India's Education Woes
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India's Education Woes


India will soon overtake China as the world's most populous country. This growth will lead to what economists and demographers refer to as a “demographic dividend”: India’s population will be young and of working age. An abundance of young workers usually translates into a workforce unencumbered by responsibility, one more willing to accept economic risks and capable of working hard to boost economic output. This all bodes well for India.

To take advantage of this demographic situation, though, quality schools are essential, as they foster a population capable of taking advantage of opportunities created by increased demand.  Unfortunately, primary and secondary schools in India are inefficient and rife with corruption.

The most recent example is the cheating scandal involving the son of the Minister of Education in Jammu and Kashmir in which school board officials allegedly assisted Peerzada Sayed’s son pass his secondary school exam.

Other recent scandals include enrollment fraud in Maharashtra, which reportedly cost the government as much as 10 billion rupees. The most pervasive and detrimental form of corruption perpetrated on the primary and secondary school system, though, is basic teacher absenteeism at government-run schools, with about 13 percent of teachers failing to show up for work, yet still being paid.

According to a recent report by Transparency International on corruption in South Asia, 23 percent of people polled in India had to pay a bribe to government education officials to ensure services. While this pales in comparison to police corruption, in which 64 percent of people polled claim to have paid a bribe to the police, it’s still unacceptable. According to the same report, it’s claimed that 94 percent of people polled believe the education system in India is corrupt, an even higher percentage than in other major South Asia countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Indian primary and secondary schools suffer from the additional weaknesses of infrastructure limitations and inefficiency. These shortcomings are likely as damaging in the long run as the high levels of corruption. Poor infrastructure at schools makes teaching even harder. The 2011 Annual Status of Education report found that roughly 51 percent of schools didn’t have available lavatories, while 26 percent of schools had no drinking water.    

Inefficient teaching methods, such as rote learning, which focuses on memorization as opposed to critical reasoning, are also widespread at the primary and secondary school level. The rote teaching methodology has demonstrated shortcomings. Studies by the Program for International Students Assessment, an OECD initiative, and Wipro, an Indian consulting firm, found that students at the primary and secondary school level have regressed in math, science, and reading literacy in recent years. Not only is the rote method detrimental to currently enrolled students, but it’s also more difficult to address than infrastructural or corruption issues, as it has become an institutionalized practice.

Looking at India’s neighbor to the north, China, a country that has on the surface made great strides with an education system often based on the rote method, India has a potent example of why it must abandon such teaching methods. China has certainly improved its economic and education numbers, but has often relied on producing cheaply the innovations of other nations for its success. This strategy has a limited upside. China trails the United States and Europe on a number of measures of innovation ranging from R&D spending to the proportion of high-tech patents in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and knowledge intensive-services and manufacturing. Indeed, Chinese leaders themselves are apparently recognizing this, with Premier Wen Jiabao remarking in 2010 that, “Students don't only need knowledge; they have to learn how to act, to use their brains.”

“We must encourage students to think independently, freely express themselves, get them to believe in themselves, protect and stimulate their imagination and creativity,” he added.

“If India is to truly rise as a global economic power, it must focus its efforts on creating a world class education system. Adequate resources, higher standards for teachers and the flushing out of corruption must be part of a reforms package that seeks to make Indian education the nation’s top priority.

There can be no greater foundation for a rising India than a strong educational system. Discovering new answers, not reproducing the work of others, could enable India to advance its economy and society at a much more rapid clip. Implementing educational reforms is the best way for India to truly harness the power of its demographic dividend.

William Thomson is a research assistant at the U.S. Naval War College and an International Relations ALM candidate at Harvard University. His writings have appeared in Small Wars Journal as well as e-IR.

John Chan
February 27, 2012 at 02:13

Google, Facebook and Apple cannot be used as a representative of outstanding innovation in science and technology. They are only successive stories of commercialization of other people’s innovation and discovery. None of the fundamental technologies they used are invented by them. All they do is writing codes to collect data, redistribute data and squeeze others for money. Code writing is a very very small portion of activities in science and technology, and probably the most easy activity in the fields of science and technology.

Your bragging shows how little you know about science and technology. Your long comment only proves you are not here to debate rationally, but to bash China with ill faith.

Both Google and Facebook have difficulty to break into China’s market, because there are products and services in China. Apple is being sued in China for patent violation on iPad, it only proves that innovations unable to make it big does not mean there is no innovation.

Only people illiterate in science ant technology will brag senselessly like you and the author.

John Chan
February 27, 2012 at 01:35

It is sad to see the author is so entrenched in bashing China, he can bash China in an article that has nothing to do with China. The author’s bigotry and ignorance probably reflects his rote learning of white racism and neocon bias.

Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan’s education systems are nearly identical to China, all of them emphasis rote learning in the primary and secondary schools, is the author saying there is no innovation and discovery in Japan, SK and Taiwan too?

The author’s ignorance in R&D does not mean there is no innovation and discovery in China. China has surpassed USA in 2011 as world largest patent registrant. China is the leading country in nonotechnology, coal liquidfaction, battery, etc. fields. Besides R&D spending happens outside the reign of primary and secondary education, it depends on the national or corporate policy; the author’s capability to link unrelated issues to bad mouth China is really mind-boggling.

India is better off to ignore the idea in this article, because the idea from people with unbalance and prejudice view bound to be harmful.

February 26, 2012 at 04:53

Higher ‘life expectancy and nutrition intakes’ now vs 50 years ago could be due to many factors. I might suggest one: India’s independence stopped the country’s resources from being plundered after world war 2 when you made your comparison.

One of the most basic ‘thing to manufacture’ for any country is ‘food’ for her citizens.

Looking into how much food supply in storage in one’s country is telling and alarming. Any unfavorable nature or external human factor (food index) would bring dire consequences to a food deficit country.

It is expansive, least to say, to bring up one’s child properly.

India has her own choice on ‘population growth’.

February 26, 2012 at 03:54

FKT, thank you the link. The article is interesting and makes some good points. My comments were not directed at suggesting some kind of overriding paradigm of decline. I tend to agree that the US will be strong for quite some time and is not going to suddenly roll over.

My comments were much more narrowly focused on the quality of high school and undergraduate eduction in Anglophone countries and do see some real problems – supported by the hard data available as well as the general impressions on employers. I think that some of the best East Asian systems have begun to open a gap with Western education and we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we do not recognise this and learn from their experience.

The problem in part is that we measure higher eduction on the basis of things like nobel laureate numbers, journal citations and other criteria that measure the highest end of the system. We do less to measure undergraduate and high school teaching. Though less glamorous, it is in the end the grunt work required to turn out large numbers of quality engineers, chemists, scientists, doctors and accountants that matters in running a robust economy. I am not sure at all that we are doing that well in this regard and think that Asian colleges may be doing better. Whatever hard data that is available seems to support this. For example I would check out the stats in the international maths olympiad and physics olympiad. China appears to dominate.

It is an entirely different question to ask whether the US is in decline. I would answers that in relative terms it is, in absolute terms no and in overall power, will remain dominant for some time. That however does in part depend on the ability to see where best practice is emerging and taking it on board rather than just shutting our eyes to it.

February 25, 2012 at 12:29

I think that were the analysis of China and Asia in terms of PISA is coming up short is that it is being equated with something other than what it is, which is reading and mathematics. What this author is taking about is innovation, this would seem to be something dramatically different. Not something that can be measured on a test but rather only measured in the results one sees in the economy.

I couldn’t agree with you more about the PISA test results, I want to see better results but the fact remains, as the author points out, and several others have recently (please see: China is a relatively less innovative country. China trails in several measures of innovation, patents being the category this author mentions. PISA does not measure innovation, this can only be measured in terms of patents, R&D spendings (which is granted a bad measure as it is only an input) forward looking scholarly research etc. In these categories China trails dramatically, again consult the article from the Journal of International Security for more details, it is the deposit deep dive into the claim that China is taking over there is, the author very convincingly argues that we have to often conflated size with power, they are not the same thing.

The article from the economist this author links to is also telling, but perhaps the most telling is the very simple observation he makes about China not inventing anything, only building or copying things. Where is chinas Google? its Facebook? its Apple? Why did China not come up with cloud computing? Where are the medical advancements coming out of China? They make the things that outer produce, chiefly the UNited States.

The author seems primarily concerned with the fact that a country like india, which lacks the manufacturing base of China (the ability to cheaply duplicate the work of others with out inventing anything), cannot maintain growth like it has experienced in recent years and lift its people out of poverty with out innovation, which again is a intangible not found in a PISA test score.

One must not confuse Made in China with Designed, Developed ad Engineered in China, because the fact of the matter is almost nothing is, despite their supposed glut of engineers.

February 25, 2012 at 08:43

Predictions like this have been made since the days of Malthus – but Asians in the end have always proved them wrong. Why do Indians now have a much higher life expectancy and nutritional intakes than they did 50 years with more than double (triple(?)), the population? Instead of wagging our fingers at Asians about population, we would do better to get our own houses in order, like starting to manufacture things again and fixing up our broken economies.

February 25, 2012 at 05:31

We can discuss the theory of how a good education can be imparted till the cows come home but there is no substitute for making a call of things by looking at the end result. The OEDC’s PISA test is the latest data as far as I am aware – and shows the lead that the best Asian school systems have and I am not aware of any studies that come up with different conclusions.

The hard data from tests such as this remains consistent with the experience in the workplace when we compare graduates who have been through the school and university system in China or India and our own. The kids from Asia come with a better work ethic generally, better language and numeracy skills and are not wanting in problem solving and lateral thinking. Our own usually take a couple of years to catch up and understand what is required. Where the education system in the West fails apart from imparting basic literacy and numeracy skills is in discipline. Talk to any teacher in the Anglophone world and they will have a great to say on the matter. And that then turns into a social cost that the workplace and the economy have to bear.

When we see the results of the PISA tests and similar data, this should really be a “sputnik” moment for us – the point being that when we could once be a teacher and the Asians the students, this is not the case anymore. I really do not understand how be can “advise” India or China anymore when the hard data shows that they are surpassing us in the basic matters of educating our young. As you say, “the true answer does not lie in absolutes, but in a blend of approaches”. I think that the best Asian eduction systems have worked out that blend better than we have. And the hard data as well as the general impressions of employers you talk to supports that conclusion.

One may of course point to the various rankings of universities which US universities dominate. I suspect that this is because a great deal of weighting is given to post-graduate research output. But in turning out large numbers of quality undergraduates who become the engineers, doctors and accountants of tomorrow and therefore the underpinnings of a successful economy (as opposed to say a measure based on the number of nobel laureates produced), Chinese and Indian universities do well enough if not better than we do – I say this only through experience at the coal face working with graduates at the workplace.

Rather than telling Indians and Chinese to do less rote learning and be “creative” like us, we would do better by looking at the hard data and working out what they better than us and try to benefit from their experience. That is the only point I am trying to make.

February 24, 2012 at 22:23

The real problem lies in India and its corruption state. One should not have to bribr any one for state education. the governmeny provides that. taxes are paid for that, bot woe betide again bribery india forgets about KARMA and what she is laying down for the next life. would it be like sahara africa. certainly shaping up like that.

February 24, 2012 at 20:03

The real threat is from India, with uncontrolled exploding population will post tremendous challenge to the government which will lead to military venture.

February 24, 2012 at 19:44

According to UN projection, India by 2030, will manage to be first in population, surpassing China. While some talk about demographic dividend, India has to solve the same problem that is facing China.

How one feeds her citizens when food production is not catching up? Can the students learn on empty stomachs?

There are countries which are leasing farmlands across the globe to ship food home and the competition for such resources is getting more fierce. China is tiptoeing into such practice.

Prof. John Beddington, the UK government chief scientist warned in 2009: “Demand for food and energy will jump 50% by 2030 and for fresh water by 30%, as the population tops 8.3 billion. The demand for resources will create a crisis with dire consequences.”

February 24, 2012 at 18:01

1) Perhaps you were not referring to this article directly, but it’s a stretch to say the author is “railing against rote learning”. There’s nothing harsh about labeling the method as “inefficient” with “demonstrated shortcomings”. In fact, if you disagree with the latter label, perhaps you should counter the points made in the work the author cites.

2) As with most things in the real world, the true answer does not lie in absolutes, but in a blend of approaches. Creative thinking does NOT in and of itself impart bulk knowledge, and raw knowledge is of course very important. Exposure to historical facts, mathematical techniques, intricacies of language, assorted styles of authors…all are of vital importance, and some degree of rote memorization is needed to cover this vast landscape of information in the short years of primary and secondary school education.

The problem that often arises, though, is when creative thinking takes a back-seat or is even ignored due to an emphasis on memorization. It is extraordinarily difficult to develop critical thinking skills from scratch once the brain goes through its major rewiring phase during the teenage years, and so those skills must be cultivated at an early stage (that point is one of the main ones in the above article).

3) You note that our education system has fallen behind “once we abandoned these basics”, but I question whether you are even correct about that having happened. What evidence do you present that the US education system has abandoned memorization and focuses on creative learning? I did not personally experience that, and I have no seen it in my more recent interactions with education.

The true failure of education does NOT occur due to a flawed approach; it occurs when teachers and parents do not inspire students to WANT to learn! I was an inspired student who was granted an emphasis on memorization and critical thinking, and I am certain my desire to learn was and still is the greatest factor in my educational success. I have seen dozens of students given the tools and approaches to succeed, only to then see them fail because they just didn’t care.

4) There are no “high horses” here. The author aimed to recommend a course of action for a country in a prime position to take advantage of such advice, and used the shortcomings of the teaching model of China as evidence to convince India of this course. Western examples and approaches were never discussed; it is never implied that this is due to some sort of superiority. A debate regarding which countries have been “better” or “worse” in unproductive…as this article aims to help India, India should focus on the methods that evidence supports, and attempt to craft the best system to take advantage of such methods.

February 24, 2012 at 15:27

I think the issue with rote learning is that a lot of people can’t then apply the knowledge to other problems. I am not saying that no one can, just most. Also, the problem with it is that it focuses on the what, where, and when. But the important things to learn are the how and why. Rote learning is amazingly easy to measure through standardized testing. And when success is measured by test scores, that method is certainly the way to go. Where Asia is winning is in having manufacturing the center of their economy. With manufacturing moved there, they learn the technology and innovation that has traditionally come from the west. And that knowledge spills out of firms as people leave those factories and move to firms started in their own countries. With 1100 new r&d centers opening in Asia over the past 4 years, I would venture to say that they wont be lagging in those areas for long, and a focus on developing critical thinking, problem solving, and the development of all executive functions of the brain are going to serve them well.

February 24, 2012 at 13:28

the problem is not rote learning or the way education is imparted( which is best left for people at national education boards) its the way the system is implemented. I used to attend a government aided school, before i attended a more progressive school. I personally feel that progressive schools are way better than the rote ones. But then, i changed schools after the 5th grade ( which can be considered a transition grade between primary-where you learn the basics and high school-where actually you get to know about a lot of things). So in a way, having a firm footing on basics could have given me an advantage, so to speak, in understanding more abstract ideas. Maybe educators could come up with a new system where the basics are taught rigorously at a young age and then from an older age children are encouraged to think on their own. For those who say that children need to be creative from the very beginning, i say what’s the rush? Creativity in anything can blossom in anyone at any time. Besides, there’s nothing wrong in exposing kids to every subject at a young age, wouldn’t it help them decide better?

February 24, 2012 at 03:34

Railing against rote learning is almost a mantra these days. We once learnt the same way. We had to memorise our multiplication tables, learn to spell and learn grammar. Once we abandoned these basics and instead concentrated on teaching kids on how to be “creative” and “express” themselves, we have ended up with a generation of semi-literates who are great spin doctors but know sweet FA and instead, it falls on the employer to teach them things they should have learnt in school.

Typically, with the kids we get from Asia, we have less of these problems – and often they have a head start of their local peers – probably because of their so-called “rote learning” – in fact like the education we used to have here once – but they are also very smart and good thinkers.

The reality is that so-called rote learning is the foundation for future creativity and path breaking througt. It is not inconsistent with innovation but a pre-requisite for it. You cannot run until you first learn to walk.

There has been great consternation here (Australia) at the latest PISA results which put kids from Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea (known for their supposed rote learning) well ahead of our kids – and the UK is even worse than us. We need to be learning from these places in Asia rather than getting on our high horse about how good we are because of our education system how defective theirs is.

It is remarkable from once having smugly preached that the Protestant work ethic made us better than “them”, we how need to reassure ourselves that ” …. success ..[is not] .. culturally determined, a product of Confucianism, rote learning or ‘tiger mothers’,”

As far as India goes, it you want to learn from us, learn from our mistakes and learn from East Asia’s successes.

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