Indians today form a visible proportion of leading academics and professionals around the world. A cursory look at professors in leading American universities will reveal that a fair amount tend to be from India, indeed, India sends the largest number of graduate students to America today. This has given rise to stereotypes of ‘smart’ and ‘model-minority’ Indians. Unfortunately, the situation on the ground is a desperate one, as Jishnu Das and Tristan Zajonc point out in ‘India Shining and Bharat Drowning‘. In the paper, the researchers present the results from the administration of the 8th grade Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) to 6000 students in the states of Rajasthan and Orissa.
India’s failings in primary education are well known to most, although they are still denied by many. Das and Zajonc point out that,
Average learning levels are so low that the typical child will leave primary school without knowing how to read or perform elementary mathematical operations.
As it turns out, Indian students perform worse than 42 of the 51 countries tested in 2003. The average student from Orissa and Rajasthan could only answer 37 and 34 of the questions correctly whereas the international average was 52. The bottom 5 percent of Indian students perform worse than students of all countries except three. About 85 % of 9th grade Indian students struggled to even choose the minimum value out of the set 0.625, 0.25, 0.375, 0.5 and 0.125.
Many will try and argue that Rajasthan and Orissa are perhaps not the most representative states, however the nationwide Pratham survey (which tests students of lower grades) indicated that these states are among the better performing ones in India when it came to quality of education. If anything the choice of Orissa and Rajasthan might have given a positive bias to the true all India situation.
What then explains,
India’s increasing global presence, the large number of Indian professionals in high paying jobs, and the dramatic growth of its service industry
The author’s data and calculations however support this conclusion too. The author’s extend the performance of Rajasthan and Orissa to the whole of India and come up with very interesting results,
The vast majority of Indian students cant even pass the test, however India has the third highest number of high and advanced level students, placed only after the US and Japan. This is the result of the sheer size of the population along with the high variability in the quality of education in India today. It wouldnt surprise me if the high performing students were mostly from government-aided schools, schools run privately but with a bulk of financing from the state.
This large number of high performers (in absolute not relative terms) has perhaps lead to the creation of a self-perpetuating and self-absorbed middle class ‘elite’. This sort of data goes a long way in explaining the priorities of the urban elites and the English media. There are so many of them that they can think, talk and hear only about themselves. How they are to be sensitized to the desperate situation of the majority of the country is an open and challenging question.
Can India rescue itself from this crisis ? Substantial progress has been made in the last 10 years in the areas of enrollment and physical infrastructure of schools, however as this research shows much, much more needs to be done. India needs a combination of innovation and action to reach its potential.