Applying the rules of the market to education: Does it pass the test?

 “Education, like the Earth, is an onion whose core is suffocating.” ~  Shankar Ramachandran



75 million children and 774 million adults still do not have access to quality education. Nearly 10% of the global spending on primary education is lost due to poor quality that fails to ensure that children learn. Thus one in four young people in poor countries are unable to read a single sentence. In India, while the richest young women have already achieved universal literacy, the poorest are projected to do so only by 2080. Thus, inequality in educational opportunity is the biggest stumbling block to universal education. The rich continue to gain while the poor continue to lag. Education is no longer the great leveler that is thought to be.


This “global learning crisis” is costing governments $129 billion a year. Inequality of opportunities is a major obstacle to development. Ten countries account for 557 million, or 72 per cent, of the global population of illiterate adults. India is among 21 countries facing an “extensive” learning crisis because less than half of the children are learning the basics. The other countries include 17 countries from sub-Saharan Africa, Mauritania, Morocco and Pakistan.


These are the findings of the 2013/4 Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report. Education is pivotal for development in a rapidly changing world. The EFA report explains how investing wisely in teachers, and other reforms aimed at strengthening equitable learning, transform the long-term prospects of people and societies. The report states that equity and quality education will be pivotal in the post 2015 agenda.


The Education for All (EFA) movement is a global commitment to provide quality basic education for all children, youth and adults. At the World Education Forum held in Dakar in the year 2000, 164 governments pledged to achieve EFA and identified six goals to be met by 2015. Governments, development agencies, civil society and the private sector are working together to reach the EFA goals. The Dakar Framework for Action mandated UNESCO to coordinate these partners, in cooperation with the four other conveners of the Dakar Forum (UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF and the World Bank). Every year since 2002, the Education for All Global Monitoring Report assesses progress and shares good practices. It also makes concrete recommendations to achieve the goals set in Dakar.


Although the report, ‘Education for all – global monitoring report 2013-14′, places India in the top bracket of countries likely to achieve a primary enrolment target of at least 95 per cent by 2015, but questions the quality of education, placing India among the 21 countries facing an ‘extensive’ learning crisis. To illustrate the “learning crisis” faced by India, the report compares Vietnam and India and quantifies the difference between the two countries in education. In Vietnam, students perform well, on an average, on tests administered at different levels with varying contents. In India, however, children’s learning progress declines in higher grades. In Vietnam, 86% of eight-year-old children answered grade-specific test items correctly. Similarly, 90% of children aged eight in India did so. However, when 14 to 15-year olds were asked a two-stage word problem involving multiplication and addition, 71% of children in Vietnam answered correctly, while in India the percentage dropped to 33%.


An “ambitious” curriculum, which outpaces the child’s learning ability, including that of disadvantaged learners, is found to be the most significant factor behind the poor learning outcomes of Indian schools. Contrast this to Vietnam — where the curriculum focuses on foundation skills and is closely matched to what children are able to learn, especially disadvantaged learners. The report points out that India’s curriculum “outpaces what pupils can realistically learn and achieve in the context and time given.”


India’s poorest continue to remain illiterate despite enrolment in school. Even after completing four years of school, 90% of children from poorer households remain illiterate. And this also holds true for around 30% of kids from poorer homes despite five to six years of schooling. Besides, only 44% of rural students in the Grade 5 age group in the state of Maharashtra and 53% in the state of Tamil Nadu could perform two-digit subtraction. And it will take another 66 years for poor young women of the country to achieve universal literacy.




The Essayist spoke about the problems confronting education in 21st century, especially in the context of India, with Shankar Ramachandran, an educationist, who early in his life moved from a corporate career as a chartered accountant to his calling of educating children in villages. He has completed a Master’s degrees in Education and a Master’s degree in International Peace Studies at University of Notre Dame along with short fellowships in United Kingdom. He has been teaching in India since 1992 and has created a unique reading program for children called Spells, which takes a holistic approach to reading and learning. It involves parents, and addresses the emotional as well the cognitive element of learning to read.


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Most parents want their children to read because they firmly believe that if children read then they will learn. In fact children often complain of parents harassing them to read their school textbooks. What most families do not discuss openly is that most children never learn to read properly at early ages; they often develop a fear of reading. Shankar’s method involves parents and encourages children to learn to read at early ages so that they can then go on to read to learn at higher grade levels. Along with Imagic Foundation he is now using this method to encourage reading and language learning in primary schools that serve children and families from low-income urban slums in Mumbai.


SR = Shankar Ramachandran

TE = The Essayist



TE: You have been involved in the education system for the past two decades in various capacities – both inside and outside the formal education system. What are the critical problems you find in the education system today?


SR: Let me cite a couple of problems, which, in my opinion, are as insoluble as ink stains on new linen.


The first is the existence of not one, but multiple education systems. We talk of the education system as if there is one education system. This is a basic mistake we make when we talk of improving the education system. There are multiple systems of education in the same city and at the same time. They are organized layer after layer – a different layer for the rich and then for the upper middle and then for the lower middle (that is very aspirational) and then the slightly poor and then the very poor and so on. This is the problem of stratification of education into class groups.


Of course, as is true everywhere else within a market system, where you pay more you get more: better quantity of services and quality of services.


This follows the layering of markets in general, for health care and residential spaces and for all consumer products and almost everything on the planet. There are televisions for the rich and televisions for the poor, hospitals for the wealthy and hospitals for the needy, homes for middle income groups and homes for the poor.


One can argue that these divisions are as timeless as the common cold, and so they may be. We can also take it for granted that products for the rich differ from products for the poor in quality, health benefits and longevity. Multigrain breads and organic eggs are unaffordable to the poor; wealthier hospitals may offer better health care. First class section in planes offer better services than economy class on the same flight.


And so in education, private schools may outperform public schools that are stretched for resources and staff quality. Can we live with such quality variations in health or education? I go back to the example of the airplane mentioned earlier. It is accepted that the first class gets better service than economy. But can we offer, say, emergency parachutes and life-saving equipment only to the first class passengers?


And, more importantly, when the plane crashes, does it matter if you were in first class or economy?


TE: We understand that you are arguing that educational quality differs substantially for the rich versus the poor and this shows in the data presented in the UNESCO report mentioned earlier in this article? However, using your airplane metaphor, are you arguing that the education system is crashing?


SR: Yes, I use this airplane argument for the education system. There is the first class which gets better service and then there is the inhuman economy class. However you will find this argument even in the work of British sociologist of education – Basil Bernstein.


Education was supposed to be the great equalizer – the great leveler. Education was the opportunity that was talked about when democracy emerged and constitutions were written for modern nations. Nowadays when I talk of stratification in education I am blamed for being philosophical and not practical. The detractors tell me that it is a philosophical argument that we must reserve for another day.


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However, if talking about the stratification of education is philosophical; and if we must deliberately ignore that education was sold as the legs on which a solid democracy would walk and run; we should also agree that democracy is philosophical. The same detractors would scream and abuse me if I said that democracy was philosophical and they should stop voting. How can we take a concept like democracy and then cut off its legs (which happens to be education) and say now use this legless wonder called the newer, shinier, and easy-to-use version? Democracy is not a consumer product of the market place. Democracy is a sacred notion and we have to respect all its components and all its attributes including education as the ladder and platform of opportunity for all.


TE: So, one of the problems in education you mention is the stratification or inequalities in education. This leads to multiple systems of education – some for the rich and some for the poor. And of course those who pay more get more.  However, it seems to me that you are now talking of a different problem: the problem of applying market principles and rules to education?


SR: We have made democracy marketable and now we are making its foundation – education – marketable.


This leads me to the second problem I see in education, and of course it is linked to the first. While education mimics the market, it has been unable to draw, at least in India, the talent that the market draws. In Finland, the teacher is paid on par with a doctor or a lawyer. In India, a few higher education institutions and some private schools may have highly paid teaching staff. However, in most primary and secondary schools, teachers lack training, professionalism and self-belief. Moreover, they lack wages. When they have their own hungry bellies to fill, are they likely to whet the appetite of forty or sixty hungry minds?


In several low income private schools in Mumbai, an average teacher earns between Rs 4000 (65 dollars) to Rs 7000 (115 dollars) a month. The wages are insufficient unless the teacher bolsters it with after-school tuitions. Outside of Mumbai, the situation is far grimmer. This article in the link mentioned below throws light on this issue.


Needless to say, staff motivation is low, staff turnover is high. Can we continue to put on a fight against such mind-numbing odds? That is an enigma for Economists and Planners, but they sing, ‘Don’t you ask me what to do, I’ll tell you TINA TINA TINA’ (Sung to the tune of Quando Quando Quando). TINA. There is no alternative.


Is that what we should teach in our schools to our children? TINA – That there is no alternative. Perhaps that is what our children have been learning and therefore there are no innovations and inventions happening in a country of 1.2 billion people.


TE: So what is the alternative? What can be done?


SR: I intentionally veer towards a problem which has several elegant solutions. If I were to run a school, this is the area I would first upheave. And continue to upheave. CURRICULUM. This is also something that has been identified as a problem by the UN report you mentioned earlier.


Let me offer three arguments why curriculum is a problem in India.


First, Indian communities have always had an affinity to pomp, celebration and occasion, and the education equivalent of pomp is examination. We can, perhaps, trace the malaise to the royal spectacle of swayamvars, where princes underwent examination before a bride chose them with a garland of flowers. King Vikramidtya had to use his wit and wisdom to get rid of the Vetaals of ignorance. Ife he failed, he lost his head. The love for testing has pushed curriculum and instruction into being bridesmaids to the wedding of the child, to examination.


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Examination is the Oracle that predicts social mobility and privileges. A student who does well in the examination goes to the best institute, say IIT (Indian Institute of technology), which then becomes a ticket to go abroad, and thus the student scurries up the social ladder. Preparation for the Examination then becomes the whole purpose of education. Parents with monetary resources prepare intensely in this challenge. They enroll their child in multiple coaching classes and tuition classes (over and above the regular school). Those without resources drop out. This unforgiving approach has widened the abyss that divides the rich and the poor: the rich are over-educated and the poor, under-prepared. The average rich student in Mumbai clocks at least 12 hours of additional tuition every week in addition to the time spent in school. Parents of many poor students try to emulate this by stretching their financial resources, but it is usually not enough. Outside of Mumbai, in the hinterland, the situation is testier. The UNESCO report states that India’s poorest continue to remain illiterate despite four years of learning (


We must also remember that the rich student gets support at home from educated parents. The poor kid has no chance of competing in this race of the fittest. This is, of course, inherently, unjust.


How can a catapult compete against a cannon?


Third, Examination needs standardization, if only to give the smug impression that everyone stands a fair objective chance. There are standardized curriculum for each age group. Every student must run the same course, leap over the same obstacles and heave the same tomes in her back-bending bag. We have already seen the differences in resources and preparation. The poorer kid learns very early that the race is too challenging for her. She is trailing behind her better-trained peers, her results are a nightmare for her, and her confidence in her own abilities are shattered very early. How long can she hold up the pretense of being equal?


TE: Are the differences in education only between the social groups? Isn’t there a difference within social groups too? In my own school, when I was a student, I found great variations in learning abilities among my peers?


SR: True, this is not just a problem between the rich and the poor. The inequalities crop up within each strata too, for various other reasons such as intelligence, motivation and determination. Every child who trails his peers in the classroom hears the same sibilant whisper as he opens his standardized textbook: Sleep. Shut. Quit. While he sleeps, his parents and teachers get into a triangular blame game: the teachers blame the boy and the parents, the parents blame the teachers and the boy, and the boy wants parents and teachers to go to sleep too.


The school and classroom have to pay attention to each kid, play to his strengths and rectify his weaknesses. Thus, children need attention – individualized attention. They can get this at home if the parents are willing to give their time and also willing to learn. Many parents from the upper classes can afford to do that. One of the spouses can be a stay at home parent. However, in the poor family, the income from both parents is barely sufficient. So most poor parents outsource the education of the child to the school system. However, the school system is in a trap. It can only hire poorly paid teachers who are minimally qualified and maximally unmotivated.


This has put the Indian education system in a peculiar situation. Every stakeholder in the system is on their own hamster wheel. They are pedaling furiously but going nowhere.  The parent works extra hours to make enough money to pay for extra coaching classes, the student is running from classroom to tuition classes, the teachers are busy grading exams, and no one is learning. The coaching classes pocket the money. It is an India Rupees 2000 crore (US$320 million) unregulated industry in India. Why would venture capitalists and private equity firms fund coaching classes in India? I do not think they are interested in improving quality of education or reaching education for all. They are private companies interested in making money or taking money from those willing to give it up? Parents in India in their blind quest to give their child a leg up the education ladder are giving it up by the fistful



The UN report does not go into these issues at all – the marketization of education in India. That is one of the primary reason that the curriculum is not being changed aggressively. There is money to be made by keeping children dumb. This is the new, shinier democracy that I talked of earlier – it has amputated the educational legs of democracy and is now only getting high on money. Does this new kind of democracy want a dumber citizenry?  Writing reports may be necessary but is simply not sufficient. The United Nations has to confront the issue head-on.


TE: How do we get out of this? How do we move towards a better system? What would be the starting point? And what would be one underlying principle of that education system?


SR: The first step is to free the children, the teachers and parents from the stranglehold of examinations.


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A child in an average school has 30-40 days dedicated to formal testing every year. Over 10-12 years of schooling that works out to nearly 360 days of testing. Compare this to a child in Finland, who has almost no formal testing during that entire period.


It takes less than a day to really assess a child, so why spend 360? What rituals are we completing?


We must not forget that these rituals are accompanied by pressures, endless preparations and tuitions, mindless memorization. All in all, a colossal waste of time.


There is a fundamental pedagogical reason for doing away with examination, too. We want children to be curious, to ask questions and to seek information. However, the classroom education experience expects them to merely answer questions all the time, never ask. It expects them to take knowledge as a given, only to be reproduced, never to be challenged or questioned. Examinations ask, students answer. Nothing else matters. Paulo Freire’s banking analogy comes to mind. Examination turns students into passive receptors.


Thirdly, testing serves no purpose if it is not accompanied by remediation. Let us say that a test result tells us that Student A is struggling, and Student B is brilliantly endowed. What does the teacher do with this rich information, which takes less than an hour to gather? Does she use this insight to make some change inside the classroom? Does the teacher help Student A to overcome his difficulties?


Rarely. The teacher calls the parent and asks them to arrange for remediation or tuition classes, usually after school. What does Student A then do in class? Start preparing for the next test, which he already knows he is going to underperform. There is very little remediation done inside class. This undermines the chief purpose of testing.


Fortunately, the Central Board of Secondary Education in India has taken a few corrective steps. They have made the Grade or Standard 10 board exam voluntary. Several progressive schools around the country do not have testing in the primary and middle schools. These healthy initiatives need to become the norm, not the exception.


The Right to Education (RTE) says that students cannot be detained in any class up to grade nine. That, in my opinion, is another nail from the government upon the coffin of testing. It is up to schools now to bury the monster.


TE: What can schools do, if they do not test?


SR: The moment you do away with examinations, you make a great switch inside the school: the switch from curriculum-centric education to child-centric education. The examination makes the curriculum the be-all and end-all of education; the child and her needs do not figure in this equation at all. The child slowly drops out of the process which is meant to help the child. The child dragged, pushed and finally drops out. Which is what the troubled slow learner does in the end.


A 2014 Human Rights Watch report mentions that over 40 per cent of Indian students drop out before Standard 8, and most of these students are from the ‘lower rungs of Indian society’. These children feel discriminated in classrooms and are made to sit at the back of the class. They leave the school because they ‘do not learn’ anything.


Strange, is it not? Teachers are teaching but students are not learning. That is a familiar tale even in the most elite classrooms.


A UNICEF report in 2013 says that children are dropping out not because of poverty or work, but because they are not learning anything in school. They term this a National Emergency.


TE: How can we get around this? Get rid of examinations?


SR: If we remove examinations, the focus on the curriculum dims and the child comes towards the foreground. The teacher then becomes the adept cameraman who can wield the lens cleverly to perform this trick.


We can then start paying attention to the development of foundational skills in the children. Foundational skills are those that help the child become a better learner – and this helps her throughout her life.


Let me take the example of English language learning. A child typically reads around eight to ten short stories or extracts and five to six short poems in a year. Because of examination, the child learns these handful of lessons repeatedly through the year. In India, in addition to schools, the student also enrolls in coaching classes or tuition classes in the evening and the mother also forces the child to read at home. Thus, the mother, the coaching class or tuition teacher and the school teacher revise these 8 to 10 extracts and 5 to 6 poems repeatedly. The child is forced to commit them to memory without understanding them. Usually, there is very little analysis or depth: the revision is merely a repetition of knowledge-based low-order question and answer.


This is very little work done in a year.


No wonder, then, that literacy, reading and comprehension rates in India are low. A World Bank study, reported by Time magazine this year corroborates this.


My belief is that the child of eight should read at least 200 pages of age-specific literature every week. At an after school language learning center that I run, over 90 per cent of the students easily achieve this for at least 25 weeks a year. That means around 5000 pages of informal untested reading a year. Around 120 books a year. 120 fun-filled story books of kings and princesses, talking birds and sleeping dragons, children and grown-ups.


reading program


Let me quantify this in time.


The average reading rate is 4 pages a minute for age-specific books. We are then talking about 1250 minutes of reading in a year. This means 50 classroom periods of 25 minutes each. Even if half is done at school and half at home, in 25 periods a year at school and 25 minutes of reading per week at home, a student can achieve this target.


Instead, a student currently reads one measly text book of less than a 100 pages in a whole year. And schools still say they have no time to read inside the classroom (Hindustan Times, Mumbai, November 26, 2014). They say they have barely time to finish the syllabus. A syllabus of one little text book of under a 100 pages a whole year.


Schools have no time to read because they are conducting examinations. That is a simple trade off.


TE: Well you are asking a very important questions: Which is more important – Examinations or Reading? I guess we know the answer is reading, but could you explain to us – How?


SR: Almost every education expert in the world, every language expert would say that reading is extremely beneficial for children. Reading is one of those foundation skills. Reading increases imagination, comprehension and predicated better grades. Yet our teachers have no time for it.


Can we say the same about examinations? Leading education systems in the world such as Finland have dropped examinations. Why would they do so if they were indispensable for children?


The trick is simple. Replace examinations with a meatier curriculum. Replace one textbook with 120 story books. Instead of testing students on one text book, let the student experience and summarize the 120 books she has read. This will teach the children great skills: summarizing, narrating, sequencing; predicting, imagining and word-building. The child’s speed of reading also increases. And speed of reading is a great predictor of performance in middle and high school. Educationist Anne Cunningham has done some wonderful research in this area.


Another advantage of replacing a text book with 120 books is de-standardization. Students of different capacities can read books of varying difficulty. Not all students may need to read the same set of books. This will allow the gap between the weakest and the strongest child to narrow. In the class, the teacher can work with the weakest child while the strongest child reads independently. This allows remediation.


What I have outlined above is a case study for curriculum change in English language acquisition. Similar changes need to be envisaged in Mathematics learning, Science learning. All changes should lead children from being passive receptors to becoming active participants.


TE: You have mentioned parents as an important cog in the wheel. How do you envision the role of parents in the process of a child’s education?


SR: Parents have to first accept and believe that there is more to education than merely sending the child to a school. Parents have to be more involved in the child’s education, especially in the early years of education. Parents have to see education as fun rather than serious business. Parents have to see education as helping their children learn to live rather than just earn a livelihood. Education is seen as a means to an end – the end of earning money by finding a job in a corporate firm or government rather than learning how to live the good life.


Right now, in the present system in India where almost no recreational reading is done inside the classroom, it is left to the parents to introduce students to the pleasures of reading. There is enough evidence that wherever parents read to the child, children are brighter, more curious and perform better at school.


It is important then, that the parents begin reading with the child as early as possible, even when the child cannot speak or read.  That, in itself, can make the child very likely to enjoy school and stay in school.


While this may be easier for middle class and upper class parents, this is a huge problem for parents with lower incomes. In most cases, parents are not literate and cannot read. Second, they may not have the resources to expose their children to books. Their children have no exposure to reading at school, no exposure to reading at home. They suffer a double blow and continuously underperform their peers. NGO and CSR initiatives of corporate companies that care must step up and take action in this critical area. The most important thing is that we have to demonstrate to our children that we care about their learning. Caring is the first step towards building a great education system.



© Shankar Ramachandran and The Essayist, 2015




Education for All:



Cover Image: learned, d e clark, 2015 


Song: Quando Quando Quando,_Quando,_Quando

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