[UnpackED - 3] Why do the best of India's private schools fare below average globally?

The first and second posts discussed various issues with the education reform in India. These involved monitoring mechanisms, providing required resources to schools, governance issues etc. All these problems is necessitated because government requires a bureaucracy to administer large number of schools.

Corporate schools don't all these governance and other issues like uneducated parents etc. They should then have been providing the best quality education in the world. But, an assessment finds that students of top Indian private schools are only at an average level on global level (PISA scores). Why is that so?

It's because of two reasons: low expectations from the system and lack of a general environment valuing critical thinking.

Low expectations from system: Good performance can arise in two ways, through self-motivation or through an external pressure. Schools of former category are rare anywhere in the world. Most schools perform as per expectations set for them.

In India, 10th board exams set the expectations of standards for schools. Schools do all that's necessary to enable their students to perform well in these exams. If board exams demand rote learning, schools promote rote learning. If board exam asks questions on critical thinking, schools work on critical thinking. 

Unfortunately, board exams in India are of poor quality, which percolates down to schools through expectations set for them and into teaching practices.

Solution - Reform board exams; introduce basic an advanced version for each subject

The straight forward solution is to then enhance the quality of board exams. Some critics might driving expectations through board exams only institutes teaching to the test and that true learning is not possible through this. This is however not true.  

One, teaching to the test already exists in India. In a developing nation with aspiring parents, there will always be competition to excel well in studies, as board exams signal the capability of the student. This is a stepping stone for future career and is tied up with future significant economic prospects of the children. Hence, parents aren't going to stop doing this. It is impractical in such context to ask people without any security to not focus on marks and study for the sake of pleasure. Instead, we should build on this instrumental purpose of education to imbibe necessarily skills.

Two, if a test is designed properly that doesn't allow people with superficial understanding to get through, the process of preparing for such test itself builds those skills. IIT - JEE exam is a good example for this. The very fact that this exam tests the real understanding of the student, they prepare accordingly.

The other concern with improving quality of board exams is that many students without access to proper resources may fail. This is especially problematic because board exam is used for multiple purposes by the people. Some use it to just get minimum qualifications so that they can pursue some vocational education or alternate career. Some use it to signal their capability, to distinguish themselves from others. Both these purposes can't be solved by the same exam. If we make the exam too tough, people who are using this for qualification purpose lose out. If we make it too easy, every scores high marks and the marks lose the signalling value. 

Additionally, increase in quality can lead to significant resistance from students who lose out.

We can address this issue by conducting two exams for each subject - basic version and advanced version. Students will have choice to choose either of these for each individual subject. One can choose advanced version in Telugu and basic version in Social Studies and so on. Students who want to use board exam for qualification purpose can use the basic version. Others can take advanced version.

There's one issue with this. If passing the advanced version of course is made an eligibility criteria for further education, it leads to sorting at early age disadvantaging people. Hence, it should be strictly mandated that the version of course shouldn't be considered as an eligibility criteria for further education. 

Gradually, as the education improves, one can narrow the gap between basic and advanced versions of the exam.

General environment of society that reinforces conformity and non-critical thinking: Critical thinking, scientific temper etc are not just concepts confined to academics. It's a way of life. Our actions in life outside academics also have impact on the way we think. I don't think this needs to be mentioned but one can easily understand that the current state of society is not conducive to such form of thinking.

Hence, people commanding respect in society have a responsibility to emphasise and communicate the importance of the values of critical thinking and scientific temper.


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Read my book: UnpackED  - The black box of Indian school education reform (pdf, free to download)
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