In 2014, I was pursuing an internship collecting data on learning outcomes of primary and secondary school students in PMC government schools in Pune. Having always been deeply passionate about learning, it came as a rude shock to me that not only did most students not love to learn, but they were not learning at all. The quality of education in India has been abysmal for a long time, seeing little progress since the 2000s. The PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) report of 2009 ranked Andhra Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh as 72 and 73 of 74 states and countries across the world, last only to Kyrgyzstan on learning outcomes. (PISA 2009 Results: What Students Know and Can Do, 2009).
The education crisis has been on the forefront of policy-making agenda since the inception of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan Scheme in 2000. The introduction of the Right To Education (RTE) Act, 2009 was the outcome of long-drawn debates of policy makers, representatives of NGOs and various other stakeholders in the education sector. Ultimately the result was a revolutionary legislation that sought to reform the sector and eradicate the underlying issues of the education crisis in the country.
Since then however, learning outcomes in the country have fallen further. Five years since the commencement of the Act, its propensity in improving the status of the education sector remains ambiguous with several successes but just as many failures.
Teachers, as is true with any profession, must be adequately motivated in order to ensure high efficiency in their work, and consequently improved learning outcomes.
I embarked on a study to measure the “impact” of the RTE Act, 2009–defined for the purpose of this study as successes and failures of specific provisions of the Act in one, being implemented as per guidelines set and two, addressing the over-arching aims to improve the status of the education sector. I identified four overarching aims of the Act: improving access to inputs/infrastructure, maintaining a favourable pupil-teacher ratio (PTR), reducing inequities through reservation of ‘disadvantaged’ children in private schools, and maintaining teacher quality. Ideally each of these tangible aims should be aligned to the broader, ultimate goal of attaining high learning outcomes in children by improving the quality of education delivered.
The problem here is that the Act was formulated on the premise that increased investment in the education sector would improve the quality of education in the country. In attaining the former, we’ve lost sight of the ultimate goal. Thus, if we compare the “state of education” as per rankings awarded in ASER (Annual Status of Education Reports) published by the Pratham Foundation that assesses learning outcomes and those given by the government’s DISE (District Information System for Education) data that assesses the implementation of provisions of the Act, there will be significant disparity. The fact that one doesn’t translate into the other implies that the premise on which the Act is built is flawed.
Based on secondary data analysis, the study effectively comes to the same conclusion. While the Act has largely been implemented successfully in the country – the goal of universal enrolment rates is not far from being achieved, standards for infrastructure provision have been observed in several states across the country including the provision of infrastructure specific to fostering inclusion in private schooling for children of disadvantaged groups – this has not translated into improved learning outcomes.
Here is why I think the aims of the RTE Act, 2009 are flawed.
Pupil Teacher Ratio
It has been debated that maintenance of a favourable pupil-teacher ratio could benefit the quality of education. The smaller the size of a class, the more attention a teacher can pay to each individual student’s requirements.
The Tennessee STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio) is possibly the most established study that supported this idea. Results showed that primary-level students clubbed into classes with a strength of 13-17 students showed higher learning outcomes than students in “regular” classes of 25-30 students. The RTE Act sets the PTR at 30:1 for primary school students and at 40:1 for secondary. This is an important provision from the perspective that in the past and even presently we see schools with nearly 60-100 students to one teacher. The PTR standards set will have little or no impact on the quality of education unless reduced even further. This is not feasible in the Indian scenario for sheer volume and costs associated with increasing an already plentiful workforce.
Infrastructure (and Inputs)
The RTE Act constitutes several provisions pertaining to infrastructure. This study only considers the provision of school buildings, increasing access to schools, and the provision of learning material.
Studies show little correlation between the provision of inputs and infrastructure to the learning outcomes of students, however the nature of the inputs does have some bearing. The parameters of infrastructure, midday meals and provision of non-textbook learning material were proven to indirectly impact learning outcomes by increasing student attendance (Hammer, 2013).
The use of learning materials in teaching could have a positive impact for students’ learning outcomes as they make the learning process more interactive, and allow for a diversion from the one-size-fits-all lacuna of the Indian education system, catering more, perhaps, to the visual and tactile learners. However this needs to be accompanied by trained teachers who can utilise the material provided.
Inclusiveness through Reservation
In a vicious cycle where inequality begets inequality, the education sector in the country constitutes private education institutes that offer international boards that cater to the elite of society. On the other hand, public schools show deplorable learning outcomes year after year. Bridging the gap between the two, albeit poorly, with several rungs missing, is a plethora of low-cost private schools with marginally better learning outcomes than public schools. The net effect is that overall learning outcomes in private schools are higher than that of children enrolled in government schools.
With respect to disparities in learning outcomes, studies show that the higher learning outcomes in private schools could be attributed to the socio-economic background of the child. Children coming from wealthier homes with educated parents tend to show higher skill development and learning outcomes than those coming from depraved backgrounds (WDR, 2015).
The Act attempts to close this gap through its reservation policy whereby 25% seats in private, unaided schools are reserved for children of “weaker sections” or “disadvantaged groups”. The hope is that investing in early education skill development could possibly overcome the impact of socio-economic differences between children.
Studies, however, clearly point to the failure of RTE in preventing discrimination of students enrolled under provision of the Act, which could have an immense negative impact on the learning outcomes of such students.
The practice of grouping students by age rather than ability could become counter-productive in improving learning outcomes. Remedial teaching is an important method to counteract this problem. However, in the absence of special and remedial teachers, regular teachers find it difficult to pay additional attention to these students if not at the cost of the learning of the rest of the students.
Finally the importance of training regular teachers needs to be stressed not just in the point of view of dealing with students with diagnosed disabilities, but also in identifying students with learning disabilities within a classroom setting. Learning disabilities that go unrecognised can gravely hamper the potential learning capabilities of the child.
The idea of a reservation policy by way of which we, as a country, can extract the benefits of housing private institutions that deliver a high quality of education is commendable. However, the Act leaves a lot to chance, and with little accountability we can see why there are so many negatives stemming from what should be a positive push toward increased learning outcomes.
One of the most important stakeholders in improving learning outcomes is the teacher workforce of the country. The three countries ranked at the top three levels in the PISA assessments since 2000 – Finland, North Korea and Japan – differ in their approaches to teaching, yet they impress with their emphasis on teacher education and qualification standards of teachers. So too does the RTE Act recognise the imperative of ensuring a high quality teaching staff by setting standards for qualifications of teachers.
The question remains however, whether these standards are good enough. Compare teacher qualification standards between Finland and India in a snapshot. In India an average of 16 years seems sufficient to teach primary or secondary school children, where as in Finland a minimum of 19 years is required. Teachers in Finland are also required to take specialised courses in their subject of choice which is not a requirement in India. In a way India can be said to be caught in a vicious cycle of low quality education. The limitations of the Indian education system limit the potential weapon of the country – teachers – from subjugating those limits.
Finland further emphasises special needs teacher training programs– the number of years of schooling for a teacher under this category can go up to 24 years, equivalent to the number of years of schooling that a Doctor or Engineer with a specialisation degree would do in India. This is interesting to note as the professions of doctors and engineers have been greatly revered in India for decades now, albeit with less ferocity than before. Studies suggest that being employed as a teacher is one of the most highly sought after professions in Finland. Many write this off as a cultural anomaly. However field research suggests that this is replicable with close attention to policies employed. This brings us to what I believe is a crucial issue with the RTE Act, 2009.
The RTE Act does expressly mention child-friendly and child-centred teaching, but the matter is not delved into further to ascertain how this shall be achieved. In a sense, it does not consider the most important stakeholders in a students’ learning – the child him/herself.
Teachers, as is true with any profession, must be adequately motivated in order to ensure high efficiency in their work, and consequently improved learning outcomes. This is one aspect that the Act fails to address as indicated by results of studies that show high levels of inactiveness of teachers, irregularity of classes held, and high teacher absenteeism. The application of theories of motivation and human resource management could prove fruitful here.
Herzberg’s theory of motivation claims that two kinds of factors (extrinsic/hygiene and instrinsic factors) motivate us at our workplace. Provision of extrinsic factors does not ensure motivated employees, however its absence could very well demotivate them. The Act in its current form achieves a similar result. It provides the basic infrastructure and inputs required to prevent the demotivation of teachers, but does little to motivate them. A study corroborating this idea pointed out that while teacher unions have increased pay scales, job security and other benefits, it has not led to any real improvement in learning outcomes (Walton, 2010). Intrinsic factors that might motivate teachers include the scope for a promotion, growth, and a sense of achievement which would translate into learning outcomes when associated with increased responsibility given to teachers.
On the surface it might seem like the Act is giving teachers responsibility over learning outcomes. However, due to provisions such as the ‘no detention policy’ and the CCE (Comprehensive and Continuous Evaluation), there is a paradox of responsibility in the Act that limits the duties of teachers to maintaining deadlines and punctuality more than actual teaching. Studies quoted teachers reporting that they need not expend effort into teaching if students will automatically be passed to the next grade in any case (Ojha, 2013).
Other attributional theories of motivation and behaviour such as the concept of self-efficacy of a teacher and its impact of student learning outcome could be applied to positively motivate teachers to expend greater effort.
The RTE Act does expressly mention child-friendly and child-centred teaching, but the matter is not delved into further to ascertain how this shall be achieved. In a sense, it does not consider the most important stakeholders in a students’ learning– the child him/herself.
Incorporating attribution theories of motivation, the study suggests how cognitive concepts can be applied within the ambit of the act to motivate students toward achieving high learning outcomes.
For example, school-based research indicates that students expecting to do well tend to earn higher marks than students having comparable ability but expecting failure. The manipulation of this attribution-behaviour link through teaching-learning techniques and student-teacher interaction strategies can have a positive impact on overall learning outcomes of students.
The primary flaw of the RTE Act is in its failure to recognise the crux of the education crisis in the country as a problem of low quality education ascertained by low learning outcomes of students. The provisions must be revisited with the view that the education sector is only as strong as the potential human capital it seeks to develop. Without improving learning outcomes, the RTE Act, 2009 will remain a symbolic gesture of government reform misaligned with the issues of the education sector and ineffective in eradicating the education crisis that plagues the country.
We need not write-off the RTE Act, 2009 as another failed legislation but should rather see it as a stepping stone to a reform that considers the people perspective of the issue.