New Delhi: There’s no doubt that India has made immense progress in its literacy rate, which rose from about 14 per cent at the time of Independence to 74 per cent in the 2011 census. But, has the quality of school education also witnessed an upward trend to match? The findings of a new study suggest not.
Five years of schooling brought relatively better learning outcomes for Indian women born in the 1960s than for those who were born in the 1990s, indicating a possible decline in the quality of primary education, according to a study by developmental economists Alexis Le Nestour, Laura Moscoviz and Justin Sandefur for the US-based think-tank Center for Global Development (CGDEV). A working paper was uploaded earlier this year.
“Taken at face value, the estimates for India suggest the probability a woman with five years of schooling would become literate was nearly 100 percent for the 1960s birth cohorts, but had fallen to roughly 40 per cent for the mid-1990s cohorts,” the study said.
While the study included data for both men and women, study co-author and CGDEV senior fellow Justin Sandefur told ThePrint via email that the results for Indian women were “more reliable” and nationally representative due to much larger sample sizes and country coverage.
Titled ‘The Long-Run Decline of Education Quality in the Developing World’, the working paper sought to examine the outcomes of primary education in 88 developing countries over several decades.
The rationale for the study, the authors wrote, was that there was a lack of “reliable, long-term measures of education quality over time”. The authors also noted that there was a “learning crisis” in developing countries, including India, where school systems have failed “to reliably produce even basic literacy and numeracy skills”.
“The economic consequences of improving education quality are poorly understood, but potentially large,” the study said.
How the study was conducted
The CGDEV study relies on demographic and health surveys (DHS) — of which India’s National Family Health Survey (NFHS) is a part — and multiple indicator cluster surveys (MICS), a household data collection programme conducted by UNICEF.
Both surveys collect “nationally representative information on literacy and schooling of women, and in some cases men, aged 15 to 49,” the study explained. Using these statistics, the authors sought to evaluate the “education quality” of adults who had attained five years of primary schooling by their ability to read a basic sentence.
The study scanned the literacy scores of adults aged 20 and above who had gone through only five years of schooling. The authors justified this minimum age, stating that the quality of education an individual received before quitting school could have an impact as they grew older.
“In our setting, age captures life-cycle effects on literacy, which may evolve even after an individual leaves school if they acquire human capital throughout their career, or instead it decays as time passes,” the study said.
The literacy scores were then plotted against the year the individual was born.
Quantity vs quality: The case of Indian women
According to statistics provided by the authors on request by ThePrint, only about one-third of the women born in 1958 (the oldest cohort for India) were able to complete five years of schooling. In contrast, 90 per cent of women born in 1999 (the youngest cohort) were able to finish five years of primary school.
However, the learning outcomes for the same amount of schooling were better for women born in the 60s than for those born in the 90s.
According to the study’s data, more than 80 per cent of the women who were born in the 1960s passed the expected literacy outcome — reading a complete sentence — when they were aged 20 or above.
On the other hand, barely 40 per cent of women aged 20 and above with only five years of schooling could pass the basic literacy test.
So, if the educational quality in primary schools has declined, how is it that developing countries like India have been able to increase their literacy rates? The authors suggest that in such countries the loss in educational quality has been met by increasing the average years of schooling.
“Literacy gains associated with increased schooling rates far outpaced the offsetting effect of declining quality, i.e., literacy conditional on schooling,” the study said.
“From a policy perspective, the fact that most developing countries with high (unconditional) literacy rates achieved them primarily by increasing average years of schooling rather than school quality may be instructive for lagging countries. Expanding access to schooling has produced remarkable gains in overall literacy, while not much else has,” the study said.
Data from India provided by the authors was in line with this observation. Only 25-30 per cent of Indian women who were born in the 1960s attended secondary school or above. But about 80 per cent of women born in the 1990s attained secondary or higher levels of schooling.
In the case of Indian women, Sandefur said that the “obvious factor to investigate is that literacy conditional on schooling has declined ‘simply’ due to the increase in the number of pupils”.
Sandefur also hinted that while access to education may have boosted literacy, some children might not have been able to learn as much in the first five years of school.
“One obvious factor is that poorer households, with fewer complementary resources to invest in their children’s education, are now able to send their kids to school — that boosts overall literacy, but may drag down literacy conditional on five years of schooling. Of course, beyond that, other factors may be at play — you can speculate as well as we can about the overall quality of teaching over time,” he added.
In India, the “learning crisis” in schools has been well-documented. For instance, the Annual Survey of Education Rural (ASER) since 2005 repeatedly showed that barely half of Class 5 students in India can read a Class 2 text. The CGDEV study authors also cited the fact that students in India “score on average at about the 5th percentile for pupils at a similar grade in advanced economies on international learning assessments”.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)