The birth and aftermath of the “no detention” policy
Section 16 of the Right To Education Act is pretty short :
No child admitted in a school shall be held back in any class or expelled from school until the completion of elementary education
This is called the no-detention policy currently in the crosshairs of the Union HRD. Most states want this repealed, the policy experts who designed this during UPA rule are predictably crying murder. In this article, I will remove some of the misleading jargon and clear the smoke from this debate. Hopefully at the end you will see the sheer scale of horrors that have been inflicted on the education sector.
It is extremely important to state in clear terms what one is up against, even more than the position favorable to ones own. In case of the no-detention policy we need to actually get a hold of what it is they are proposing in a more direct vocabulary without falling into the trap of terminology. The task starts with the following observation.
The opposite of hot is not no-hot. It is cold.
The opposite of detention is not no-detention. It is social promotion.
What on earth is ‘social promotion’ ?
Thanks for asking that. See, we are already on the path to freedom by starting to use precise terms instead of a negative. What is no-detention will just be met with “You know what is detention? It is the opposite of that”. And that opposite of detention is the law imposed on 400 Million kids in the country of India.
Social promotion is the practice of promoting a student to the next grade at the end of the current school year, regardless of when or whether they learned the necessary material, in order to keep them with their peers by age, that being the intended social grouping. [Wiki]
The opposite of this is called Grade Retention or Detention. This is the practice of making a student repeat a particular grade if they have not attained the basic learning level for that grade. A variant of this is the so called double-promotion where gifted kids can accelerate to join older students.
The pros and cons of both policies are easy searchable on Google. Let me just state them here and put them in the context of the countries and cultures they are sought to be implemented in. Before we dive into “policy wonkery” mode we need large strategic vision points rooted in reality. I list a few below.
- India is not like Norway, we are a developing country with real constraints in teaching, measurement, and infra.
- India needs a very strong layer of high achieving human capital that can pull the wagons if we want to get out of third world
- India cannot afford mediocrity as the normative vision because a culture of excellence pulls up the median and a culture of mediocrity pulls it even further down.
- India has real issues with equitable access – I have seen many experts who design policy teach their own kids at home using the latest tools on iPads but for the bulk of population the school is the only place where learning happens
- India has a sectarian legal regime in education unlike any other country. Any “policy think tank” that ignores the legal landscape is just plain dishonest and probably corrupt. I will come to this at the end of this post.
Social Promotion : The main argument is that making a student repeat a grade adds to mental stress, lowers their self esteem, and could cause them to drop out altogether. The UPA govt supported by every think tank justified it as – “because examinations are often used for eliminating children who obtain poor marks.. Compelling a child to repeat a class is demotivating and discouraging”. To replace tests, a system called CCE (Comprehensive and Continuous Evaluation) was introduced. ( See “Jiten gulped his tiffin” ) One might wonder what does CCE have to do with no detention. If CCE is just another form of testing, maybe holistic- what if a student shows deficiency in that too? CCE is just a way of assigning high enough weights to non learning factors such as social, personality, attitudes and values displayed. It would then be impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff and measure to any degree of robustness the actual learning that took place vs the other parameters.
The biggest lie peddled by the experts is that social promotion is the ‘settled’ position all across the world. In USA this is still a burning debate. With all its money, high quality of teachers, and heated swimming pools in public schools – school districts from Chicago to Florida to NY, retention and exhaustive testing is the norm. Not social promotion. The testing happens for science, math, english not on extraneous secondary effects like attitudes and values.
Here is Bill Clinton in 1997 calling for a total end to social promotion
“I challenge every school district to adopt high standards, to abolish social promotion, to move aggressively to help students make the grade through tutoring and summer schools and to hold schools accountable for results.” Bill Clinton in LA Times
Indians should not be misled into believing that USA partisan politics is at the same level as that in India. Democrats and Republicans are not very far off when it comes to the issue of testing. Florida improved its reading scores dramatically after grade retention and now outperforms every state on fourth grade reading test. Canada, Germany all wealthy countries do not have a mandated social promotion policy. The single most notable feature in Indian Edu law (ignoring the sectarian nature) is that these burning debates which are happening in the academic circles and in state legislatures are presented as if they are settled issues when the experts return to Delhi. There is no evidence I can find online that our experts in UPA – to be fair the BJP opposition to – have considered any of the global trends and placed them in a third world context.
Social promotion works in developed countries and in upmarket schools that are equipped to deliver what is known as ‘tracking’. Tracking is the process where a teacher is able to handle a class with a wide spread of abilities in kids. The learning levels of each kid is tracked and the appropriate lessons are tailormade. For example a high achiever in Class 5 is encouraged and kept engaged by giving her a tougher homework than a boy who is tailing. As you can see this requires a very high level of teacher training. The stakes are very high because remember what I mentioned earlier, you simply cannot afford to drop the high achiever. These are your future ‘load pullers’ of your country in various sectors from sports to social science to inventors. You also need extremely proficient principals who can monitor these teachers. It is easy to slip up and teach to a low-average level. The high achievers are pulled down but they clear the tests of course but could display attitudinal behaviours due to the ennui that turn into low marks on the CCE value part. Now think if this is possible in India? Teachers are barely trained, only 4% clear the Teacher Eligibility Tests. Experts and thinktanks are now blaming it on “implementation”, in my view this is an irresponsible behavior. Did they now know what works in Finland cant be transported here ?
You may be trained by the Idea of India ecosystem to denounce my mention of achievers as “Brahminism”- you may use words like “Elitism” to couch that even. Beyond name calling, we should learn to recognize the key assets if you want to turn a third world country by leveraging human capital. Behind every success story such as Apple, Google, or now Huawei, there will be a tiny core of very high talent. Others build around that core and supply diversity. No nation has been built pursuing mediocrity or excellence in “values”. The USA even has “magnet schools” where gifted kids are simply brought together and challenged. Other countries have variants of this too. The selection to these schools are highly competitive. The Right to Education Act on the other hand bans all screening. I have documented the case of Jnana Prabodhini schools for talented children in Pune which have been suffocated. The UPA’s focus on abolishing exams even at Std X level, grading instead of marks at all levels, CCE, the continuous denouncing of “coaching” and portraying standardized exams as anti student have had a traumatic effect.
Social Promotions, see I am no longer a prisoner to their terminology ‘no-detention’ , have an even more adverse effect on the equity aspect. The same folks who scream equity from every corner have perpetrated a criminal act of crushing those who do not have access. A mere 25% quota in a tiny subset of Hindu run schools selected by lottery is a sick joke that needs condemnation. What about the losers of the lottery ? These simple questions are not asked by their think tank friends who are supposed to supply a level of intellectual checks.
Things being the way they are – the answer should seek to play to the current situation in teaching. Teachers today can be expected to teach to a compact cohort and teach towards a test. A compact cohort means the students in a class are not completely off in abilities. The testing part is still evolving but can be sufficiently well designed that it can pick out at the top as well as at the bottom. Social Promotion blows both these things out of the water. Today a teacher, not in Lutyens but in Sullurpeta, at Class 6 is expected to teach a class with some students with Class 2 level learning. Some experts on Twitter have the nerve to say “Fail the teacher, not the student”. How about “fail the activists” for thrusting this policy down this nations throat ? In most cases, the teacher either fails or simply drops down to the level of the kid with the lowest ability. This is where the next crime happens.
When the class standard is lowered, the talented kids get bored and display erratic behaviour. Now watch what happens. The kids whose parents are educated themselves will be challenged at home. I’ve seen so many kids at airports working out various Japanese maths worksheets (Kumon). The kid without this background is basically lost. The talent could be gone forever. I have received comments from bright school kids who bemoan the lack of differentiation in CBSE Std X post abolition of exams. This is the worst form of propagating privilege. The hapless teacher however has no choice – she is already trapped by the CCE which has to take into account extraneous factors.
Detention does not mean every kid is detained. There are no numbers – which is another area the experts are now pretending to be anguished after supporting the RTE. My guess is that only 3-5% kids will be detained. With social promotion, kids and their parents are guaranteed a ride till Class 8 so while the upper class can keep tabs on things, the lower class masses tend to take the eye off the ball. They have no idea what is happening in school. Before you teach me about PTA feedback meetings – this is not how it works in the mass schools. A kid who fails in mid terms is usually shaken up and tends to work harder to avoid staying back. Even more importantly the teacher can identify kids at risk of staying back and feed that info back to the parents in addition to tuning her own attention. The ‘experts’ are dreaming if this kind of seriousness will still be around if the Law makes it Illegal to keep any kid back. The teachers, the kids, and their parents will simply slack it out. Currently the RTE stops at Std 8. I am telling you right now that this is a bogus stopping point. The Congress Govt just kicked the can a little further down the road. But if this were to be the end of RTE, then it follows that a mass of students will flop out over the cliff. By that time – it is too late. The only solution is either to extend the RTE to Std 12 which Sibal has hinted at or to employ extremely easy testing or to add in extraneous ‘value’ factors to get the mass of kids over the ropes.
Social promotion is simply a bizarre idea in the context of a third world country of India’s size and aspiration. It is simply stunning that such a wide impact law that strikes at the very heart of our future has been passed with so little comment. Five batches of kids have passed.
Are you an expert ? Have you done field work?
In an article called “Merits of No Detention” Anurag Behar, CEO of Azim Premji Foundation cries foul. That IT-Waity Types like myself are intruding into expert territory. His line is – leave it to experts to design the Air Traffic Control system and amateurs should keep out. This is shockingly ignorant. It confuses separation of labour type of expertise with its more general cousin. I may not know how to design a radar but I will cry murder if someone suggests a traffic signal on the runway for airplanes and forces me to accept that just because he is an expert soi-disant.
PS : Minorities are exempt from social promotion provision. Because the RTE Act lock stock and barrel is not applicable. (Ref : Master Srikanth v Principal Frank Anthony Public School Bangalore KA High Court Judgment) I am not even going into the ramifications of this in this post. It just means teachers in RTE exempt schools will be more effective by law.