By Anesa Kratovac:
Undeniably, there are quite a few contradictions in India- mainly in its extremes of urban modernism and rural underdevelopment as well as in the juxtaposition of modern culture with traditional culture in both public and private life. One of the biggest and most important contradictions that I’ve come to examine in depth, is education. Honestly speaking, my understanding of Indian education is also skewed: although I have read plenty about the inadequacy of public education in India, living in Mumbai, I am also surrounded by some of the most well-educated, ambitious individuals who will be the future of this country. Working for a youth leadership organization, The Blue Ribbon Movement, I have also had quite a bit of exposure to college-age youth who are passionate about making a difference in their country as engineers, managers and professionals. This experience highlights the disconnect between my own sheltered, urban reality and my knowledge of the true livelihood actuality in most of India.
It is undeniable that development of any country is reflected in the quality of its education system, since knowledge and economic opportunities depend on solid education achievements and skills. Literacy, in this respect, as well as self-empowerment and ability to participate in community issues is essential to the improvement of the conditions of any society. India’s education system is largely carried out by the government, but the fact that the government is not able to improve teacher absenteeism, track children’s learning progress and prove accountable for learning outcomes is not only an issue of underinvestment in education; it is also the inability of the government to understand the complexity of the issues confronting rural life and urban life and how that translates to poor educational outcomes.
The inability for the policy makers to comb through all the elements that contribute to the complexity of education issues in India and truly come up with cost-effective solutions to eradicate illiteracy and improve India’s performance standards has encouraged many independent organizations to fill in the gaps. Teach for India, Pratham and Barefoot College are some of the most progressive institutional examples of innovative practices put to use to bridge educational inequalities. But, private institutions can only reach so many children, no matter how noble and effective the cause. It is truly a policy issue that centres on enforcing accountability- on teacher selection, promotion rules, competency versus memorization evaluations and the encouragement of parents to have a greater role in their child’s education. Indeed, without such push for reform, India will have a few pockets of elite progress floating on a large pool of illiteracy and underperformance, which will continue to enforce the cycle of poverty and lack of socioeconomic progress.
Indeed, the current statistics of India’s educational underperformance are startling. Out of all the Asian countries, India has the fourth lowest literacy rates at 74%, with Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh trailing slightly behind; this becomes even more staggering when compared to Sri Lanka’s 98% literacy rate achievements. Other findings of student accomplishments in primary school mainly sourced from Pratham Educational Foundation, point to even greater gaps:
• Only half of all children aged 8-11 years enrolled in a government school are able to read a simple paragraph with three sentences.
• Less than half (43 percent) of these children are able to subtract a two-digit number from another two-digit number.
• Only 37 percent of children enrolled in class 4 and 5 can read fluently.
• Less than half (45 percent) are able to divide 20 by 5.
• Only 16 percent of class 4 pupils can master measurement of the length of a pencil with a ruler.
• Only 22 percent of class 6 students could understand that crumbling paper does not alter its weight.
• Reading and math skills of class 4 students in India’s top schools are below the international average.
These outcomes point to an ineffective, unaccountable system that is in dire need of reform. It is not easy to transform such crumbling and complex issues overnight. It will, in fact, take years. But first, we must stop pretending that India is heading in the right direction, because cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune, Delhi and others produce educated and skilled youth. Yes, it is wonderful that urban areas claim internationally-competitive organizations, corporations and start-ups, but to think of this progress as India’s incredible achievements in education is turning a blind eye to vast prevalence of educational inadequacy in the country.
Progressive milestones should be celebrated, but they should not be occasions of forgetfulness that beyond this one percentile safely tucked in urban modernity, is rest of the country that seems forgotten. The mainstream media is itself responsible, since it rarely mentions the many issues confronting the country and only highlights progress and sensationalism. The more we discuss and advocate for issues out in the open (with friends, through blogs, through publications) that are important to us, the more attention and hopefully action we will instigate towards eradicating them. Let’s not keep silent and most importantly, let’s help make India fully literate by 2020…now, that would be progress!