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India’s Broken Schools, Cloudy Future

India’s preponderance of youth has long been considered a “demographic dividend.” But a broken education system fails to equip graduates for jobs in a fast growing economy. Thanks to lopsided emphasis on elite schools and neglect of early education, India has fallen behind in competency in basic skills, along with flexibility, creativity and passion for lifelong learning. The country prepares only a small, select group of its 8 million young adults who annually enter the workforce, contend Julissa Milligan and Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute. The 2009 Right to Education Act aimed to give every Indian child a high quality education, yet money alone does not assure commitment to excellence. Government regulations – infrastructure requirements or bans on admissions testing – overlook committed teaching. Milligan and Dhume urge rewards for high-quality teachers and strong student performance. A broken education system threatens the economic and political future of the world’s largest democracy – and could well curtail India’s global leadership ambitions. – YaleGlobal

India’s Broken Schools, Cloudy Future

India’s education policies should encourage private initiative and focus on learning outcomes
Julissa Milligan, Sadanand Dhume
YaleGlobal, 9 May 2012
Broken schools, broken dreams: India's failing primary education does not prepare young adults for the modern job market (top); jobseekers at the Employment Exchange Office in Allahabad

WASHINGTON: Although slowing growth and a spate of corruption scandals have taken some of the shine off India recently, the country remains widely seen as a rising power. An element of its proclaimed rise is what economists call the demographic dividend: Given its large, young population India, the argument goes, will boast a large working age population supporting relatively few retirees. That assessment is less certain, though, when one takes a closer look at the sorry state of Indian education.

According to the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment, Indian eighth graders have math skills comparable to South Korean third graders, and Indian students ranked second to last of 75 countries surveyed in writing and mathematics, ahead of tiny, landlocked Kyrgyzstan. Though the two Indian states chosen for the survey, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh, do not represent the entire country, they are generally regarded as among the more successful in providing basic education to their children.

In a report last year, the NGO Pratham found that more than half of all fifth-grade students in India cannot read second-grade texts. What’s more, schools are getting worse: reading and math skills declined between 2010 and 2011.

The alarming state of the country’s schools has implications that extend beyond economics. Bluntly put, India cannot hope to claim a longed for seat at the head table of global affairs if it continues to get education basics wrong at home.

India’s future depends on its ability to absorb its burgeoning youth population into the workforce.

India’s future depends on its ability to absorb its burgeoning youth population into the workforce. The International Labor Organization estimates that over the next eight years alone India must find jobs for more than 8 million new workers each year. But despite a vast labor pool, top companies already struggle to recruit qualified workers. A recent report by staffing company TeamLease finds that nearly six in ten Indian college graduates “suffer from some degree of unemployability.” Software and services trade lobby group NASSCOM reports that only 15 percent of Indian college graduates are qualified for jobs in high-growth global industries such as call centers and technology companies. The roots of this problem lie in the failure of schools to provide an adequate education.

A large illiterate or semi-literate population will constrain India’s ability to attract new investment and knit its economy more firmly into the global supply chains that drive prosperity elsewhere in Asia. 

Historically, India’s education deficit can be traced to the combination of a cash-strapped government and a focus on creating centers of excellence in higher education rather than ensuring basic literacy for all. But with economic growth swelling government coffers since the advent of liberalization in 1991, this is no longer true. Today’s system failures are instead driven by a fundamental misunderstanding of the government’s role as an education provider. Rather than analyzing what drives effective learning, India has opted to pump more money into a broken system while inventing cumbersome regulations that may end up doing more harm than good.

To be sure, more money for education is part of the solution, but not – as India’s left-leaning UPA government appears to believe – the entire solution. To begin with, the country needs to stop burdening private schools – many of which serve poor students better than government counterparts – with excessive and harmful regulations. It also needs to set benchmarks for teachers and measure success by learning outcomes rather than resource inputs. As far as possible, regulation should not interfere with the principle of providing choice. Ultimately, parents, not government bureaucrats, are best positioned to make decisions for their children.

Historically, India focused on creating centers of excellence in higher education rather than ensure basic literacy for all.

India’s education woes can be traced back to independence from the British. At the time, in contrast to most developing countries, India emphasized tertiary rather than primary education. This enabled India to develop a few excellent universities such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), and to churn out highly skilled engineers and PhDs. At the same time, however, primary schools were short-changed of resources. Over time, teacher and student absenteeism in government schools became rampant, accountability at the local level all but vanished, and rigid teaching methods failed to encourage students to develop problem-solving skills. By 2001, India’s literacy rate of 61 percent lagged most of its peers in East Asia.

In response to these failings, private schools serving students of all income levels sprang up across India. By 2005, nearly one in five students attended a private school. Recognizing the crisis in public education, the government has more than doubled federal expenditures on education from about $4.2 billion in 2005 to an allotted $10 billion in 2012. Meanwhile, in 2009 it rolled out an expansive Right to Education Act ostensibly meant to give every Indian child a quality education.

Ironically, RTE may end up doing more harm than good. Onerous infrastructure requirements focus schools’ attention disproportionately on resource inputs like boundary walls and outdoor playgrounds rather than teaching. Though meant to weed out fly-by-night operators, this also ends up penalizing good private schools that cater to the poorest Indians. Many cannot will not be able to afford the new requirements. In a nutshell, private schools serving the poor with committed teachers but poor infrastructure will be shuttered while inefficient government counterparts garner more resources without improving learning outcomes.

What India needs, argues Harvard University’s Lant Pritchett, is to “hire teachers who want to teach and let them teach,” mixing autonomy with “accountability for results – not just narrowly measured through test scores, but broadly for the quality of the education they provide.”

But India’s 96.7 percent enrollment rate conceals persistent teacher and student absenteeism.

RTE also decreases accountability for learning by decreeing that students can’t fail and scrapping a national examination for tenth- grade students. All in all, it has cemented the central government’s rigid control over India’s vast and diverse education system. By demanding that private schools impose a 25 percent quota for poor students – a clause that a consortium of elite private schools failed to overturn in the Supreme Court – RTE’s new regulations may also drown India’s few centers of educational excellence in a sea of mediocrity. Schools are not allowed to test to determine admissions.

Finally, RTE focuses too much on enrollment rates. But India’s 96.7 percent enrollment rate conceals persistent teacher and student absenteeism. Pratham estimates that teachers are in the classroom less than 80 percent of required hours, and students attend about half the time. RTE does not address this. With no opportunities for students to repeat classes they have not mastered and no national learning assessment, the early warning signs that student learning is declining is unsurprising.

Rather than erecting roadblocks for private schools, the Indian government ought to leave them alone and focus on making government schools more competitive by attracting top-quality teachers and rewarding effective teaching and improved student performance. This will require providing teachers with opportunities for professional advancement by monitoring student performance, then rewarding effective teachers and firing inept ones.

To sustain its economic rise, India needs a globally competitive workforce. The process of developing one starts in primary school, but the government’s heavy-handed approach to education is ineffective. India must change its approach or risk impairing its future growth and jeopardizing its place in the global economy.


Julissa Milligan is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at AEI. Follow him on Twitter @dhume01The authors will field readers' questions for a week after the publication date.


Comments on this Article

27 May 2012
Article deals with the real problems before us,this "educational deficit" is not just going to debar us from enjoying the benefits of "demographic dividend" but it will create social unrest.To reap the benefit of globalization, one is supposed to be well equipped with knowledge and skill and student sitting in the classroom is not competing with his classmates but to succeed he will have to outclass the students sitting in US,China Korea&Europe from this article it is very clear where we are and where we are heading for.
The current changes and the RTE is not in a position to make great difference,already we are having "cross subsidy" of merit in many areas,this is not going to help us where productivity and innovation is key for growth.
Govt teachers are highly paid but without any accountability the article itself talks about the presence of teachers and students in the class.RTE is silent on this, there should be accountability and payment should be linked with the performance,concept of social auditing should be brought in which has not been done in RTE.
Focus should be on outcome,new tools of learning should be adopted so that teaching and learning can be made interesting,objective parameter should be there to observe the growth of the student and on that basis success of a teacher can be decided.
Instead going for infrastructure, focus should be on innovation,employment & leadership and RTE has lost its focus on these things,govt should increase its expenditure on education and that should be very transparent,targeted and without any leakage.Govt should do it through its own infrastructure,if needed govt can use the cash transfer system so that merit can be taken care of
Correction is required in RTE and in the approach of govts handling of education sector and as early as possible.
-anand kumar , pune,maharastra
15 May 2012
The 25% reservation was designed to give students who are too poor to afford expensive private schools an opportunity to attend. The point below confuses the implementation of the law – where quotas were hijacked as caste reservations at the state level – with its inception. India’s complex system of caste reservations does adversely affect RTE’s implementation, magnifying the flaws inherent in the 25% reservation. But even if implemented flawlessly, the 25% quote would still be problematic since it takes away private schools’ ability to reject unqualified students who cannot keep up.
-Julissa Milligan
-Julissa Milligan , Washington DC
13 May 2012
"By demanding that private schools impose a 25 percent quota for poor students"
This article is premised on incorrect facts. The RTE law mandates 25% admission for "disadvantaged" and EWS (economically weaker section) students. Most states are basically converting 25% band into a caste quota system, eg. in Karnataka 9% SC/ST (without income verification), then a band of Other Backward Classes without income verification, then another band with an income limit - and finally, if anything left over - for EWS.
This article, while it correctly identifies the economic fallacies, is simply lost in understanding the complexities of India's perverted social justice system. As a matter of fact, very few westerners really understand the ground reality.
-Some Guy , X
12 May 2012
Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Dr. Jagadeesh: Yes, vocational training is a great idea, though it won't address the problem of primary education. Gaurav: If only "expert teams" constituted by the HRD ministry were as good at solving problems as you suggest.
Sadanand Dhume
-Sadanand Dhume , Washington
10 May 2012
Excellent article.
In today’s world where stiff competition is the norm, having just a graduate or a post-graduate degree isn’t enough to land into a job. In such a scenario, job-oriented short- term courses bridge the gap between formal education and meaningful employment. India is fast evolving as a major economic hub with increasing entrepreneurial activities, augmenting enterprises and global acquisitions. To keep up the existing level of growth, India requires copious amount of better trained professional workforce.
One of the biggest challenges today is how to spread the right kind of education. The education system as we know it is very theoretical and does little to inspire students. Learning has to be exciting, pro-active and practical. As sage Sri Aurobindo said, “Nothing can be taught.” We need to get away from rote-based learning and move towards integral learning, through which students can enjoy the process of discovery and understanding.
The emphasis today is on exams and not on intelligence, innovative thinking or even problem solving. Students are mugging up theorems in geometry and securing full marks without understanding them. Teaching methods are archaic. Rarely do teachers undergo professional training in new methods of instruction.
At the graduate level in Engineering (B.E and B.Tech) the project work is just for 3 or 4 months. In 3 months what the student can gain practical experience and problem solving project work? In this connection I want to quote the German system. At Master’s level in Engineering the student has to work for a semester (6 months) as practicum in Industry and for another semester for Thesis also in an industry. During this period the industry pays the student.
Such a system has to be adopted for graduate project work.
Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore (AP), India
-Anumakonda , Nellore(AP),India
9 May 2012
I think amidst the problems with primary education in India even,its higher education sector standard can't be clubbed in comfortable state.the quality of teaching and skill improvement in colleges down the IIt's is suffering.there seems a clear lack of coherency between emerging demands of industries and pattern of knowledge imparted to prospective engineering graduates. that can clearly be guessed by what a survey said that 80% of indian engg. graduates are unable to take their work without the help of training provided by industries.
Surely demand and supply driven market has brought a surge of low standard private colleges for producing engineers but these all has been constrained only to quantity side of coin while quality side of coin has severely degraded.
Even govt.colleges are suffering from clear lack of vision for future growth and improvement. while giving them autonomy has surely helped in faster decision making to some level it has also invoked a sense of unaccountability on part of college administration.
The probable solution lies in constituting an expert team by HRD ministry for govt. colleges based on different zones which should act as a reviewer for continual progress made and innovation supported in colleges. it should incentivise the good performers and guidelines and help may be provided to institutes failing to do so.The industries situated in nearby areas can also be invited to guide and lend support in respective fields. it will not only help in having access by institutes to new demands and cutting age technology required to be imparted but also students will have a benefit to industrial exposure.
The govt. has also failed to provide any interesting option to students in fields otherthan conventional ones like engg., medical, and few others. This has led to students entering these sctors for money and ease of good job rather than interest. The students need to get reliable information in beginning of their college life about different options available to them and their prospective growth and future in different kind of job. also, More intermingling of different streams for better understanding and interest is required, which till now has been clearly seperated by boundaries.Interdisciplinary learning is key to explore hidden talents of any person.