In its Annual Status of Education Report published this year, the NGO Pratham found that just about half (53.4 per cent) of Standard 5 children in the country can read a Standard 2 text. It also documented a decline in the ability of primary school students to do basic mathematics exercises. As the country attempts to match its success in increasing enrolment in the 6-14 age-group with healthier learning outcomes, various hurdles are routinely mentioned. Teacher absenteeism and unaccountability are obvious concerns — as is the ever widening gap between facilities, something sought to be addressed, with yet uncertain results, through mandatory quotas in the Right to Education Act. However, as Lant Pritchett, a professor at Harvard University who has extensively, and comparatively, studied primary education in India, points out, the country also needs to urgently reconsider its curriculum design.
Pritchett is a long-time critic of this country’s overambitious school curriculum. And in an interaction at The Indian Express, he pointed out the costs that come with curriculum that moves too fast. With teachers teaching to the curriculum — and racing to be able to get through the assigned syllabus — once a child falls behind, there is little or no breathing space made available to her to catch up later. So, the lag in competencies keeps widening as she progresses through subsequent classes, and rote increasingly becomes the only way for her to clear tests. The system assumes she comes to the next standard with a certain skill set, and expects her to hit the ground running. “Until you stop the system of teaching to the curriculum, and start the system of teaching to the student,” argues Pritchett, “I think it’s just hopeless.”