Debraj Bhattacharya is an alumnus of Presidency College, Calcutta, and currently is with Institute of Social Sciences, a civil society organisation, where he researches on contemporary development issues. He has earlier edited a book of essays, "Of Matters Modern: The Experience of Modernity in Colonial and Post-Colonial South Asia" (2008) and has written several reports on rural development issues of India. He also writes in more popular vein in newspapers in English and Bengali.
The Right to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, is considered a landmark in India's quest to provide every Indian child aged between 6 and 14 years with free education. It is now not just a promise made by the Government of India but also a right for the citizen. The Act has also laid down stringent norms that all schools must adhere to in order to ensure that children get not just education but also quality education [For details of RTE see: http://www.unicef.org/india/education_6144.htm. However the recent Annual Status of Education Report or ASER by a well-known Civil Society Organisation, Pratham, has raised an important question: is RTE, paradoxically, resulting in less learning among the school goers?
Firstly, a few words about Pratham's report which is now famous as the "ASER report". It is a national survey done every year since 2005 by Pratham which assesses whether children in primary schools are learning what they are being taught. The crucial question that ASER answers is whether the enormous public investment on basic education is actually having the desired outcome or not. Over the years the report has established itself as the most important survey on basic education by an organisation that is not part of the Government. In other words, when ASER makes a statement, it is considered important [For details on ASER see http://www.asercentre.org/ ].
This year's report based on survey done in 2012 has made a striking and disturbing claim. Let me quote:
"Fewer and fewer children in successive batches reaching 3rd and 5th standard are learning basics of reading and math. Unless someone can show that children are learning something else better, this indicates an alarming degeneration. In 2008, the proportion of children in Std 3 who could read a Std 1 text was under 50 per cent, which has dipped about 16 percentage points to nearly 30 per cent. A child in Std 3 has to learn to do two digit subtraction, but the proportion of children in government schools who can even recognise numbers up to 100 correctly has dropped from 70 per cent to near 50 per cent over the last four years with the real downward turn distinctly visible after 2010, the year RTE came into force. These downward trends are also reflected in Std 5 where a child would be expected to be able to at least read a Std 2 text and solve a division sum. Private schools are relatively unaffected by this decline but a downturn is noticeable, especially in math beyond number recognition." [p.1]
In short, even though RTE has resulted in improved infrastructure, better pupil-teacher ratio etc there has been a sharp drop in the learning levels of the students. If the data is correct, there is need for serious investigation into this as in a way this means that RTE is on the wrong track. If the children are learning less as a consequence of the provisions under the Act, surely the provisions under the Act need re-thinking.
Why is RTE, in spite of so much public investment, having this paradoxical negative impact? This is quite literally a million-dollar question. According to the ASER 2012, this is most probably because of the controversial decision of doing away with traditional examination system in favour of Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation or CCE. The idea of Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation is a good one and this is what it should be under ideal circumstances as this eliminates the fear factor from the class-room that examination brings. But in rural India, are teachers capable of doing CCE and ensuring that the child is learning regularly even when the fear of examination is not there? ASER seems to be saying that because CCE is yet to be properly installed but the old exam system has been done away with, children are therefore learning less.
How correct is this explanation? This is where I have to express a certain amount of dissatisfaction with the ASER methodology. Because ASER is an annual report based on data collected from a huge sample from across the country what we get at the end of the year are only tables, graphs and charts with some trend analysis. In other words ASER is only giving us a quantitative picture and a comparison with the previous years' data. It tells us "what" but it does not tell us "why". It tells us, for example:
"In 2010 nationally, 46.3 per cent of all children in Std. V could not read a Std. II level text. This proportion increased to 51.8 per cent in 2011 and further to 53.2 per cent in 2012."
However the present methodology of ASER does not allow the researchers to do qualitative research to explain why this is happening. If ASER would have had a qualitative research component then it could have probed whether this sad decline is happening because of the RTE policy of changing the evaluation system or not. The researchers could have easily done some in-depth ethnographic work to explore this question and come up with a qualitative analysis. At the very least they could have asked the teachers for their opinion. If for example 70 per cent of the teachers would have said that this was happening because of doing away with the exam system then that would have pointed towards the reason behind the decline in learning levels.
In the absence of such analysis what we have therefore is a co-incidence - RTE came in 2010 and according to ASER there is a sharp drop in learning level since then. The causal relationship between the two is not firmly established.
Nonetheless, given the serious implication of the claim made by ASER 2012, it is important for all agencies working on RTE to do an independent checking on their own. If their studies corroborate the claim made by ASER, then RTE needs re-thinking. There is no point in wasting public money. On the other hand, they may find ASER to be making an error. It is also possible for Pratham to add a qualitative research component in their next year's report. Pratham may also consider doing the report once every two years in order to get more time to do the qualitative work. This will not reduce the impact of the findings.
One thing is clear - Government, Civil Society Organisations and international agencies working on basic education in India cannot afford to sit idle in the face of the statement made by ASER 2012.