Current State of Indian Education

Here’s a very thought provoking piece shared with me this week, which comes from Indian Express and explores the current state of Indian school education, highlighting some of the areas of greatest concern:

‘People can’t believe the same economy that produces 100,000 students
a year in global top 10% also churns out millions with zero skills’

P. Vaidyanathan Iyer Posted online: Tue Nov 08 2011, 01:39 hrs
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: The point you make is that in Indian schools, the
focus is on schooling and on the paraphernalia attached — the
building, furniture, playground and works — and not really on

I have worked on a variety of issues on India’s economy. I have been
working off and on (since I have lived here from 2004-2007), on basic
education and I have increasingly come to the view that the agenda
that’s been largely fulfilled is the schooling agenda: get kids’ butts
in seats, let’s get kids into these buildings we call schools, but in
many contexts particularly in India, whether the children were
learning anything got neglected. Now there is an increasing array of
evidence mostly generated outside the official school system that even
on the most rudimentary tasks, like simple arithmetic, only about half
the kids by grade 5 can do the simplest possible arithmetic….

What’s worse is that conceptual understanding is completely
non-existent. So if you present a question to a student in exactly the
same way (as) in the textbook, they will give the right answer. If you
literally just take an addition problem and change it from columns to
horizontal, kids who could answer it in columns cannot answer in

I think one of the key features of the Indian economy is between the
elite that have a good education and the rest of the population that
don’t. In the labour market for people with good education, wages are
going up… But if you are really going to a school but not getting
any education, you are really not equipping these children to work
productively in a modern economy.

P Vaidyanathan Iyer: But is this representative of India?

Everyone resists this notion in part because the elite do really get a
great education… If you look at which are the countries that produce
the most 15-year-olds in the global top 10 per cent, India is right up
there. Crude calculations are that they produce about 100,000 students
a year in the global top 10 per cent. People are then reluctant to
believe that the same economy that is producing 100,000 a year in the
global top 10 per cent is also churning out millions with zero skills.

There are three different studies that I rely on: One is a random
sample of just rural areas of Andhra Pradesh… this is not Bihar or
Uttar Pradesh, this is AP, which people regard as a kind of
middle-of-the-road state. Second is the repeated Annual Status of
Education Report (ASER) studies, so the NGO Pratham and the ASER
centre go out each year and do mainly a rural study and it is
completely representative. They produce scores on a very simple
indicator of basic literacy and basic numeracy using samples of
500,000 students, so it is huge. And the third is the study by
Educational Initiatives which was completed a couple of years ago,
which is a more sophisticated testing instrument.

This is really nationally representative… Even the states doing
okay, such as Tamil Nadu, when you actually drill down the actual
skill sets, they are not that much better.

Atideb Sarkar: The reason for China outpacing India is the strength of
human capital, and it goes against the notion that infrastructure and
capital are behind the China story. To what extent is this true?

I don’t think so… The advocacy behind basic education is
super-powerful and I am more than in favour of every child getting
basic education. But the world’s now run the experiment… Haiti has
more schooling today. The average labour force in Haiti has more years
of schooling than the average labour force in Germany in 1975… The
first issue is we want to be careful about what’s really human capital
versus schooling capital. In all the empirical work I do, I am very
clear that I am talking about schooling capital. And if you just look
at schooling capital, everybody just repeats again and again that this
is really important for growth but, like I say, we’ve run the
experiment. So we know it isn’t true, because lots of countries got
lots and lots of schooling, and didn’t have any growth.

…India has done the world a favour of having emphasised elite
education at the expense of mass education for about 50 years. There
is a recent paper showing that it is really the presence of tertiary
education that explains growth successes within India, not the extent
of mass education….

But the thing about India’s distribution of learning is that it is
very skewed. In China, learning is more normally distributed in a
statistical sense, and yet again nobody really knows because nobody
has done comparable tests in China… they got away with just testing
kids in Shanghai and reporting that as a China number. There are
super-educated Indians and there are completely uneducated Indians,
although they are increasingly being schooled but not educated, and
that’s becoming a problem….

Priyadarshi Siddhanta: Will this contribute to the negative growth of
the economy?

Well it will adversely impact because you will have trouble moving
into domains in which you require semi-skilled labour. What India
doesn’t have is any semi-skilled labour, or high school-educated
labour, people with basic literacy, basic numeracy but not advanced
skills. So essentially, most children emerging from Indian primary
education don’t actually know anything, they are not skilled, they are
not even semi-skilled labour. They are still essentially unskilled
labour. So again if you look at industries that require workers to
have some degree of numeracy and literacy, India just isn’t producing
those in the significant numbers, which accounts in a way for the
unequal and skill-intensive pattern of India’s growth.

Priyadarshi Siddhanta: On educational output, how would you rate India
on a scale of 10?

Well it’s at both 1 and 10, that is its problem. We don’t have any
nationally representative tests in Indian skill distribution versus
international skill distribution… but a pair of researchers have
done a study where they’ve taken test scores of Indian students from
8th grade in Orissa and Rajasthan and constructed a distribution of
those scores… compared the extrapolations to India. It turns out
India is one of the top producers of students in the global top 10 per
cent… we don’t know how many China produces really. But the United
States produces about 250,000 a year, Korea 118,000 a year, India
about a 100,000 a year according to these crude estimates. So on that
score in absolute terms, it’s a 10.

But if you look at typical 15-year-olds, India also produces just far
and away essentially the world’s largest number of uneducated people,
because if you look at people just below a threshold like being
adequately skilled, something like 50-60 per cent of the Indian kids,
even those who are into 8th grade, would fall into that category. So
in fact what they found is when they tried to compare India to other
OECD countries, the problem is just that so many of the Indian kids in
8th grade couldn’t even answer enough questions to be able to
distinguish them.

Kirtika Juneja: The Pratham study also says that the quality of
learning has not improved.

First of all, I don’t think the evidence is consistent with inputs
being the main problem. Empirical studies show that learning outcomes
with or without good inputs almost are exactly the same. In part,
because the inputs are not being utilised in a productive way. The
motivation and incentives particularly within government schools are
really low. So the levels of absenteeism and lack of effort of
government teachers are just horrific. A study comparing absenteeism
in India and other countries showed India to be the second worst.
Absence rates are in the order of 25-26 per cent. Another 25 per cent
were physically present but not teaching. Kids have textbooks, but if
teachers are not helping them… the inputs are not going to make a

There are problems that can be solved with logistics and there are
problems that require a system to function. What India through the
Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) has been quite good at frankly is
logistics. Money has been spent equalising inputs across schools.
Ex-ante, based on the scientific evidence about the relationship
between inputs and learning, what should we expect from that? Zero.
The experience of what we got is zero. The ASER study has been done in
a replicable way for five years, no learning at all. For five years,
crores have been spent on input expansion thinking that it will work,
but it hasn’t.

Kirtika Juneja: What will work then?

One of the things that’s going on and I think accounts for a lot of
the problem is that the teachers and the school system are under
pressure to get through a curriculum that really is moving too fast.
So what happens is kids fall behind and then they never catch up…
Look at the kids who can read or do addition and see if it is
improving from year to year. The problem is 20 per cent of the kids
can add in grade 2, and it’s all like 30 per cent in grade 3 and then
it is only 40 per cent in grade 4. Think about what’s going on for
that child in the classroom experience over those years. The
curriculum is moving on, so they are assuming the child can learn how
to add and now we’ll teach division and adding fractions. By the time
the child gets to adding fractions, these kids can’t add numbers
even… So until you stop the system of teaching to the curriculum,
and start the system of teaching to the student, I think it’s just

One of the things that makes this very difficult frankly is that the
Indian schooling system has been geared to producing elite. You stick
to this rapid curriculum because in the standard 10 exams, you’ve got
to know all this stuff. So you start at grade 1 on the presumption
that you are going to take your grade 10 exams and do well and take
grade 12 exams and so the whole system is geared to produce that

Atideb Sarkar: How do we motivate teachers then?

Any system that gives control of the hiring and allocation of teachers
to the parents produces much better results than the current system at
much lower costs. The private sector can hire teachers at Rs 2,000 a
month, a semi-educated teacher, and they do just as well as a trained
teacher. I’m just being crude here. These low-cost private schools are
not good schools. These teachers work one-two years and the scandalous
thing is they can do just as well as the government schools. Teacher
qualifications and teacher training are not producing the outputs.
These private teachers do just as well, mark that word, just as well,
not better. Elite private schools produce much better results but with
much higher inputs. We find that we can produce the same level of
quality with next to no inputs and this undermines the belief in
inputs or training, qualifications.

So studies find that the low-cost private schools perform better than
government schools, but not by a ton. The key thing is to formulate
achievable learning targets. Let’s get kids to read fluently, not
worry about what has to be done to clear grade 10 exams etc.
Curricular objectives stated in the Indian system are wildly out of
touch with what is achievable. Let’s set realistic targets and aim at
achieving them universally and let teachers loose into achieving them.
That will motivate teachers. The current system guarantees frustration
on all sides.

Muzamil Jaleel: What is the best medium of instruction? English or the
mother tongue?

The wisdom is that the mother tongue is the best medium in the early
grades. What’s happening is that private schools to differentiate
themselves are claiming English as medium of instruction and still do
a crappy job. They can’t hire enough teachers who have good English…
A recent study compared private schools in Andhra Pradesh and
interestingly the scores of students that moved from public
Telugu-medium schools to private-Telugu medium schools went way up. If
they went from public Telugu-medium schools to English-medium private
schools, the scores went down. Kids just aren’t getting it.

Part of the process of education is to take you from a common sense
understanding of the world to a more formal understanding of the
world. So you are essentially making translations between conceptual
understanding and how those concepts map into a formal system.

Children are never actually brought from their actual understanding of
the world to the formal understanding, that schools tend to teach you,
in a way they can use their common sense intuition to reason
accurately in a conceptual way. Since that translation fails early, it
fails completely. English as a medium of instruction too early makes
this process worse. A child’s common sense understanding is mediated
in their native tongue. Then you are introducing formal concepts in a
language they don’t fully understand and taught by a person who fully
doesn’t understand the language they are using.

P Vaidyanathan Iyer: If there is political traction to the Sarva
Shiksha Abhiyan, is the issue about reform of the education system by
political intervention?

All of the money is being allocated to teaching posts and is all about
the politics of patronage in hiring. SSA is popular because it allows
politicians to hire more teachers and what could be more important in
terms of rewarding supporters and delivering benefits, particularly
when they are so dramatically overpaid relative to the actual market?
The political support to the SSA is a facade that it is about
education while its popularity among politicians has nothing to do
with education.

…then you get a government that makes these claims about progress
being made in education, while they are making progress only in
schooling and on hiring and building.

The political traction of getting kids educated isn’t there in part
because the politically powerful citizenry have opted out of
government schools. So where is the traction for learning in
government schools? The political system has at heart the replication
of the existing system that benefits key constituencies. In such a
case, a system that seeks to educate children and achieve learning
objectives has very little political traction.

Chinki Sinha: What do you think of the PPP model in education and the
Right to Education Act?

The RTE is one of the most massively ill-conceived things that
happened. At a time when India should have been thinking about the
evidence on the table of learning problems, you have just enshrined an
additional legislation, an input-led approach and focus to schooling
that we know will fail. The law is going to say that we have to shut
down schools where we know learning is high because they don’t have
these scheduled criteria… and push them into schools where learning
is low. That is just obscene.

What is enshrined in the national legislation is an anti-learning
agenda. What is quality and how do we define it? The legislation has
enshrined a definition, that we know from empirical literature…, has
no deep intrinsic connection to learning performance. The RTE is just
a wrong instrument at the wrong time. It will be an inhibition towards
moving to a learning agenda…

The battle in education is going to be, do we free people up to learn
however they would, or do we insist on an appearance of what a school
should look like?… PPPs are going to go after appearances. It will
draw the private to the level of the public instead of the other way
around. They will need to conform in order to get the support and that
will kill all ingenuity and drive.


2 Responses

  1. Today’s paper says HRD Ministry planning to appoint an Ombudsman for schools-is this workable and will it help to address problems constructively?

    • I guess any oversight system can only be as effective as its ability to get the right people in the key position(s), from the perspective of competence and ethics.

      In the hands of the wrong person/ people the role would exacerbate a form of ‘licence raj’.

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