Telangana to rope in economist Abhijit Banerjee to improve school education

Telangana schools, quality of education, Abhijit Banerjee, Nobel prize winner, J-PAL, low enrollment, dropout rates, girl students, State Council for Educational Research and Training , teachers
According to sources in the state education department, Randomised Control Trials technique, which helped Abhijit Banerjee and his two colleagues win the Nobel prize, is going to play a role in assessing the situation in Telangana schools too. File photo: PTI.

The Telangana government is roping in Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) to formulate a strategy to improve the quality of school education in the state.

According to sources in the state education department, Randomised Control Trials (RCT) technique, which helped Abhijit Banerjee and his two colleagues win the Nobel, is going to play a role in assessing the situation in Telangana schools too.

The project would be implemented for an initial period of five years. “The objective is to come up with a strategy to improve the learning skills in the government schools. The details of the project are still being worked out,” an official of the state education department said.

The project would be directly supervised by economics professor Karthik Muralidharan of California University, USA. Muralidharan co-chairs the education programme of J-PAL. He had obtained his Ph.D. from Michael Kremer, who got the Nobel Prize along with Esther Duflo, partner of Banerjee, from Harvard University this year.

Muralidharan has already visited a few schools in Telangana and held preliminary talks with the education department officials, including Education Secretary B Janardhan Reddy on the need to improve the education system here.

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Memorandum of Understanding

The School Education Department last week inked a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with J-PAL and the Central Square Foundation, an Indian philanthropic foundation that works in the area of school education.

As per the MoU, a Project Management Unit will be set up to process the Unified District Information on School Education (UDISE) data of the last 10 to 13 years and look at aspects like how better services can be provided with the current spending practices.

The initiative will also focus on using high-quality independent data to learn outcomes and focus on providing support to the districts and areas where it is needed the most.

In 2003, Banerjee founded the J-PAL along with Duflo and is now serving as one of its directors. Rajasthan’s government has already utilised the services of J-PAL and the results are encouraging, the official said.

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Worrying trend

The government is worried over the falling enrolment of students in state-run schools as well as their poor quality of education.

A recent survey conducted by the education department revealed that there are as many as 916 schools where there are no students enrolled. In hundreds of other schools, the enrolment is less than 50, thus leaving them unviable. Incidentally, most of them are in remote rural areas. The ratio of girl students is much worse here.

Of the total 25,131 schools across the state, a whopping 20,000 have an enrolment of less than 100 students.

The survey pointed out that there are 3,445 upper primary schools with less than 15 students, while 14,138 schools have less than 100 students.

Similarly, of the total 4,635 high schools, as many as 22 have an enrollment of less than 15 students, while 1,397 schools have less than 100 students.

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Noted educationist and former MLC from teachers’ constituency, Chukka Ramaiah, said that “insincerity and half-hearted moves” of the government were responsible for the present situation.

“Transferring teachers from remote areas to semi-urban areas or close to towns was the main reason for this drop in enrollment in schools,” said the octogenarian educationist, popularly known as “IIT Ramaiah” because of the consistent strike rate achieved by the coaching institution established by him in Hyderabad.

“What is ironical is that even the teachers hailing from remote and interior areas are not willing to work in schools close to their villages. They too, after securing jobs, want to migrate to urban areas and towns for a better living, leaving the schools in their respective areas without teachers. Obviously, students, too, are avoiding such understaffed schools in their villages,” said Prof K Nageswar, another educationist.

Another survey a few years ago by the State Council for Educational Research and Training (SCERT) found that around 80% students up to Class 10 cannot write simple sentences in English and do simple mathematics. The SCERT also found that absence of teachers was a major problem that hit the government schools in rural areas, but the allegation was denied by the teachers’ associations.

The state is struggling to find a solution for relocating these schools in the name of rationalisation and fighting a case in the Supreme Court which is hearing a petition opposing the move. The petition filed by NGOs and activists contended that the government was planning to shut down the schools to pave way for privatisation.

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Officials in the state education department admitted that it had been a major challenge to deal with the situation in the wake of zero enrollment of students and absence of teachers. “The only option left to us is to close down these schools and relocate teachers and students to nearby schools,” an education officer said.

However, such a move goes against provisions of the RTE Act which says that primary schools should be available to the students within 2 km distance from their village.

“Though many parents are now sending their wards to private schools, they may not be able to afford the cost of private education in the long run. They will have to eventually withdraw their children from schools, leading to higher dropout rate. Higher dropouts will lead to higher unemployment rate and social unrest,” R Ravinder, an education activist.

The general secretary of the Telangana State United Teachers Federation (TSUTF) Ravi attributed the poor standards of school education to the government’s lack of focus and its callous attitude.

Of an estimated 59.5 lakh school-going children in the state, 28.6 lakh are in government schools and 29 lakh are in the private sector.