Yella not OK, guru. Nanna makkalu is not learning

NIKHIL MORO writes from Mount Pleasant, Michigan: Why do our English newspapers and nouveau cool television channels seem to give short shrift to village affairs when nearly three-fourths of Indians live in the villages?

Take, for example, the abysmal media coverage of a national learning study released by the non-profit Pratham on January 17. Conducted across 16,000 villages, Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report for 2007, a unique and comprehensive survey of rural schools, measures the relationship between learning and attending school.

The study, supported by private and high-profile donors like Google and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, represents a trendy partnership between the collective and the corporate. But that’s where the good news ends.

For starters, co-author Wilima Wadhwa, a University of California Irvine-trained economist, makes an intriguing comment: “A survey of learning has never [before] been done in India.”

If true, Dr. Wadhwa’s claim means governments in India have never tried to ascertain if school students were actually learning something–which should numb us, for the unaccounted spending and for the cynicism of welfare politics.

Overall, the study’s finds are damning. In the fifth standard, 4 out of 10 could not read text; and at the second standard level, 7 out of 10 could not subtract.

In particular, the highlights of the survey for Karnataka are depressing, bisi oota notwithstanding:

# Nearly three-fourths of rural eighth standard students could not do basic subtraction, and nearly half could not do basic division.

# Nearly a quarter of eighth standard students could not read simple Kannada text from a second-standard textbook.

# Only 7.4 per cent of students in standards 3 through 5 could read a sentence in English–the proportion compares very unfavorably with that in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Maharashtra and Goa.

# Among 15-16 year olds, 17.8 per cent of boys and 17.4 per cent of girls were not even enrolled in school. Also 3.5 per cent of children 6-14 years were not enrolled in school. (The last figure suggests we may be way off in eradicating illiteracy.)

# Fewer than half of the schools had all teachers present on the day of the survey. Some 86.5 per cent of appointed teachers were attending on the day of the researchers’ visit compared to 78 per cent in 2005.

# The number of enrolled children actually attending dropped to 75.8 in 2007 from 78.1 in 2005. A little more than two-thirds of the schools had 75 per cent of enrolled students actually attending. The median teacher-student ratio for standards 1 through 8 based on children enrolled and teachers appointed was 32:1.

# Nearly a fifth of the schools had no provision for water. Also 71.8 per cent schools had “usable” water in 2007, down from 74.7 per cent in 2005. Only 73.2 per cent of schools had toilets that were open for use.# Almost all of the schools–98.6 per cent–had a mid-day meal prepared and served on the day of the survey.

# A little more than a tenth of Karnataka’s rural students between 6-14 years are enrolled in private school—a proportion much less than that in neighboring states.

Pratham’s method used sampling by “probability proportionate to size”. One government primary school was sampled in each village visited. Twenty households in 30 villages–in all 600 households–were selected in each of India’s districts. The villages were randomly selected using the village directory of the 2001 census as the sampling frame. In each selected household all children in the age group of 6-14 were tested for reading, comprehension, addition, subtraction, and English reading.

Churumuri readers might want to discuss the study’s findings. In general, politicians might want to scrutinise the Pratham report as they prepare party manifestos for the forthcoming 2008 elections to the Vidhan Sabhas in Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland, as well as, if L.K. Advani’s estimate is legitimate, to the Lok Sabha.

Photograph: courtesy Ruth Fremson/ The New York Times

Also read: Can Azim Premji do that the government can’t/ won’t?

SOMINI SENGUPTA: Education push yields little for India’s poor

Watch the New York Times slideshow here