India has a staggering 315 million students across all educational institutions, which is more than any other country in the world. Millions of these are enrolled in municipal schools. However, during the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, India ranked a depressing 73 out of 74. This test shows that the average 15-year-old Indian student lags very far behind in terms of academic performance compared to the rest of the world. Schools run by the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) are no exception to this trend. 22% of students in the fifth standard are illiterate. I found this statistic to be really shocking, as reading and writing was one of the first things I learned to do in school. The fact that these students are unable to read even after 5 years of formal education indicates how grave this problem is.
One clear root cause of this problem is that quite a few BMC schools are lacking in essential educational resources such as libraries and computers that help students’ develop reading skills that improve their literacy level. Children who go to these schools also don’t have access to community libraries (which aren’t really common in Mumbai to begin with), and can’t afford to buy books either.
Previously, there has been some action taken by the BMC to improve the academic level (including reading and literacy) in BMC schools. In 2010, the BMC in collaboration with UNICEF created the Mumbai School Excellence Program, which worked towards improving the learning environment of municipal schools in Mumbai. UNICEF stated
that “Government Schools were oversubscribed and under-resourced.” Both parties (BMC and UNICEF) supplied educational games and new textbooks. However, this wasn’t enough, as the children weren’t going to be motivated to read with new textbooks. They needed fiction books, with likable characters, like the Maze Runner or Percy Jackson. The program was set up so that students would learn from each other, and their teacher would be more of a facilitator. It also introduced new study methods to students to help them be better prepared for tests. The program also included Teacher and Headmaster training, and reducing government administrative work for teachers in order for students to get more teaching time from their teachers. However, these teachers weren’t motivating their students to read regardless of how much time they had in the classroom, so this wasn’t of much help anyway.
The Mumbai School Excellence Program ultimately failed due to having no checks to make sure students are actually improving and having any academic gain from this program. BMC education committee chairman, Manoj Kotak, said: “So far, the BMC and project heads have failed to form the crucial committee that would help analyze the success of the project”. After 5 years, it was found out that students didn’t have a significant improvement. The program also failed because of insufficient coverage due to inadequate funding, as it was originally planned to cover 1,327 schools, however finally it was only able to reach 148 schools. This shows that in order to improve students academic ability in a successful manner, there needs to be constant monitoring and supervision making sure that students are actually benefitting. If they aren’t, the program needs to be adapted and try different options. There also needs to be realistic goals based on the amount of funding provided, otherwise, the program won’t be focused enough and it’ll make a small difference for a lot of students, rather than a meaningful difference for a smaller amount of students.
There are many other solutions for improving literacy levels amongst students at municipal schools. These include starting a library, making students take regular comprehension tests, and making students watch movies occasionally with subtitles. There is a project in our school that requires us to create lasting social change, and I wanted to focus my assignment on the poor academic performance of students. We were made to do a research paper, so I wrote about a lack of educational resources for students who attend BMC schools. While researching, I came across the depressing fact that 22% of students in the fifth standard are illiterate, as mentioned earlier.
In order to create lasting change for the action part of the project, I chose to work on starting a library for students at Dharavi School through book drives in my building and a fundraiser for purchasing new books. The library at my school was also very generous and they donated books. I have been successful in collecting more than 750 books for the Dharavi library. Dharavi School caters to children of low-income communities, from one of the world’s largest slums. Students that attend this school are mostly only exposed to textbooks, and therefore, they aren’t motivated to read. With the library that I am initiating, they will have access to high-quality books from a variety of genres, and would be able to find a type that they would enjoy throughout their lives. I have arranged my book collection according to age, so it will be easy for the students to choose an appropriate book for their level. Therefore, they will start reading many more books, and automatically improve their literacy level, while obviously becoming much better readers. I am creating reading logs for students, to ensure that they are reading and that the books are actually being used. I am thinking about giving a student a prize if they have read a certain amount of books by the end of the school year. If this is successful, teachers will notice improvements in fluency and comprehension tests. The process of creating the library is being documented on my blog along with pictures and videos. During one of my visits to the school, a student came up to a box of the books I had gathered and asked if he could read the encyclopedia. I allowed him to, and he read it out loud with tremendous enthusiasm and energy. He felt so happy reading it. I noticed the positive effect that it had, and I realized that if me, a 15-year-old student in Highschool, can work towards improving literacy rates, and providing opportunities for kids, anyone could. Even something as simple as reading out a book while students follow along will make a difference.
The main question here is why is this all necessary? Is being adequately literate beneficial to someone? As it turns out, there are many reasons why it is important for a person to have a strong literacy level. Literacy is very helpful in terms of health because it will help someone to understand a doctor’s prescription, information about medication which could include dosage, and side effects. It is also obviously beneficial for employment, as someone who has a strong literacy level is much more likely to get hired for high-skilled jobs than someone who isn’t sufficiently literate. People who have a strong literacy rate generally have higher incomes than people with a lower literacy rate. Therefore, being literate is one of the ways to escape poverty, and move up the social ladder. A literate person will also be able to share his/her ideas more efficiently and effectively, as he/she has access to so many more mediums than just speaking. Literacy also helps a person be more informed of current events, and what influential people of the world are saying. Lastly, literacy also helps in very simple daily activities such as reading a menu or looking at signs to help guide you in the right direction.
Some people might make a selfish argument that why should they have to care if a person quite distant to them is illiterate. Such people may not have considered the fact that literacy helps our community to continue to develop and evolve. It is easier to come up with revolutionary ideas if there are more people able to express themselves through multiple forms of mediums like newspapers, magazines, websites, and social media. As a community, we are losing out on many possible ideas that can enhance the way we live if there are a considerable amount of people that are illiterate.
By Viraaj Vig