Why Amartya Sen is right about India's education system

Vivek Kaul 
It has become fashionable these days to criticise Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen. This writer has also been guilty of doing the same on at least one occasion. But there is nothing wrong with the points that Sen makes on the Indian education system and its weaknesses, in his new book An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, which he has co-authored with his long time collaborator Jean Drèze.
Several surveys conducted over the years have clearly shown the low level of learning among a wide number of students that prevails across the length and breadth of India. Drèze and Sen cite a few such surveys in their book. The ASER Survey 2011, which was an all India representative survey of school children in rural areas found that only 58% of children enrolled in classes 3 to 5 could read Class – I text. Less than half (47%) were able to do simple two digit subtraction. And only half of the children in classes 5 to 8 could use a calendar. These were not difficult tasks by any stretch of imagination.
Several such surveys with dismal levels of learning among children in rural areas keep coming out. But surprisingly even urban areas don’t seem to be doing any better.
The WIPRO-EI Quality Education Study 2011, surveyed more than 20,000 students in 83 ‘top schools’ in five metro cities (Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai). And the results were surprising. “For example, only third of these ‘top school’ students in Class 4 knew who was the alive person in a list of four: Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi ( a small number thought, interestingly enough, that it was Mahatma Gandhi who was still alive). About two-thirds of the students in Class 4 could not master the measurement of the length of the pencil with a ruler,” write Drèze and Sen.
When compared to other countries, India comes in right at the bottom. In the PISA Plus survey conducted in 2009, the Indian performance in a list of 74 countries or economies that were a part of the survey was very bad. “And this is the case even though the two Indian states that participated in PISA Plus happened to be two of the better-schooled states, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh. In a comparison of overall reading ability of 15-year-old students in these 74 countries or economies, both Indian states figure among the bottom three (in company of Kyrgyzstan),” write the authors.
The bureaucrats and politicians like to point to the fact that India has more schools now than ever before. 
The 8th All India Education Survey which was released earlier this year found that the number of schools in the country increased by 27% between 2002 and 2009. Shashi Tharoor, minister of state of Human Resource Development writes in a column in The Indian Express today “Take education, the subject of my own ministry. Literacy rates have risen to 74 per cent; more than 75,000 schools were opened and nearly a million teachers appointed in just the last three years.”
But Tharoor doesn’t tell us anything about the learning process. Opening, more schools doesn’t really mean anything on its own. Despite this increase in the number of schools there seems to be a lot that is wrong with the way things are being taught in Indian schools. One reason often offered for the poor state of India’s education system is that the teachers are not paid enough and hence they lack the motivation to teach properly.
Drèze and Sen prove this to be wrong. “Consider primary-school teacher salaries as a ratio of per capita GDP. In 2001 this ratio of teacher salary to the GDP per head was estimated to be around one in China, somewhere between one and two in most OECD countries, and a little higher in developing countries, but not higher than three for any of the countries (except India) for which data is available. More recent data suggest similar ratios of teacher salaries to GDP in 2005 and 2009. For instance, the OECD average hovered around 1.2 between 2002 and 2009. In India, however, it seems that the corresponding ratio was already around three before the Sixth Pay Commission scales came into effect (in 2009, with retrospective effect from 2006), and shot to around 5 or 6 after that,” write the authors.
What it means that Indian teachers get paid five to six times the amount of money that an average Indian makes. In fact the ratio is higher in a few states when we compare the average teacher salary in that state with the average income in that state. In Uttar Pradesh, the ratio is at 15.4. In Bihar, it is even higher at 17.5. For the nine major states of India the ratio in 2012, stood at 4.9. This leads Drèze and Sen to conclude that “whatever may be the source of the problem of low teaching efficiency, the blame cannot be placed on any alleged lowness of salary of school teachers.”
These high salaries have forced state governments to stop recruiting regular teachers and move onto contract teachers. As Drèze and Sen point out “Faced with the cost of escalation involved in these salary hikes, many states have stopped recruiting regular teachers and have increasingly come to rely on hiring ‘contract teachers’ to do the teaching. The salaries of contract teachers are typically a fraction (as low as one fifth or so, in many cases) of what the regular teachers earn.”
A large proportion of these teachers are untrained or are trained through what the authors call en masse correspondence courses.
In fact the irony is that the contract teachers despite their lack of training do no worse than regular teachers when it comes to teaching. This has led to a dualistic system where trained permanent teachers work side by side with teachers on contract who have been hired at a fraction of the former’s salary. A good system would have been something in between. As Drèze and Sen write “It would have been nice to see some sort of a middle path emerging from this dualism: new terms and conditions for the teaching profession, with decent salaries, good qualifications and some security of employment, but not unconditional, permanent plum jobs that undermine work incentives and ruin the integrity of the profession.” The system as it has evolved is neither here nor there. A good education system cannot be built on the back of teachers whose contracts are always running out.
The Right to Education Act which came into force as on April 1, 2010, prescribes a pupil teacher ratio of not more than 30:1. This has become very difficult for state governments to fulfil given that following the Sixth Pay Commission pay scales is a very expensive proposition for a large number of states. “On the other hand, meeting them (i.e. the conditions under Right to Education) by hiring untrained contract teachers would become, strictly speaking, illegal,” write the authors.
Also, the bigger trouble is that the Right to Education allows automatic promotion from one class to the next. Board examinations are not allowed till Class 8. Imagine the consequences of a student who is not picking up things in a certain class being promoted to the next class. As Drèze and Sen put it “If a large proportion of children learn virtually nothing for years on end in a particular school, it is important to know it,well before they are sent for slaughter in the Board Examination (if indeed they reach the end of Class 8 without dropping out).”
Economist Abhijit Banerjee, who is also the co-author of Poor Economics, explained this scenario 
very well while speaking at a literature festival in Mumbai late last year. He said “Think of all the class IV children who cant read. They are learning social studies and all kinds of other wonderful things except they can’t read. They are learning nothing. They are sitting in a class watching some movie in some foreign language without subtitles…The dropout rates are high. And I am always shocked that why does anybody comes to school at all? You are sitting there in class and you can’t read, you can’t write, why are you even there? What is going on?” Now imagine what will happen to students who will keep getting promoted without any exams.
The only people who gain through no exams are the teachers, especially in a system where learning is so low and there is very little supervision of what is really going on. As Banerjee put it “
The public education education is a system for the teachers, by the teachers and in the interest of the teachers. This is a system which essentially does not want any metric of performance. The excuse they give is that we don’t want children to be tested because children feel bad if they don’t do well. Its true that children feel bad if you tell them in public that they have done badly. But there is no reason that testing means public declaration of results. In Massachusetts(in the United States) where I live, test scores are only revealed at the grade level. So, for example, all fourth graders may have done badly at some school, but I don’t have to know if someone did well or badly.”
The Right to Education is thus creating more problems. The trouble is that like all such big Acts which try to address everything, it has ended up addressing nothing. The basic thing that any Act on education should be addressing is the lack of learning among students in schools. But that is clearly not happening.
Small experiments have been carried out around this problem. And they seem to suggest that addressing the lack of learning is neither very difficult nor very expensive. As Banerjee put it late last year “
We did one experiment in Bihar which was with government school teachers. This was in summer around two years ago. The teachers were asked that instead of teaching like you usually teach, your job for the next six weeks is to get the children to learn some basic skills. If they can’t read, teach them to read. If they can’t do math, teach them to do math. At the end of six weeks, these teachers were given a small stipend. They had also been given a couple of days of training. At the end of six weeks, the children had closed half the gap between the best performing children and the worst performing children. They had really improved enormously.”
What changed suddenly? W
hy did the government school teachers do so much better? “The reason was they were asked to do a job that actually made sense. They were asked to teach the children what they don’t know. The usual jobs teachers are asked to do is teach the syllabus – which is very different. Under the Right to Education Act, every year you are supposed to cover the syllabus,” said Banerjee.
The solution to the problem is very simple. For the first few years of school the children need to be taught the basics like being able to read, write and do simple Math. Such a system is likely to lead to better results. As Banerjee put it “One thing that we forget is that the perfect is the enemy of the good. We are trying to have an education system that is perfect and that every child should come out with wisdom at the end of it and as a result they learn nothing.” 

The trouble is that small simple solutions do not seem to have enough vote grabbing potential.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on July 23, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)