Chennai Journal
Sunday, August 05, 2007
The State of Education
A lot has been written about the state of education in India, and I can't do justice to the topic in a short blog post. But I have been thinking a lot about this topic in part because it is the focus of so many community service initiatives here, as I noted last week, and also one critical to India's future.
The sound byte version is that India has among the finest educational institutes in the world--and also the most substandard and pathetic. The social and human rights imperatives aside, India's continued ability to grow and attract both domestic and foreign investment will hit an abrupt ceiling if it cannot find a way to bring quality education to a greater percentage of its population. The supply of skilled and educated resources is simply not keeping up with the demand--and education is a major reason (infrastructure is the other).

There are a few good government schools But because the vast majority of them are of such poor calibre, virtually any parent who can afford to sends his or her children to a private school. Household servants, who typically make less than $150 per month, may take loans from their employers (or the employers may gift them the money) to send their children and grandchildren to private schools. The tuition for some of these schools is modest by western standards--perhaps $200 to $300 per year---but is still out of the reach of the vast majority. Government schools are not even in the consideration set. In addition to a more limited coverage and curriculum (usually age 5 or 6 through 10th standard), the drop out rate is high, and standards low. Children are passed out of each grade up to grade 8 automatically. Many cannot read despite having passed the 5th grade.

The problem includes the parents and teachers. According to a study done of some of the schools around our factory neighborhood, only about 50% of the parents of the children attending these schools are literate themselves (literacy rates in India vary by state, with Tamil Nadu having about a 75% rate overall). Many of the men are unemployed and about a third are alcoholic (but most households have a TV). Only about half the teachers are qualified to teach, and few have any computer literacy or even sufficient English language skills. As English is the medium of the higher education system---not to mention essential for many higher skill jobs---the fact that the children study only in Tamil automatically limits them even if they are academically inclined.

It is especially difficult for girls to get educated. There are many barriers, from parental concerns about the safety of a young girl walking to a school several miles away, to the more cynical--but engrained-- belief that education is wasted on girls and they are better off at home helping to tend livestock or earn a living. For all poor children, procuring a notebook, which only costs a few rupees, may be impossible. In some villages, there have been efforts to train educable adults who, although they do not possess teacher qualifications, are preferable to outside teachers since they are part of the fabric of the community. There are many other models with modest, but achievable goals.

The problem is complex, and both private and public resources and interventions are needed to improve it. It is not only a matter of money, although financial resources are of course required---for everything from building infrastructure, providing school resources, and training and incenting teachers. A number of non-governmental organizations as well as private industry associations, concerned about where they will get future employees, are involved in various efforts with individual schools, the government, and villages. There is no level of the system that doesn't require help---although the sheer number of primary schools and teachers is insufficient, the colleges and universities also have wide variability in quality and many are turning out graduates who are simply not equipped for the working world.

In addition to international institutions such as the UN and World Bank, Rotary, Roundtable (noted last week) and many other local service organizations have improvement of the country's education system as a top goal. Given that there is so much to do, it may seem disheartening to view the magnitude of the task. Yet, the literacy rate in Tamil Nadu, 75% as of the 2001 census, has climbed from just 54% in 1981. Other states are further behind, but in all cases the trend is up rather than flat or even. So the work of many hands-- and hearts-- is bearing fruit.
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