Deputy prime minister of Singapore Tharman Shanmugaratnam recently delivered a stimulating speech on India’s growth prospects and what is holding the country back. He was unequivocal in stating that “schools are the biggest crisis in India”. He went to say, “schools are the biggest gap between India and its East Asian neighbours; funds are not the only requirement to improve it; it has to be about organisation and culture.” The deputy PM is the first world leader to hit the nail on the head by pointing out that societal transformation is even more important than economic reform. Confirming with his views is Unesco’s Global Education Monitoring report, which says that India is expected to achieve universal primary education by 2050, secondary education in 2060 and upper secondary education in 2085.
Our neighbours in East Asia have invested in social capital and moved up the economic ladder. South Korea, China, Thailand and India had similar GDP per capita a few decades ago. South Korea has already become a developed country, China is on its way, Thailand is stuck in the “middle income trap” and India is still an underdeveloped country. Economic progress has been directly correlated with investments in delivering quality education. The top performing countries on the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) — Shanghai (China), Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan – are also the most developed in Asia. We can learn from their reform initiatives.
Teacher recruitment: The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. The experience of top school systems across East Asia suggests that two things matter most: One, getting the right people to become teachers, and, two, developing them into effective instructors. Teaching is made aspirational by increasing the entry barrier into the profession. India should insist that students take a teacher college entrance test in order to quality for DEd. and BEd. programmes. Our states have to transform their ineffective recruitment processes and select candidates based on their academic achievement, communication skills and motivation and preparedness for teaching.
Teacher preparation and progression: China reformed its system by building approximately 100 large “normal universities” and Vietnam has built large-scale teacher education universities. Singapore set up the National Institute for Education (NIE) as a university where the development of teachers in subject matter and pedagogical content knowledge is a pre-requisite to joining the profession. Teachers receive in-service support and are evaluated rigorously so that they get continuous feedback. India has to invest at least three times the current 1% of our budget spent on teacher training and states must develop teacher competency frameworks and evaluation systems to provide regular feedback.
School leaders: The reformers in East Asia realised that school principals play a critical role. They are selected on merit as opposed to our antiquated approach of seniority-based selection. In Singapore, incoming principals are trained for four months at the NIE. We need to create an IIT/IIM-quality school leadership institutes in each state. By 2020, all principals should be certified for their role as the school leader.
Standardised assessment: All East Asian countries participate in Pisa and have set aspirational goals for their global rankings. They also have their own standardised assessment systems — census assessment for learning and sample assessment of learning. India is embarking on a massive census assessment but this will only be successful if the learning data is used for improvement. Our states still ought to conduct survey assessments to get a deeper understanding of their education system. We must also start participating in Pisa on a regular basis and set a 2030 target of getting into the middle of the global pack.
Education technology: South Korea has laid emphasis on integrating ICT in education providing schools with access to the Internet and personalised learning software for students. They also launched the National Teacher Training Information Service that informs teachers about training, allows them to conduct self-assessments and access online training. India should revamp its ICT@Schools scheme and consider building a national teacher education portal/app.
School rationalisation: India’s public education system is fragmented with 1.1 million schools catering to 150 million students. It is challenging to drive system-wide reform in this context. China had a similar problem and has shrunk its number of public schools from 650,000 to 375,000 while improving learning outcomes through larger rural schools. Rajasthan has launched a similar initiative to build larger model schools and other states should look to do the same.
India has to act with a sense of urgency after coming second last on Pisa 2009. Vietnam has the same per capita income as India and with focused reforms now ranks on par with Germany in Pisa 2012. If we harbour any aspiration of being an economic superpower, we should learn from East Asia and implement transformational reforms.