No country has transited from being poor and backward to being rich and developed without an education revolution. We in India are busy boasting about our economic growth rates and geopolitical rise but have lost sight of the deep weakness of our society. The results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009 test, which Indian students from Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu took, are an indication of the abysmal state of our education system.

Here are the results from these two states. In reading competence, of the 74 regions worldwide participating in PISA 2009 , Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu beat out only Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. In mathematics, the two states again beat only Kyrgyzstan. In science, the results were even worse; Himachal Pradesh came in last, behind Kyrgyzstan, while Tamil Nadu finished 72nd.

Of course, when we in India get bad news in terms of global comparisons, we have the usual reactions. The first reaction is to shoot the messenger: the person or organisation giving us the bad news must be anti-Indian or have a hidden agenda. The second reaction is to become methodological purists: question the nature of the test, the sample taken, the statistics used, and so on. The third and worst reaction is nativism and exceptionalism: India has its own way, its own genius and its own time horizons.

So i have heard responses to the PISA result that go something like this. Indian education is unique and is not geared to foreign tests. Indians are "essentially" clever and the tests don`t pick up the "jugaad" culture of India. There is a deep wisdom in the humblest Indian, and literacy, numeracy, comprehension and problem solving are not true education. Finally, it is too soon to pass judgment on Indian education. We in India do things gradually.

Perhaps this is all correct. Or perhaps we just don`t want to face reality. I have been in school and university education in India since 1989. And i can say, in all earnestness, that the PISA results do not surprise me at all even if they are not completely accurate (would it really make a difference if Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu had ranked 60th out of 74?). Incidentally, there are Indian studies carried out by respected groups such as Pratham that bear out the basic conclusions reached by the PISA test.

Let`s face it. Our school system, vocational education (such as it is), colleges and universities are in a shambles. At Independence, India would have ranked much higher in Asia. Today, its education system has fallen massively behind. Our universities certainly were at the top of the pile in Asia in 1950. Today, not a single Indian university ranks in the top hundred institutions of the world while there are over a dozen Asian universities on that list. Even amongst Asian IT and engineering universities, India has only half a dozen out of the top 50 institutions - when India is the second most populous country in Asia and, on a purchasing power parity basis, the third biggest economy after China and Japan.

Why such a mess? The central government, committed to spending 6% of GDP on education, spends 4%. Then there is the quality of teachers. Finland, which tops the PISA rankings, recruits its teachers from the top 10% of its graduates (yet does not pay them exorbitantly); i shudder to think where we get our teachers from. Thirdly, there is the accountability problem. The government recruits teachers, pays their salaries, and cannot get them to perform. And this when government teachers are paid twice the salary of private school teachers. Why the lack of accountability? The teachers` unions are too strong, legal protections for teachers seem unassailable and the government just does not care enough to challenge either.

The problems of our colleges and universities merit a separate column altogether, but government interference in their workings is a large part of the problem. Having said that, the ordinary Indian too is to blame, especially those who are educated and well off. Until we insist on high quality education for all Indians, little will change. PISA 2030 will be the same story as PISA 2009.

Tags: Education

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