Also published on Medium.
Odisha is ranked as one of the poorest performing education systems in all of India, while India itself has various issues in its education quality. On the larger scale we see that access is nearly universal, however, overall education quality suffers — the Brookings Institute reports that while enrollment in primary school is around 96%, close to 78 percent of children in Standard III and about 50 percent of children in Standard V cannot yet read Standard II texts(Sahni). Indeed, teachers are often truant and there are few incentives to ensure children are meeting education standards since they matriculate regardless. Most of the dialogue around education covers these issues, namely curriculum improvement, investment in teaching quality, and so forth. For example, some of Odisha’s initiatives are:
- Odisha Higher Education Program for Excellence and Equity (OHEPEE): aims to (a) improve quality of and students’ equitable access to selected institutions, and (b) enhancing governance of the higher education system (World Bank, Projects & Operations).
- Ujjwal: aims mainly to equip early primary students basic skills in Odia, mathematics, and English (Indian Express, Staff Reporter) Government schools are required to ensure that their students achieve the established grade level competencies in each of the subjects. Each school is required to have at least one teacher that will specifically focus on helping the students who lack competency in the three skill areas.
- Utthan: aims to equip upper primary students with grade-level skills in these Odia, mathematics, and English (Indian Express, Staff Reporter) The operations are essentially the same as the Ujjwal program but are focused on aiding students in grades 6-8.
However, a key issue is that many of the diagnoses of India’s education space are overly reductionist, and as a result initiatives in response are far too narrow. It is not just that kids need to study harder or that a different curriculum is needed. Rather, the issue is holistic. Organizations like The Akshaya Patra Foundation (AP) make this clear; it provides daily mid-day meals for over 1.6 million students across 12 states(Akshaya Patra Company Website). Akshaya Patra himself describes it as, “more than a school meal program. It’s a hunger-eradication program. It’s an education program. It’s a social project. It’s a nation-building effort.”(Akshaya Patra Company Website). Indeed, AP has found that when mid-day meals are offered, students are more likely to enroll, stay enrolled, and participate in school. Solving the mid-day meal problem in order to boost education quality is not necessarily intuitive. But we must recognize that education issues do not exist in a vacuum, but exist in harmony and in conflict with other needs and motivations. To understand these complex issues, we must think in a broader sense; we must take a step back.
Even a direct issue like teacher retention and truancy may be a more difficult problem than it initially seems. In a study by Sonja Fagernäs and Panu Pelkonen, two economists at the University of Sussex, a link was discovered between the teachers and electoral cycles. Using data from the District Information System for Education and the Annual Status of Education Report, the pair finds that there is significant teacher turnover in the public education system immediately following elections, in addition to, evidence that learning in the system is adversely affected by political-cycle-driven turnover. As a result, elections effectively amount to a shock to the public system.
In fact, the authors remark that the impact on learning outcomes is not trivial: “The average difference in test scores between those in the best and worst election phases is 0.151 standard deviations for Mathematics, and 0.127 standard deviations for Reading”(Fagernas & Pelkonen, 24).
This occurs for various reasons. Teachers are often called into duty during election cycles to effectively campaign even during the school day. In addition, teachers are more likely to transfer to different schools or areas following elections. The adverse impact on learning outcomes seems to be structural as private schools do not see the same adverse impacts on academic performance during election cycles as public schools.
Arguably, the world has never been more complex and, as a result, never been more difficult to predict. Issues like primary education are the result of no particular factor, but rather a web of seemingly disparate yet interconnected reasons. As we go forward, we must keep this complexity in mind.
Akshaya Patra. Company Website. https://www.akshayapatra.org/news/mid-day-meals-boost-participation-in-schools
Fagernas, Sonja & Pelkonen, Panu. Teachers, Electoral Cycles and Learning in India. http://users.sussex.ac.uk/~saef20/ElectoralCycles_FagernasPelkonen.pdf
Indian Express. Staff Reporter. 15-point action plan to overhaul school education. http://www.newindianexpress.com/states/odisha/2018/apr/06/15-point-action-plan-to-overhaul-school-education-1797625.html
Sahni, Urvashi. Primary Education in India: Progress and Challenges. https://www.brookings.edu/research/primary-education-in-india-progress-and-challenges/
World Bank. Projects & Operations. Odisha Higher Education Program for Excellence and Equity