ASER’s findings highlight the dismal state of school education. Improving teacher training programmes could lead to better outcomes
I remember Rukmini Banerji of Pratham telling us in 2005 that ASER — the Annual Status of Education Report — will be a national survey that will hold up a mirror to the condition of education in India and shake us into urgent action. For nine years now, every January, ASER is released and the spotlight turns to the morass our education system is embroiled in. But things stop there. Each successive year shows no change or, as in the case of ASER 2012, only a further drop. There is a parallel with the annual Human Development Index (HDI) report commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme. Over the years, India has not budged from its dismal ranking of around 130 among 187 nations. Both ASER and the HDI results should not surprise us — if conditions remain the same, however much and howsoever often we measure, the results will remain the same.
In the last 12 years, we have placed a school in virtually every hamlet in the country and enrolment of children is nearing 100 per cent. The mid-day meal scheme reaches over 85 per cent of our children, thus providing many of our rural poor their only hot meal. But what has not changed is the quality of learning inside the school. Multiple studies of learning achievement have shown no improvement over the past 15 years. Tie all of these together with the fact that, for years, the quality of our teacher education has remained the same. Based on an extremely inadequate and shaky graduation in science or the arts, our teachers go through the charade of a nine-month course in teacher education. That 99 per cent of the candidates failed to clear the recent Central Entrance Test for teachers is not as much of an indictment as the fact that we have allowed teacher education over the years to slip to such levels.
The ASER report is unlikely to find better results in the next few years. But if we get our act together now, we can be certain that there will be glad tidings. It will take years, but there will be results to show. It will take a systemic overhaul. In a complex system with multiple inter-linkages, it will mean simultaneously addressing many fronts. We will have to identify these critical levers and then stick to them.
The first priority is a complete revamp of teacher education. The government has identified this as a key item in the 12th Five Year Plan. The Justice Verma Commission on teacher education appointed by the Supreme Court has come out with recommendations, incorporating suggestions from knowledgeable people in the country. The key is to implement well, for we have a history of excellent policies and poor execution. We cannot afford to miss this time. Good pedagogical training can never be built on a poor disciplinary foundation. The complexity of this exercise becomes clear when we realise that we need to simultaneously address our undergraduate programmes too.
Research has shown that the head teacher, the pivot in a school, is the second-most important determinant of school performance. It is good that there is a visible urgency to institute an appropriate development and certification programme for head teachers. Institutions such as the National University of Education Planning and Administration, Azim Premji University and others will have to play a serious part in this journey.
But while long-term measures like the overhaul of teacher education and school leadership are being taken, state education leaders can also take some immediate steps. I will list a few that require only strong will, commitment to good governance and empathy for the rank and file. One, the state education secretary can personally ensure that the best candidates are appointed as the principals of the District Institutes of Education Training, the apex body in districts for pre-service diplomas and training of serving teachers. Two, create a strong academic resource cadre from among the best teachers and teacher trainers of the state, and create a career path that works as a clear incentive for them. Third, rationalise the pupil-teacher ratio. The fact is that although the average pupil-teacher ratio seems to be close to what the Right to Education Act stipulates, many rural schools have adverse ratios. We have empirical evidence to show that such schools have little chance of achieving any kind of learning. To move teachers against their will to remote rural locations, the state leadership can institute a good strategy of supportive incentives. And finally, it is necessary to ensure the active participation of parents and community representatives in monitoring and publicly declaring the attendance and punctuality of teachers, so that it is the community that enforces accountability. These steps will actually get the graph off the floor; the long-term investment in teacher education and head teacher leadership will ensure that our schools not only do better, but that we have a system that can deliver sustained quality.
All these are not really alternatives, but imperatives if we want to build the society that we have promised ourselves through our Constitution and provide the education to our young people that we have committed to through several policy documents. At times of war, a nation finds the character and courage to gather itself and do things that make us feel proud of ourselves. The current scenario in education is such that we have no choice but to respond to it as a national emergency.
The writer is registrar and chief operating officer of Azim Premji University, Bangalore