Only the wilfully self-delusional are likely to be surprised by the findings of OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which has ranked India second last among 73 countries in maths, reading and science abilities, being ahead only of Kyrgyzstan. The findings should be a wake-up call for policy makers who may be congratulating themselves on the higher enrolments achieved under the massive Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, and the passage of the Right to Education Act. That’s because the dismal showing has come from students from Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh, two states hand-picked by the government as showpieces for education and development. Yet 15-year-old students from these states managed to consistently lag on almost every parameter. In reading English texts, for instance, Indian students bested only Kyrgyzstan. India’s soft power marketers have long perpetuated the notion that its schoolchildren enjoy a natural affinity for, and prowess at, maths and science; it is flaunted as the very basis of the country’s global success in information technology. How did Indian mid-schoolers fare in these two subjects vis-à-vis their global peers? Again, in the same trough as Kyrgyzstan: in science Himachal came last, while Tamil Nadu “improved” its position inasmuch as it was ranked third last. Overall, India lagged a substantial 200 points behind China — which, equally unsurprisingly perhaps, logged the top spot on all three parameters.
The PISA findings provide a shaming, global corroboration of what field studies in India have long discovered — that government programmes may have ensured that well over 90 per cent of children in the age group 6-14 years are enrolled in school, but the focus on delivering physical infrastructure in the form of schoolrooms and teachers has detracted from the quality of education imparted. Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) for 2010 study found that “even after five years in school, close to half of all children are not even at the level expected of them after two years in school”. For instance, just over half the students of standard four could read a standard-two text. The ASER study also showed that maths ability was declining. In the space of just one year, the study found, the proportion of standard-one students who could recognise numbers from one to nine declined from 69.3 per cent in 2009 to 65.8 per cent.
The question is whether policy makers are up to drawing the correct lessons from this dismal showing and whether they will focus on the quality of education being imparted, instead of just on school buildings and teacher salaries. Any solutions will require lateral, creative thinking. More than half of India’s population is in the 15-59 age-group, the “working-age” population. If most are inadequately educated, India’s supposed “demographic dividend” can become as big a liability as ageing populations are for the West.