Trying To Tame The Blackboard Jungle

As more Indian children flood into schools, educators struggle to boost quality

To understand the educational challenges facing India, pay a visit to Dharavi, a poor and densely populated Bombay neighborhood. Its lanes are so small and winding that no vehicles can traverse them. Open drains run outside the crudely built brick and corrugated metal homes, and garbage is piled high every few yards. The area, where 1 million of Bombay's poorer migrants live, is Asia's largest slum.

This is the home of the Dharavi Transit Camp School, one of two in the neighborhood run by the municipal corporation. Outside the high school gates, ragged, half-naked children play amid scattered garbage. Some run in and out of the gates, but nobody stops them. There is no school guard, and the teachers who pass through don't bother. The school, four stories high, is shorn of paint and looks grim under the monsoon clouds.

It's past noon, and schoolchildren are starting to straggle in for the afternoon shift of classes. The girls wear blue pinafores, the boys blue shorts and shirts. Many are barefoot. Like most state-run schools in Bombay, the Transit Camp School runs classes up to seventh grade, in two shifts, with each floor teaching classes in a different language, reflecting the regional origins of its 6,000 students. Blackboards, tables, and benches crowd the 12 classrooms on each floor. With 100 students per class, the sessions sometimes spill into the corridors.

On this day, Gautam Dandage, a cement spreader, has brought his 8-year-old daughter, Ujwala, to school. She is doing O.K. in class but his older son, he complains, has lost his motivation. "My son failed because of the class master. He never showed up for class all year," Dandage gripes. The deputy head teacher, Sampat Bhandare, tries to shush the worried father, explaining that the teacher in question was sick and the school could not find a replacement. Dandage isn't convinced.

A day at school in Dharavi is a vivid lesson in India's education gap. In a nation striving to be a global leader in brainpower, the Transit Camp School underscores the enormous scale of India's struggle to provide adequate education for its youth. India has the world's youngest, potentially most productive population. Nearly 500 million Indians are under age 19. In primary school alone, some 202 million students are taught by 5.5 million teachers in 1 million schools.

Yet while free and compulsory primary education became law in 2001, the quality of learning is poor and the failure rate is high. Even in fifth grade, some 35% of Indian children cannot read or write, according to Pratham, India's largest education nonprofit group. According to government statistics, just a quarter of students make it past eighth grade, and only 15% get to high school. Of the 202 million who start school, only about 7%, or 14 million, graduate. And without a fully literate population, India won't easily sustain the demands and aspirations of its people or become a global power. "The government is failing our youth," says Vimala Ramachandran, an education specialist and author of Getting Children Back to School.

Increasingly, Indian parents want their children educated, particularly in English and computing. That's not only critical for youth; it's the key to India's development. Education is a "ticket out of poverty," says New Delhi economist Surjit Bhalla. Parents understand that when India began to grow in the 1980s and 1990s, the educated got better jobs -- "even if it meant going to the Gulf states and achieving blue- collar success," Bhalla notes.

But India's state system just isn't meeting people's aspirations. "It's two decades behind the population's needs," says Madhav Chavan, founder and program director of Pratham. Poor-quality teachers, a politicized education department, outdated learning methods, and the pressures Indian children face at home are just some of the roots of India's education gap. Many girls drop out of school after fourth grade, for example, to do household chores while their parents work. Just half of India's girls are literate, vs. nearly three-fourths of boys.


Indians can't blame the government for not trying to improve the situation. The Ministry of Human Resource Development has thousands of schemes aimed at enhancing educational opportunities. The most ambitious is the 2001 Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, or universal education incentive program. Its $2.4 billion annual budget provides students with a meal a day, free textbooks, medical care, and remedial classes. The Congress Party, which returned to power in New Delhi last year, is pushing the agenda even further. The government's spending on education has gone from 3% of gross domestic product last year to 4% this year, and is expected to rise to 6% soon.

These efforts are making an impact. Almost 90% of all children are now enrolled in school -- up from 75% in 2000. Yet the growth is a strain for some schools. In the poorer regions of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, class sizes are now "too large to manage," says Venita Kaul, who oversees World Bank education projects in India. The Bank is providing $500 million for the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan budget over three years until 2007.

Despite increased enrollments, graduation ratios are falling -- even in top states such as Maharashtra, where Bombay is located. This year, 57% of the 10th-grade students in Maharashtra passed their final exams -- a big drop from last year when 67% cleared the exam. "We aim for a zero dropout and failure rate," says Abasaheb Jadav, who is project director for the federal government's Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in Bombay. Good intentions aside, the experts say India's educational system faces its most serious challenges at the classroom level.

Start with the teachers. State-employed teachers earn up to $300 a month and often four times as much as private school teachers. But they are poorly trained, unmotivated, and often commandeered for other government services like election duty or overseeing polio vaccination drives. Consequently, teacher -- and hence student -- absenteeism is high. At the same time, increased enrollments -- thanks to the midday meal now required in all schools -- have caused a teacher shortage. As a result, in many schools, teachers have to handle up to four different grades at once, another blow to the quality of schooling.

Another issue is infrastructure. The government is boosting spending on schools, books, and classroom equipment, but the funding often doesn't reach the remote rural areas. In Bihar, India's poorest state, schools are crumbling buildings lacking roofs, windows, or blackboards. In Behrampur, a village about three hours away from the capital of Patna, the broken-down single-room school serves as a playground for the village's 200 children. Locals say the schoolmaster comes by every three or four days. Devbali Rai, a 30-year-old farmer, is near despair. "We want schooling. Our children must study," he says.


Adding to the cauldron of problems is a curriculum crisis fueled by political rivalries. In 1998, when the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party won the national elections, education became the first target of revisionist historians. School textbooks were rewritten to reflect the BJP's ultra-nationalist ideology. Then the Congress government reverted to the original facts when its party defeated the BJP in national elections last year. Now parents and teachers worry that another election will mean more tinkering with the school syllabi and textbooks. "This oscillating between the orthodoxies of the right and the left, the yo-yo-like swings in curricula, is driving parents and teachers mad," says Kanti Bajpai, headmaster of the Doon School, the country's most elite school.

All these difficulties are accelerating the rush to India's 100,000-plus private schools. For decades private schools such as the Doon School, modeled after Britain's Eton, have catered to the elite. Now even poor students are enrolling in private schools, where the tuition can range from $24 a year in remote villages to $15,000 at the top end. In underdeveloped states many private schools are just single rooms in village homes. But even in cramped surroundings students learn enough to take a school-graduating exam.

Despite the proliferation of private schools, few experts believe they are the solution to India's educational challenges. True, they tend to be better than their state counterparts. But many are unregulated, and they still serve just a fraction of the population. Privatizing education, while often suggested by experts, isn't the answer either. India is too large, and many of its poorest parts are so remote that few private educators would want to teach there.

Yet some experiments are taking place that could provide models for education reform. ICICI Bank has invested in organizations such as Vidya Bhavan Society that are experimenting with alternate teaching systems to replace rote memorization. One of its projects is in the state of Chattisgarh, which three years ago was carved out of the large and poor state of Madhya Pradesh with the idea that smaller states could be governed more easily. "We were new and inexperienced, we needed everyone's help," recalls Sanjay Kumar Ojha, an official whom New Delhi sent to help the state's Education Dept. Ojha and team have readied a new set of textbooks, plus teacher recruiting and training programs, in just two years. The new curriculums will be introduced in 2006. If successful, Chattisgarh could become a model.

Encouraged by such efforts, Pratham's Chavan confidently predicts "a major change in the provision of education" in the coming years. The driving force will be parents who desperately want to educate their children in English. In Kashmir, the government has already switched to an English-language-based school education from the first grade. Even in conservative, Hindi-dominated Rajasthan, English as a language is now taught from the first grade. The state of Kerala, which stood alone in India for its 99% literacy rate, is now joined by Mizoram and Himachal Pradesh in the north. Such efforts could one day help India close its education gap.

By Manjeet Kripalani

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