A strong education system is the cornerstone of any country's growth and prosperity. Over the last decade, India has made great strides in strengthening its primary education system. The District Information System for Education (DISE) reported in 2012 that 95% of India's rural populations are within one kilometer of primary schools. The 2011 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), which tracks trends in rural education, indicated that enrollment rates among primary-school-aged children were about 93%, with little difference by gender.
However, behind the veil of such promising statistics, the learning outcomes of India's children show little progress. The country ranked 63 out of 64 in the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, with some of its best schools ranked about average among those surveyed. The 2011 ASER stated that only 48.2% of students in the fifth grade can read at the second grade level. The number of students completing their primary education with inadequate numeracy and literacy skills is startling. To see this manifest in an economic sense, one may attribute India's productivity growth -- lagging behind that of East Asian economies -- to a lack of progress in the foundational elements of countrywide, high-quality education.
India's private-schooled, English-speaking urban elite may attract global attention, but they are in the minority. The vast majority of Indian children attend government-run primary schools in rural areas. In 2008-2009, rural India accounted for more than 88% of India's primary-school students, of whom over 87% were enrolled in government-run schools. This is where we see some of the nation's toughest challenges.
A Diverse Set of Problems
India's education system has not achieved strong learning outcomes for reasons that are as diverse and nuanced as the country itself. Key among these reasons is poor teaching quality, which results from a multitude of factors.
Inadequate Teacher Qualification and Support: Teachers working in primary schools across rural India have a difficult job. Dhir Jhingran, a senior civil servant in the Indian Administrative Service, with more than two decades of experience in rural primary education, explained the multiple challenges they face: "Teachers have to teach multiple grades, textbooks are pitched far above the comprehension level of students, and each classroom has children with different levels of learning achievements." Anurag Behar, CEO of the Azim Premji Foundation, an education non-profit, noted that "the average school teacher in India does not get adequate pre-service or in-service education, nor does she get the support to overcome these problems." Compounding this is the relatively low educational qualifications of many teachers themselves. In 2008-2009, on average, 45% of these teachers had not studied beyond the 12th grade.
Low Teacher Motivation and High Absenteeism: A key factor affecting the quality of primary education appears to be low levels of teacher motivation. In 2002-2003, 25% of primary-school teachers in rural India were absent on any given day. The impact of absenteeism is exacerbated by the fact that the average primary school in India has a workforce of no more than three teachers. At a school for girls in rural Rajasthan, we observed this problem first hand: Of the eight teachers assigned, only five were present. The three who were actually teaching were juggling eight different grades.
The obvious reason -- remuneration -- does not appear to be a driver. In fact, both education experts and ordinary citizens argue that government-employed school teachers are paid relatively well. UNESCO surveys from as early as 2004 indicated that the annual statutory salary of primary school teachers in India with 15 years' experience was more than $14,000, adjusted for purchasing power. This was significantly higher than the then-statutory salaries of $3,000 in China and Indonesia, and the...
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