A Bihari at Harvard on the cheating controversy


March 23, 2015

(Sanjay Kumar is currently a Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University. Apart from his current Masters in Public Administration from the Kennedy School, he holds a PhD degree from JNU, New Delhi)

March 23, 2015

(Sanjay Kumar is currently a Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University. Apart from his current Masters in Public Administration from the Kennedy School, he holds a PhD degree from JNU, New Delhi)

Reading New York Times on Saturday, March 21 was not the same for me. As soon as I turned to page A9, I saw a photo captioned "Go to the Top of the Class" that said, "young people climbed the wall of a building on Wednesday to help students taking an examination in Hajipur, in the Eastern Indian state of Bihar. Education authorities said that 600 high school students have been expelled after they were found to have cheated on pressure-packed 10th grade exam".

Having seen this story on NDTV few days ago, I was not very surprised with this as a news piece. But what surprised me more was the big-size photo in NYT. Many readers here, or even in India after reading about the story, would blame students and their parents. Cheating during exams is a major offence, but then this story or the photo is not the complete story. This is a byproduct of a big systemic failure in the state of Bihar, where various stakeholders are to be blamed and need to get into corrective measures.

Coming from the same state and currently a Mason Fellow and a student of Public Administration at the Harvard Kennedy School, I thought that I should make an attempt to analyze about the issue. In 1987, I also took the same state-board school-leaving exam in a small town called Katihar. The situation was the same then as it is  now. It does not mean though that everyone was a product of the 'cheating system'. But this photo reminded me of the scene outside the examination halls which has not changed in last 27 years.

Whenever I visit my hometown, I make it a point to visit my old school, Harishankar Nayak Government High School, just to be reminding myself of my old school days. We were free to attend or not to attend classes, taught by teachers who were more keen on giving us private tuitions than teaching us dutifully in class rooms. Parents were never bothered about the quality of education, but were only concerned about the output and their expectations of us; the government monitoring was non-existent. Overall, we were left to our own hard work and fate. One could well imagine the response of students at adolescence age in this circumstance. Many students who have gone through this type of education process including myself could well empathize with the circumstances which lead students to get into cheating.

Historically, Bihar has been a major centre of learning, home to the ancient universities of Nalanda (established in 450 CE), Odantapura (established in 550CE) and Vikramshila (established in 783 AD). Bihar saw a revival of its education system during the latter part of the British rule when many institutions such as Patna University, Bihar College of Engineering, and Science College etc were started. But after independence, it could not retain its reputation or progress. In the recent past, Bihar's students have performed well in IITs and Civil Service Examinations, but these have been mainly those who went out of the state for preparation or went to the private schools. It tells us three things: first and foremost, Bihari students have talent but are unable to perform well within Government schools and colleges. Secondly, only those students are prospering whose parents have money or can afford to send their children outside the state and thirdly, it's not the students but the education system which is not delivering and is unable to create and maintain the right environment.

The Government of India launched the Rashtriya Madhyamik Siksha Abhiyan or the National Secondary Education Mission as one of the flagships program in 2009. According to RMSA, Bihar has not only performed poorly but has been unable to utilize its allocated funds and in 2013-14, out of 315 girls' hostels approved, only three have been completed. 38 schools for coverage of vocational courses were cleared but no work has begun. A high drop-out rate of 30%  between classes 7-10 is an area of concern. There is a huge vacancy of teachers even against the RMSA approval. Teachers' training, critical for implementation of the mission and improving the quality of education, is very poor.

In order to fix some of the problems, parents should come forward and get involved in the implementation of the programs and running of the schools. They should hold the teachers and education officials responsible. They should be part of the School Committees, which are generally headed by the local politicians who have no interest in education of students and have more interest in the power and money, which such position brings. The Government should reconstitute these Committees and better participation of parents should be ensured.

Secondly, the teachers will have to be responsible and understand the fact that education is not a business. This is the backbone of our progress and prosperity. They are building the future of the society and thus should be committed to the role they are supposed to play. Private tuitions must be banned. It is unethical to teach the same students by charging fees and not teaching them properly at the school

Bureaucrats and officials have a larger role and responsibility of making the system work. I remember that at some point, my school in Katihar was better than others because most of the children of the Government officials were studying in my school including the son of the District Magistrate. They had to send their kids to the Government School as they did not have any other option in the town and we did not have private secondary schools. Why can't we think of making compulsory for the Government officers to send their children to the Government schools? It sounds radical but this could be a game-changer.

The media can also play a strong role by running campaigns to improve education system. Many social issues have been fixed by media campaigns in our country. Their role in highlighting the wrong-doings in the mid-day meal scheme, for example, is praiseworthy. But they should try to work closely with students and parents to highlight the shortcomings in schools on regular basis. This can be a great contribution from their side.

Last but not least, politicians just cannot blame parents and students. Education Minister PK Shahi said on TV channels that the Government is helpless and parents should stop their children from cheating during the exam. The last few politicians in power did not pay the required attention the improving the education system in the state. They will have to rise above political affiliation and work together to improve the situation. They should understand that they have money to send their children outside the state for education or to the big private schools, which are thriving in the state. But their poor voters cannot afford this.

I am sure that the next generation of Bihari students can prove their potential with the same vigor and hard work as we have proved in the past. They just need opportunity and the level-playing field.

Courtesy: NDTV (Author – Sanjay Kumar)

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