International Opinion

Education Reform in India: Capturing the ‘Demographic Dividend’

By Michael J. Connelly — June 06, 2016 9 min read
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India’s population is growing younger: by 2020 the average age will be 29, while in the U.S. and China it will be 37. Michael J. Connelly, Senior Fellow, Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, explains how India is trying to use this young workforce to its advantage, which must begin with access to a high-quality education—something that continues to be a struggle.

Education reform is a priority in virtually every country on the planet. Governments worldwide recognize that an educated populace is the key to economic growth in an increasingly global economy and is also a critical tool for combating the ignorance that renders groups susceptible to demagogues and fanatics. Nowhere is there a greater sense of urgency to accomplishing those goals than in India, which is undergoing an economic transformation in an effort to create a world-class economy amid dramatic demographic change and political and cultural upheavals that threaten social stability.

The world’s largest democracy, India is a diverse country with population centers ranging from some of the largest cities in the world to remote rural areas, from the Himalayas to beach towns. It has 22 official languages in its various regions, and another 150 different languages have sizeable speaking populations. Religious and culture wars go back centuries. All of those things exacerbate the country’s universally acknowledged “learning crisis,” but little progress has been made in improving the system, nor is there consensus on the systemic failures that led to the crisis, much less on what should be done to fix the problems.

Demographic Dividend
India’s rapidly growing population is set to overtake China‘s by 2023, making it the world’s most populous nation. It already has the largest population under the age of 35 and the world’s largest primary school system, with more than 200 million K-5 students—eight times the number in the U.S.—comprising a “demographic dividend” from a “golden generation.” As the rest of the world is aging—the Japanese workforce has been shrinking for more than 20 years, China’s working-age ratio peaked in 2013 (and will decline by a substantial amount in the next few decades), and Korea’s workforce began to decline last year—India is growing younger. By 2020, the average Indian will be only 29 years of age, compared to 37 in China and the United States, 45 in Western Europe and 48 in Japan.

India is trying to leverage those demographics into accelerated economic growth (and the improvement in the average Indian’s material conditions that such growth can create) by preparing students for jobs in a modern work force. The International Monetary Fund has calculated that the increase in the working-age ratio could add two percentage points to the country’s per capita GDP growth per annum.

In order to accomplish this goal, India enacted legislation in 2009 that recognized that ensuring access to a quality education was one of the priorities of the Indian government. It identified educational opportunity as a civil right and expanded compulsory attendance requirements to age 14 (although truancy enforcement in some urban slums and in rural villages leaves much to be desired). It more than doubled education spending, increased teacher salaries, and reduced class size.

The legislation changed the law, but not the culture. The education system, a hothouse for corruption for decades, remains antiquated and mismanaged. India still utilizes an out-of-date curriculum based on rote learning, and because of corrupt cronyism and patronage, jobs are often obtained through a spoils system of political connections and energetic toadying, a veritable graft bonanza. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to victory two years ago on a strong Hindu nationalist platform and a promise to fight corruption. But their successes have been more anecdotal than systemic, and corruption with seeming impunity remains pervasive.

In places like the large affluent suburbs of New Delhi, India’s capital city of nearly 20 million people and in Mumbai, the nation’s financial capital with more than 20 million people, private schools run by entrepreneurs, former government-school administrators, and universities have stepped into the breach, resulting in better opportunities for middle class students there, but a national system that is inequitable as well as corrupt.

Income and Wealth Inequity
The main problems in Indian society are economic, largely caused by extreme wealth and income inequality. Despite an economic liberalization that began in the 1990s and has created growing levels of disposable incomes for a rapidly expanding middle class, many people still lack jobs and educational opportunities.

The plight of the chronically unemployed and uneducated in the context of the country’s current GDP growth rate of 7.5 percent has been described as the feeling of being hungry and starving as everyone around you readies for a feast. A panoramic view of India shows two different countries, with a dichotomy between the more modern, diverse and “westernized” urban New India and the rural Old India (where “love marriages” are disparaged in favor of arranged marriages, and significant vestiges of the Indian caste system remain).

Unrest over income inequality has recently resulted in protests, primarily in mostly rural northern states. Some of the protests devolved into riots and looting, causing dozens of deaths and injuries, disrupting business, forcing shops and factories to close or suspend operations and even temporarily restricting water supplies to New Delhi. That, in turn, led to military interventions by the Indian army. And despite Prime Minister Modi’s pledges after the unrest to carry out reforms, some see a rising climate of intolerance that threatens to undermine the BJP’s promise of better days to come.

Technology As Equalizer?
Techno-optimists from Silicon Valley to Bangalore argue that digital technology can help unleash world-changing transformations in the field of education, becoming an engine that builds new educational models to power humankind to dazzling heights of accomplishment. But in the face of proliferating interest in digital education worldwide, the use of technology in the delivery of instruction has not made much of an inroad in Indian schools. Ironically, a country that has given us more than its share of coders, mobile technology platform developers, and graduate-degreed computer scientists has a cultural bias against online education for K-12 students.

In any event, infrastructure to support computer-based instruction and assessment is sorely lacking. Electricity and indoor plumbing are more essential services than Internet connections and broadband access—only 53 percent of India’s 1.4 million schools have functional girls’ toilets, and 26 percent of schools do not have access to drinking water. Rolling out innovative smartphone apps, increased broadband capacity, and enhanced educational software for computer networks is not a high priority compared to these basic needs.

Teacher Training, Recruitment and Retention
Regardless of the state of technology implementation, the key to academic improvement and successful school governance is the ability to hire, train, and retain great teachers. That’s particularly true in developing countries. In India the problem is compounded by a teacher shortage, especially in primary schools. The Brookings Institution estimates a shortfall of 689,000 teachers (almost 10 percent of the total), and many schools are in remote areas where it is even harder to recruit and retain good teachers and strong school leaders.

Teachers in India are also notoriously ill-trained, unprepared and ineffectual—if they show up at all. Nationwide, teacher absenteeism is estimated to cost more than $1.5 billion annually: 25 percent of Indian teachers at schools in rural areas are absent on any given day. A recent article in the New York Times reported that teacher absences in one district of 2,700 schools averaged close to 40 percent, and in some states reached 46 percent. And yet, in a study of 3,000 schools, only one principal reported that a teacher had been fired for poor attendance.

By comparison, according to the National Council of Teacher Quality, teacher attendance in the United States is typically more than 94 percent, with almost all absences accounted for by sickness or personal matters. That compares to a 97 percent average attendance rate for all full-time wage and salaried American workers. [Some U.S. school districts, however, rival India’s record. The Center for American Progress, for example, reported that in 2012 up to 40 percent of teachers in Camden, New Jersey, were absent from their classrooms on any given school day.]

Student Performance

Not surprisingly, the academic performance of many Indian students is poor and getting worse. In India less than 50 percent of fifth graders in rural areas read at a second-grade level, 16% worse than a decade earlier (perhaps because a greater number of rural students were enrolled in school). Nationally in India, only 42 percent of students graduate from high school; 29 percent drop out before finishing fifth grade.

To be sure, oversight has been strengthened in some places. The Times article referenced above reported on one zealous administrator who beat three teachers with a stick because they had obtained their jobs by using fraudulent documents. The administrator was reprimanded for taking that approach and soon thereafter developed a more practical blueprint for disciplining staff members on his watch. He maintained his personal vigilance but also established a parole-like disciplinary committee to augment his efforts.

If civil service employees could not be fired (much less severely beaten), they could be demoted or transferred. Recently, for example, he demoted a frequently absent principal to assistant teacher, reducing his salary by almost 35%. His advisory board reviewed the case, and it recommended transferring him too. He was transferred to a remote village that was a two-hour drive from his home.

A Sense of Urgency
Education reform and improved academic outcomes that prepare Indian students for a technology-driven future are high priorities for the Indian government. It is critical for the global economy and the country’s internal political stability that its efforts succeed. A dramatic improvement in public education is necessary to complement the country’s transformative economic scheme, and the success of its education reform efforts is also critical to peace and political stability. To paraphrase U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, education is the antidote to ignorance: the right book can be a more powerful force against extremism than a gun.

To succeed in that effort, Indian leaders must find a way to make educational improvement culturally important. Additional government spending must be allocated to the sector, from pre-K to the university level, including for infrastructure development. Private/public partnerships should be established to augment governmental efforts, and international assistance must be developed, especially for segments of society that are currently underserved, like rural areas and the urban poor.

The curriculum needs to be upgraded to include more creative problem-solving and higher-level cognitive skill development, to deal with special needs students and, generally, to take a more holistic approach to human development. It is also imperative that teacher training, professional development, and management oversight policies be enhanced, and that technology tools be adopted and implemented to increase teacher productivity and effectiveness. The problems with India’s vast educational sector are ingrained and severe, but the return on investment in its transformation is incalculable.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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