Sunday, January 15, 2012

PISA results shame India….but is anyone surprised really????

The PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results out recently and covered in today’s papers have put India at the 2nd from bottom position out of 73 countries that participated. PISA tests three subjects – Mathematics, Reading and Science – and India has ended either last or in the bottom three in all three subjects. To me, this is not surprising at all. Anyone who has a child in school in India knows what I mean.

But before we go there, a little more on PISA itself. PISA is an OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) test – and 34 of the 73 countries that participated in this latest round in 2009 and 2010 are OECD countries. OECD can be taken to be a short cut for “developed democracies that believe in market economy”. Amongst the non-OECD countries that participated, most are European countries with small populations. Then there are non-European countries including all non-Europeans members of BRIC (Brazil, India and China). In short, the sample of comparison is a little skewed towards either developed countries or small countries with a history of good education. However, that should hardly be the way we should look at the results that we have got. Rather, we should look at the results as an eye-opener.

The fact is that the quality of education in India is pathetic. Even a cursory look at the government’s role in education would show that. In government schools, there is a serious shortage of teachers – forget good quality teachers. There is also the real problem of basic infrastructure like classrooms, black boards and the like. The quality of text books is pathetic too. Student enrollment is a huge problem and incentives (midday meals for instance) have to be given just to enroll students. Thereafter making them continue poses another problem. As in all government jobs, teacher salaries are pathetic and consequently, a teacher’s job is seen as a “job of the last resort” for most people. Since pay is poor, teachers respond with low personal commitment – bunking class more often than the students; and hardly ever updating their knowledge. The curriculum in schools is so pathetic no decent person would put his children through such education. The books are hardly ever updated. The English used in the text books (even in the Maharashtra Board books taught to students in Mumbai) is pathetic – full of grammatical errors; it’s a miracle to find one full paragraph with no errors.

Worse than the pathetic state of affairs of our education is the way our students are tested. Exams test theoretical knowledge – usually “mugged up”. Learning in any case is always by rote. Even testing is done in a way that encourages mugging. In the 10th and 12th standard Board exams in Maharashtra (and so also in most other states), students are advised to go through the exam papers of the previous years – since the questions in that year’s Board exam would usually come from those old papers only. Even in mathematics, or accountancy, or any other subject which requires conceptual skills – questions as have appeared in the past are presented in papers of subsequent years. Even mathematics is tested in this manner.

Never ever is there any focus on practical learning in our education. Science is all about learning theories (again by rote) with there being no facility to visit science centers to see the theories work in practice. In fact, most Indian cities do not even have well equipped science centers which can teach practical modern science to students.

The PISA testing system is designed almost to expose India’s weaknesses in education. The PISA mathematics literacy test asks students to apply their mathematical knowledge to solve problems set in various real-world contexts. How can poor Indian students studying under an education system that encourages study by rote be expected to face such questions? Likewise in the reading test, PISA does not measure the extent to which 15-year-old students are fluent readers or how competent they are at word recognition tasks or spelling. Instead, they should be able to "construct, extend and reflect on the meaning of what they have read across a wide range of continuous and non-continuous texts” (Wikipedia note on PISA). Indian students are bound to fail in such tests. Give them “mugging up” tests and see how they fare.

There is another part to the education system in India. There are private schools that have a far higher quality of education, but those are relatively small in number, catering mostly to the affluent urban sections of the society. Even these come under the archaic curriculum of our Boards. But at least the private schools provide better teachers, expect compulsory attendance, and help with at least some explanation of concepts. If the PISA tests were to be taken by students from private urban schools, I have no doubt India would fare much better.

In many ways, the education system in our country reflects the kind of society we are. A small section of our population – mostly made up of the upper castes that are well educated – is able to afford the best opportunites for itself. These people have seen the fruits of development. They rely mostly on private schools for educating their kids. On the other hand, there is the big mass of our country – made up mostly of the under privileged including the lower castes – that has to make do with whatever the government dishes out. And just like in every other sphere, the government’s efficiency in education is pathetic. Not surprising then that even the two states supposed to be ahead in education in India – Tamil Nadu and Himachal – have been rated so poorly in the PISA test.

India has participated for the first time in PISA. Rather than complain about its methodology, we should treat the results as an eye opener. As the TOI quotes the OECD secretary-general Angel Gurría “Better educational outcomes are a strong predictor for future economic growth,” If India is serious about growing economically, it cannot expect to do so only on the back of its fortunate sections – it has to be able to provide adequate and equal opportunities to all its citizens. I have written about this several times – the focus in India is on slogans. “Right to Education” is a buzzword in India – but there is no explanation of what constitutes education. If merely being able to write one’s name makes one literate, then that’s not going to be enough in the emerging world. If the government were serious about education, it should add the word “good” in the Right to Education. And it should look at improving its delivery systems – it is squarely the job of the government to provide good education.

The real truth is that anything which the government undertakes in India ends up being really poor quality. We can have very high quality private buildings, but the road outside that the government makes can be expected to be full of potholes. We can have a vibrant private sector industrial sector, but the power and water that the government provides will be both inadequate and poor quality. It’s the same tragedy with our education system – and its time the government woke up to its responsibilities.

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