For the past four years, Rakesh Mani has been a school teacher in one of the poorest districts of Mumbai. The story of his experience, which appeared in The New York Times this week, is not only a tale of a growing disparity between the academic attainment of the country’s poor and rich, but also a call to action to fix India’s profoundly broken education system.
Although Mani was teaching fourth-graders, very few of his students were performing at grade level when he began. Most were struggling with reading material more appropriate for students in first grade. And in what was supposed to be an English language school, hardly any students or teachers read or spoke the language at all.
Yet even this meager education was a luxury for most families with many scrounging and doing without to give their kids an opportunity for a better life outside the slum – however thin the hope that they’ll actually get it.
No matter how hard the students work, the quality of instruction, materials and facilities meant that they would be unable to compete against their richer peers for places in high schools or universities, or anywhere that might pave the way for leaving their current life.
To be fair, successive governments have attempted to tackle this. The late M.G. Ramachandran, the development-focused chief minister of Tamil Nadu, believed offering free meals at school would not only address malnourishment but encourage more students to attend regularly. Despite initial skepticism from various experts, his school meal program was wildly successful and was gradually expanded nationally. Mr. Ramachandran’s effort gave birth to India’s landmark Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan program, which operates a multibillion-dollar annual budget for establishing new schools and providing students with free textbooks, uniforms and a midday meal.
Although enrollment in schools around the country is at an all-time high, other problems that contribute to academic underperformance continue to get the short shrift. Specifically, India has one of the highest rates of child malnourishment in the world – even compared to other troubled regions like sub-Saharan Africa.
Furthermore, the lack of qualified teachers contributes to the problem, as even as students are making it to class in ever-larger numbers, they don’t have instructors good enough to take them to the next step.
Back in 1964, the government’s Kothari Commission advised that India spend 6 percent of its G.D.P. on education. However, in the years since, total educational outlays have consistently fallen short of that mark. This year, the Ministry of Human Resource Development has proposed a fresh commission to analyze the state of education in the country. What matters, however, is whether India can summon the political will to dramatically boost education spending.