The Plumbing Problem in India’s primary education

Pablo Picasso famously said, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” While Picasso would have thought of any child of any nationality in general while having to make such a statement, citizens of Bangalore had a more localized version of it to mull over on the evening of 26th of October, 2017 inside the premises of Alliance Francaise. Eminent Historian and Author Ramachandra Guha extended a warm welcome to American French economist Esther Duflo, who is the Co-founder and Director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) and Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was delivering the 11th New India Foundation Lecture titled – ‘Every Child Counts; How to fix Primary Education in India?’

New India Foundation is dedicated to nurture high quality research and writing and offers fellowships to young writers and scholars for work on post 1947 India. In the words of Guha, the idea that germinated about 15 years ago has today published about eighteen books celebrating the outstanding and reckless experiment of the Republic of India. The annual lecture by distinguished scholars and activists on the social landscape of the globe forms the second wing of the foundation. As such, Esther Duflo joins the likes of Dr. Jeane Dreze, Sunil Khilnani, Yogendra Yadav, and Raghuram Rajan in the list of speakers at the forum.

Duflo in her lecture laid out the bottlenecks of the primary education in India and presented her own projects and experiments to understand the rhyme and reason of the problems. From the 20 years of her work in India and studies in collaboration with Pratham, she has gathered that India is bad at leveraging skills it already has. Indian schools have high enrollment rates but are disappointing in attendance after enrollment and learning levels while attending. About 96 percent of children in the age group of 6-14 are enrolled in schools in rural India. However, when ASER (the autonomous assessment survey, evaluation and research unit within the Pratham network) studied the learning levels of these students, it was revealed that about 40-50% of students in Std. V are still at the level of learning of a student of Std. II. This has been a trend over the years.

Professor Duflo presented relevant data and impressed upon the intrigued audience that the intuitive mathematics a child develops in preschool doesn’t continue in the early grades. Similarly, the mental arithmetic that children are quick to learn at preschool doesn’t translate into great arithmetic skills at school. She also presented a number of case studies to establish how kids great at market mathematics struggled when put to a formal style of calculations and how students from schools struggled at doing market mathematics. RCTs (Randomized Control Trials) evaluate students by placing them in different groups and categories of learnings and results are observed over a period of time. This has led Duflo and her team to realise that our school systems have curriculum that aren’t designed according to the learning levels of the students.

Contrary to popularly held usual suspects like malnourishment, parents’ non-cooperation, teachers’ salary and other associated incentives, Duflo holds the ‘tyranny of the curriculum’ to be the major roadblock for a child transitioning from ‘learn-to-read’ to ‘read-to-learn’ space. The race of completing the curriculum irrespective of what children can do makes it a challenging experience for the students and the teachers alike. Right to Education has only pushed this thought further into our schooling systems. With snapshots of grade  IV curriculum, Duflo suggested that our curriculum has been incredibly ambitious and elitist.Her work also establishes that private schools fare no better than government schools in this regard.While the lecture centered on India, countries like Kenya and France too are facing similar problems. On the other hand, Finland has reputably developed a more practical model and the scenario is just the opposite there.

The responsibility of a scholar who also happens to be a moralist doesn’t end with elucidating the problems. As was the objective of the lecture, Duflo concluded by offering a few solutions as well. She presented Pratham’s TaRL approach which suggests a four point method to deal with the bottlenecks

  1. Assess with simple tool for languages and mathematics.
  2. Group kids by learning level rather than age.
  3. Available teachers are assigned to groups.
  4. Ongoing monitoring, assessment, and regrouping are carried out.

Randomized Controlled Trials done by J-PAL and Pratham in collaboration, evaluate policy interventions and policy ideas. This involves working with NGOs, Governments, and Corporates. The results of trials have been promising but have had their own problems which Duflo refers to as the ‘Plumbing problem’. While an economist may choose to become a scientist while theorizing an idea, she sometimes has to become an engineer too and design the implementation methods. Even then, one is far away from the real problems on the ground. Economists like Duflo choose to become plumbers too and reach on the ground to implement and study the problems arising thereby and make efforts to solve them. Duflo concluded by stating that the solution is to patiently work in partnership with the schools irrespective of how frustrating the system is.

“Her aim is to do good science and do good,” quoted Guha from the New Yorker feature on Duflo. Nandan Nilekani, another of the trustees of New India Foundation interviewed Duflo after her lecture. When asked about the future since systems of the country don’t move quick enough, Duflo said, “…one can’t wait for the systems to be in place and must keep working as much as they can.” She emphasized that it was a problem everywhere and that there were positive signs of increased willingness over time. “To show results without breaking glasses is the key then”,  Duflo suggested. Duflo’s work has been monumental in the education spectrum of our society and her lecture was a peek into her findings over the years.

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