In 2009, selected Indian children — with Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu chosen as representative states — took a test called PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and ranked 73 out of 74 nations, trailing just above Kyrgyzstan. The PISA is a worldwide assessment conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in member and non-member nations of 15-year-old school students’ performances in mathematics, science, and reading.
As India attempts to compete with China in the world space, here’s a hard look at the facts as they stand. The 2009 PISA rankings were topped by China (the test was taken by children from Shanghai) and its outstanding performance has set a new standard of excellence for other cities in China, as well as education systems worldwide. India, on the other hand, pulled out of 2012 PISA test, our government citing a disconnect between the testing parameters and what our children are taught in schools!
So why the big difference between India and our neighbours to the North?
Nearly three decades ago, Shanghai had a poor education system. By 2002, the city had evolved enough to adopt the slogan, ‘first class city, first class education’. With a strong political commitment to raise the bar for educational standards, Shanghai worked through the years to transform this vision into a reality.
In stark contrast, even though elementary school enrolment in India has increased to almost 97% today, only 30% will go as far class 12 – the rest will drop out. And there is little that we can do to remedy since the first measure to confront this would be to assess existing data on learning outcomes which we lack.
We do not even know how the four million children enrolled in schools across our capital city are actually performing. ASER (Annual Status of Education Report), the largest independent survey that measures learning outcomes of children, does not maintain data for Delhi as it only covers rural districts.
As India sets out on its quest for inclusive and quality education, perhaps there are lessons that policymakers in our capital can learn from Shanghai’s experience. Can Delhi become a model of excellence in India’s urban education landscape?
The Shanghai model adopts the mission of equipping children with the core skills of learning and curiosity and the ability to disseminate information in order to satisfy the urge to question.
The Chinese education system consists of six years of primary school, three of lower secondary and three of upper secondary. The state mandates every child to attend nine years of school — six years of primary and three of lower secondary. At age 15, they are “empowered” to choose their upper secondary program in either academic or vocational fields.
Shanghai’s educational reform transformation process began as long back as 1980. This was the landmark period when, along with other Chinese cities, it started to adopt new types of vocational schools that did not necessarily work towards assigning pre-set jobs. This was an innovation much removed from the regimented manpower planning embedded in China’s economic tenets.
In 1990, Shanghai launched the first of the two cycles of curriculum reform in an endeavour towards well-rounded quality education instead of a system ridden with the stress of examinations. Ever since, the city has set a benchmark for educational progress and innovation with a view to developing “capability” rather than making students blind repositories of information.
During the periodic curriculum revisions our school boards go through, it may be wise to reflect if we are actually equipping our children with insight, powers of analysis and assimilation of information in order for them to confront the challenges of an increasingly globalised and information-driven world.
The Shanghai municipality inspects schools every year (this includes a test for a sample of students). A monitoring team does a detailed review every five years. Self-review, observations of monitoring groups and student/parent survey data are used to rate a school, detailed reports of which are shared with the district administration and the school.
Investing in standardised assessments needs to be a priority for our education system if we are to know whether every child is being adequately prepared for his or her future. Assessments can also act as an indicator for key stakeholders –teachers, parents, and policymakers –as to which schools are showing a tangible improvement in the quality of education being imparted to children.
Another imperative policy initiative is the enhancement of our human capital by building the capability of our teachers who are at the heart of the process of change and progress in our education system. Shanghai raised the bar for entry to the teaching profession in the 1990s. All primary school teachers needed a diploma and all teachers in secondary schools had to be degree-holders with professional certification. Shanghai was the first forward-thinking district to mandate continuous professional training for its teachers. Every teacher is expected to complete 240 hours of professional development in five years.
Teacher Study Groups are intrinsic to Shanghai’s success in the sphere of education and consequently in the PISA test. These groups create frameworks within which subject teachers sit together (e.g. all math teachers sit in the “math room”) and are led by a senior ‘mentor’ teacher. Teachers share unit and lesson plans with each other and invite feedback thereby ensuring an open resource sharing platform which works seamlessly through exchange of knowledge and ideas. Teacher promotions are based on student performances and teacher /principal observations.
In addition to the lessons from Shanghai model, there are two other policy initiatives unique to the Indian context that will benefit the Delhi education system.
Strengthening the status of low-cost private schools through the RTE rules:
Almost 2,200 private schools in Delhi, which cater to children from low-income communities, are at the risk of closing down for non-compliance with various infrastructural, teacher salary and pupil-teacher ratio norms stipulated in the Right to Education (RTE) Act, according to NISA (National Independent Schools Alliance).
Studies by the Center for Civil Society, and James Tooley on low-cost private schooling have found that these schools often provide education that is equivalent, if not better, to government schools despite operating at a fraction of the cost. Forty percent of student enrolment in Delhi is now in private unaided schools, according to the Review committee headed by Shailaja Chandra which published its report on Delhi School Education in 2012. Parents are clearly opting for these schools. However, we need to find ways to meet these parental preferences while ensuring the quality and inclusiveness of our schools.
Gujarat has interestingly addressed this situation by factoring student achievement into its criteria for school recognition. In its Rules for implementation of the RTE Act, which the State government notified last year, 70% weightage is given to absolute and relative levels of student learning outcomes in the formulation for school recognition, under. This ensures that schools can not only maintain their recognition but also impart a better quality of education.
Modeling Delhi’s RTE rules along similar lines will drive schools to focus on enhancing educational standards, by holding schools accountable on the basis of student achievement.
Building the capacity of School Managing Committees (SMCs): SMCs, which are now mandated for government and government-aided schools under the RTE Act, can encourage better governance practices in schools through increased parental involvement. However, only 2 percent of schools in Delhi were found to have formed these committees and several parents were unaware of the provision for SMCs, according to a survey by Joint Operation for Self Help (JOSH). JOSH is now conducting SMC training for forty East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC) schools, to build the capacity of parents and community members. Scaling up such initiatives can further leverage parent participation to hold schools accountable on the basis of student performance.
Investing in standardised assessments, linking school recognitions to learning outcomes and improving accountability through school management committees, can help transform our education system. Encouraging better governance and school leadership practices that are committed to providing well-rounded education can further improve the quality of education. Most importantly, however, we need to make learning outcomes the explicit goal of our education policy, focus on setting standards to measure these outcomes and take concrete action to achieve them. In our aspiration to become a world-class city, do we have a vision to create a world-class education system? Can Delhi aim to take the next PISA, become a benchmark of excellence for India’s other cities, and lead India’s vision for achieving quality education for all?
As evidenced in Shanghai, through a well-thought out, focused and step-by-step system of school education reform, it is indeed possible to aim at a bank of holistic schools in our cities. But for that our schools and the systems which govern them may have to go through a crucible of experimentation and be brave about embracing innovation and partnership.