For a number of years Tamilnadu was held up as a model state for socio-economic development. Basic governmental functions work well in Tamilnadu. eg.
- Medical care through a network of public health centres (PHCs) and hospitals.
- Urbanisation and economic development.
- Functioning of the Public Distribution System (PDS) or ration shops.
- Establishment of network of schools and Balwadis. Provision of midday meals for children through these instituitions.
Underpinning all of these was a strong educational system. Tamilnadu built up a good basic and higher education network. The higher education network was also in part a colonial legacy. Three of the four science nobel laureates of Indian origin were from Tamilnadu. C.V.Raman, Subramaniam Chandrasekar and Venki Ramakrishnan were from Tamilnadu and interestingly all of them studied in the Presidency College in Chennai. Only Hargobind Khorana was not from Tamilnadu. Tamilnadu garnered a much higher share of admissions into central governmental postings and educational institutions than its population would have warranted during the decades of the 50s to the 80s. I was also a beneficiary of this trend. When I joined IIT in 1987, something like 25 of the top 100 ranks in the IIT-JEE were garnered by Tamils. A large number of the doctors in AIIMS or PDMCT Chandigarh were Tamils. Even a large share of the IAS officers and other central government employees were also Tamils.
From the times of Kamaraj and later under the DMK/ADMK regimes, the governments recognised the importance of basic education. Access to education was spread much earlier in Tamilnadu than in many other states. Southern states, especially Kerala and Tamilnadu were held as model states for education by all the states in India. When India attempted to participate in PISA in 2009, it selected Tamilnadu and Himachal Pradesh to represent it.
Riding on top of all this, Tamilnadu has done quite well economically. It rose to become one of the most industrialised and prosperous states by the early 2000s. While Tamilnadu continues to compare favourably on many of the other social factors, its education system has started deteriorating.
Signs of Deterioration
Starting from 2010 there have been several signs of deterioration in Tamilnadu education system.
Reports from NAS and Niti Aayog
NCERT conducts its National Achievement Survey to assess the state of education in India. This is done in a 3 year cycle. The latest NAS survey was done in 2017. Here are the results. Further details about the schools are available through UDISE. Based on the information from NAS and UDISE, Niti Aayog released an index of school education performance. Here is that SEQI (School Education Quality Index) report.
As per the SEQI document, Tamilnadu continues to score high in terms of access to education, equity in education, infrastructure etc. In the SEQI document the table in page 5 which shows the index without the learning outcomes shows Tamilnadu retaining the second position behind Kerala. However when learning outcomes are also considered, it slips to 8th (out of 20 large states). When you only consider learning outcomes it comes a very poor 15th. Many states that have traditionally done poorly have done far better than Tamilnadu. Rajasthan has come second overall in learning outcomes. Even Bihar and Jharkhand have done significantly better than Tamilnadu at 12th and 7th ranks respectively. Other southern states that traditionally do well like Kerala (4th), Karnataka (1st), Andhra Pradesh (3rd) have all continued to do well.
Looking at the detailed performance through the NAS dashboard doesnt look any better. In each of the classes 3rd, 5th, 8th and 10th, Tamilnadu is in the bottom half in terms of performance. Language performance lags behind Maths. While even 5 years earlier in 2012, Tamilnadu had started showing signs of decline it was still performing quite well overall. You can see the NAS results for 2012 to see the performance being significantly better in most of the classes.
Performance in Pratham’s ASER
Pratham an NGO has been publishing ASER (Annual State of Education Report) since 2007. They conduct a simple test to assess the basic capabilities of the students in Reading, Arithmetic and English. This has served the very important purpose of pointing out the complete disconnect between the curriculum, children passing through various grades etc. and their basic educational attainments. The wide variation between the years of the performance of specific states puts a big question mark over the assessment methodology. Despite this the overall pattern is clear. Tamilnadu has been performing somewhere in the bottom half in both reading and Maths assessments.
Performance in National Entrance Tests
In itself performance in the national level entrance tests by states largely reflects the state of the coaching industry. I do not think that in itself is a good thing. But despite that I am quoting some articles on these entrance tests to show that the under-performance is also there in the schools that serve the elite in the state.
- Performance in JEE 2019 – Indian Express Article, Times of India article
- Performance in JEE 2014 – Statewise distribution of candidates from Jagranjosh
- Performance in JEE 2013 – Statewise distribution of candidates from AskIIT
- Performance in NEET 2019 – Article from EdexLive, Result analysis by Embibe
So the under-performance by Tamilnadu is not just restricted to elementary schools or to government schools but is also visible in the critical 12th standard results. Further these entrance exams are taken by the “best” students. So these details show that the decline is not just for average students but also for the elite cream of the students. For a long time the performance of students from Tamilnadu has been declining in the JEE. In recent times, with the introduction of NEET as a qualifying exam for medical colleges, the decline has been showing up in the NEET exam as well.
Reasons for this Deterioration
Analyzing the reasons for any large scale socio-economic reality is bound to be inexact and subjective. My exercise is not going to be any better. I have made an attempt to give factors that are often stated as well as factors I believe deserve serious consideration and analysed them in the following sections.
Poor Quality of Board Exams
Board exams serve as a beacon for the whole schooling system. That sets the standard for what the children are expected to learn/achieve by that age/class. Board exams in Tamilnadu state board unmistakably tells the teachers that they need to train the children to memorise things in their textbook and reproduce them in the exam to do well in their education. You can see rote learning at its worst in our Tamilnadu board exams. I have heard numbers upwards of 95% for the percentage of questions that are directly lifted from the textbooks and question banks! Even in Maths, questions are reproduced verbatim in the exams without even changing the numbers! We can see the same trend repeating in younger classes as well. Children are made to memorise methods (like long-form division, addition with carry, addtion of unlike fractions etc.) without understanding them. Memorization is considered as the primary aspect of education whether it is in the teaching of Maths or language.
This culture shows no signs of changing. While other states are aligning their boards with NCERT and thus improving the standard of education to the level of the CBSE schools, Tamilnadu resolutely resists this.
Wrong Performance Metrics
Government teachers are given automatic promotion by seniority for most part. This is not unlike the rest of the government. This is itself is not a good way to encourage productivity. Beyond this the education department requires various metrics from the schools that nudge things in the wrong direction.
BRTs (Block Resource Trainers) classify children in the various schools into four grades A to D based on their basic achievement. Children in C or D grades are significantly below their grade levels in learning. School HM and teachers are asked to explain if there are children in C and D grades and conduct remedial classes for them etc. To avoid all these headaches the BRTs and the schools invariably fudge these grades.
The CCE (Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation) and its summative (once a term) and Formative (one for each lesson) assessments are completely broken. Once again the schools are expected to submit the results from these to the higher officials. You will often see that the kind of questions asked in the FA and SA are well beyond the abilities of the children. Note the summative assessments are sent to the schools from the SCERT. The schools fudge these results all the time. This fudging impacts the quality of these assessments in all classes. These are detailed in my separate article on assessment. Ultimately the teachers are not given the freedom to set the question papers at a level appropriate for the children and honestly grade them.
A basic recognition is required that a large majority of the factors influencing education is beyond the control of the school and the teachers. Studies from US suggest that only 20% of a students performance depends on what is happening in the school. This is likely to be similar in Tamilnadu as well. So to question a school or even a teacher on poor performance of children does not make sense. Metrics that would make sense will be to evaluate the actual practice of teaching-learning process followed by the teachers in the classrooms and any improvements in the performance of the children in an honestly conducted assessment.
Improving enrollment and availability of infrastructure and additional materials for the school and children are other things considered significant by the education department. These are important no doubt. However while these are focussed on and the basic educational attainment of the children is not, that conveys a wrong priority to the teachers.
Contrary to the popular depiction of Indian governments as lethargic elephants, Tamilnadu education department has been making dramatic changes over the last several years. In 2007 it introduced ABL (Activity Based Learning) for classes 1 to 4 and ALM (Advanced Learning Methodology) for classes 5 to 8 in select schools and this was rolled out to all over Tamilnadu in 2008 by the then DMK government. ABL was an interesting experiment. It was based on the Montessori system and adapted for the Indian conditions by schools like Rishi Valley School and Isai Ambalam, which are themselves quite experimental, non-mainstream schools. ABL has a few good basic principles: learn at your own pace – children go through different ladders for different subjects and can progress at their own pace till the 4th standard in each of the ladder, multi-age classes and peer group based learning, teacher as a facilitator rather than an instructor, activity based learning etc. This was for a large part a failure because of strong resistance to change from the entrenched teacher community and because of huge bureaucratic overhead that was placed on the teachers. The teachers were supposed to submit to the authorities, where each child was in every ladder and explain if they were not keeping pace. This turned the focus away from learning to just filling the ladder for each child!
ALM was once again a very experimental approach. It primarily revolved around mind-maps. Children were expected to develop mind-maps for the concepts they were learning. Here again this was turned into blind form-filling exercise. The mind-maps were already created for the kids for every concept and the children just needed to fill the boxes with words from the text-book lesson! Imagine that – every child is supposed to have the same mind-map for every concept!
In 2011 Jayalalitha came to power and she had to throw out all things introduced by the previous government. She changed ABL to SABL or Simplified-ABL and ALM to SALM or Simplified-ALM. ABL was essentially stripped off all the meaning and the only things that was left behind was the least useful part which is the ladder and the sham form-filling done by the teachers. Important things like learn at your own pace, teacher as facilitator etc. were dropped by SABL.
Then in 2016 in her second tenure, ABL was completely thrown out and replaced by a new system called “Pedagogy”. This to some extent recognised the basic reality that education wasnt really happening without instruction driven by the teachers. Teachers were meant to create their own TLM (Teaching-Learning Materials) to teach every lesson. This also came with its own form-filling. Teacher should document and submit lesson plan for each lesson that she teaches. This is being done mechanically like other such government driven form-filling in the past.
The new “Pedagogy” system was also accompanied by a change of all the textbooks. The textbooks now have QR codes for every exercise and activity. This is not a bad move.
Another change that has taken place all over India has been the move to Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation (or CCE). Breaking the academic year into 2 or 3 terms with each term having a Summative Assessment and each lesson having a Formative Assessment all of these with their own detailed reporting is the norm in most of the states. I have already talked about the problems with this in the previous section.
Often these radical changes are attempted without adequate thought as to whether the system is capable of scaling to implement the change, the infrastructure available and the restrictions that imposes on the system, the tools required for monitoring the impact of the change, the effectiveness of such tools etc.
Research has shown that the ages of 2 to 5 are the most critical in the acquisition of language and numeracy skills. Given the lack of a rich environment at home it is important to provide such an environment for the children. Balwadis or Anganwadis are supposed to provide that. But they rarely serve that purpose. Education is not the primary goal of these Balwadis which focus on the health of the mother and the infants.
While these are problems all over India, the Balwadis in Tamilnadu have been caught in a limbo for a number of years. There were tussles between the Balwadi workers and the government for several years running because these workers have not been recognised as government staff. So the Balwadis have deteriorated over the last decade or so. Adding to the list of experiments that our state government is running, they are thinking of creating Kindergarten sections in the schools. We have plunged into this without careful thinking about various problems.
- What will happen to the Balwadi teachers?
- Are there adequate number of teachers and classrooms in the schools to handle this?
- There are often multiple Balwadis in bigger villages which are close to the habitations. Will children as young are 2.5 years be able to travel the longer distances to come to the schools?
- How are the school teachers going to be trained to handle Kindergarten?
- What is the curriculum for the KG?
Without all these things planned, the “Kindergarten in schools” has been more or less a non-starter.
My objections to reservation is not the typical one that it dilutes the focus on merit. To a small extent it does but I think the current trend of equating merit to performance in a heavily coached completely rote based board exam or in an even more ridiculously coached one-dimensional entrance exam is a much bigger problem.
The other and in my mind bigger problem with reservation is that it reduces the purpose of education to admission to higher education or a job. Education ought to be about the actual learning that happens over the years. Reservation, by ignoring all that and instead focusing exclusively on apportioning what you can buy with your education at the end of it, objectifies education in the minds of the people.
Tamilnadu has taken reservation much further than other states. 93% of the population is covered by some reservation or the other. Higher educational institutions reserve more than 70% of their seats for various categories of people. Proportionally the transactional, objectified notion of education is also very deep rooted in Tamilnadu.
Values of People
However flawed, we still live in a democracy. People’s will drives the long term changes. Most parents want certificates or degrees for their children that will improve their value in the job market and not really education. The education system has also been manipulated to serve just that need. People want their children to pass with high marks. The system delivers that by dumbing down the tests. Children getting 99% in the TN state board cannot get even 100 marks (out of 720) in NEET.
The value of a 10th of 12th std pass or even a college degree or five has plummeted. I have often interviewed candidates with BA or MA in English who can’t tell you the past tense of “I have a pen”, or with BSc Maths who cannot add two unlike fractions, or with BE in CS/IT who cannot tell the difference between a hard disk and a RAM. While this is true all over India, I find this particularly severe in Tamilnadu. When the education department tried to increase the number of marks in 12th std board exam for questions that were outside the textbook, there were protests from the students, parents and teachers!
Even the shift to private schools from government schools is done for all the wrong reasons. The parents value the stress placed on children’s homework, a rigid curriculum and pedagogy, strict obedience, uncomfortable dresses (in the form of shoes and ties) etc. They lack the skill and don’t put in the effort to check the real learning taking place in their children.
In this environment any positive change is often a political suicide. The best thing to do at this point will be to reform the board exam to make it test real understanding of the children and also move to higher order thinking skills. But this will be resisted tooth and nail by the society even though this is in their own best interest.
It is easy to make recommendations when you do not have to implement it and you are not the person whose head is on the block if the recommendations fail. With that acknowledgement, I will go ahead and make some recommendations.
- Eliminate all the unnecessary reporting imposed by the “Pedagogy”/”SALM” systems and CCE. Train the teachers on effective teaching methods, provide them the infrastructure required to implement these methods, but then trust them and give them the freedom to teach and improve the children as they see fit. BRTs and BEOs can check the classroom practices and provide inputs to the teachers.
- Conduct one controlled assessment designed in a manner that is appropriate for the classes (as determined by their actual learning level) which is not directly based on the textbook but based on the curriculum. Feedback from this should go to the schools and performance of the school and teachers should be measured based on improvements shown by the children in this assessment. The intent of this assessment should not be to detain weak performers but to honestly assess where the children are.
- Start an honest dialogue with the people about the slipping standards of education in Tamilnadu and the need to improve the board exams. Gradually increase the percentage of questions that are not from the textbook but aligned to the curriculum they are supposed to be learning. This can be accompanied by simplifying the paper. You can ask the 12th standard student to identify a cat or a dog rather than asking them the same question that is there in their textbooks.
- Do not keep changing the textbooks, curriculum, evaluation patterns (CCE) etc. These are merely the struts within which education takes place. Good education can take place within the existing struts. Focus on the classroom processes and give the teachers the flexibility required to adapt to the local conditions.
- Bring Kindergarten into the government schools but with careful planning.
Without these changes I see Tamilnadu continuing to deteriorate in its educational standards. These will start reflecting in the economic progress of the state as well.