The problem

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IS India facing a crisis of learning? Are we facing a teaching crisis? Is our education system in deep crisis? These questions elicit very different responses from different stakeholders and from experts favouring different theoretical frameworks. However, they all share a common apprehension – when they complete 8 or 10 or 12 years of schooling, many of our children are not equipped to negotiate the world they live in with confidence and with the requisite knowledge and skills to help them deal with the world from a position of strength. Whether it is formal skills to read and write, cognitive skills, technological skills or other higher order thinking skills – parents and children admit that the schools and colleges they attended did not add much value.

Equally, most observers also agree that the ‘social capital’ that children bring into the school is an important predictor of ‘success’, meaning that children who have educated parents, have access to books and other reading materials, have greater exposure to creative arts, media and live in resource-rich environments, seem to gain a lot more from the educational process as compared to those who come from resource-poor environments. Conversely, children from socially and economically disadvantaged communities who face blatant and subtle forms of discrimination inside the school, from their teachers and fellow students, leave school with low self-esteem and confidence and very little ‘learning’.

Girls carry an additional disadvantage as they move higher in the academic ladder – they do not get the subject of their choice and in many states (especially in some northern and western states) girl’s secondary schools do not offer science, mathematics or commerce. Sexual harassment on the way to school and in the school remains a huge issue. Similarly, children in tribal areas and from the most disadvantaged tribal communities not only experience discrimination but have far poorer access to schools beyond the elementary level. Yes, we have been facing a crisis of confidence in our education system – and this is not new.

India has a rich tradition of education and over time, different kinds of systems have coexisted. However, for the last two-hundred years the formal school system adopted during the colonial period has gradually become the dominant model. Yet, at least till recently, there was some space in India for alternative models of formal education with a rich pool of schools that tried out different approaches and pedagogies. With the coming of the RTE Act the space for alternative approaches and models seems to have shrunk. Equally significant is that over the last few decades there is a growing apprehension about the quality of people who choose to enter the teaching profession and the quality of teacher education institutions. The examination system has also become more memory-centric and there is little scope to assess anything else. Most professional courses have entrance examinations because they are wary of going by the results children obtain in board examinations. Thousands of coaching centres and tuition classes have cropped up across the country – emerging as parallel educational institutions, one that is not regulated.

In the last few decades concerns have also been raised on the systematic stratification of schools according to social, economic and locational advantage/ disadvantage. Who you are, where you live, how much your family earns and your social identity determines the kind of school (private and government) you go to and the kind of education you receive. This is important because the kind of school a child goes to determines/influences her learning.

It is in this scenario that we need to think about the following interrelated issues. One, what enables a child to learn at her own pace, explore her potential and progressively benefit from schooling? Two, what can empower our teachers to focus on their students and facilitate their learning? Three, what can the administration do to create an environment for meaningful teaching and learning, and not be content with counting numbers of children enrolled, numbers of classrooms, mid-day meals distributed or the number of teachers trained. And four, what can the larger education community (including civil society organizations engaged in education) do to support the children, the school and the teachers. These questions would invariably lead us to look at both systemic issues that have stifled our education system but also the widespread hierarchies and discrimination that is embedded in the school system. Intriguingly, a vocal section of the education community seems to be attracted to large-scale testing as a tool to ‘reform’ the system. What then is the global evidence on the contribution of large-scale testing to educational reform?

A number articles and books published in the last few years (notably Daniel Koretz’s The Testing Charade1) argue that standardized tests and large-scale assessments that have become very popular across the world, do not help in improving learning levels. The belief that quantitative metadata helps decision making is based on very weak evidence. Speaker after speaker in a recent (April 2018, New Delhi) World Bank consultation on large-scale assessment argued that large-scale assessments have not resulted in any substantial reform. Countries that did reform the system started with the teachers, the school, the examination system and the overall school environment.

Diane Ravitch2 argues that for ‘the last 16 years, American education has been trapped, stifled, strangled by standardized testing… the pressure to raise test scores were inflated by test preparation… some administrators gamed the system by excluding low scoring students from the tested population…’ Similarly, Koretz argues that the reform movement failed miserably because of its devotion to high stake testing ‘as the infallible measure of education quality’. He argues that the obsession ‘prepares students to take tests, but it does not prepare them to apply what they have learned to real life situations’.

For over thirteen years ASER (2005 to 2015, and most recent 2017) have highlighted the poor learning levels among our children. The most recent survey of 14 to 18-year-old youth has thrown up extremely disturbing results – not only on formal learning but also on the low levels of knowledge and confidence among our youth. A recent working paper by Research on Improving Systems in Education (RISE) compares school leaving exams in India, Pakistan, Uganda and Nigeria and concludes that even compared to Uganda and Nigeria, the Indian (and Pakistani) exams were extremely rote-based.3

Those involved in the National Assessment Survey (conducted by NCERT) tell us that the learning situation is not uniformly bleak and that there are wide regional variations across India, as the voluminous district-wise reports surveyed over 100,000 students in government schools in over 700 districts shows. Reports in the media suggest that on average, a class VIII student could barely answer 40% of the questions in maths, science and social studies. The national average score for language was a little better at about 56%. In class III, students averaged between 63% and 67% marks in environmental science, language and maths. In class V, average scores fell by about 10 percentage points to 53-58%, and in class VIII, the fall was even sharper, although language scores dipped only a little. No other subject was common between these classes.

Among regions in India, the South did better in the early years of schooling. For example, in class III, students in the South scored more than those in the North and the East, and were behind those in the West only in language. In class V, too, they had higher average scores than the rest, but in class VIII, students from the West outperformed all other zones. The South remained ahead of the North, but scored less than the East in science and social studies. Rural students scored higher than those in cities. Also, in classes V and VIII, OBC (Other Backward Class) students outscored the general category. At all levels, average scores were lowest for ST (Scheduled Tribe) students while SC (Scheduled Caste) students scored a tad higher.4

In what way have these tests results influenced the education scenario in India? Have they been used as diagnostic tools to help the teacher in the classroom? Have they been used by our curriculum planners and administrators to understand what is happening inside the school? Has it nudged our administrators to not push to finish the course/textbook and focus instead on what and how much the children are learning? The big question is – have these national tests led to any concrete reform? While the jury is still out on this question, the only tangible ‘impact’ (so to speak) seems to be greater public concern about the levels of learning of our children – and that is definitely a good thing.

Some states and NGOs believe that short-term mission-mode projects for basic reading/accelerated learning would somehow restore the balance. Some states like Tamil Nadu decided to intensify school monitoring by district and sub-district level administrators. Many state government officials and politicians believe that if the no-detention policy is withdrawn children will start learning. The current dispensation in the central government also seems to believe that scrapping the no detention policy will miraculously change the situation. Notwithstanding compelling global evidence (especially from Finland, Singapore, Poland to name a few) and the mounting evidence that shows no positive correlation between large-scale testing and educational reform, we in India continue to look for magic bullets that would dramatically alter the scenario.

The challenges we face are only in part due to a lack of political will; it is because we have refused to address systemic issues. Our short-term and immediate result oriented approach has prevented long-term planning and strategizing to make the education system the engine of human development. Among other reasons, we have not invested in creating a professional discipline and expertise around providing quality education at scale. Generalist administrators are in charge and many of them overturn what their predecessor did and try to do something new. We all know that the sector needs patient effort rather than short-term measures aimed at showing quick results within political or administrative terms in office. As a consequence of this tendency, we have focused on tangibles like buildings and hardware – and this too has been riddled with corruption and inefficiency.

For a long time now, we have ignored our teachers, basically made almost no effort to produce high quality and knowledgeable teachers. We have neglected teacher support systems and, most importantly, we have treated teachers as the last rung in a hierarchical bureaucracy. Our monitoring systems have focused on input data and very little on both tangible learning outcomes as well as the intangibles like overall development of our children. Rote-based exams that have changed very little over the last six decades, have further eroded our system.

On the positive side, the commitment and efforts to address educational issues remain extremely high across all sections of society – from the very poor to the very rich. There is a growing awareness about the importance of education and people from all walks of life are trying to get the best they can for their children. Unfortunately, what is available to parents are tuition shops and coaching centres. Many more non-governmental players are active in small-scale efforts to enhance learning in schools and working with teachers. Some are trying to work on a larger-scale across several states. There are also those who are lobbying for greater privatization and more frequent testing. There are others who believe that technology has all the answers and are pushing for a teacher-proof curriculum.

The education landscape is crowded with competing interests. In the middle of this are teachers – the only people who can actually make a concrete difference on the ground. They unfortunately have little voice in this debate and continue to be vilified and blamed. Teachers teach as they themselves were taught, unless they are provided with opportunities to analyse and question their own experience and thereby construct a different conception of what classroom processes should aim to achieve. In the last twenty years we have spoken to hundreds of teachers – almost all of them say that they are expected to ‘follow orders’, ‘cover the syllabus’, ‘fill out formats’, and so on. It is hard to think of a more damning indictment of the education system than this: teachers do not even conceive of their work in terms of creating an environment where all children can learn. Changing this would involve keeping our ears close to the ground, listening and acting in such a way that we take everyone along.

This issue of Seminar will hopefully enable us to appreciate the complex landscape of learning, and more, help us ask the ‘right’ questions to effect meaningful change in our learning environment.





1. Daniel Koretz, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2017.

2. Diane Ravitch, ‘Settling the Scores’, The New Republic, 27 December 2017.

3. Newman Burdett, Review of High Stakes Examination Instruments in Primary and Secondary School in Developing Countries. RISE Working Paper 17/018, 2017. https://www.riseprogramme. org/sites/www.rise

4. The Times of India, 24 February 2018.