Saturday, November 22, 2008

Krishnakumar on the pathology of policies for primary schools


The immediate provocation comes from Prof. C.N.R. Rao's outrage at the way six new IITs started academic programs this year. Here's Krishnakumar (Director, NCERT):

As one of the architects of India's science and technology policies, Rao is rightly concerned [about the haste in launching new IITs] and one must respect his candour. What one finds sad and difficult to accept is the manner in which he has argued for better planning for their expansion. He has pointed out that it has taken India 50 years to take IITs where they are today, and then he says, according to newspaper reports: "After all it's not like opening primary schools."

Krishnakumar then gives us a summary of all the ways in which this sort of callous-dismissive attitude has affected policy-making in primary education:

Both these remarks offer us valuable insight into India's failure to provide education of an acceptable quality to all children. The attitude these remarks signify is quite common. No one needs to doubt the genuine validity of Rao's anguish over the importance of maintaining IIT's high standards. But his comparative frame, in which primary schools rank so low as to symbolise a hastily established IIT, deserves critical attention. His remarks have come at a time when public policy seems to be waking up from a century-long sleep. [...]

The pejorative reference Rao made to primary schools is not just offensive to those of us who serve children in our formal capacities; it also reveals a huge mental block in the mind of India's highest-level development planners. The idea that primary schools can be established and run cheaply has been central to educational planning since independence. The idyllic myth of the village schoolmaster under a tree persisted for several decades after independence.

It was as late as the 1980s when a scheme to equip every primary school with basic minimum amenities and at least two teachers was mooted under the name 'Operation Blackboard' (OB). The modest gains of OB and other initiatives taken in the years following the National Policy on Education (1986) were supposed to get consolidated under the auspices of the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), but the opposite happened and contradictions multiplied.

Enrolment increased, but the status of teachers and the quality of their training declined. During the 1990s the axe of fiscal rationalism fell on India's children and their teachers. State after state recruited para-teachers, and Madhya Pradesh went to the extent of declaring career teachers a 'dying cadre'. Those who objected to such changes were told that insecure, meagrely paid teachers produced better results than qualified career teachers.

One also heard that multi-grade teaching had virtues that one-teacher-per-class policy somehow missed, and so on. The net result was that primary schools lost whatever little right to dignity they had acquired over the first three decades of independence. Thousands of them could be set up without prior planning, exactly as Rao has indicated in his comment.

A plea for comprehensive and sophis-ticated policy for children and their education sounds like asking for the moon these days. We feign ignorance of the complexity of the demands that little children make on the state, and not just on their malnourished mothers. If they are to be nurtured to live and participate in a vibrant democratic order, India will need to pay the same meticulous attention to the needs of a primary school as it does in the case of IITs.

19 Comments:

  1. Arvind said...

    Krishnakumar is so right!

    I can survive without an IIT education-stint. Can't say the same about primary schooling!

  2. Vinod Khare said...

    I wonder why people don't the simple truth. If you don't know how to add integers, you can't do vector calculus!

    Madhya Pradesh is hiring primary school teachers on 'contract' these days. These contracts are for as short as one year and pay the teachers barely over minimum wage. Add to that the additional responsibilities of making ration cards, conducting election, administering polio vaccinations, population census and countless others.

    Is it any wonder that the state of primary education in India is what it is?

  3. Armchair Guy said...

    One wonders whether this is more a political discussion than genuine concern.

    I think the point about primary education could be made without using an off-the-cuff remark to criticize Dr. C. N. R. Rao. Does anybody really think Dr. Rao imagines primary schooling is a trivial problem? Perhaps Krishna Kumar himself understands that Dr. Rao doesn't think primary education is trivial.

  4. Anonymous said...

    I agree with Armchair Guy. Also, opening a good and effective primary school is surely not easy, but how can it be compared with the effort required to open a undergrad / postgrad institute, where you need, unlike primary schools, millions of dollars as funds, where you need, unlike primary schools, world class laboratories ... Of course, CNR Rao is right, and need not be criticized in act of desperate politics, when he says "its not like opening primary schools" .

  5. kuffir said...

    armchair guy,

    'I think the point about primary education could be made without using an off-the-cuff remark to criticize Dr. C. N. R. Rao.'

    the fact that he felt he'd to criticize rao to make his point heard means that he has chosen a political stance. and the fact that someone from the 'education establishment', as it were, is voicing such concerns (of how peter is continuously being cheated to pay for paul's ambitions) indicates that such feelings have been simmering outside the establishment for long.

  6. Anonymous said...

    importance of primary education is a whole different issue. i would like to attack CNR by challenging the next-gen to do, what his generation did in 50yrs, in 5yrs.

  7. inthearmchair said...

    Anonymous:

    Good point. The primary schooling problem itself is certainly non-trivial, but opening one primary school is certainly easier than opening an IIT!

    Kuffir:

    My thoughts exactly. I think you are right about the sentiment simmering for a long time. In fact, I agree that we have neglected primary education in favour of tertiary education, which was a big mistake. But political bickering solves nothing. A better act would have been for Krishna Kumar to ask Dr. C. N. R. Rao to advise how science education at secondary and higher secondary levels could be improved. I'm sure Dr. Rao could have helped!

  8. Anonymous said...

    I think CNR should retire, and let younger people run the show.

  9. Anonymous said...

    CNR should retire. But the fact remains that we had (perhaps far) more distinguished scientists in CNR's generation than we have in the current gen. This is in spite of the steep rise in the no. of univs/research labs/institutes. Doesn't it tell something?

  10. Pipa said...

    I am so glad the NCERT cheif called out Rao on this one.

    For far too long the people who think IITs are a gateway to heaven have gotten away with murder.

  11. Anonymous said...

    Dear Sir,

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  12. Anonymous said...

    Dear Sir,

    I represent cityzenworld.com , an entertainment,


    lifestyle and news portal . The basic content of this website is chosen to

    appeal to both young men and women, and our targeted users' age group is 20- 35 years. The portal will be online from January 1.

    We have taken the decision to publish articles, opinions and news

    content authored by top bloggers and freelance writers. Accepted contributions will be

    paid for according to the length and quality of article.

    I am interested in publishing articles authored by you on various topics and interests.

    I would like to know, how to subscribe to your content as well as the payment involved.


    Looking forward to your contribution.
    Warm Regards,

    AMAR KUMAR
    Marketing Manager
    +91-9952090973
    +91-9003095417
    Jemi Media
    Chennai-83

  13. kuffir said...

    armchair guy,

    please check rao's views- they represent the dominant political position in the establishment (and here as well, as it seems). what i was trying to say is that krishna kumar was reacting to politics practised for long- he didn't bring in 'politics' into the establishment.

  14. kuffir said...

    my apologies for concluding that the dominant political position is supported here as well- i should've checked the comments before the last anon commenter.

  15. Anonymous said...

    >But the fact remains that we had (perhaps far) more distinguished scientists in CNR's generation than we have in the current gen.

    Not sure whether this is because of CNR.

    Also, there are less distinguished scientists everywhere now. Science has become more fragmented, results are now harder to get, and building theoretical models are even more harder. So maybe the mantle of distinction in that generation is a historic accident.

    You could equally say there were more distinguished actors in CNR's generation, and that would be true of both Hollywood and Bollywood. Nothing is distinguished these days, that is the nature of our point in history.

  16. Armchair Guy said...

    Kuffir:

    I misunderstood what you were saying. I'm not sure what Rao's views are; could you provide some sources?

    Anonymous:

    About attrition of scientific talent in the current generation: it is a well known problem in Indian academia. Some of the most stable academic institutes are currently unable to replace their outgoing retiring faculty.

    The biggest reasons are brain drain (despite what some people claim, brain drain is not good for India), the engineering rush, and politics in academic institutions.

  17. Anonymous said...

    Anon:

    "Not sure whether this is because of CNR" - agree with you, absolutely. I should have put it this way: that we had (perhaps far) more distinguished indian scientists residing in India in CNRs generation than we have now. I was alluding to what armchair guy too mentioned: - now that the talent hunt has become more global, even the top institutes will have dearth of talented scientists/faculty in the prevailing academic ambience in India. Looks almost like a write-off.

    "results are now harder to get..." . Possible true for conventional streams (theoretical physics etc) but certainly can't generalize. Scientific literature (though mostly junk and adds clutter) keeps exploding, Elsevier comes up with new journals by the week!

  18. kuffir said...

    armchair guy,

    rao's views? why these are his views:
    "After all it's not like opening primary schools."

    that's a strong view, confidently expressed. he must've been sure no one would oppose that position in the establishment.

  19. Armchair Guy said...

    Kuffir:

    We'll have to agree to disagree here: to me it really sounds like an off-the-cuff remark. From my experience with the tertiary academic establishment in India, I think primary schooling vs. tertiary education is not one of the issues that bothers them.