So now it’s official. For those of us who have been ranting about the poor quality of India’s school education, the data is out there for everyone to see. This is the first time India took part in the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), and the results are damning.
India ranks 72 and 73 (as represented by Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh), out of the 74 countries that participated, way below Shanghai, South Korea and Hong Kong. What is shocking is not just its low ranking, but the fact that in a state like Himachal Pradesh, otherwise on the higher side for development indicators, only one out of 10 children can read at a level needed to be effective and productive in life. Just imagine the situation in other states.
PISA is not about competitive evaluation. It assesses to what extent students close to the end of compulsory school education have acquired some of the knowledge and skills essential for full participation in society. Are students well equipped to analyse, reason and communicate effectively? Do they have the capacity to continue learning through life? This is what makes India’s low scores in reading, math and science particularly worrisome.
PISA takes into account children from all socio-economic backgrounds. Counter intuitively, it has found no evidence to suggest that private schools help raise the level of performance of the school system as a whole. What it has found instead is that active parent involvement, especially in the early years, can make a significant difference to children’s learning abilities.
And the good news coming from PISA data analyses is that it does not require a PhD or unlimited hours for parents to make a difference — many parent-child activities that are associated with better reading performance among students involve relatively little time and no specialised knowledge. What they do demand, though, is genuine interest and active engagement, something busy parents sometimes overlook despite best intentions — especially in countries where it is easier and cheaper to outsource raising children to maids, nannies and drivers.
It’s easy to blame teachers and schools for everything that is wrong with the system. But educating parents is as important as teacher training. Most of my generation was raised in a state of "benign neglect." Our parents took care of all our basic needs, weren’t very demonstrative in their love, nor fierce in their advocacy for us, barely remembered which grade we were in, trusted our teachers implicitly, and as long as our homework was done, just let us be. And as many of my generation say, we turned out fine.
But today’s hyper-competitive world isn’t anything like what it was three decades ago — parents today don’t have the luxury of being as detached as our parents could afford to be. Oh, I’m not advocating the sort of cringe-worthy parental aggression I often see these days — the sort of role models that yell at teachers in front of their children because they see them as service providers rather than educators, even as financiers increasingly commoditise education. But parental apathy is equally common — it isn’t enough to sign kids up for hundreds of activities, outsourcing every aspect of their development without being actively engaged in their lives.
What is most helpful and effective is engaging with our children and collaborating constructively with their teachers in helping them achieve their potential. I learnt this from the highly intelligent and engaged parent community in Palo Alto. These were mothers — and fathers — who had given up CXO positions to stay home with their kids in their formative years — and used that formidable intelligence in providing their children with the best inputs they could. Those who continued to juggle work and home ensured they were actively engaged in their children’s lives. I saw such parents at every back-to-school potluck, parent conference and class — including one on how not become a helicopter parent! They read to their children, played with them, taught them conflict resolution and other life-skills. Sure they were busy — they were running billion dollar corporations — but they made time for their children. The even more impressive part was that there were as many dads out there as there were mums — that was accepted culture.
Those kids would surely top all PISA charts.