Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The race against Educational Inequity

Is it possible to win the race against educational equity? Is there a race at all, or did we lose decades ago? To me it feels like a diseased organ; we can operate and try to save it all we can, but the deterioration is continuous. Or constant, to say the very least. Not to sound like a 4th standard English essay, but when we look for the root of the problem, it all comes down to the population explosion. Try as hard as we may, it is humanly impossible to achieve equity. There are SO many factors to be considered. As unfair as it is, thousands of parents need their children to work, to earn money, so that everyone survives. Exists. Can we blame these parents? Finally, every person will do all they can to keep existing. It's a basic human trait. So, no, we cannot blame them. Thousands don't have ACCESS to schools, or education in any other form. Physical access, that is. This at least has a reasonable solution- SETTING up schools. Scenario: Construction workers who move from place to place, city to city, and cannot physically afford to get their kids admitted in a school, since their own presence in the place is so dicey. Plus, as the child grows older, they are expected to work with the parents, get some more money into the family so they can go on surviving. And the cycle continues. The solution here would be to set up temporary "schools" for every construction site for just a few (maybe 2) hours a day. Who will take the initiative? The government? Maybe not. So then ordinary citizens like you and me. It will work, it makes a lot of sense and it is oh-so-noble-an-idea. And yes, it WILL work. Even as I write this, I'm filled with inspiration; my head is exploding with ideas and possibilities.
In a few hours, as I calm down, I know there will pose 2 big questions before me: (1) Can I really do this? I will need so much support- physical, monetary as well as emotional- where will I get that? (2) Finally, will it make any difference?- The 1st question being about NOW, the 2nd about LONG TERM.
About NOW. We're all scared. All of us want to live happy, comfortable lives. We like to laze around a bit, just hang out with friends, catch a movie or two, and never leave our bubble of comfort. Is it selfish? Not at all. We WANT to and SHOULD keep our own happiness our first priority. Giving up our lives and our comfort and our happiness for anything or anyone else is not a solution. But maybe we can step just a little out of that bubble.. Believe me, the thrill and the rush and the joy of doing something we all know is GOOD- it's a different category altogether. Even if you know you can't physically help out, you could donate a small part of your salary to the cause. The cause? Hundreds of NGOs support it, but no one trusts those anymore, and with good reason. But figure out a way- sponsor a child's education by getting him admitted to a government school, donate your old books, pens and pencils, ask your maid to send her son/daughter to your place where you could teach him/her to read and write for 2 hours a day.
About LONG TERM. Exhaustion usually causes us to stop and reflect- is this really making any difference? The parents are obviously not interested, the child not responsive. After all, how does one child, or a few children's education make a difference, really? Big question.

I recently got selected into the Teach For India Fellowship, in which Fellows will be placed as the class teacher for a particular class in a low income municipal/private school for 2 years. The aim is to bring every student forward by a year and a half from their present level of understanding, especially in English and Math. The selection procedure is tedious and difficult and the publicity is widespread. The pros: TFI gets only the best and most dedicated from a huge number of applicants. Publicity is crucial, extremely crucial and getting the right publicity is hard. Being a complete noob at PR myself, I have the highest respect for those who can actually succeed in getting sponsors and supporters. Cons, however: The publicity makes most people look at it as "glamorous". What they don't realise that there IS no glamour, just a LOT of hard work, a LOT of patience and a LOT of dedication, self assessments and adjustments. But, again, is it wrong that most people are attracted to the glamour? Maybe not. As long as the group of people can make a difference, with whatever incentive whatsoever, it's not entirely wrong. Though then the question arises as to how much of a difference people with the wrong goals in mind can actually make.
One of the Fellows from the 2010 batch asked me whether I think 2 years in a classroom will make any actual difference. I said no. 2 years is too less. Any step towards actual educational equity must be a complete overhaul. It it possible? Right now, all we can do is all that we can do. Hats off to Wendy Kopp for the brilliant and inspired initiative and for all those who have worked to make this work. The question remains, what next?

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