Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Needed: Watchdog to tackle political pressure at NCERT

If the recent move by the HRD Ministry to develop “institutional mechanisms” to address complaints on NCERT textbooks is to fructify, we are in danger of adding more red tape to our existing levels of bureaucracy in education.

As rightly pointed out in the story, the NCERT has mechanisms to address concerns through an internal committee and is subject to the RTI Act. What it does not have is a mechanism to tackle political pressure.

(Image Credit: http://visualwatchdog.com/)

To make this point clear, I looked at the complaints against the NCERT that have been covered by the media in the past.

In 2002, a pro-BJP slant was discovered in the textbooks. Then NCERT Director J.S.L Rajput was quoted in the Washington Post as saying history should be re-written from the Indian point of view. This piece explores in detail how textbooks in some states were biased as far back as the 1950s. It also spurned a sarcastic piece in the Business Standard about how easy it was to become an NCERT textbook writer.

In 2010, the much publicized Nisha Sharma dowry case (where she charged the groom Munish Dalal for asking dowry) was included in the textbook. Although the Courts acquitted Dalal and his family this year, neither politicians nor “authorities” show any signs of making amends.

The NDTV website recently hosted a set of cartoons whose worthiness the government is trying to evaluate, on the back of the furore caused by the cartoon featuring Ambedkar and Nehru.

Strangely all complaints covered in the media are in the domain of political science and history. There are no complaints in books pertaining to subjects such as English/ Hind or Science or Mathematics. Is it because “facts” accepted the world over cannot be contested? Is it because there is no political mileage to be derived by trashing Science or Mathematics books?

Complaints on the quality and availability of books get rare coverage in the media, perhaps as space fillers. Criticism or comparison on the content of textbooks is mainly on public websites such as this. Serious issues such as possible content pilferage are voiced on blogs.

If the NCERT were to develop guidelines to address complaints, it should perhaps start by publishing the list of complaints received monthly along with a description of the complaint, name of the complainant, redressal sought and action taken by NCERT. This list should be publicly accessible.

In case of any historically distorted facts, an “overwhelming sentiment” by the parliament alone should not suffice for carrying out a change. Opinions of a varied cross section of people, particularly children studying that course material and the communities/ entities affected by that content, should be sought. The people developing such content for NCERT or other affiliated bodies should be given a chance to validate their rationale for including such content.

For the government, making changes to textbooks might seem a victory, but for academics who have built a reputation painstakingly doing research and developing textbooks, it is a dent to their credibility.

(I wrote this post for the Hoot blog. Click here to visit the site)

Monday, May 28, 2012

Covering school results: Media build up tension

A couple of years ago suicide deaths were markedly high amongst 15 – 17 year-olds, especially at the time of the announcement of results. Bowing down to pressure from parents, teachers and counselors, the CBSE chose to make the Class 10 Board Exams optional and introduced a grade system in lieu of marks. While, there was much celebration from the student community and a thumbs up verdict given by the media at that time (two years ago), it is a tad bit disappointing to note that most of the news coverage of school results continues to play on the emotions of students and parents.

(Image Courtesy: HealthMeUp )

This story tries hard to generate some level of fear into the hearts of students. Are students expected to behave different while expecting their school results? Is it necessary that they sprout new levels of austerity and devotion? Should they believe in superstitions and “good omens” to help them sail through the exams? Aren’t these the very things we don’t want children to develop? That some sections of students remain anxious prior to results announcement, is no reason to write a piece that part ridicules such anxiety and part attempts to drive fear into those who don’t have such feelings.

This story in Deccan Chronicle pips the previous one by talking about how “tension and euphoria is missing” in the student community and seems to regret the absence of “toppers”. Thank you very much, but do we need a report to mention this? The rest of the story, talks about how many students got which grade and belonged to which school and emphasizes (a tad bit disappointingly, in my view) on how no “fail / compartment” grades were declared. If the intention of the report was to highlight the seemingly dramatic shift in student emotions this year, a few students, parents and teachers should have been asked for their opinion on whether this system of grades helped them in keeping tension at bay. That would have added some credibility to the story. Else, the report should have carried information from the press releases issued by various schools. This report carried in the Deccan Herald makes a good case of reportage as it talks about the benefits/ impact of the new CBSE grading system.

The Times of India, out did itself in an attempt to garner “as much coverage as possible” on the results information. I am not sure what was the reason for publishing a report like this that speak of results declared for the Mumbai region but does not mention what was the pass percentage or any other statistic. Instead the results of Chennai are published. A sole quote by a Mumbai based teacher just speaks of the “surprise move” by the CBSE to publish results unannounced.

Even before the Class 12 results can be announced, parents have been issued a warning – by counselors no less. This story talks about how parents should remain calm in the days to come to ensure the child doesn’t have stress before exam results are declared. Pray, what good would that be if you are the kind of parent who has been obsessing about “good performance” (that is what my neighbors are using as a euphemism for grades/ marks) for the rest of the past year? Your child might actually be worried seeing your change in behavior just before the declaration of results. The story quotes Sneha, a helpline for children to call in times of distress, but doesn’t dig deep to discuss what type of issues children are talking about now or whether the number of calls has gone up in the last few days in anticipation of exam results and being confronted by parents for poor performance. I can talk to a clutch of my neighbors and put together a more vivid story.

The marks angle that the media has been unable to cover in the CBSE exams, is now being covered in the ICSE exams results announcement. No matter how well one performs, it is never enough to be tension –free, it appears, in this report that shows how toppers are the most worried lot this year. Individual State boards seem to be the next choice, with this story even trying to project what might be the cut-off marks for students to enter various colleges in the city.

What can be done to curb such reportage? I can come up with three suggestions based on my experience of covering this sector.

1. Never report anything that is speculative – Results, admissions or any other information pertaining to education has a very serious impact on families, much more than what Budget outcomes coverage might. Comparisons between schools or students on the basis of marks, discussing admission criteria such as cut-off marks or variable fees or interest generated in a particular higher education stream are some parameters that need to be well researched and backed by facts before publishing.

2. Focus on ordinary students who have made extra ordinary progress – While most results stories tend to focus on toppers and their future plans, it is important to focus on the average Joe, simply because there are many more like him. If you think it is difficult to top the class, let me tell you it is more difficult to move up 5 percentage points. Speak to average students to figure out what they did to get these kind of results and what they intend to do in future. You will discover many stories of courage and strength. The Hindu used to carry many stories of children from less privileged backgrounds succeeding in exams and it made interesting reading in times when most children I knew went to private tuitions.

3. Don’t add to the hype – In 2008, a reputed B-School I covered regularly made a policy decision to not talk about the salaries or the designations that its students were being offered. The following year, this stand was taken by some of the IIMs. The logic was that many aspiring students, driven by the salary numbers reported in the news, competed to gain admissions into these institutes but eventually could not cope with the course load resulting in failure. Applying the same logic to schools, one can focus on areas other than marks. Extra- curricular activities, students’ personal development, and exposure to new career paths are some aspects that can be covered.

(This piece written by me was published in The Hoot. You can access it here)