Modern growth theory puts innovation at the heart of growth dynamics and education as an essential element of the innovation process, both for activities that push out the technological frontier and to facilitate catching up. In some areas, India will be pushing out the global frontier, but the main growth activity in the medium term lies in catching up, as it was for Japan, Korea and Taiwan in their rapid growth phases. The immediate need for this is breadth and quality in secondary and college education. And it is hard to think of a single country that has achieved this without genuine breadth and quality in basic education.
With respect to equity, the case for action is even more immediate: children who dont get basic skills will substantially miss out on gains from future growth when they enter the workforce. Inequality in education is a fundamental driver of the reproduction of inequalities of wealth and status.
And there are massive quality problems in basic education. There has indeed been a large effort in getting more resources into education, both from the centre and the states, and a big push on enrollments. But enrollment is not enough. The real problem lies in skills acquisition.
We have a national picture on actual skills thanks to the Annual Survey of Education Report, that for the past four years has tested children at home in a statistically representative sample of rural households in most districts. This is a remarkable organisational effort, with front-line testing by an army of trained volunteers, from many organisations, managed by the ASER Institute (an offshoot of the NGO Pratham).
ASER 2008 finds that 97 per cent of rural 7-10 year olds are enrolled in school, but that there are shocking deficits in basic reading and maths. As just one example, almost half Standard V children cant read a Standard II text in government schools. In private schools, attended by almost a quarter of rural children aged 6-14 in 2008, this proportion is a still over 30 per cent. And this isnt just a problem of poor Northern States: rural children in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu actually have significantly worse reading and arithmetic skills than their Bihari counterparts, despite state incomes almost four times Bihars. This is a leading indicator of future exclusion in these fast-growing states.
So whats the problem Part of it is that many enrolled children arent even in school. Initial research results from one site in rural Bihar finds that only a third of enrolled children were in class in government schools visited earlier this year. In a parallel site in Uttarakhand it was better, but still only 60 per cent. We dont know whether the children were working, staying at home, or enrolling in state schools but then going to private schools. This makes a huge difference, and further research will explore it.
But the really big issue is having motivated teachers, with decent materials, who actually teach. The problem is well-known. The question is how much this is because of structures of remuneration that give little or no incentive to actually teach, because most teachers feel overwhelmed and disempowered, or lack of decent materials. Some observersespecially amongst my fellow economistargue for giving up on the state system and relying on the private system solving the problem. Private schooling and tuition helps, but I just dont see this being more than part of the solution, especially for poorer children most at risk of exclusion.
This is where public accountability comes in. The ASER report is itself a major contributor to accountability, through providing independent measures of real outcomes to shape public debate. But accountability has to work on many levels to be effective. This doesnt just mean more Village Education Committeesone study in Uttar Pradesh found these didnt work in any case. What is required is complementary action on societal accountability and internal accountability structures. These will have to get into the question of teacher motivation. And theres a lot that can be done in linking performance to long-term career incentives, fostering internal work cultures and empowering teachers, without taking on the sacred cow of job security.
This problem is not unique to Indiathere are comparable debates throughout Latin America and in the United States, for example. It is just unusually bad in India. Bringing both innovation and public accountability to bear on how schools work and what teachers actually do is a truly central issue, with real long-term consequences, for both equity and growth.
The author is at the Harvard Kennedy School, the Institute for Social & Economic Change and the Centre for Policy Research