Thursday, March 02, 2006

Why Rani can’t read? January 29, 2006

We are not a cooperative people, and some even accuse us of a crab’s mentality—we’d rather bring down the next guy than see the team win. So, when 20,000 volunteers from 700 institutions collaborate to test 332,971 village children in 484 districts at a breakneck pace, within a month that is a victory of sorts. It also says something about our voluntary movement. Where civil society begins to flourish democracy has taken hold, says de Tocqueville, and this is worth celebrating on this 57th birthday of our Republic.

This team effort was led by the impressive NGO, Pratham, and the result is a citizens’ report card called Annual Status of Education Report 2005. It is the first ever snapshot in our nation’s history about children’s ability to read and do arithmetic. The good news is that the old bogey about children not attending school is gone. 93.4% of village children are in school. You could argue that 1.3 crore children are not in school, which is terrible, but I prefer to celebrate the achievement. The gender gap is also happily narrowing. In 2001, 65% of the kids-out-of-school were girls; this has come down to 55%.

The bad news is that 35% of India’s rural children between ages 7 and14 cannot read a simple paragraph, something they should have learned to do in the first school year. 52% cannot read a simple story, which they should have learned by grade 2. 41% cannot either do two digit subtractions with borrowing or divide three digits by one digit. Given the atrocious state of government schools, these are not surprising results. The optimist might even argue that at least two out of three kids can read a paragraph and one in two can read a story; and 1 in 4 can subtract and 1 in 3 can divide. Children in private rural schools, who constituted 16% in the sample survey, scored 10 percentage points higher.

There are some surprises in the data on states, but overall rural India is behind by 2-3 years. This is deeply disappointing for a nation that aspires to heights. Also, we won’t know how badly off we are unless Pratham benchmarks these results with those of other countries. Curiously, the very act of testing brought the whole village together. Children wanted to be tested. Mothers wanted to know, “can my child read?” One village patriarch cynically told Pratham volunteers that they were wasting their time. But when he discovered that none of his three children could read, he practically fell off his khatiya. It was a shock to many parents and communities that that their children had been left behind.

Why Rani cannot read is because we don’t focus on outcomes. Official policy forbids primary schools to test kids as it might hurt their self-esteem. Children are automatically promoted till class 5. It does make sense not to want to create excessive anxiety of an annual external exam in the very young. However, parents, children and even teachers, do need feedback. Unless you test the child, how do you help the child to improve? How do you know if the teacher is doing her job? If the child knows when he is bowled out on the cricket pitch, why not tell him when he is bowled out in class? Instead of stopping IIM-B from going to Singapore, the Minister ought to be thinking about these questions—and why 3 out of 4 children cannot subtract.

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