Vimala Ramachandran of NUEPA gave an interesting talk* on why we have a learning crisis in our schools and what can be done. She also spoke on a range of topics including how Poland implemented education reform successfully (of which I knew nothing till now and want to find out more), whether PPPs can help, the need for political support for education reform in India and on the mother tongue as the medium of instruction.
You can listen to the audio recording or download the audio.
or watch it on Youtube (courtesy D Murali).
Here is a summary of her talk (paraphrasing her words).
What is the learning crisis in our schools?
- Children aren’t able to read and comprehend. They have very little understanding of basic math and science concepts too.
- Children memorise and reproduce but do not internalize or understand what they have learnt. They are not able to apply basic concepts to day to day tasks, whether at school or at home.
- The biggest tragedy of all – children do not develop fluency in any language, be it their mother tongue, medium of instruction or English
- Employers complain about skill shortages, poor quality of workers and low productivity due to poor schooling.
- There is something very seriously wrong in education. We have not done things right, not just in government schools, but in private schools too.
Why are children having a problem learning?
- Pupil teacher ratio can be as high as 1:60 when it shouldn't be more than 1:30
- Teaching time is an issue. Teachers may come to school, but not teach. Middle class parents deal with this by teaching their kids themselves at home. But what can parents from poor, semi-literate communities do? Whatever inequality they come with into the school system, the inequality only increases.
- Rote learning is an issue. Teachers are expected to finish the syllabus in a short time and so they force children to resort to rote learning.
- RTE's No Detention policy is being interpreted as No Assessment policy upto class VIII.
- Teachers are overloaded with inane administrative tasks. Even with something like CCE, they spend their time filling forms rather than teaching or evaluating children.
- Testing and Assessments only test the memory of the child. What gets tested is what gets learnt and how it gets tested determines how it is learnt. Teaching to the test is common.
- Assessment systems are becoming corrupt. When assessments are based on internal assessments, teachers inflate the marks for all children.
Importance of teachers.
- Teachers matter the most. A good teacher without a school building is better than buildings without a teacher.
- Teacher quality is not about qualifications, but the ability to connect with children
- States are reducing the percentage score to pass in the RTE mandated Teacher Eligibility Test to enable more teachers to pass. In Bihar, in 1990, Laloo Yadav as Chief Minister decided that 12th class Pass is not required to be a teacher. He reduced it to not just 10th class Pass, but 10th class Fail! So from 1990-1996, a whole bunch of primary school teachers in Bihar who had themselves not finished class 10 were recruited to teach! The political compulsion of a govt job seems to be more important than ensuring that a teacher who is hired is of a good quality.
Lessons from Poland
- Poland had many of the problems we have today, with their Soviet-era inefficient schooling system. But from 1999-2006, they initiated reforms and turned the system around. What did they do?
- They made sure teachers had much more autonomy and freedom in the school. The teachers and schools were told they had to bring children up to a particular level by Class 8. The syllabus was decided by the government in terms of what would be the minimum learning requirement. From Classes 1-8, the basic requirement in Sci/Math/Lang or reading was strictly followed. Children were tested at the end of class 8. Teachers had a lot of freedom and autonomy to do what they wanted and how they wanted to do it. Teachers instead of following orders from above actually had to innovate and figure out how best to teach their children. Each school was actually a practicing laboratory.
- They put in place qualification requirements for teachers and these qualifications were linked to a promotion path and the government provided continuing education opportunities.
- They gave generous retirement packages for many of those teachers who weren't competent enough.
- Poland had a dynamic education minister and a dynamic prime minister at that time. They felt that the single most important wealth that the country had was the people and they had to reform the education system. Only with political will, things get done.
What should be done to change things in India?
- Move from just inputs, infrastructure and paper qualifications to actual functioning of the school system.
- Change the way the education system is monitored. Look at what and how much children are learning, what and how teachers are teaching. Do they have the requisite facilities, knowledge and equipment to teach.
- Reform teacher education. NCTE opened up teacher training institutions in 2004 resulting in a 500% increase in the number of Teacher Training Colleges. Everyone knows that people at NCTE made a lot of money by giving away licences to one-room teacher training colleges. Odisha alone has escaped the curse of mushrooming teacher training colleges because the Chief Minister said he did not want any low quality teacher training colleges. In the name of reform, accreditation, and quality assurance, we have done exactly the opposite. We must shut down all the teacher training colleges of poor quality and set up good quality teacher training colleges in parallel.
- Introduce centralised assessments. In India the education community is very allergic to centralised assessments. The aim of centralised assessments are not assessment of the children, it is to assess the quality of the school or the average levels of learning of children. Most countries around the world have used a combination of tremendous school autonomy, where teachers can do what they want, how they want and combine it with some kind of centralised testing which becomes a quality benchmark.
I don’t know what that centralised quality test in India should be. The jury is still out on what we should do and how we should do it. But the fact remains that we have to start moving towards measuring outcomes.
- Decentralise in-service teacher training. 90% of teacher training programmes are extremely poor.
At a summer training programme at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Education, IASE, in one of the better south Indian states, teachers were supposedly being trained on the National Curriculum Framework. They were taking turns to read out something from a paper. On enquiring, I was told each teacher was given four pages of the National Curriculum Framework to translate and read out. “It is an equitable distribution of honorarium,” the Principal told me!
Budgets are better spent by giving it to the school so that the school decides what kind of training they want for the teachers and make the principal responsible for that. As long as we don’t value and trust the knowledge that is there at the grassroots level, we will not be able to make much change. We as a country are so suspicious of teachers and the lower bureaucracy that we don’t want to give them any independence.
The only way to bring about change is by altering the rules and the behavior of the personnel who are in the system. With all due respect to teachers - I have worked with teachers for the past 25 years and deeply respect them - we have to have a system of humane as well as strict monitoring. The two have to go together. We need a mechanism to test what children are learning, how much they are learning and whether the learning is taking place across all children or not.
Vimala Ramachandran also responded to questions from the audience with her views on a range of topics.
On the need for political support for reform
- Without political support it is impossible to bring about complete systemic reform of the education system. Civil servants have power only upto a point. Many civil servants have tried, but ultimately many of these things are larger political decisions.
The corporate and media communities in India must raise public opinion on the need for reform. My experience, and that of many who used to play an activist role in writing in the media about the problems about education, now find the media door shut. The media is full of sensationalism now. Both the corporate sector and the business community are most affected by the poor quality of people. These communities must do much more to raise awareness.
We have reached a crisis point. In many parts of the country if you want to set up a factory, it is difficult to find skilled people. You have to import them from other parts of the country. Even when you import them, the quality is poor and they need to be trained.Neither the media nor the larger business community seem to doing anything. People like me going and talking to the education minister will really not help. It is only when there is a crescendo which comes from the media and the business community, will they start listening. At the moment the vested interest in not fixing it is very high. Rent seeking is very widespread in the education sector.
On the role of Public Private Partnerships (PPPs)
PPP as a model could be good. But I am yet to come across good PPP models which work over a period of time. PPPs over 1-2 years don’t work. In education, you have to stay for at least 10-15 years to see the results. Both sides have to stay committed. Corporate bodies change their priorities and Governments also renege on their commitments. There have been 2-3 big PPP models in North India where corporate houses have adopted 1000 govt schools and tried to work with them. But none of them want to stay for more than 4-5 years.
On restoring professionalism to the teaching profession
In many ways India and the U.S. are alike in many ways. In both countries the teaching profession has been badly demoralized. The professionalism of the teaching profession has to be restored. Govt teachers aren’t paid poorly. They are much higher than private teachers’ salaries. After the 6th pay commission, a young new teacher in UP or Rajasthan takes home 25000 rupees in the first job. A retiring teacher is taking home close to 80,000 to 100,000 rupees. So it isn’t as if they are being paid poorly.We should create small professional circles of teachers so that the teachers’ professional identity is reinforced. We need to celebrate their professional identity. What happens when we give awards? We aren’t giving awards for the professional capability of the teacher. We are giving awards to those who are networked. We need to change the way we are treating our teachers.
On the good things happening in education in India
- Although a lot of interesting initiatives are happening in different aspects of education in India, but when it comes to school education reform to overhaul the system, I don’t think we have done much in India so far. This is the main reason why there is a learning crisis. This crisis isn’t going to go away by doing small things. That is why I was talking about Poland.
Despite the system, there are thousands of teachers who are doing a spectacular job despite low pay, bad management etc.. They don’t look for recognition beyond what they get from their children. They are happiest when their children do well. That is the ultimate recognition for them.
On the perception that private schools are better than government schools
- Rama Baru had done a study. She says the benchmark of quality is always the government. Wherever the govt school quality is very bad, the private school is just one notch above. Govt institutions do set the standards. They can set both low standards and high standards. The average private schools that poor, lower middle class send their children are not significantly better than the govt schools. It is the dysfunctionality of the govt schools that actually drives people out.
- I don’t think cream of the society is going to private schools. People who have money are going to private schools. People who don’t have money are going to govt schools. Amongst those going to govt schools, there will be lots of cream. The only thing is we aren’t teaching them well. We aren’t investing in them. If we can teach children sincerely and give them opportunities, I am quite sure a lot of cream will come out of the govt schools too.
On the mother tongue being the medium of instruction
Education in the mother tongue is the way to go. That is very important. But the reason why parents are pulling their children out of govt schools is due to the non-availability of English medium education in government schools.You know what Jammu & Kashmir has done? By an Act of govt they have converted all govt schools to English medium schools and the teachers don’t have the capacity to teach in English. We do these kinds of silly things. "Ok, people, you want English medium? From tomorrow all schools will be English medium."
Aside: N. Murali (Co-Chairman of Kasturi & Sons Limited, owners of The Hindu) is part of the committee that organised this talk. Apparently he was one of the students of Kuruvila Jacob, the erstwhile headmaster of Madras Christian College Higher Secondary School in Chennai, in whose memory this talk was organised. While delivering the vote of thanks at the end of the talk, Murali thanked the media for being present and exhorted them to report the enlightening and provocative talk and raise the level of consciousness to drive home the crisis that's staring us in the face.
* This talk by Vimala Ramachandran was the fifth Kuruvila Jacob Memorial Oration organised under the auspices of the Kuruvila Jacob Initiative for Promoting Excellence in Science Education, Chennai.