II level text, this fell to 48.1 percent in 2014 (after peaking at 58.9 percent in 2007).

For Rajasthan, the decline has been larger – from 56 percent in 2006 to 46.6 percent in 2014. Arithmetic learning, measured as children in Standard V who can do division, has seen a sharper fall – from 42.5 percent to 26.1 percent for all India; the lowest was in 2012 where it fell to 24.9 percent.

Instead, of addressing these issues, schools that do not meet the RTE mandated norms have been shut down, despite the fact that some do provide quality education. According to the National Independent Schools Alliance, thousands of schools have been shut across the country.

This is not to argue against provision of better infrastructure. But both improvement in infrastructure and in learning outcomes need to go hand-in-hand, with a stronger emphasis on the latter.

India is in that sweet spot where it can finally reap the benefits of having a demographic dividend. However, unless policy makers start paying heed to learning outcomes, we are going to be left with an abundance of ‘educated’ but unemployable youth.

Prasanthi Ramakrishnan is a young economist whose interests lie in labour economics, specifically education. She has completed her Masters in Economics from LSE and is soon planning to add a "Dr." before her name. She tweets @prasanthir30

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