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How can one strengthen primary school education in India?

June 18, 2009

A Mckinsey study on “The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools” has many lessons for India.
First the report. It tells us that the United States was a world leader in educating its population…once. This lead has kept decreasing and today does not exist. Not only is there a fall in the number of capita high school graduates but also
their quality.

It’s the quality of learning that is worrying educators. This chart shows us how poorly American kids fare in comparison to the world. (India figures are not available):

Why are American kids doing this badly? Well, although this report shows that children of some races (black and Latino) lag behind whites in learning by several years, and although poor children of all races lag behind those who are well-off, this pattern changes in some schools. Children do well regardless or race and economic background in some areas and some schools. This has led educationists in to confirm what they already knew: that educational attainment has a lot to do with the kind of school and the quality of teachers.

What about India?
In India there is illiteracy, yes, but it is the quality of education being imparted to millions that is in question. Primary school children in many schools across the country have been found to be lacking in basic literacy and numeric skills.

And like in the US, in India too there is a learning gap along ethnic and religious lines. As poor reading and arithmetic skills prevent children from studying up to higher levels, people are doomed to poverty even before they reach the fifth grade. Having the “stamp” of being literate is of no use to them.

Is India doing anything about this except for promises by politicians to increase the number of schools and increase enrollment levels? True, the government’s midday meal scheme has helped motivate parents to send their kids to school and there are various schemes which I have read about in different states (I do not have a list of them or how they are being implemented) but what about actually improving the quality of schools and the teachers?

In America a small experiment is on to try and improve their system. A new teacher evaluation system is in place which will reward teachers who do well by giving them high salaries, and punish those who do not, by dismissing them. However this experiment has run into a lot of criticism as many educators believe that one cannot evaluate teachers by children’s scores alone.

I do not know much about why some American kids may be resistant to learning or what is lacking in their schools, but I do have an idea about India.

While the principle of good salaries for good teachers is a sound one, this is not the critical factor. Looking at it from the money angle is a narrow approach.  Well qualified teachers do tend to gravitate towards better paying private schools but it may not only be money that they are looking for. A teacher will find it difficult to do her job if she is under pressure from bureaucrats, is hampered by duties other than teaching, restricted by the lack of teaching aids, frustrated due to high absenteeism of students and their lack of interest, and feel hopeless if she cannot manage to communicate with the parents.

As I had mentioned in this post many girls and boys cannot concentrate on their studies due to the burden of work at home. I have personally taught poor children who come to school so tired that they drop off to sleep. Children who are beaten because they have not done some household chore. Children whose parents have told them that they need to contribute to the family income rather than waste time at school. In other words, poverty is the enemy. Perhaps if the government starts to pay families to keep their children in school (over and above their school expenses) it might help. I do not know if any state has a scheme like this for BPL (Below Poverty Line) families.

This is not to say that teachers of under performing children are not to blame. The system is desperate need of overhaul but I do not see the government doing anything about this. One scheme after another is well and good, but the system has to change, good teachers need to be rewarded. But as many have said of America’s experiment too, dedicated teachers cannot be bought. So you need to create the right environment in which they will thrive. By giving them freedom to operate, giving them greater responsibility, and most important…respect. This is at one end. At the other end you have to create the right environment for the children to come to school, by ensuring that the parents do not feel deprived of an earning member, by ensuring that they have one less mouth to feed. Counseling parents will also help. At times socio-cultural factors play a role in parents decisions regarding the education of their children, specially girls.

And when it comes to evaluating a teacher, there is no doubt that accountability needs to be brought into the system, after taking into account the level of difficulty in each situation. It’s necessary if India has to rise. This New York Times article explains how the economic health and the educational health of a nation are so closely intertwined.

Update (21st June): This excerpt is from today’s TOI, Ahmedabad edition about what a citizen Vinod Pandya discovered through an RTI application.

He found that 60 per cent of the 6,000 primary school teachers responsible for the foundation in education of 2.10 lakh children were not qualified. These teachers did not have a BEd degree or a simple Primary Teachers Certificates….Almost 90 per cent of the teachers were drawing a salary between Rs 500 and Rs 2,000. Some teachers were shown born in 1983 thus getting BEd degrees at the age of 12 years! These people were teaching class X students. In some schools, the principal was just a higher secondary school passs. Nearly 50 per cent teachers did not have accounts in banks, many did not have provident fund accounts. Who is responsible for this mess,” asks Pandya.

Basically what this means is that just about anyone is being hired, and paid whatever the management feels like mostly to save money or rather to pocket funds allocated for the purpose.

(Photographs are by me and copyrighted)

(Vivek Khadpekar had sent me a link to an article about the experiment in the USA to improve their system and this led me to find out more about the subject, and hence this post.)

Related Reading: Obstacles in the way of girls’ education in India
The diet of Indian children is poor
Growth is not leading to development in India

42 Comments leave one →
  1. June 18, 2009 4:06 pm

    first !

  2. June 18, 2009 4:18 pm

    So right… Dedicated teachers cannot be bought… but the quality of teachers is improving…!!

    I have started finding so many teachers now who actually enjoy teaching..

    hitchwriter, I was happy that you picked my favourite sentence out of the whole post! 🙂 – Nita

  3. June 18, 2009 4:24 pm

    yes poverty is our enemy . What is the way out?

    -Simple start schools where in poor kids can stay and study without the pressure . Where they are allowed to think and explore and where their background has no part to play . Have quality teachers , who will be patient and can come up with innovative ways to make kids think . This would need a lot of investment and there will be a lot of problems , first of all making poor parents letting go of their children . This will also help us create a better society without young minds being polluted with heretical ideas .

    Vishesh, the problem is vast and deep isn’t it. I guess one needs to take one step at a time. – Nita.

  4. June 18, 2009 4:48 pm

    Excellent post!

    I think some NGOs are doing a good job in some schools they’re running themselves, but the quantity (of schools and children) is minuscule. Private sector can be expected to contribute to higher education but not primary. Your analysis and suggestions are very balanced and simply perfect!

    Mahendra. thanks. As you said, what is being done now is but a drop in the ocean. Unless the government steps in with a massive effort the effects will not be visible for a long long time. – Nita.

  5. June 18, 2009 5:13 pm

    Nita, i think delhi had a system sometime back, where they evaluated govt. schools as a whole based on the passing percentages in the board far as i remember that experiment did help improve passing percentages. I have taught kids from poor families, as a part of social initiative and i agree the pressure these kids have from home to skip school and rather earn…good post 🙂

    aniruddha, thanks. Its good to hear that some schools are trying to hold teachers accountable, a very difficult thing in government schools. The teachers will fight tooth and nail to prevent this from happening on a mass scale. – Nita

    • June 19, 2009 8:31 am

      A similar system existed for schools in Maharashtra rural areas. Result school was cleaned only one week prior to inspectors visit. Kids were dragged to school from farms to show attendance on the day of visit. When i inquired about the same while on a visit to school, i came to know school teacher himself was in his farms.

  6. June 18, 2009 5:55 pm

    I think the push needs to come from the parents, than kids. It is best to have an NGO counselling and guiding the parents about the importance of education. Secondly, about the quality of education, CBSE was doing a great job (especially with subjects like English and Mathematics). Why not abolish state boards and matriculation and adopt a unified standard – CBSE? I know it would be tougher for the kids, but we are starting this right from the first class. I just studied for two years in state board and the experience was quite bad – Do you believe that mathematical problems can be memorized and reproduced in the exams (even the numbers in the problems don’t change) in state board? I don’t know if all state boards are like that or if some things have improved lately. If quality is required, then you need to make it tougher. At least some gems might emerge instead of having a whole literate population who don’t know what they are reading!

    Destination Infinity

    DI, I too think that counselling is important. About the curriculum I do not think the CBSC is without fault.Their syllabus also has rote learning and if one compares it to the IB, one can see the difference. But there is another point. If the teachers themselves are weak, is it possible that they can teach a higher quality syllabus which requires people to think? Teaching a syllabus with rote learning is easy! Hardly any work for teachers! – Nita.

    • June 19, 2009 2:03 pm

      During our Plus one, a lot of students from other schools joined ours. And most of the students who came from Kendriya Vidhyalayas topped in the final +2 results. This among a batch that had the best students from some major private schools in that area.

      KV, despite being a Govt. run institution, is able to churn out such quality students (at least not spoiling them)… I thought that was an impressive model. I don’t have an introduction to IB syllabus, but I will get to know about it soon – Here, there are a lot of IB schools. But I think, even if the teachers are not qualified, we need to make the standards stringent. When the going gets tough, the tough gets going….

      Destination Infinity

  7. June 18, 2009 5:55 pm


    IMHO the last line says it all i.e. ultimately economics determines this too.

    Now, Regarding the quote from the earlier part “Children do well regardless or race and economic background in some areas and some schools. This has led educationists in to confirm what they already knew: that educational attainment has a lot to do with the kind of school and the quality of teachers”

    I would like more data on these “some schools”. Sure kind of school and quality helps as they already knew. But is there any info, on *why* the kind of school and quality is high in these areas? For example, are these in school districts that are generally well-to-do (but not exclusive) communities. Here in chicago suburbs, they are tied. Affluent communities => more taxes (and yes there is better accountability) => better schools => more money to pay teachers => better teachers => better education for children. At least that is how I see it. For districts that cannot get this income from taxes, I guess the only way is for government to pour in money. Fat chance of that happening – even here in the US. Education generally is short-changed in the big scheme of things.

    Now, I do think that in these communities, the racial/ethnic balance may not not great (for other social reasons). However, children from all backgrounds do exist in these districts, and they do thrive (but then even these schools have gangs 😉 – so not all is rosy ).


    Arun, economics plays a large part in this as you mentioned. A school with more money will have better facilities, say state of the art computers and will also be able to attract well qualified teachers. Also affluent communities often means educated parents who will try to give a lot of emphasis on education. This is not to say that uneducated parents will not, but I think better educated parents tend to more conscious of academic success. I mean take the example of the PM of India. His daughter said in an interview that they were not even allowed to read light trashy books! In fact in India it is going to the other extreme…highly qualified and successful parents are putting too much pressure on their children to succeed academically. – Nita.

  8. June 18, 2009 6:56 pm

    Hi Nita, I always found schools useless and the teachers seem to know less than us. The only usefulness of school was to socialize, not learn. I think our academic curriculum is perfectly designed for self-study and one can pass the exams without any external help, indeed I did SSC and HSC without coaching classes and you know they don’t teach anymore at schools. But perhaps that’s just me. What I missed was learning what was beyond the books and other than 1 or 2 teachers, I rightfully do not remember any of those jokers.

    Priyank, I too do not have a high regard for my teachers although I was supposedly in the “best” school in Pune. If I look back I find that they were a petty frustrated lot who picked on the bright creative students and rewarded those who sucked up to them. My English teachers was the best and I guess that is why I became a true student of English. My Hindi, French, and P.T. teachers were mean, vindictive and petty. My Science teacher was a crackpot who would hurl abuses. Later I heard that her daughter committed suicide. And as for teaching the less said the better. Forget about completing portions, our history teacher would simply hand out notes. And our Science teacher would teach the thing so fast only 1-2 students understood her gibberish. – Nita

    • Vinod permalink
      June 18, 2009 9:46 pm

      Ditto for me, Priyank. Except that I did CBSE.

    • June 19, 2009 8:35 am


      Teachers not even managed to complete syllabus during our days, forget about anything extra to be taught.
      The only “period” i mean in terms of school coaching subject hours, worth was PT and games. Where there was no curriculum and if class performed well then were taught more.

  9. vasudev permalink
    June 18, 2009 10:03 pm

    in usa perhaps many reasons. man takes the easy way out and if you are a plumber driving to work and getting paid well and considered equal to an engineer…

    if you have a political system of inviting trash freely and allowing it total freedom to do rot…

    if you have restrictions on parents to humble children as and when they need the stick…

    if you consider dating as prime and studying as sub-prime…

    if you are an unwed mother more interested in sleeping with many and have your children know it too…

    if you are more inclined towards muscle building and aping screen personalities…

    if you have an enforced recruitment for governmental adventurisms in far-off lands…

    if you…well…

    Vasudev, I am not sure I understood all of your comment, but I guess you are saying that their society is different. But there are European countries also which are doing very well in the field of education, better than the US. – Nita.

    • vasudev permalink
      June 19, 2009 9:45 pm

      nita…we are quickly reaching there (their society). btw…britishers do not know grammatical english. they import english teachers from the earstwhile british colonies.

  10. Jayalakshmi permalink
    June 18, 2009 10:57 pm

    One idea that keeps crossing my mind is, why don’t we have accountability from the local governing bodies?. The Panchayats to the municipal corporators to the MLA?
    If they are held accountable for poor show by the Government schools, they should be penalised. Like not allowed to contest the next term ..

    I know.. sounds impossible!

    Jayalakshmi, I think perhaps there is no accountability even for our babus and politicians (although they at least can be elected out) and thus there isn’t any right down the line. – Nita.

    • June 19, 2009 8:56 am

      I thinks thats were role of National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), comes into picture.
      I am sure,it has not done its job as per expectations.

  11. June 18, 2009 11:32 pm

    Hi Nita,
    As always, very thought provoking post & is on a subject which is very close to my heart. I keep on wondering why there is never a focus on primary education in India? You know I’ve tried to do my bit in some ways like teaching under-privileged kids during my free time or sponsoring the school fees of my maid’s daughter but the biggest problem is the lack of accountability in government education bodies. You know when I was in Mumbai, I remember my maid’s daughter who was studying in some govt. school and was a bright student but despite all her enthusiasm for going to school, she hardly used to have any value addition in her class. Either the teacher was not in class or even if she was there, she will just give some crappy gyan to students. I used to wonder if there is anybody to do a sanctity check on quality of such primary education in Govt. schools?

    Kanupriya, I think if the government tries to inculcate accountability there will be a great resistance. Also a lot of the govt. teachers go for election duties and the like. I have also heard that many take outside tutions at high prices to get an extra income and no one checks even though it is not allowed. The whole system has become corrupt. Although I am not comfortable with the idea of privatizing all education as some feel, I am not sure how we are going to improve the system. It is going to be a slow process but I think the if the push comes from parents it might work. Therefore parents need the guidance and counselling. – Nita.

  12. June 19, 2009 8:43 am

    Nita, In my article Hole In the Wall, i had mentioned about an NGO, who is getting helping corporates to get their CSR roles done.
    NGO itself, admitted that, good schools are less. Good school where proper coaching is available is not open to kids. Kids which are under privileged struggle to make their ways. Admission process and then Huge amount of fees incurred bend back their parents, or thrashes their confidence.

    I think some corporate running school do impart good education and practices.

    Do we need more such giants to come in Education, to revitalize the system?

    sunny, As you mentioned some privately run schools which run the institutions as if they are corporates. This has also happened to the media, when editors were shunted out to less important positions and managers accountable only for profits took over. In education we need educationists who are not out to make profits, but to actually educate. The last thing the poor need is such schools! Dedication to education. We need those kind of people. – Nita.

    • June 20, 2009 2:29 pm

      Nita, I think there is slight confusion here. I am talking of companies that have residential colonies, and school for its employees kids. They ensure proper education. Can they be supported to extend there services beyond employees to under privileged.

      • June 20, 2009 4:20 pm

        Sunny, oh you meant that! Well, there is the example of raymond which has its own singhania school in thane and this school is open to everybody. Employees’ children get 50% off from the fees and also automatic admission uptill the 9th grade. Even the workers’ children are entitled to this and this is one way the school is doing something really good. Unfortunately many of the children from poorer backgrounds drop out by the 5th or 6th and one needs to analyze why.
        p.s. by drop out I mean go to other “easier” schools where academics is not so much of a burden and they can cope.

        • June 21, 2009 8:40 am

          Neeta, Dropping out of school going to other “easier” schools where academics is not so much of a burden is a major challenge. My Organization supports an NGO, which works in Slums in Mumbai. Role of this NGO is taking part is making sure that kids fro slums are prepared for schools and compete normally. NGO works right from grass route level, like play school and kidder gardens. As per their report, some school have come back and appreciated work they have done on kids, and facing world normally. I think such activities/counseling should also be available for students in higher standards.
          One the ratio gets upward push, within few years there would we no dropouts!

  13. Vinod permalink
    June 19, 2009 9:35 am

    Nita, the more I think about it the more I realize that there is no silver bullet that’ll solve the problem. So many things, many that you’ve pointed out in your article, have to come together to make it happen. It can be so hard to think of which of the numerous factors needs priority in addressing the problem that one can’t help feel the need for the education-messiah to come along.

    Vinod, no silver bullet! Its all a vicious cycle isn’t it. – Nita.

  14. Vinod permalink
    June 19, 2009 2:34 pm

    Nita, here’s something that is not directly related to your article and not even directly related to India. It is about health care in Pakistan. But it brings out the same trends – matrix of factors – that fail to work. An analysis of one problem takes one through such diverse areas, each beset with its problems. Makes for very interesting read.

  15. June 19, 2009 6:26 pm

    Nita, this is a presentation about a quality of education project in Tamil Nadu,

    • June 20, 2009 1:23 pm

      This topic is very close to my heart, I am from rural part of India, last when I visit my old school, I got negative feeling. The problem is not just quality of education but also about future and short term issues. In my village. We have around 100 families in our village and around 10 engg. and more than 15 graduates, only two ppl are in decent position, rest bck to local business. Now most of ppl are thinking education is waste of time and education is now is negative direction. most of the people(atleast who is doing graduation in rural college) does not know purpose and future of studies. If 25-30% of graduates get job, then this scenario will change.

      • June 20, 2009 7:58 pm

        Last day,an uncle near my house was arguing with me on how his +2 passed son is earning more than his neighbour’s M.A passed son..Oh well,his son is a cleaner in some local smuggling team bus.. But he gets lots lots of money,so to them education is a waste of time and effort..

        But then again,how can we ‘get’ job to each and every graduate..People need to make one’s own living all by themselves..People need to realize that even if they run a grocery,education is an asset and hence unavoidable….Maybe such a realization will urge them to eduate their kids…

        Just my random thoughts..

        • June 21, 2009 12:47 pm

          I am not saying each and every graduate should get job. My point is some reasonable percent :).

  16. Harish permalink
    June 20, 2009 3:56 am

    I am not sure if this is relevant here but will share it anyway.

    At one time, the state of Kansas (in the US) spent crazy amounts per child on their education. The result? No improvement in grades. And then there are fund-starved schools that started using students for some of the school maintenance like arranging lunch tables and building upkeep – much like the ashram environment. They reported much better grades.

    Saw this on ABC’s 20/20 program.

  17. Catwalq permalink
    June 20, 2009 9:32 am

    I was wondered why there were no Asian or African countries on the list…

    Catwalq, in some cases data is not available and in other cases I think the researchers are not interested in comparing! Or maybe the data is available but I was not able to find it. – Nita

    • Vivek Khadpekar permalink
      June 20, 2009 11:00 pm

      Catwalq, Nita:

      As per its title, the list pertains to the OECD countries only. Naturally it would not significantly represent Asia, Africa or Central and South America (except Japan, [S.] Korea and Turkey).

  18. June 20, 2009 7:53 pm


    Hi Nita…

    Thought provocking post..I think government is the only institution that can do something in this regard of ensuring quality primary education to every kid. I have read on kids dropping out from school bcoz they need to walk kilometers to reach the school.. If we had more schools,if we had little more pay for teachers (govt teachers) ,if we had better system for providing free food to kids (at school) maybe we can make more kids hang in there for a while rather than just dropping out from school.. First ensure that kids do come to school,then alone can we talk about improving quality of teachers and like..

    • June 21, 2009 9:15 am

      Nimmy, with VIth pay commission salaries or teachers are professor will grow handsome.
      You are right on the part of walking kilometers of school. I remember talking to a kid. he said he had studied till 4th and was aspiring to finish at least graduation. But school in his home village had only primary classes till 4th. after which he had to travel 18 kms one side for further, where commuting cost was more than his fees for school . Hence dropped out.

  19. June 20, 2009 10:12 pm

    Poverty is not always the culprit; rather it gives the right motivation. Don’t they always listen to the advice, “Boy, work hard and only by getting right education you can improve your lot”? If we take the case of US, there have been motivations to the contrary : less homework, comfort for teachers and students alike…. Honestly I don’t know about that country. It’s all my guess work.



    • June 21, 2009 9:03 am

      Nanda, I agree poverty is not only culprit. Right motivation is!. I at least think 3-4 times in until my Matriculation I thought why to study.

  20. June 20, 2009 11:56 pm

    nice one , Really primary education in India is primary concern. If we look education system in India, its really worse scenario. Huge fund is going in government school but in vain. By providing mid meal we are not providing any education but only education. Govt is just throwing money but in proper direction. Reservation in selection of teacher are one of the major point to consider. Student are encouraged to attend school not by only mid meal scheme but by education related activity. We have all the infrastructure ready for primary school just we need sincere and effective meticulous planning to make this present in form of children from all background to bright future

    • June 21, 2009 9:01 am

      Armendra, when you walk into rural areas, where we think awareness is to zero. It hurts. We the educated are treated as people from some other world. A world that belongs, aliens I guess. We are either given my much needed attention or completely ignored. This makes nothing but increases gap between kids aspiring to study against kids who earn by working.

  21. June 21, 2009 4:17 pm

    I have done invigilation duty in “Shikshakarmi” exam and the intelligence level of the candidates was scary given that they were going to be future primary school teachers! There is a huge need for good and dedicated teachers first. Most of them in my state are usually latecomers or physically abusive.

    • June 23, 2009 8:09 am

      Reema, nothing is going to change until you have good salaries on offer. I remember many of my colleagues who are good teachers and right motivators, are not even ready to volunteer for Teach India campaign.
      When asked for, they say its no worth for. Instead they will take up some weekend lecture for couple of hours and make some grands (sums in multiples of thousands.) per month.

  22. June 21, 2009 5:56 pm

    I think its the mindset. If parents have a mindset that the child is better off slaving in a factory rather than study in a school, then that child won’t have the necessary push to carry on.
    Similarly, the teacher is supposed to encourage and should have the right aptitude for teaching. Its a huge responsibility which sadly, many teachers take very lightly.

  23. wishtobeanon permalink
    July 10, 2009 6:56 pm

    Hi Nita, my(my kids’) experience with elementary education here in the US has been very good. I guess it depends on the school district. Each state has many school districts based on cities. So a city that is poor(does not have enough funding) will probably also affect its’s public schools. Not enough public funds for schools means less number of staff for the schools and less amenities.
    Also, more emphasis is given on problem-solving and creativity among pre-schoolers and kindergartners rather than academic skills. Kids are not taught alphabets and numbers the way they teach in India (where emphasis is given on handwriting and repetition). I have seen a few 5 to 6 year old kids who are not able to read or write properly – I know this because I volunteer at my kids’ schools.

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