Diagnostic trouble


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FOR an illness to get cured, they say, it is important to identify it correctly before prescribing, let alone administering, a medicine. I recommend this traditional wisdom for application in the field of education. A lot of well intentioned, sincere people in our country and abroad are deeply unhappy with India’s system of school education. They want to ‘fix’ it – a term widely used these days to indicate urgency in finding a solution, but also indicating some impatience with the demands that understanding a problem makes.

According to many among education fixers, the problem India faces in its schools, especially state run schools, is that of learning. They feel that there is a crisis of learning. This feeling is backed by evidence of the kind widely favoured today. It is derived from the results of tests conducted through vast surveys. The results are in the form of scores achieved by a sample consisting of lakhs of children at different stages of elementary education. The size of the sample, its spread across the country and the frequency at which the tests have been administered are all impressive. Year after year, the voluminous data presented in the shape of the Annual Statistics of Education Report (ASER) show that children are doing very poorly in basic areas like literacy and numeracy. This finding has served as the basis of the view that there is a nationwide crisis of learning.

The main link between the scores and the conclusion is the expectation that children’s growth in learning follows a normal pattern, meaning that if a child studying in Grade 4 cannot or does not comfortably read a text considered appropriate for Grade 2, then we should be worried about this child’s learning. Prima facie, this reason looks sensible, especially if we are looking at an individual case. We should indeed worry about the child studying in Grade 4 or 5 who cannot read a Grade 2-level text, but the nature of our worry is no small matter. Any number of reasons can cause the situation we are describing, and our worry ought to make us curious about these reasons. Now if you multiply this single case by a million times, the problem of interpreting test scores becomes highly complex.

Many analysts might even say that scores acquired through large-scale tests have little use. If a vast number of children are found to be way behind the norm set for learning levels, any number of things might constitute the reason of this lag, starting with the quality of the test itself. Other reasons would include the conditions under which the test was administered. When one considers India’s linguistic diversity, the problem of validity and comparability of children’s scores in different regions becomes formidable. Add to this the various dimensions of social inequality that our system of education copes with.


Looking at the vast array of factors shaping children’s performance in a country as large and diverse as India, one begins to wonder about the worth of the test-based survey method to assess the health of the education system. At any rate, this train of thought would lead one to question the clarity of the conclusion that India is faced with a learning crisis.

ASER surveys have convinced many people about the existence of a learning crisis. Armed with the vast statistical treasure that ASER has provided for well over a decade now, they recommend a slew of remedies. Many of these remedies are already being administered. These remedies offer further revelations about the perception of the learning crisis shared by three major components of the educational decision-making world: civil servants, officials of international donor agencies, political leaders and NGOs (also known as ‘activist’ and civil society groups). The remedies they have introduced are meant to increase two main values: accountability and efficiency.

Typically, ASER data, showing low learning rates, are read and presented along with teacher absenteeism data. These too have been collected with the help of one-off surveys of schools. The widely shared findings of such surveys have served to link the learning scores of ASER with truancy among teachers. This linkage has, in turn, served as the basis for the decision in many states to initiate different kinds of accountability regimes for teachers, ranging from biometric attendance, to mandatory wearing of uniform in high visibility colours, such as pink and black. The former is meant to ensure that teachers come on time and stay through the school day; the latter ensures that a truant teacher is spotted when he or she is physically away from school. Another remedy to ensure teacher accountability is involvement of parents in maintaining a vigil.


In addition to these measures, learning crisis diagnosticians suggested providing external support for improving the capacity and pedagogic engagement of regular teachers. This idea has taken various forms in different regions. A highly educated volunteer from other fields spending a few months at a school is one model; a low-paid volunteer from the school’s neighbourhood is another. Another idea is to tweak the curriculum. In many cases, it has been suggested that the curriculum should be dumbed down in order to make it more realistic. A third strategy is to technologize learning, by introducing computers in primary classes and using distance education methods to upgrade the teacher’s knowledge and skills.

Use of technology, such as CCTV cameras, to enable administrators and parents to keep an eye on what is going on in the classroom is also a favoured strategy currently being applied in many states to make teachers more accountable. In some states, government schoolteachers are required to wear a uniform, such as a pink sari and black blouse, or a jacket with the sentence ‘Mein rashtra sevak hoon’ (I am a servant of the nation). These dresses are believed to make visible the teacher’s presence in spaces other than the school during working hours. All such measures are based on the assumption that the so-called learning crisis has been caused by non-performing teachers.


Turning to an alternative diagnosis now, let us start by changing the name of the crisis. Instead of calling it ‘a learning crisis’, let us try calling it a ‘crisis of teaching’. This is not a mere labelling issue as some might retort. By spotting the crisis in teaching rather than in learning, one is changing the nature of the debate over what is wrong and how best it can be put on the course of getting corrected.

By shifting our focus from learning to teaching, we get a different view of the educational scenario. To begin with, we recognize the teachers as major players. We notice that they are unhappy and angry across the country, particularly in northern India where the crisis afflicting the system is graver. We also notice that a vast number of teachers are not there, not just on the day we are doing a survey, but permanently so, and the reason is that they have not been recruited and appointed. The exact number of teaching posts lying vacant for years is hard to guess, but according to commonly used national aggregates, it is more than a million.

The meaning of such a high figure of vacancies takes an effort to grasp. How does one visualize the absence of a million plus teachers? It may be useful to try making sense of a small territory like Delhi where about 15,000 teaching positions lie vacant at any given time. How do schools cope with this shortage? Let us imagine a school which has seven posts to cover the different subjects, but only four are actually available, not because the remaining three are absent, but because they have not been appointed. If one is the headmaster of such a school, one would have to cope with the shortage by merging two or more classes or letting some periods remain teacherless. Both steps will have consequences for learning.


Cumulative growth of shortage of teachers due to non-recruitment has been met by hiring of temporary teachers who lead vulnerable lives. The term ‘vulnerable’ covers a range of categories used in different states. In the beginning, they were seen and called by the name ‘para teachers’. Criticism and resistance led to the use of euphemistic terms like ‘guruji’, ‘shikshamitra’ and ‘vidyamitra’. The new teachers appointed under the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) to cope with expanded enrolment were mostly contractual or temporary. Their emoluments were significantly lower than what their permanent colleagues working in the same schools were receiving.

The number of such teachers kept growing over the 1990s, while the number of permanent teachers was declining due to retirement. In Madhya Pradesh, the permanent cadre was officially labelled as a ‘dying’ cadre, indicating the policy that this cadre will not be replenished. Now, after more than two decades of this transition, the state has substantially brought down the level of emoluments a person wanting to be a teacher can expect. Despite such manoeuvres, shortage of teachers continues to run into tens of thousands. The greater these numbers, the more difficult to manage gets the task of recruitment, even at lower emoluments.

In the sphere of teacher training, vast changes have hit the system. Applicants for teaching positions have degrees from certified institutions, but the overwhelming majority of these institutions are known to be academically hollow, and a major proportion are simply fraudulent. However, they are affiliated to the recognized universities, so the degrees their students append to their applications cannot be questioned.

To cope with this problem, the government has now instituted an eligibility test. Only a very small number of applicants have proved their eligibility by passing this test, and thus the pool available to meet the shortages of teachers in different subjects has shrunk, exacerbating the problem of non-recruitment and persistence of shortages. Such a complex landscape can be expected to have plenty of scope for litigation. In many states, people serving for several years on a temporary basis are able to leverage the courts to seek a stay on fresh recruitment for permanent vacancies. That is yet another factor responsible for making shortage of teaching staff in schools a normal reality.


Isn’t there a link between a decline of teachers’ status as employees and children’s academic performance? Such a link seems obvious. Yet, there has been little criticism of the various decisions taken over the last three decades in several states in the context of teacher recruitment and emoluments. ASER ignores the condition of teachers; so do lobbyists who use ASER data to debunk government schooling.

On the contrary, they argue that teachers are responsible for the poor academic performance of children. Circular logic is applied to suggest that teachers who teach poorly or don’t teach at all ought not be paid well. An impression has been created that government schoolteachers are overpaid. This view regards the growing tendency among the poorer sections of society to send children to low-fee charging private schools, where teachers work for paltry sums, as the basis to say that government schoolteachers get emoluments they don’t deserve.


Embedded in this argument is a tacit approval and appreciation of policies like contractual appointments and lowering of the salary and status of teachers. Social acceptance of these trends has also grown on account of parental preference for English-medium education, no matter how poor its quality may be. Governments have responded by introducing English from Grade I itself, but that decision makes little difference to the general perception that state run schools are worthless as their standard is low and teachers don’t care for children.

The decision to introduce English from the start of primary education does not include recruitment of teachers trained to teach English. In the wilderness of India’s education system, all decisions now constitute a response to a crisis that no one has time to contemplate.

In the context of training too, any systemic debate on problems and choices has become impossible to mount. The view that training makes no difference has gained currency. It can be seen as one of the many outcomes of the tendency to encourage fully private institutions in teacher training and the government’s inability to enforce sensible regulatory mechanisms to ensure standards.

The National Council of Teacher Education (NCTE), which is supposed to play this regulatory role, has failed to secure its own institutional health. A medical report on its awful condition exists in the shape of two volumes produced by a commission appointed by the Supreme Court under the headship of the late Justice J.S. Verma. These volumes eloquently bemoan, analyse and recommend. Some action did get initiated as a result of the court’s pressure, but it was not sustained.

It is hard to notice any signs of institutional recovery in teacher training at the moment. If one believes that training equips teachers to play their pedagogic role, one has no reason to hope for an improvement at present. Given this impasse, the outcry against the learning crisis will continue to ignore the crisis in teacher training just as it has ignored the crisis in teacher recruitment and working conditions.


All the things I have described so far fit nicely into the general picture that critics of economic liberalization draw. Indeed, some readers of this article might wonder why I have not used the term ‘neo-liberal’ so far to critique the various changes I have touched upon. The term ‘neo-liberal’ would have served as a convenient signpost, letting at least some readers leave the rest of the article unread. So sharp is the division between supporters of economic reforms and their critics that the two sides do not overlap on any matter, including the various things discussed so far in this article about learning, teaching, training, and so on.

Those who have labelled the present situation as a learning crisis apparently think that there is no point fighting the imperatives of liberalization that have already set in. The system must cope with them, they seem to believe. This position implies an acceptance of two hypotheses: one, the diminution of teaching as a profession was part of the liberalization package; two, there is no going back.

Both these hypotheses can be debated. While it is true that liberalization and related policies required downsizing of the state by cutting government jobs in sectors like teaching, one can still hold the view that the various state governments, especially in the North, went much too far in this respect. Both reducing public spending by contractualizing and other means to make services cheaper to provide as also simultaneously encouraging the market to provide services to compete with the state, were indeed part of the global package of neo-liberal advice.


The response to this advice received differs from country to country. Within India too, we see several different types of response measures. Had the ideological component of neo-liberal advice been compulsive, Tamil Nadu’s behaviour should have been the same as that of Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. The southern states, however, have navigated through the winds of liberalization without letting their essential systemic health getting affected. Schools do not look as damaged in the South as they do in the Vindhya-Gangetic belt, Rajasthan and further North. The question whether the North can recover from the injuries it has inflicted on its system does not necessarily mean a return to the 1980s.

Several good things happened under SSA, and they need to be conserved by institutionalization. The late Anil Bordia showed just how the new, temporary structures created under DPEP and SSA can be harmonized with the old, steel-like directorate-centred system. Similarly, the Verma Commission report shows how sanctity of teacher education can be restored. And this report is equally relevant to the South as it is to the North.


Let us now turn to the unfamiliar crux of the problem of school teaching: its dependence on the quality of higher education. Teachers at all levels, including the nursery, are ultimately the products of higher education. The reasoning underlying this somewhat strange formulation is not all that strange. Teachers serving the higher secondary level, i.e. Classes XI and XII, require a Master’s degree. Those serving between Classes VI to X require a Bachelor’s degree. They get their basic subject knowledge in colleges and universities. No matter how hard a training institution tries, it cannot compensate for a poor grasp of the subject. This is why the problem of learning at the school level is a product of systemic negligence and decay so manifest in undergraduate colleges across the country.

For the nursery and primary level, eligibility to become a teacher does not legally require an undergraduate degree (which, ideally, it should). This does not mean that poor quality undergraduate education does not affect nursery or primary level teaching. The cascade effect of bad teaching at higher levels goes down all the way.

The opposite argument, though more popular, is flawed. This is the argument that college teaching suffers because students coming to college have poor grasp and no interest. There are two reasons why this argument is flawed: first, because it blames the student, and second, because it ignores a key function of higher education on which comprehensive school improvement depends. Blaming the young is futile because they depend for their education on adults; so, no matter which age group we blame, the argument will remain a fallacy.

The second reason is more obvious. One of the key functions of higher education is to produce knowledge and to put students in touch with whatever is current or latest. A nursery or primary teacher cannot on her own choose to be guided by the latest psychological wisdom about children. She will be guided by whatever has been taught at the college or still higher level, not necessarily to her directly, for she may not have gone to college, but to whosoever taught her at a training institution.

This brief discussion brings out the peculiar position of teacher training as a form of knowledge that straddles school and higher education. In functional terms, good teacher training depends on cooperation between higher and school education. During their training, teachers must practice what they are learning, and for practice, they need positively inclined, pleasant school settings where the older teachers and principals appreciate the visiting young trainee teacher.

This is where our system fails almost totally. The cussedness with which trainee teachers are received by government school principals is matched by reluctance of the education officers in the directorate to give permission to training colleges to send their students for teaching practice. In private schools too, a principal who is happy to receive young trainees for a few weeks or months is rare. Some of the permanent teachers in private schools take the arrival of the trainee as a source of temporary relief from their demanding life; others view it as a time to criticize and harangue.

I hope I have explained why I prefer to call the present crisis of education a teaching crisis rather than a learning crisis. However, beyond a point, it does not matter what we call it. What we should worry about is the reality that no government – neither at the Centre or in any of the states – is particularly bothered and the burgeoning private sector is also not eager to raise an organized alarm. Complacency can only facilitate our continued fall.