Set Up To Fail

Consequences of Low Skill Attainment

Most youths drop out at the point of educational transition where they must face external evaluation. Moreover, many youths who drop out in or immediately after standards 9-11 have failed a class at some point in their lives; we suspect just before dropping out.


      After a few days of administering reading tests to children I have begun to recognize the signs.  The interview is going along great, the teenager is happily engaged in discussion with me, and then I bring out the reading test. She pauses, an uncertain expression on her face and she wonders if she can really read the 3 line paragraph I am trying to hand her.  I have learnt to change tracks and instead of having her read the short paragraph I ask her to recognize letters. She can read the Hindi alphabets with no problems, can even make out the words that follow and and once she has gained some confidence, I gently try to guide her through the short paragraph. She tries but stumbles and I quietly let it slide and move to other things. She is whom our survey will call “Can not read up to 2nd class level”.  Sadly, when asked about her education, she says she has studied up to 9th standard. Earlier when I had asked her why she dropped out she had no real reason to offer.  Her family was not wealthy by any means, they own a small farm, a cow, and her parents appeared to be fairly conservative. Had I not given her the reading test, I might have attributed her dropping out to any number of well worn reasons: her labour was required at home, parents did not value education for girls, or poverty. After seeing her reading performance, I knew otherwise. She dropped out after failing Class 9. School can’t be fun for a child who was left so far behind that catching up to the level that would be required to pass Class 9 would be a Herculean task. 

      After meeting several such children, a pattern has begun to emerge. Right now, we are interviewing 15-18 year olds to pre-test the Youth questionnaire.  Almost uniformly, this problem is emerging among kids who have studied up to 9th standard.  Social promotion has set the primary teachers free from the responsibility of showing any learning achievements and the child innocently arrives in the 9th standard without a clue of the skill deficit he carries. Faced with a new school, impending Class 10 Board Exam that is uniform across the state and possibly somewhat more rigorous teachers, the child fails the class. This is when the reality of the skill deficit hits him and his parents and the child decides to drop out. 

     Being an empiricist (or as my theorist colleagues like to imply, a number cruncher!), I decided to tabulate the data for IHDS-I, focusing on out-of-school school 19-25  year olds to see if there was any pattern in a broader sample.  Aha… proportion of youth who have ever failed or repeated a class has a sharp peak at classes 9 and 11, the two years before the board exam in years 10 and 12.  We are trying to sort out the questions for IHDS-II to clear the fuzziness between class completed, class attending, whether failed before dropping out etc. But there is little doubt in my mind that poor foundation and subsequent failure is one of the greatest causes of school drop out. 

     It seems having recognized poor teacher performance in imparting basic skills to our children, now the government has moved to ensure that it remains invisible by making sure that all children must be promoted through Class 8.  Recent moves to eliminate Class 10 board examination will simply increase the time before these shortcomings are visible.  Why not set out to reform primary education instead?


© Sonalde Desai 2012