A collection of Articles on the RTE. In no particular order. But the important three are in bold.
THE RTE Collection
An earlier piece in Mint:
And the full text is here:
The rub in the education Act
RTE suffers from a disconnect, a lack of transparency that can hobble private investment in educat
Creating a new fundamental right is a moment of glory for a nation: a moment that savours the fact that we can afford to make a promise to each one of our citizens. Yet it should also naturally be a moment of pure fear, for we have made a commitment to something big, something we have never done before, something we have no idea of how to do. And that is exactly where we are at with the new Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009.
The myriad questions arising from the Act will form the backbone of the education system we create for the next few generations. And it raises more questions than it answers. While promising to provide free and compulsory education, it says very little about where the funds will come from. The division of financial responsibility is between the states and the Centre, as education is ruled by both. But clearly, as Mayawati’s rejection of the financial burden of implementing the Act in Uttar Pradesh has shown, this has yet to be negotiated. Even at the level of schools, the question of funding the new entrants has to be resolved. While 25% of new admissions at entry level in private schools are now reserved for economically weaker sections (EWS), which will ostensibly be paid for by the government, there has been no discussion on how much will be paid per student, or what that will include.
There are issues that will inevitably arise from such a progressive move, such as the coexistence of the children of the elite and those of EWS in the same classroom. Some schools have models that have existed for a while with varying degrees of success. Some have extra classes for the disadvantaged students during holidays, while others report that such success flounders in middle school. The social divide is vast and often traumatic for the students on reservation. But this is their struggle to advancement, and while we can support them, we cannot fight their battles for them. The Act tries to anticipate this by adjuring schools to provide “freedom from fear, trauma and anxiety”.
Certain decisions have been handed down to all schools, such as the prohibition on holding back and expulsion. This has serious implications for discipline, motivation and achievement orientation of the pupils. While I can see the reasons behind this clause—without it RTE would have a gaping loophole—the drawbacks are worrisome, especially in private schools. This is the path to mediocrity, as has been proven in many countries before us. This Act creates a system with no incentive for students to try to improve themselves, or to behave with a modicum of restraint. It compromises their ability to withstand pressure, to try harder, to move up any hierarchical ladder. In one fell swoop, this Act creates a generation of drifters, of those who believe themselves to be entitled to a promotion.
And what happens to these very same people when they turn 14? While there will be some notable successes, there will be millions who would have simply passed through the system without gaining much. The Act merely says that they must acquire elementary education. Yet there are no clear measures of success indicated, nor a range of success defined. They have all been promised a certificate, but will that be of any value if every 14-year-old has it? Will it indicate anything about aptitude? Is there a plan for the future progression of the child? Is there, indeed, a path for each child to follow?
These issues will arise irrespective of the success or failure of the RTE Act. The truth, of course, is that we do not have the teaching infrastructure to deliver on the promise. The Act is a necessary step in building this infrastructure, but the sheer scale is mind-boggling. The entire structure depends on dedicated and caring teachers. This is now our bottleneck, for which no radical solution has been provided. Mere teacher training in the old mould is not going to achieve the broad sweep of reform that the Act envisages.
Herein lies the rub—the Act seems to be a wonderful piece of legislation that somehow does not connect with the parts that must come before it, after it and those that must support it. There is a lack of transparency about the national strategy for education, which may, for all we know, exist within the grand ministerial files. Yet it has been left to the common masses to second guess the strategy, and, therefore, the guiding principles of educating and employing the young. Government strategy needs to be more transparent in order to guide private investment and effort.
Meeta Sengupta is an independent consultant in education strategy. Comments are welcome at email@example.com
The RTE becomes real
25 July 2012, 09:36 AM IST
The reality of the RTE has begun to bite parents now. As predicted, the burden of the changes will be felt in the classroom. One school mum reports that their school has almost doubled fees to deal with the economic burden of losing 25% of their revenue and bearing the cost of additional materials for the disadvantaged. While the mother was not troubled by the increased range in the classroom, as were other parents, the increase in the fees was more than she could handle on her own.
The Bangalore area reported cases where the RTE students were supposedly made to sit separately at the back of the class. They said that a lock of their hair was chopped off to mark them out from the others. Whether the teacher did it, or as was claimed later, it was a childish ‘prank’ – it is hurtful and humiliating. The divisions in our society of the haves and the have-nots are deep, and it will take years of painful work to bridge this divide. The generation that crosses the bridge first is in the first line of fire. It is sad, but they will be bearing the brunt of many episodes like this one.
The battles have just begun – the 25% may not have the badges and the belts the richer kids can afford. Governments are supposed to pay the school, but they may not pay the school the whole cost. Delhi has announced Rs. 11000 per annum, the figure spoken of for other states is around a thousand rupees per child per month. This is lower than the fees or even the costs of many a school.
Many schools are trying to avoid falling under the ambit of the act – some by declaring or trying to declare themselves minority schools (what a neat bit of loopholing that is) and others trying to postpone the inevitable by having finished their admission process before the official start date of the rules. Many others are making an honest attempt at accommodating the demand, but they too know it is going to be tough.
The thought behind the act is probably noble, the rich and the poor all availing of quality education – the rich bearing their own costs, the government paying for the poor. A veritable voucher scheme, as the parents retain choice of school. The thought and the Act are different beasts – and the sieve that passes for a an act has caused much angst as the details are ironed out. It is a strange way of negotiating after the fact – these are details that should have been ironed out way before the act was passed. If these were not sorted out earlier, then was the act not passed under false pretences? Nobody ever said that other parents would have to cross subsidise the 25%, whether they could afford it or not. Nobody ever said that the state government would plug the gaps left in the act. It was certainly not clear whether the gaps were loopholes or deliberate ploys to muddy the waters and get the bill through. So much was unknown at the time of the bill becoming an act that much anger and confusion had to happen.
It is not much better now, as the bill is being implemented, three years down the line. The government’s lack of faith in the people is borne out by the fact that in these three years the affected parties have not cared to read the bill and figure out its affect on them. The people’s faith in the government, weak as it is, has suffered a further blow, as they realise that their children are squished through a smaller door than before for the crime of being ‘advantaged’.
We have many tragedies to avert. It would be a tragedy if the RTE becomes a back door Mandal part III. It would be a tragedy if the disadvantaged are made to feel more so. It would be an even greater tragedy if we let the confusion, the money, the faux reservation get in the way of even one child achieving a better future.
But the biggest tragedy would be if we lost this opportunity to learn our manners again. If the weak are attacked by the strong, it is wrong and this is what happened in that school in Bangalore. I could ask where were the teachers when this ‘prank’ with scissors was being played? But what I will ask is: Where was the sense of right and wrong, the discrimination to choose and the restraint to stay away from wrong?
Do not say – they are only children. If a child is old enough to hold a pair of scissors, they are old enough to know when to use it and when to refrain. Bullying is but the first step to deeper criminalization and as we must nip it in the bud. This is not just about the RTE, though it will be the cause of seeing incidents more frequently than before.
What is the solution? Engage. Speak to your school more often. Demand what you know is right. If you see some wrong, stop to question it – do not impose your beliefs but seek to understand and be understood. If we demand what is right from our community, including the schools, we will be building the future of our choice.
Equity and affirmative action in education
21 August 2013, 02:02 AM IST
We are agreed that it is only by educating our people that India will see productivity and health gains. We need all to be schooled, at least up to the primary level and then some more for these gains to be realised. This is what they started calling the demographic dividend when the surge in numbers was estimated. There is a bulge in the population that needs to be included in the education system which is a larger challenge than most countries have ever faced. To that end, one of the principles on which Indian education policy is founded is equity.
What does this mean? Does it mean that all students in one class must get equal marks and ranks? No. It does not. Does it mean that in a competitive examination, or in a bar examination all applicants get equal positions? Clearly not. Then what is this equality or equity (not exactly the same meaning).
The challenge for any education system is to ensure that everyone has a chance to succeed in life. If their life circumstances have been such that they have been unable to achieve as well as a more privileged student, then they deserve a chance to overcome their circumstances and prove themselves. So, if a poor child who had to study with scant books, no internet, little electricity and no desk among other deprivations and responsibilities, then the child deserves a little leg up to be able to compete with someone who lived in a fully powered aircondtioned house with a study and a library and access to resources and networks. This is a support to those who have the capability to overcome their context and create their own future. These children must be given an equal chance to participate in education.
An equal chance to participate.
That is at the centre of inclusion and equity. Everyone gets a chance to be in at the party. To come in, join as a peer. But then you have to behave like all the rest. You have to perform at work. There is no equity in results. So a student who enters a school under an RTE quota or a student who enters a professional course under some reservation scheme or another (and the logic for that may be outdated – but that is for another day) will have a chance to join in the class exactly like everybody else. That student will be expected to work as hard as anybody else. Sometimes they may even need to work harder to overcome the gaps in previous education. They may even need to work harder if they have less access to resources in their personal life than their peers. For example, one child may need to help out at the shop after work (rich or poor) while another may go to a tuition session. The student who works in the evenings will certainly have to compensate sometime and ensure that the pace is maintained. Because now that the playing field is level, all are equals in the classroom. And it is a normal race from now on.
Does it actually work like that? Not always. A child who seeks admission under RTE may be discriminated against in the classroom due to callousness or insensitivity. Not deliberate. Studies have shown that students who had their caste identified before a test performed worse compared to when they were treated like everyone else. There is a case to be made for training teachers to deal with a classroom equitably despite any provocation.
It is tougher to deal with students from a wider range of society and educational backgrounds. It is also tough to work with a class of forty students when ten of then may be operating at a lower grade level than the others. Again, studies have proven that across income ranges, and across various social backgrounds, primary school children perform roughly the same if – and I repeat if – they are given the same kind of education and inputs. Equity would entail giving the disadvantaged access to after school libraries, a person to ask questions and advice and a mentor who teaches them not to hesitate at the door to the library – among other things.
Equity is about giving everyone a fair chance to go beyond the circumstances of their birth and to work themselves out of poverty. It is a noble goal, and it is extremely sad when such a system is abused by those with low morals. These are the scum of the earth who eat into the share of those who deserve the chance by merit and of those who need the support because of the combination merit and their means. The cheats are the real enemy who exploit affirmative action schemes for their own personal or tribal good. They must be called out – a slow but sure battle ahead.
Affirmative action, especially when limited in its scope and duration is a strong mechanism to encourage everyone to skill themselves for productive lives. It is a worthwhile investment by society. Affirmative action cannot be a perpetual bailout machine. It loses its very reason – a perpetual machine would mean that there is no hope of its being able to meet its objectives and raising levels. The success of affirmative action is in its self redundancy. Provided it is done right, and with honest intent.
Like it or not, flawed or otherwise, the children who come into schools via the RTE act are in need of such honest support. They need to be offered that level playing platform that helps them succeed. In their success is the foundation of the generation that comes after them – the ones who will have such successful parents that they do not need the indulgence of affirmative action any more. This, said in hope.
Do Credentials Matter?
17 October 2013, 02:42 PM IST
Does it matter if a teacher or a professor has the right credentials for the job? What can credentials tell you anyway?
Just because a person is an expert in a subject area does not necessarily make them a competent teacher of that content. Every holder of a doctorate has spent about half a decade creating their nugget of knowledge to share with the world, often confined to the library, laboratory, research arena and the company of peers. They have been trained in asking a good question and then answering it with rigour. In this process, they know a lot about their PhD domain, but know little about the world of teaching and learning. Would they make good teachers?
Not just recent PhD students. The same question applies to anyone with deep domain knowledge from the industry who wishes to share their expertise with students. Some are excellent teachers, others are not. They, like the PhD candidates, have received little or no training in teaching and mentoring their students. Do their credentials and degrees have anything to do with becoming good teachers? Taking it one step foward – Do academic credentials have any meaning for leadership and administrative roles, such as the directorship of an institution?
At the school level too, one wonders if there is a correlation between good degrees and good teaching. On the one hand we have clear evidence from countries with Finland where every teacher must study both content and teaching for at least seven years before they are allowed to teach. Finland, of course, keeps topping the league tables in student achievement. On the other hand, there is evidence gathered from studies in some states of India where trained teachers were often absent. Para teachers were able to match their output as measured in student achievement. Does this mean we don’t need trained teachers at all for our primary schools? (Not really – further details in the study revealed that trained teachers could turn out higher achievement rates, if given the right incentives. And if they were present)
Again and again we find the certificate that is seen as a pre-requisite for obtaining a job has little to do with the skills required for the job. A vice chancellor of a university is expected to watch over governance, manage the politics and be the ambassador for the university. While the selection criteria clearly include these, the certificates and credentials they are expected to produce are often more academic than anything else. They have little relevance to the job at hand. A professor to a university has far more value in their networks and experience than the mere certificates that they must produce for the selection procedure. A school teacher who holds a B.Ed degree may still be utterly unqualified for the task of teaching a real class despite having spent years on the theory of education and child psychology.
This issue is coming to a head in India as the provisions of RTE (Right to Education Act) are being implemented and imposed upon schools with fines and punitive action for non-compliance. There are arguments on both sides. The RTE insists that all teachers have a B.Ed qualification. This is doubly challenging. First, there are not enough qualified teachers in the country. Second – what happens to those teachers who have been doing a wonderful job of teaching for decades without ever needing this qualification? There is no provision in the act for accepting years of competent service as a proxy for the qualification.
Of course our students should have well qualified teachers – they are better teachers, are they not? Err.. sadly, not necessarily. Well, then are they not at least better prepared teachers? In theory yes, but even a good B.Ed program has not exposed them to enough classrooms to actually prove or train them to be better teachers. Let us not speak of the incompetence in B.Ed teaching that allows teachers to receive credentials with minimal learning – it has often been called a scam, a shame. The B.Ed credential has lost value due to such misuse by many colleges.
Even if the schools were willing to recruit, would they be able to afford to do so? Budget schools that often charge as little as Rs. 50 per month as fees from students are unable to meet the RTE criteria regarding teachers – both for pay and qualifications. Teacher pay at the higher level is an absolute amount that works out to more than the total revenue they collect as fees! The fact that children and parents opt to join these schools actively rejecting the free government schools in their areas proves that these schools provide good value – even with uncredentialled teachers. The business model breaks down with the new requirements imposed by law, and a valuable public service will be forced to shut down leaving students with little or no choice in their education.
What does a credential tell us anyway? All it can truly say is that the person named in the credential had access to certain resources for a certain period of time, and was able to secure a decent attendance and examination record. The link between credentials and competence is patchy at best.
The real question that remains to be answered is this: Can learning (read: student achievement) be improved with better teacher training? If uncredentialled teachers are doing such a good job, wouldn’t teachers with a degree do even better? We do not have definite answers to this question yet, even if the intuitive response (and some studies) is in the positive.
Even if we agree on the basic truism that more training, teaching and experience will turn out better teachers, credentials are not the correct response. They are merely another gate that needs to be crossed creating a hurdle for many – and only makes the scarcity situtation worse. What India needs is a system of teacher appointments and training without an insistence on certification. Teacher training is not a one off process. It needs reinforcement and maintenance. Teachers who have been teaching well for many years need a pathway to receive accreditation of prior learning (APL) via a rigorous process. Para teachers and B.Ed certified teachers need to recognise the need for life long learning for teaching rather than rest on a static piece of paper that may not be of much value when standing in front of a classroom full of possibilities.
Mummy! I’m home!! called out Rahul…
25 April 2012, 11:57 AM IST
It was his first day in the main school and Meena was very happy that they had been able to get admission for him in such a prestigious school. They always got very good results and the children worked very hard. It was a bit more expensive than other schools, so the fees and activities would be stretch, but it was worth it. After all, education is everything.
She stepped out into the main room to see her son’s face glowing with happiness and the sun and smiled. “Did the bus come on time?” she asked her father in law, who had gone to pick Rahul up from the bus stop. “Yes, yes”, grunted the old man. “I had their mobile phone number also – I took it from the conductor in the morning. He also gave me the number of the owner of the bus company, in case there was any confusion. But now listen to what Rahul has to say – I don’t know what this world is coming to.”
Meena turned to Rahul inquiringly. “Is everything all right? Did you make friends at school? Were the teachers nice? Come and eat your food and tell me about it”, she said, not wishing to escalate the issue when her father in law was visibly upset.
Rahul chattered on about the school, the building they were in, the swings, the teachers. He had met some of them at the time of the school interview and they remembered how bright and chatty he was – already they had a nice smile for him.” But there was something strange, Ma”, he added. At tiffin time, some of us had nice tiffins, and then some had no tiffin at all. We shared our tiffin, I and some other children. Amma, those nice yellow idlis you gave me, I gave half of them to those children with no tiffin. But many children refused to share! At our nursery school all children were always sharing, but here it is different.” Rahul slurped up his pasta as he paused his story. “Then, a funny thing happened. One boy who was not sharing, suddenly brought out a bag of big sweets, but he only gave it to some of us, from our old nursery school and gave nothing to others. Why did he do that, Ma?”
Meena was at a loss. She could figure out what must have happened in class. This was the first year when one quarter of the class was from the disadvantaged quota. She knew that because the school had sent them a letter saying that the fees would be more this year to accommodate these students. Somehow they had adjusted their family budget, almost saving nothing. The poor students also must have adjusted to buy their uniforms and books. Mrs. Verma next door had bought her maid’s son a full set of uniforms and books and the maid was grateful for that. Meena could not – her own expenses were more than she could handle – and anyway they were paying the extra fees for the tuition of these children. Now, they must have come to school expecting a mid day meal, like they get at government schools, but something obviously went wrong. Poor children, how will they study on hungry stomachs. She tried not to feel upset about her special first day lunch box that had been casually given away. She had spent over an hour making it – but then they had all agreed that it was good to share and give to the needy.
Rahul was waiting for an answer. What should she say? Suddenly, for all her good intentions, she felt a little irritated. All sorts of people come to the class – why should her son have to be with such ill mannered people who discriminate so rudely. Now she would have to explain to her son and build barriers in his mind. She decided to skirt the issue today. “Rahul, maybe his sweets finished, or maybe he is not good at Maths – so when he gave too many sweets to his old friends from nursery school, there were not enough left for the others.” “No Ma, he had lots of sweets. He just did not want to give any to some children. Even in the playground he started pushing them. I saw that. Then, when the teacher came and scolded him, he was forced to make them play his game. Then what he did was play ‘Simon says’ – all these children had to obey him. I don’t like ‘Simon says’ at school, so I went at played with other people’.
Meena sighed. This was going to take a lot of play for things to even themselves out. But they had to become okay in the end. “How are the studies, Rahul”, she asked, not expecting much from the first day. “Uff Ma, so much testing today. Every class we had one class test. I got full marks in everything! But imagine – so many children got zero! Can one get a zero in a test Ma?” “Of course one can get a zero – if it is a new thing”, countered Meena. “If I test you in wearing a sari, I am not sure how many marks you will get”, she laughed. As Rahul and Meena’s laughter broke through the bright afternoon, Meena thought about the journey ahead – the sharing, the heartbreak and the joy of achievement that lay ahead.
(This is obviously a fictional account)
DIsclaimer: Rahul, the name was chosen at random, just as an ordinary name. Not representative of any specific person
17 April 2012, 11:18 PM IST
Every teacher’s nightmare is a classroom where different students are pulling the session in different directions. And yet, in every classroom one notices multiple interests and a range of ability levels. For a lesson to proceed smoothly, it must proceed to a common goal, often known only to the teacher. For this, the teacher needs to have quite a few tools under her (his) belt – and one of these is to manage the diverse range in the class.
Some schools of study try to limit the range of students who enter the class either by creating hurdles such as examinations or though years of training – often both. Early schooling years are often about classroom behaviour, striving for the median and building shared knowledge bases to build on so that the range in later years is limited. This could even be said to be the purpose of early schooling or preschooling.
Even so, all classes have a range to manage and this is a challenge for all teachers. Over years one accumulates a number of tools and exercises to manage for this. Some teachers ensure that everything is repeated in the classroom and that their words can be lip read by those who cannot hear very well (including disability, infection or visual learners). Many ensure that their rapid learners get more information and exercises via discussion while the slower learners are supported by blackboard writing, exercise sheets and work in the notebook. Still others simply set a detailed task that is often finished by the fast learners while the slow learners may finish it in their own time. A classic technique is to divide the class up into ability sets or sections and set different levels of work for each set.
This challenge has become more real for primary school teachers in private schools all over India this week with the Supreme Court upholding the Right to Education Act – which is to be implemented this year. 25% of all seats are now reserved for the disadvantaged and backward students.
The new intake will be more of a mixed bag than they are used to and will have to be managed very intelligently. The situation is not as straightforward as the proponents of the act seem to say – all the children will need to be more sensitive in their dealings with each other. And this to will have to be taught. It will of course be good for the children in the long run, but in the initial stages it will take hard work and patience. It may be a good thing for children to learn that their behaviours must come from their own thinking and circumstances rather than to mindlessly repeat the behaviours they have seen before.
And therein lies the true flaw in the act – the sheer difficulty of its implementation. For it was not thought through to the level of the individual student. And does not resonate with the other policies being simultaneously implemented by the government. A key example is the new assessment framework that emphasises Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) and regulates that this must be integral to the student’s assessments. The government has made these an integral part of assessments. And the implementation is at the same time as that of the RTE. Now these CCE activities are often expensive and need the student to go online or to distant libraries to research the projects. They also need to purchase various kinds of paper, pens and accessories. Some of course outsource this work for a price and turn in very professional projects. If the grades depend on this, parents will certainly put their weight behind it – but those from disadvantaged families will be unable to. This will further deepen the divide in the classroom.
This is either the lack of proper planning or faulty communication. But the act is certainly not going to be popular with teachers for a while. There are serious issues with discipline and ability in many government and municipal schools and these will certainly creep into the better schools. Many bright children, whether rich or poor will have to bear the over head of the undisciplined. The admission criteria are not clear, but what is clear is that no student can be failed till class 8. This is seriously damaging to schools that seek to improve quality as it completely removes any incentive to work hard towards a goal. Exams could be made more open and encourage lateral and critical thinking, thus giving a fairer chance to those who cannot spend so many hours cramming information. But automatic promotion takes power away from the school, which limits their ability to impose a school ethos and discipline.
But it is teachers who will now have to tighten the proverbial belt and come up with innovative ways of retaining (or not) the new entrants into their schools. They must devise ways of helping the old and the new adjust, share and learn from each other and create cohesion within the wider range in the classroom. Year one is likely to be particularly tough, with the teachers probably learning more about range management than they have had a chance to before. But the rewards are enormous – the chance to genuinely transform a life, the chance to discover and nurture talent and the chance to be the one who showed the light – truly the chance to be the teacher they set out to be.
RTE – a half baked, half hearted Act
The recent furore over the Supreme court judgement on the RTE Act has exposed another fault line in an act that is riddled with loopholes. While its original intent is truly noble – to include the disadvantaged in the process of education, it does so by riding rough shod over private rights and ignoring the real issues in the sector.
The massification effort has nominally created a large number of government schools, and government data indicates that student enrollment in primary education is near cent per percent. Then, what problem is the act trying to solve? The problem that needs solving is the quality provision of education to the masses at the primary level.
Recent quality assessments have clearly shown that government schools have seriously underperformed. Teacher absenteeism, discipline issues, poor quality facilities and teaching are among the various factors that have been on the agenda for decades and have not improved. Our much vaunted demographic dividend rests on the shoulders of these primary schools. If they do not deliver a generation well versed in basic skills (reading, writing, arithmetic, application, communication) then it will be almost impossible for the secondary and higher education system to deliver skilled and self-sufficient youth. The RTE acknowledges the need to include the private sector in the solution and has unilaterally co-opted them in the process. Now this puts the government schools in direct competition with the local private schools and challenges them to justify their value addition.
However, this is act also being used as a tool for social engineering. While, again, the intent is noble, the journey is anything but, for the people pay the price. It is easier for the incumbents than for the new comers who have a generation of catching up and hierarchical hurdles to jump. In this, they will need to be supported both inside the classroom and outside. It is an additional economic burden that the private schools will have to bear, and an emotional burden on these entrants. While it may seem unreasonable to some, it is the price we pay for rapid growth and a desire to be egalitarian.
The desire to be egalitarian too seems to be half hearted as the recent ruling has shown. Not only are the unaided minority schools left out of the ambit, other elite schools too have loopholes that they can take advantage of and not admit the weaker and backward sections. Because education is a concurrent subject, the act has an excuse for the loopholes it leaves. The states are supposed to define the rules and implement it in their own way. Thus, the reservation which was meant to be for the economically backward seems to have been defined more on caste and religious lines than economic. Could it be reservation by another name?
From the point of view of schools, there is only one category of schools that will not find it difficult. These are the ones in the middle of the ladder who have decent infrastructure and tightly manage their costs one way or another. If their fees were lower than the compensation offered by the state (and there are a few of these) then this a windfall, an additional revenue stream. For an education philosophy that claims to be against profits (thankfully this is changing), this is an interesting fall out of the RTE act.
Most other schools are troubled. Many schools that currently served local poor communities do not have the infrastructure prescribed in the act. Nor do they have the funds to provide these facilities and will be at the grace and mercy of the government and their inspectors to continue their low cost-low fee operations.
Elite and high achieving schools of course have a different range of challenges, and all of these are people challenges. While this will take time, and the children will have to go through their own journeys of finding friendships across class and economic barriers, the schools will face the additional burden of supporting the disadvantaged outside the classroom. The biggest advantage any child at any school has, is educated and concerned parents, who support classroom learning with their inputs, both on content and study tools. Students who are first generation learners will need to be mentored both by their teachers and by their peers and this will require additional funds not provided in the act. Nor has pastoral care been included, nor is there any indication of the intent to retain these students in school.
And this is the fatal flaw here, the half heartedness. It wants to open doors but not all of them. It wants students to enter, but does not plan for them to stay. It wants quality, but does not bother to define it in ways that will matter to the student’s progress. It wants a shared platform, but pays lip service to well being, ignoring the costs of provisioning. It seeks to educate the student but without thinking through the student experience.
Education Quality: Equity or Achievement
“Who is the best doctor here?”
The question echoed down the hallway. I could understand the need for wanting to be treated only by the best. Then I wondered about all the rest – peers to this best doctor. Were they substandard? Clearly not. Would it not be less stressful to know for sure that all doctors were of the same calibre and one was safe wherever one went for treatment? Wasn’t it better for all if equity of output was the goal of all education?
Is that the desired goal of an education system or institution? Do we seek excellence, differentiation or do we want everyone in the class to perform to a certain standard? True equity in education could equally be measured in terms of outcomes.
Is it even fair to expect everyone to perform to the same level? This has been the key question in the equity vs. equality debate. Is it fair for a school or university to educate people to exactly the same level? This denies merit, talent and extra hard work that some candidate manage to invest. Many agree that excellence is fostered by competition, and without competition the result is likely to be a slide beyond mediocrity. It is the differentiation, the need to win that motivates us to work harder and evolve.
The question matters now in India as we come to almost a universal acceptance that the quality criteria as defined by school inputs under the RTE (Right to Education Act) will certainly need to be changed. A school is not good just because it has the right amount of land, or because its teachers received certain certificates. A school is good when its students learn and achieve. We all agree so far, but this is when the troubles begin.
First – what do we mean by student achievement. Average scores in examinations? Should that average reflect the achievement of all the children – does a good school ensure that all students get similar success? Or should a school foster excellence and invest in those who show greater potential? Is a school that has a few super achievers better than a school with many average performers? Equity demands that all students be given an equal chance and equal attention (inputs again!) but the achievement focus helps a school work towards maximising every student’s potential. Both high up in the fairness rankings.
Choosing between those two is not easy. Can both not be attained? Of course every honest teaching institution tries to make sure that equity and achievement are both fostered. Excellent schools achieve this with large monetary and non monetary investments. But even the best schools will only be able to give assurance that their basic minimum standards were maintained – no one can guarantee equity in outcomes. Everyone would have achieved to a certain standard, with outliers. This is how we judge the institution, do we not? By the success of its students – outliers and average.
I hypothesise that the institution gains a reputation not because its graduates perform to the same predictable level, but because it has a consistent record of excellence. The demand for admission to that institution depends upon this reputation. When we choose a school for our children we want the best, a place where they will be given a chance to shine. Not just one where everyone will achieve to a common standard.
When it comes to designing a measure for judging school quality, one cannot deny that input criteria are important too. Inputs do affect outputs, but these are not solely a function of inputs. It is not just your resources, but what you do with them that matters. The best schools are often accused of cherry picking at the time of admissions which accounts for their excellent results. A school with a better playground, better trained teachers, laboratories and libraries is clearly superior. But a qualified teacher who spends their class contact time knitting or catching up with administrative tasks will probably count as a great school input on paper, but it is highly unlikely to have much impact. What matters more to a student is the quality of school time.. what did they learn when they were at school? Did they learn to be confident? To communicate well? Did they learn to learn? The value add that the school provides is a better measure of quality than either input or output measures. This can be further refined to allow for consistency over time.
The real debate begins here – does the value add of the school get measured only in student achievement in standardised tests? Or should it be a more holistic measure that includes a wider range of achievements? Does one include benefits to wider society? These are questions for policy makers to ponder on as the next five years in education in India promise an emphasis on quality.
All the discussion on quality and equity is at its peak at the time of admissions. For now, I have a simple rule of thumb – ask the market. The school with more applicants per seat available is judged to be doing a better job. The task now is to tabulate and articulate this sense of value into a rigorous metric, so that we students of education, can understand what true value add is in the eyes of its consumers and seek to embed that value across the spectrum.
This very battle between quality and equity is being played out in admissions in Delhi again this season. Schools that are much in demand have a very high number of applicants. The state has legislated on entry criteria with no discretion given to schools. Centralised criteria seek to deliver on equity but end up effectively restricting choice both for schools and students. Schools would ideally like to be able to focus on quality while still offering fair access are forced out of the dialogue. The battle between equity, access and choice continues real time in this arena.
It is time to recast the RTE Act: Mint