The business of Education; An inspection into the disconnect

The business of Education; An inspection into the disconnect

Sunday March 03, 2013,

7 min Read

Editor's Note: In this modern age of internet and technology, we sometimes get carried away by the advancements and neglect some of the grassroot problems that cripple education in India. Efforts are being made here as well but when one looks at the revolutionary things we talk about and the reality on the ground, the disconnect is enormous. Here, author Prerna Mukharya takes us through her experiences with education in India...


In my time spent as a Researcher I have done a fair deal of fieldwork. A big chunk of this fieldwork has been to the interiors of Madhya Pradesh, to districts, villages and to places where there were no roads or cell phone network or shops that would sell Pepsi.

The idea was to visit public and private schools, talk to teachers, students, families and households to better understand the landscape of education in its entirety. On one of these trips, our team of researchers, fieldworkers and surveyors walked some 12 Km off the road, traversing hills, and valleys to an obscure village called Satjiri in the Chindwara district in Madhya Pradesh. It was the month of June, the rain Gods had complied and the place looked beautiful; this village was in a state of total disconnect with the outside world. We walked into a household made of mud and cowdung cakes. The water and mud had mixed to make a slurry of slippery red carpet. There was a fireplace right in the centre and instead of wood, which is a prized commodity and can be sold for money, the members had saved up on cob (the thick part from the corn crop) from last year.

In one corner was a newborn calf, curled up in a ragged blanket and some chickens were running about the hut. A school bag was lying in the corner and I asked the boy who stared at us nervously from outside the hut if he went to school. He nodded. Ravi was around 12 or 13 years old, and went to a government school nearby. I asked him to show me his notebook. The single line ruled copy had scribbles all over it in Hindi, some of them tough words. For a moment, I thought that this must mean real progress. I asked the boy to write down his name for me. Ravi stared back at me shyly. I offered him a box of crayons (we carry these as a conversation starter in our dealings with children). He took the crayon and just sat there. I asked him again, to which he replied, “humko likhna nahi aata” translated I don’t know how to write. This was appalling. Here I was, sitting with a 13 year old boy who’s notebook was full of writing. I asked him the obvious “to yeh sab kaise likha aapne” translated then how did you write all of this down. He said “board se sirf copy kiye hain” translated I simply copy the designs off the board. I didn’t want to say more.

It would be common knowledge to suggest that a private school in India costs much than a public school, which charge either no fee or a miniscule amount. If I were to ask a passerby, why we Indians don’t want to send our children to a public school (if we can afford private education), the response I expect to hear is: There is no teaching in these schools. There are no teachers, no books and in some cases no school walls.

Karthik Muralidharan who has been at the helm of education related studies for more than a decade and is an Assistant Professor at the University of California, San Diego says, “What does it say about the quality of your product that you can’t even give it away for free?”.

Common sense would suggest then that this is a problem of resources. At the Centre however, is an erudite pleasant man, he has a fancy Harvard Law degree to his credit. He seems to disagree with the former statement. He says that under the Right to Education Act, State governments now have access to around $2 billion to procure resources to hire more teachers, and improve facilities.

At this instance, I am confused. At one end of the spectrum I have people telling me that there is a critical failure of the education system in place, while at the other end i.e. the government seems to be in denial and wants to discuss issues such as student--‐teacher ratios and parental involvement. Clearly, I am missing a piece to this puzzle.

My fieldwork experience seems to suggest that our education system is in a state of dissonance between what the Government thinks needs to be done and the reality of it at the grass roots level. To understand this clearly: Parents want their child to learn and hence they send their children to school. Students go to school and yet the process of learning is not taking place. The government at its end is hiring more teachers and building more buildings (or at least is thinking its money is being used for these purposes).

Then why is it that we boast of such contrasts between theory and its classic counterpart i.e reality. This is just bad business sense on the part of the government. In a game of poker, this is akin to the government playing big blind, betting big, hoping their cards will win them better statistics next term, their bet being the taxpayers money.

Studies suggest that teacher absence might explain a few things. We have absenteeism of the order of 25% and this simply represents teacher being physically absent from the school. These numbers exclude schools being closed without reason or for want of better words, legit reasons. The teacher may very well be present in school and not teaching or teaching students from grade 1--‐5 in the same class, and the same material. Mind you, salaries for teachers are at parity with international standards so it is not the ‘money’ factor. At one level, intrinsic motivation is missing, whether I teach or not teach I will receive my salary, there is no monitoring and a government job is for life--‐ no government teacher gets fired.

These teachers do not believe they are a part of the bigger system that is empirical to the idea of change in the bigger sense. There is no appreciation of their contribution or incentives if their students do well. They travel long distances and have to live in smaller towns/villages with fewer amenities relative to the promises of a big city.

In policy as in business you have to make it worthwhile for the investor (teacher) to show faith in your product (better education standards). You have to make them feel like they are a part of the process (issue equity), and from time to time give them performance based rewards (dividends).

Private education offers the much needed escape route to the above problem, to the lucky few who can afford it. In spite of the government pumping more money into public education, there has been a shift in preference towards private education. There is a growing trend among public school teachers to send their own children to private schools. Most of these are not registered and are run by individuals or small organizations that charge a small fee and are trying to share this burden of public provision with the government.

The Right to Education with it’s a labyrinth of compliance clauses will require these schools to either shut down, register or expand in terms of resources. With these informal private schools facing the threat of closure what will happen to hundreds and thousands of children who face the bleak option of going back to public schools. More importantly, what happens to the quality of education? Are we looking at more students like Ravi in the making?

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