Archive for October, 2009

The Much Reviled Examination System

October 23, 2009

Emperor’s Clothes
Did you see them?

During the recent coaching sessions that we conducted for the 10th Std students, we came across a serious issue. In English, some kids could barely copy a sentence without errors; in Maths, they could not even multiply or divide numbers. The teachers we brought in were extremely competent and well versed with the vagaries of the secondary education system and the exams conducted under it. After a preliminary assessment on the first day, they came and asked me a sensitive question: would you want these kids to be taught English and Maths or do you want them to be coached just to pass the examinations! ( My Response is given below at the end of the post)

The reason why this choice came up is simple: one can pass the exams without knowing either even to sub-minimal levels. This has a lot to do with the way the questions were normally framed until last year. In English, 30% of the marks can be had without writing a sentence in the language, while another 15 can be had if one can write one sentence, errors permitted; you do not have to score the mandatory 35, since with the moderation permitted even 25 should be enough. The scene is no better in Maths. And what did it produce? Kids who fared so badly at the next stage – which is the PUC exams – that the pass rates as well as their overall competence at this point became the center of attention.

The State responded to this during the current academic year by tightening the system in Tenth through introduction of more ‘qualitative’ questions that call for ‘written’ answers, a skill that the kids are poorly equipped to handle as now. This may solve the problem faced at the PUC level, but will most certainly create new ones in 10th. Belatedly it struck some one in the hierarchy that the teachers themselves will need re-training to face this change ; this is just being organized in Oct , half way through the academic year. It is anyone’s guess when and whether the kids will have time left to get familiar with the new pattern in the exams and perform adequately.

While all this is happening, no one is asking the most obvious question: how did such students get through the past nine years of academic stint? Were there no tests or checks on the way laid down by the system? Let us look at what the latter stipulates :

From 1 to 4th Stds: Tests to be conducted periodically to check the acquisition of specific academic skills, parents to be informed of the progress through skill charts- Remedial action taken for the lagging students until they acquire them

5 to 10 Stds: Exams every Semester with Grades ; remedial action as above mandatory.

The unique feature of this system is that all exams up to 10th are at the school level and no detention is permitted till 8th Grade. While some provisions exist for such penal action on extreme grounds such as prolonged absence in 9/10th Stds , even these are rarely used. As a result, the exams are rarely taken seriously by the schools and the kids. Worse still, a kid who gives a blank answer paper and gets 0 as a score is equated with another who tries and gets 29 , both being classified as having obtained Grade C in the exams; of course both go on to the next level.

It is in the first year of High School, that the teachers feel the real pinch from this system: they get students with near zero skills from primary schools and are still held responsible for getting them to pass the open Board Exams in the 10th Std. Incidentally, this is the first time any kid under this system gets exposed to an external assessment. Their lack of skills would normally have gone unnoticed even at this point; the snag was with the PUC exams that the students who pass 10th have to take, if and when they choose to do so. Here, they have to compete with students from other streams and show their merit; it is the poor performance of these students that made the government to tighten up the screening process at 10th, as above.

In the meanwhile, the Govt would prefer to think that the situation is fine and improving – fed with manufactured numbers such as 75 % pass in 7th, 65% in 10th and increasing scores every year . While all these figures do look impressive, especially when compared to those from other states, one should pause to ask: what are they really worth?

Going through nine years of schooling without an effective system of checks and balances looks to me like playing soccer without goal posts or cricket without stumps. I have dealt personally with tens of thousands of kids; I found that at least all those who would like to break out of their present socio-economic barriers feel the same. There are plenty of them out there in the field and they deserve a break. I have always been feeling that we have so far tapped about 15% of the population to achieve the remarkable progress that we see to day in the country; to go any further, we need to reach the next block of kids. The potential candidates for this are there in the Public Education System; it is for us to identify and provide them with the window of opportunity that they badly need.

The current situation reminds me of the story of the Emperor and his missing clothes. He is convinced he has them on ; unfortunately, the ‘boy’ to tell him the truth is missing…


PS : Now to the promised response from me. I told them honestly- ” You can assess , categorize them into two groups and proceed accordingly: the marginal one may be taught the subjects so that they really acquire the skills; and the other could be coached and pushed through the exams” . Considering that we started this program in September, we cannot aim much higher , can we?


Its all in the Small things

October 18, 2009

Things We learn from the Kids

People tended to get cynical when I used to say that Sikshana is all about small things and that we learnt bulk of them from the kids; I got a taste of it again recently. The first was when I was visiting the school in Nandi and talking to the kids in Seventh Grade. I spoke to them vary passionately about some of the issues for half an hour and at the end asked them if they have any questions to ask of me. No one stirred; there was pin drop silence in the class. I had to ask them bluntly: how is it that a bunch of seemingly bright kids cannot bring themselves to ask an intelligent question even when given all the opportunities and encouragement. One of the girls got up with a lot of hesitation and said: we have been taught only to answer questions, not to ask!  I was amazed at the response which went to the core of the issue. After all, this is the environment in which they have brought up in the school; to be considered a good student one has to keep quiet – awfully quiet- and not pose problems by getting up to talk, even if it is to ask a valid question. No wonder a much harried teacher with an overcrowded class would prefer silence to inquisitiveness; but then , unless these kids are given a chance to express themselves often enough, how will they ever acquire the skill to do so?  Every one of these skills –   reading, writing and expression- need constant practice for a kid to acquire them. We have been pushing the teachers  give them such a slot at least once a week; equally well, we know that this is not going to happen because of our prompting. The teachers need to believe and accept that acquisition of such a skill is an essential part of primary education – even if it is not included formally in the curriculum.

On yet another occasion, I was present when a special Coaching Class organized by us for Tenth Grade students was in session with an invited Guest Faculty. The kids were all selected based on extremely poor past performances in their respective classes; the positive aspect was that they had opted to come for this session  foregoing their mid-term vacation in order to equip themselves better to face the oncoming examinations. This Teacher was doing a commendable job eliciting maximum response from the kids. During a lull, she asked them : how is it that they sound so much interested in learning English while she was teaching them, while the same spirit was obviously not seen while the subject was being covered in the school. One of the boys got up and told her: ” You are teaching English ; the teacher in the school was teaching them ‘lessons’ “. There is a lot of wisdom in this cryptic comment too for the teachers.

Are the Educators listening?


A Public School We Can Be Proud Of

October 13, 2009

Tokasandra beats them all

I thought we have come across the best when I visited Atthihalli and wrote about my experience. I did not know how wrong I could be until came across Tokasandra. After all, this is the third High School I am covering among the 34 we had adopted recently; hence there seems to be a strong message some where here for us.
The school has about 230 kids in 8/9/10th Stds with five teachers. When we walked in, we saw a strange sight: a few grownups were playing a vigorous game of badminton with a few students of the school. We received two interesting bits of information at this time: that the grownups are old students of the school who have been coming in regularly as volunteers to teach the kids and the Team from the school has reaped tons of trophies in this game at all levels.

The HM proudly told us that the 10th Std results have been steadily rising from 25% four years back to 95% last year. This is a school which had set the goal at 100% and , having failed, spent a lot of their time to analyze the shortfalls for corrective action- a practicing TQM institution in the true sense without exposure to all the theories and techniques. 47 students were sent for the examinations, of which 45 made it. One of the two had serious issues with attendance during the academic year which goes with the Govt school territory; the staff were pained at the other failure which was avoidable in their view. They are shooting for a perfect score this year, backed by a meticulous action plan.
The state had given them a bad body blow this year by transferring out three key teachers for English, Maths and Science. Unlike most others who might have given up on receiving this shock, they had gone about scouting for home grown talent to fill the gap; this explained the presence of the ‘badminton’ players in the premises.

What impressed me most was not just the results in 10th; it was the way they went about the job of achieving it against tremendous odds. The Department has been routinely asking for what is called ‘Remedial Education’ for the poorly performing kids in every school, which invariably was responded to with varying degrees of conformance with thinly veiled contempt. This school has gone far beyond this ‘symbolic’ step – that too without any external pressures.

The school conducted a residential camp for ALL students in 10th for two months – Jan to March 09. The students and teachers stayed back in the school premises every single night during the week; separate rooms were allotted to the boys/ girls and the male/ female teachers . Coaching was conducted with individual attention to the kids for the entire period. To assess the enormity of this task and the achievement, one has to have an understanding of the mind set of the parents in this strata and the environment in which they were operating- as well as the logistics involved. Most schools find it difficult to get the parents to come and meet them; the kids themselves have rarely been outside their respective homes even with relatives, let alone ‘strangers’. This becomes more sensitive with the girl students, if one takes into effect the age group and the social constraints in the villages. Most of them also help out their parents in the daily chores, something which will be sorely missed if they are allowed to stay out. Under the circumstances, getting the assent of the parents for this venture should have been a monumental task; it makes the effort all the more striking.
Seen in the light of the constant grouse from the schools against parental apathy, this success alone places the school in a different / higher bracket from the rest.

Our visit was aimed at getting a feel for the types of assistance we should plan for, in the case of high schools. The Tokasandra school has requested our inputs for the following:

  • Help in organizing the alumni with minimal incentives for better results
  • Newspapers/ Magazines/ Spot Prizes
  • Sports material to fill in gaps
  • Logistic support for participating in competitions
  • Help in organizing the Study Camp in the last Quarter
Naturally, we should do our best to fulfill these needs; and wish the school all success in their efforts to scale new heights. It is worth mentioning here that the school has voluntarily taken a premium grade private school in the vicinity as their benchmark.


Conflict of Classes

October 13, 2009

A Snapshot of Reality in Rural Schools

We talk a lot about the Digital Divide; but there is a major ‘Rural Divide’ which we seem to be missing out whenever issues pertaining to the rural schools and education are discussed. It is not just that we do not accept this reality; we also tend to impose the rules/ regulations and the value systems of one on the hapless ‘other’. Their concerns, and preferences are rarely heard or addressed. While doing this, we seem to exhibit a level of ‘double standards’ that is striking. Let us take take just a few key issues: examinations, scores and the pedagogy.

It has been decided that there will be no tests or examinations in the traditional sense in primary schools up to the Fifth Standard; and between 5th and 7th Std , the scores conducted during any test cannot be given to the kids in terms of marks – only as grades . This has been done apparently on the ground that poor scores if and when communicated to the kids will be ‘traumatic’ to them. I do not understand how anything done in the school can be traumatic to kids who do not know if, when and where their next meal will come from. We seem to be imposing a totally alien value system on them , based on our own experiences which are unrelated to them. I have been speaking to parents over years in the field; almost unanimously, all of them would want to have this feedback – not in terms of Grades which they do not fully comprehend but in terms of numbers with which they are familiar- since this is the only way in which they can keep track of the progress of their kids. Obviously, they do not have the necessary academic knowledge or skill needed to assess this on their own and take appropriate decisions regarding the education of their children. Some one need to study and come out with figures on how many parents have expressed their choice on this account with their feet – by walking away from a public school to the adjacent private school.

The system further ensures that kids are passed on to the next grade without fear of any adverse action up to the 7th Std, thereby creating a situation in which kids who barely know how to read and write enter a High School with very little hope of going through it successfully. It does not seem to get any better even in the High School where, under an explicit or unwritten code, students are rarely detained. The damage that this causes to the more talented kids in the same stream becomes apparent to any one who takes a look at the common class room, with such a large spread in academic skills.

Then we have the Nali- Kali experiment for the lower Grades, aimed at making learning fun – with the added message that the kid need not learn to read or write until the end of the second year. Whether this is really the intended signal or not is immaterial; it is perceived to be so by the parents affected. I am not an expert on learning processes; I know only this much to comment on. The parents feel strongly that the Govt Schools are encouraging just singing and dancing, while their neighbor’s kids are learning English and all the rest in private schools at the same time. This is the ‘customer’ speaking and all of us know that he is always right. Unless we learn to listen to him, the demise of the public education system as we know may not be far off.

We cannot be sending our kids to schools which insist on developing writing skills in the pre-school stage itself, while preaching the benefits of not doing it till the third year to others. The same applies to test scores which are insisted upon to the last decimal under the former, while it is strictly a no-no under the latter. I am not advocating one set of values or other; but as long as the kids have to compete for the same shrinking space, I would rather not have the under-privileged kids at a disadvantage.

In the past, we have rarely listened to these kids, their parents and the communities. about their needs and aspirations. If we are not in a position to show any greater concern for their welfare, than what we have shown till now, the least we could do is to hand over the running of these schools to the stake holders. After all, the kids are theirs and they ought to know what is best for them.


The Slum Kid Syndrome

October 12, 2009

A Sensitive Issue

I have been seeing a spate of voluntary sector efforts hogging the limelight on the subject of redeeming slum kids; the last one which appeared recently in the Media could be taken as the proverbial last straw. For me , the ‘deprived kids’ are the same, whether they come from an urban slum or a remote rural community. For some indiscernible reasons, there seems to be a major chasm in the perception of certain sections of the society and the media between the two.

By now, we are all immune to the dual standards applied by our society to issues pertaining to the two levels of living; a casualty from swine flu in a City is considered any day a far more serious issue requiring national focus and attention than a few hundred who meet the same fate from a totally ‘avoidable’ one from common Diarrhea. To be fair to the media, some Columnists have been makng this point very forcefully, but the buck seems to stop there for all the rest.

It is when this gets applied to the lives of kids that I find it difficult to accept the situation as it exists. Some of the queries that crop up in this context are:

Why should we encourage one section of deprived kids to get a mid-day meal at Rs 6 plus, while others have to be content with Rs 3 minus ?

Why should so many Voluntary Sector agencies vie with each other and spend scarce resources in providing ‘designer’ uniforms and shoes/ ties to one section while the other goes without basic apparel ? That the latter are most inappropriate for the environment in which the kids live only makes it worse.

Why should so many new efforts pop up for bringing in ‘volunteer teachers’ to teach in already well staffed City schools, while there are any number of rural single teacher schools at our backyard?

Why is it that an event which affects a few ‘out of school’ kids in the city make it to Page 2 of a Newspaper, while a far reaching grass root effort in a place like Arekere focused on kids who have braved it to the school against great odds is ignored?

Has any one cared to find out and compare the cost of such ongoing efforts in terms of Rs per kid in a city and a rural environment? Worse still is the huge gap in the number of such active programs in the two spheres.

The questions are endless. Is it too much to ask of all voluntary sector institutions and funding agencies:

Please treat all deprived kids on an equal footing; every one them deserve a better deal. After all, a kid should not have to emigrate to a slum in a City to become eligible for your tender mercies.


PPP in Secondary Education

October 12, 2009

The Early Warning Signal

Recently, I was on a tour of Tamilnadu, when I had to travel from Mayiladuthurai to Chennai via Pondicherry. The road in the first lap was State owned , and with two lanes and a reasonably good surface it was a pleasure to drive on; and it did not cost me a packet.

The second, with the glamorous name of ECR- was laid under the PPP scheme and is a tolled road. I was disappointed- but definitely not surprised – to see that this was no better than the first in any way. It too had two lanes and no more. It did not have controlled access or even a divider, which one would expect from a ‘premium’ road – or any road under this category in any other part of the world. The road was winding through villages – with not even a barrier for pedestrian crossings- and had its quota of slow moving vehicles, stray animals and everything else you can name. There can be no excuse for making this a tolled road, except that it was built under the much touted ‘private sector participation’ and the excuse that the State did not have the funds to build it. In the normal course, the State should have constructed it as a part of the State Highway System out of the tax revenues and we should be using the same without having to pay a hefty sum. If this concept progresses unchecked , where does it stop? We have emanating signs already; the State is actively considering ‘re-laying’ the present State Highways and in the process make them tolled roads.

Why am I discussing all this in our forum? There is a major emerging link in the strategic term – PPP. The HRD Ministry is waking up to the ‘immense possibilities’ under this approach for Secondary Education. We should be seriously concerned about the likely consequences.

The State can – and in all probability- will start phasing out its responsibilities towards Secondary Education. The precursor for this is there: the current State Policy in Karnataka does not allow starting a Govt school when there is an aided school within ‘X’ kms of the proposed one. With PPP schools also coming in, there may be no more new Govt High Schools, especially in urban areas where PPP may work to some extent; the kids from the most deprived sections of the society will be forced to opt for one of these expensive options, under the threat of losing their only life line for a better future.

It is not what appears on paper, that one should be concerned about; it is the manner in which these policies are likely to be implemented over a period of time. When we talk about PPP in roads, we normally think of the Mumbai – Pune Expressway or the NICE Corridor in Bangalore.; we prefer not to look at the likes of ECR. Considering the vast difference in the ‘discerning’ abilities of the beneficiaries for a tolled road or a rural school, there is every reason to believe that we will get the ‘clones’ of the latter rather than the former.

Notwithstanding the above, PPP may work to a limited extent in urban areas because of the attraction offered by the percentage of seats allowed for ‘open sale in the market’ or the real estate involved. However, only the most naive will believe that the Private Sector will get involved in setting up Schools in the rural areas, where neither of these factors come into play. After all, any one can see what happened when banking was thrown open for private sector; how many of them have opened branches away from major cities?

In order to place these factors in the correct perspective, let us look at the numbers – with Karnataka as an example. We have 8 million kids in the primary school system, out of which 6.5 million go to a Govt school. No PPP model at the secondary level can cater to these numbers without substantially increasing the drop out rates on account of reach and affordability.

Let us come to the crux of the issue: It concerns the rights of a child to be educated by the State from the age of of 6 till 18. Through various processes of dilation and dilution, we have whittled this right down to a band of 6 to 14. Still, if the State continues to extend a helping hand at the existing level, the kids passing out of the primary stage may successfully brave it till 16, as they are doing now. The proposed changes will remove this fragile chance, increasing the presently unacceptable levels of drop out rates even more. Worse still, the promised enhancement of quality may also be a non-starter, except for a chosen few in urban clusters.

This is in keeping with our practice of thriving on tokenism on all crucial issues. If we cannot provide a universal educational system with minimal integrity, we promise one Navodaya school for each District under which 400,000 kids compete for 25,000 seats. As if this is not enough, we announce that- sooner or later- all private schools will be made to take in students from the deprived sections of the society to an extent of 25% of their total capacity; simple arithmetic will show that this will meet the aspirations of less than 3% of the kids waiting in the wings. When will we learn that there is no short cut or alternate to State funding of education through State run schools till they are at least 16, if not 18 as in all civilized countries? There is certainly a case for improving the delivery of this service, not for downsizing it.

When WB funding under DPEP ceased, we were courageous and far sighted enough to come up with a Sarava Siksha Abhiyan for primary education. There is absolutely no reason why we cannot come up with a similar response to the need for a Rashtriya Madhyamik Sikshana Abhiyan without external funding. All that is required is a national and political will to recognize the ground realities and act on them.