Link funding to improvement in learning outcomes.
The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2018, even as it highlights a slow but steady improvement in the learning outcomes of students at the elementary education level, rings many alarm bells. Learning outcomes in the later years seem to be a particular area of concern. While a slightly larger proportion of Class III and V students in government schools were able to read Class II level texts in 2018 over 2012, the proportion of Class VIII students who could read Class II level texts has declined over the period—nearly half of class V and over a quarter of Class VIII students in the country can’t read a Class II level text. Reading ability has taken a hit across government and private schools for Class VIII students. On arithmetic learning outcomes, too, a similar trend is noticed—while the proportion of Class III students who could do subtraction went up from 26.4% in 2012 to 28.2% in 2018, the proportion of Class V students who could do division has increased from 24.9% to 27.9% over 2012-18. For class VIII students, this has fallen from 48.1% to 44.1% over 2012-18. Even though standards of learning are improving in government schools, they have fallen below 2008 levels, and the gap with private school learning outcomes is getting wider. In 2008, 53% of Class V students in government schools could read Class II level texts vis-a-vis 68% in private schools, a gap of 15 percentage points; by 2018, this gap had widened to 21 percentage points.
It is hard to ignore the correlation between the implementation of the Right to Education (RTE) Act and the falling levels of learning at both government and private schools. Under RTE’s no-detention till Class VIII’ regime, poor reading ability is likely to have become a bigger handicap for students in later years as the curriculum got more complex and texts became more demanding. To that end, the Centre managing to get Parliament sanction to scrap ‘no detention’ earlier this month is a much-needed fillip. With private school enrollment stagnating over the last few years, it is clear that a chunk of the population will continue to depend on government schools. In such a scenario, the only way to ensure that significant productivity potential isn’t squandered is to get government schools to deliver—whether through linking funding to learning-outcome improvement targets or a radical change in pedagogy. The significant Centre/state spending on elementary education should seem wasteful if, despite the higher salaries for government-school teachers vis-a-vis private-school peers, learning gaps worsen or remain as they are. Tying funding and teacher evaluation to improved learning outcomes—that would demonstrate greater understanding and application by students—rather than high pass percentages (which mask deficiencies through myriad ways, from rote-learning to ‘liberal’ marking) could prod government the right way. The Centre making it compulsory for states to codify expected learning outcomes is a step in this direction. And if government schools still don’t deliver, the government will be serving the students’ interest best if it lets the private sector take over and directs its education spend at supporting the latter.