Professor P.V. Indiresan, ex-Director of IIT-M, has a rambling op-ed in the Business Line; he offers several familiar arguments against reservation. This one, however, is new:
[...] As a natural corollary of the Reservation Principle, teaching posts have been reserved on caste basis. That is a cardinal error. What poor students need most are the best teachers available, not the least qualified. [...]
First of all, by conflating reservation and the failure of our state-run schools, he isn't contributing meaningfully to a discussion on either. Second, while his argument, like those based on 'merit', has a certain appeal to it, it isn't difficult to show that it has very little basis.
Different states in our country have had different experiences with quotas, thus allowing us to check if, and how well, reservation correlates with poor quality of schools. Fortunately, we don't have to look far. Indiresan's article itself contains some:
In the past fifty years, the population of Chennai has increased almost ten times. Yet, many schools run by the City Corporation have been closed for "want of students". In truth, it cannot be that the students, but the quality of teachers selected that was found wanting.
It is a recorded fact that discipline among school teachers has come down. Across the country, half the time teachers are not attending to class work at all. It is a fact that most students in Delhi's Corporation schools cannot do simple arithmetic -- multiply two-digit numbers -- even after five years of education.
I believe his statements about the poor quality and work ethic of teachers are broadly true (but overstated) -- for both Chennai and Delhi, and indeed for most schools across the country. But, Chennai has had a long history of far more aggressive reservation than Delhi, thus debunking the correlation between reservation and poor quality schools/teaching.
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Indiresan's bad analysis need not deter us from examining what ails our state-run schools. Most of us have our own views on this issue; here's my take. Feel free to to add your perspectives in the comments.
The reality of our state-run schools (other than the Kendriya Vidyalayas) is quite well known: crowded classrooms, poor infrastructure, bad working conditions, poor pay, ... It's safe to say that teaching in government schools is not the career of choice for the vast majority of us. Yet, we are fortunate to find many, many competent, committed and inspiring individuals who choose to become teachers. The law of large numbers [er ... our population] continues to come to our help!
Sadly, however, not all the teachers are great. Our employment exchanges select teachers from a vast pool of applicants who span a huge spectrum in terms of competence and commitment. And, inevitably, they select a bunch of teachers who are neither competent nor committed. Further, our system doesn't have a mechanism for kicking anyone out for non-performance. So, the bad teachers, once selected, stick around for several decades, bringing the average quality down.
Here's the main point: our 'system' has -- and will have -- these problems, irrespective of whether the bad teachers are from the general category (GC) or the reserved category (RC).
The remedy isn't hard to guess: make teaching more attractive as a career, and enforce strict standards of accountability. With the former, capable people will choose teaching over other careers, and the latter will help get rid of poor performers. Other measures, such as de-centralizing our school system and giving parents a greater control over schools, are good in principle, but won't work if the system selects (some) bad teachers and isn't able to weed them out.
In pursuing accountability, state governments face significant opposition from the teachers (more specifically, teachers' unions) themselves. Amartya Sen refers to the phenomenon of "friendly fire" in which "these institutions of justice [Sen is referring to unions here ;-) ] seem to work largely against justice through their inaction -- or worse -- when faced with teacher absenteeism and other irresponsibilities".
Thus, the broad goal of 'improving our schools' takes us face to face with problems such as the above. These are real, hard problems that can be addressed only through popular awareness and political will. Instead of contributing to solving real problems, Indiresan has, sadly, chosen to foist on us a bogus problem that conflates reservation and poor quality of our schools.