Not just their roll call

The PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results show that education in India must now change its primary focus to the quality of education. The first internationally comparable measurement of what our children learn in schools has shown that India is second from the bottom among the 74 countries measured. Levels of enrollment in primary education in India are now nearly 100 per cent for boys and marginally less for girls. The challenge is no longer how to get children into schools, but how to educate them.

As a country that needed to get its children away from farms, household work and taking care of younger siblings to schools, the government increased school infrastructure and provided midday meals. The existing school infrastructure was characterised by lack of buildings, blackboards, books, uniforms, school toilets, boundary walls and desks. More money was spent on all these. But we were yet to start measuring the infrastructure being created was at the same time a good learning environment for the children.

As questions of learning quality arose, there was a debate, nearly 10 years ago, in Indian education policy, between two viewpoints. One viewpoint was that the basic strategy of public expenditure on education in India was wrong: that it was wrong to run government schools, it was incentive incompatible to have teachers as civil servants with zero accountability, etc. Some of these arguments were based on international experience, and some on anecdotal evidence from Indian schools, especially those run by state and local governments. However, at that time there was little state- or countrywide empirical evidence of educational outcomes in India which could offer conclusive evidence. This argument lost the debate.

The other side argued that the main problem with Indian education was the lack of resources. Looking at the lack of facilities in schools, especially at the disparity between school infrastructure in urban public schools and rural government schools, it was not surprising that the policy of mere intensification of existing policies won the debate. When Indian GDP growth took off in 2002, one target for more spending was education. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan was the policy of doing more of the same: building more schools, hiring more teachers.

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