The good and bad news on education

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Published: January 26, 2019 12:07:07 AM

And while universities continue to see their standards plummet thanks to such controls and the pernicious reservations policy, the quality of school education is also getting poorer.

In the same classes III to V category, where parents are illiterate, 43% of the kids of parents that are ‘highly privileged’ will be able to subtract vs 17% if they are ‘under privileged’.

While the government has shown considerable alacrity in implementing a 10% quota for upper-castes, it is worrying that less attention is being paid to fixing the education system itself. Along with the proposed sub-categorisation of OBCs—to stop powerful groups like the Yadavs cornering the benefits—the government is banking on the quotas having a big impact on voting.

Few universities/colleges have been freed from the government’s yoke despite this being promised for years. Indeed, had this been done, there wouldn’t have been the clamour there was for the Institutions of Eminence tag; the only thing this does for private institutions that will now be under the 10% quota is to free them from government regulations. And while universities continue to see their standards plummet thanks to such controls and the pernicious reservations policy, the quality of school education is also getting poorer.

According to Pratham’s latest ASER report for rural areas, while there has been an improvement in the learning outcomes at the elementary level (goo.gl/zGTxpW), the proportion of Class VIII students who could read Class II level texts has declined—nearly half of Class V and over a quarter of Class VIII students in the country can’t read a Class II level text. In the case of maths, the proportion of Class VIII students who could do division 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.

While the normal reaction to this is that government schools should be replaced by private ones, that will help, but may not be the only issue; indeed, the quality of teaching in government schools is improving. As Rukmini Banerji, Pratham’s CEO points out, teachers in both public and private schools are teaching various levels of classes at the same time since, as the weaker students aren’t kept back in their current grades, the higher classes have children who don’t know how to read or do maths along with those that do—which students is the teacher to pitch the education to? Fixing this requires a different approach and even a different pedagogy; fortunately, the UPA’s no-detention policy has been scrapped.

While many argue for more private schools, and government-paid coupons to give poorer parents a choice of sending their children to private schools, some like Aser Centre’s director Wilima Wadhwa argue that private schools do better because their kids come from both richer as well as more educated families; three-fourths of the difference in learning outcomes, she says, is directly linked to this.

An analysis in Mint (goo.gl/eKP4e9) mines Pratham data to reach similar conclusions. If kids in classes III to V come from ‘highly privileged’ families—have a pucca house, electricity, etc—and their parents have completed school, 66% of them will be able to do subtraction; this falls to 43% in the same economic category but where parents are illiterate. In the same classes III to V category, where parents are illiterate, 43% of the kids of parents that are ‘highly privileged’ will be able to subtract vs 17% if they are ‘under privileged’.

While the level of affluence is certainly a factor, it is not clear whether it is the overriding one. Private schools have better learning outcomes, as do children from more affluent homes, but it is not clear whether the learning outcomes are related to the levels of affluence or to better pedagogy in private schools. While government-paid coupons will allow even the poor to get to private school, ‘teaching at the right level’—ensure slow-learners are held back—will also improve learning outcomes since the weaker students can then be taught differently.

An interesting study, in contrast to the-rich-do-better one is a recent PhD thesis from IIT-Delhi by Ishan Bakshi (disclosure: he is my nephew) that uses NSS data to look at inequality trends over generations. It finds that (see graphic) if a parent in rural India had studied till just Class V—this includes illiterates—there was a 58% chance his child also studied till this level in 1983; this fell to just 29% by 2009-10. Even better, while there was a 1% chance the child of such a parent could have passed Class XII in 1983, this rose to 14% by 2009-10.

Inequality of opportunity also falls over time. Take the case of an up to-Class V parent and a Class XII-pass parent in 1983—there was a 21 times greater chance of the Class XII-pass parent’s child also passing Class XII. By 2009-10, this difference reduced to around five times.

This also holds true for the bottom 40% of the population. There was a 1% chance the child of an up to-Class V parent had a Class XII degree in 1983 (it is 3% for the top 40% of the population) and this rose to 9% by 2009-10 (it rose to 28% for the top 40%). There is no doubt that urban or richer households do better, but the inter-generational change is heartening. Indeed, since the analysis for SC/ST shows that children of more-educated parents tend to be more educated—even though the children of less-educated parents are also getting more educated over time—there is a strong case for restricting reservations in college to just one or two generations. While the results from the studies are unambiguous, the problem is the government does not seem to be learning any lessons from them.

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