Raise the bar
It amused me no end when I came across this entry by a Calcutta schoolboy in a chronicle dated 1905 — “Once I got licked for doing an over good history paper, because I had thus shown that I had been taking things too easy before that.”
In bygone uncomplicated times, teachers were not ordered to go soft on their students, parents expected teachers to be strict and exacting, students were not over-sensitive and all parties retained their sense of humour. A teacher’s remark in a report just a few decades ago read as follows: “J has set herself an extremely low standard, which unfortunately she has failed to maintain.” The teacher in question had clearly succeeded in conveying her dissatisfaction over J’s low expectations of herself.
Many of us who are inhabitants of this city have by now forgotten about high standards, excellence or quality of any kind. Thus we have practically no expectations from public arenas — basic cleanliness, efficient service in shops, restaurants and hospitals; quality of writing, reporting and editing; standard of teaching, workmanship and so on. But it would be certainly damaging for the next generation if we succumb to this kind of malaise with regard to our students. Almost a decade ago George W. Bush, the American president at the time, declared that no child (in America) should be segregated by low expectations. He felt that even disadvantaged students should have the same rigorous standards as those set for others, or else, it would be pure and simple discrimination. These children would be “imprisoned by literacy, abandoned to frustration and darkness of self-doubt”.
In this context, it is worth reflecting on the irrational directive to all schools in India (Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009) to push up all students — disadvantaged or otherwise — from class to class irrespective of whether they are fit for the next level. The consequence is that many children do not give of their best, simply because they already know that no matter what they do or fail to do, it will not get in the way of their “passing”. I am afraid that an innate thirst for learning will not propel them towards a sound education as it is not to be found in abundance or even in adequate amount in all children.
We may not have appreciated George Bush’s pronouncements on various subjects, but it is time we gave some serious thought to the general perception that school standards have fallen and if they have, whether it has anything to do with low expectations. First we need to establish whether school standards have indeed fallen. For obvious reasons, when we refer to school standards, we cannot use the same benchmark for all schools. Moreover, it is accepted that it is not possible to compare standards over a long period of time. The school curriculum keeps changing, different school boards conduct examinations and assessments in different ways and examination results are not reliable. After all, assessment is not an exact science — a student may not perform well on a given day, many do ‘selective study’ and the grading of different subjects may not be done in an equivalent manner. In order to demonstrate this, Professor Roger Murphy of the University of Nottingham has given the example that a Grade A in Chemistry cannot exactly equate a Grade A in French.
However, even after pointing out the difficulties of comparison, I can safely say that those of us who are products of a more rigorous assessment system are appalled by the spiralling inflation of marks and grades. In any case, it is widely felt that earning a high grade is no longer valued the way it used to be — scoring above 95 per cent is not considered a feat any longer. Of late there has been a proliferation of 100 per cent in certain subjects.
Professor Murphy attempted to explain this phenomenon at an open debate (“School exams: have standards really fallen?”) on different examination standard issues hosted by Cambridge Assessment. He observed that when two people climbed Mount Everest in 1953, it was thought to be an extraordinary achievement, but when 39 people stood on its summit on a single day in 1996, “it was not perceived with as much wonderment.” Today people have better equipment, better training and better nutrition, but the mountain remains the same as does the climbing, he said. My question is whether we are asking our students to scale a mountain or a hillock.
Some of us have always believed that it is a good thing to have high expectations of our children. The acceptance of slipshod work, careless construction of sentences, faulty punctuation, misspelt words and being satisfied with approximation rather than accuracy is affecting the quality of our students’ output and performance and obstructing the pursuit of excellence. Many teachers believe that examination boards, in their zeal to reduce student stress, are contributing to the dilution of standards. Examinees are now marked on the basis of the number of ‘keywords’ used while the logical sequence or elegance of presentation is virtually disregarded. Spelling, punctuation and other such ‘unnecessary niceties’ do not matter. So when the average percentage scored by our entire school-leaving batch is discovered to be above 90, we too do not perceive it with “as much wonderment.” If we think of the kind of standards examinees had to meet in yesteryears, can we say, with reference to Professor Murphy’s Mount Everest analogy, that the climbing has remained the same?
Recently, the Council for Indian School Certificate Examinations replaced Macbeth with Much Ado About Nothing in the compulsory English syllabus of the ISC examination. The reason given for this change was that science students needed more time to study their science subjects, hence an easier option had to be considered. I think it was The Telegraph that carried an editorial piece pointing out the flaws in the reasoning that many of us had been voicing among ourselves. Firstly, it is arguable that a comedy — and not a widely read one at that — would be easier to master for an examination than a universally known and admired tragedy. Of course, there is the possibility that the questions will be made easier, merely requiring knowledge of simple facts. The second point raised was that surely science students are expected to manage their time efficiently, get used to complex textual matter and perform well in their language and literature examinations too.
Again, it is distressing that students are being permitted to drop mathematics and/or science by some boards at the end of Class VIII. Schools and parents are quite happy to allow the ‘softer options’ so that children are enabled to fare better, that is, score higher marks in the examinations. In the process, the educational foundation of these children is affected and perhaps, in a way, their future too. How is it that students could manage these subjects when the option of dropping them was not available? From practical experience, I think it is safe to declare that generally when you expect them to cope, they will do so. Hard work does no harm, self-doubt does. We agree, of course, that allowances should be made in cases of recognized learning disabilities.
At this juncture, a reference to the Pygmalion effect can be made. A recent study at the Harvard family research project suggests that high expectations in school lead to high performance. The Pygmalion effect is “a form of self-fulfilling prophecy” — that is, people will respect their ‘positive labels’.
In order to sustain standards and to keep raising the bar, we must also maintain the distinction between high expectations and unrealistic ones. In school we are used to seeing “Tiger Mothers” (and some ‘Tiger Fathers’ too), and the dictatorial treatment they mete out to their offspring. The original Tiger Mother, Amy Chua, had laid down some rules for her daughters. They were not allowed to get any grade less than an A, be below Number 1 in any subject except gymnastics and drama, be in a school play, to complain about not being in a school play, watch television or play computer games, choose their own extra-curricular activities, or play any instrument other than the piano or violin.
Our set of rules would certainly be different. We would not allow students to: complain when something outside the syllabus is taught; ask which topics, chapters or pages are “important”; learn from other people’s notes; study for examinations only. In fact, to avoid the last rule being contravened, we have coined a tagline based on Tata’s “We also make steel”. Ours is: “We also take exams”. It is a bid to keep the focus on our attempt to dispense a sound education instead of being lured into working only for dazzling marks and grades.
In conclusion, I am citing another teacher’s remark in her student’s report (also from bygone, uncomplicated times): “Though her written work is the product of an obviously lively imagination, it is a pity that her spelling derives from the same source”. To be honest, I thought that this teacher was rather balanced in her assessment. But I can tell you that no school Head — including myself — would pass it today and every parent would disapprove because such a comment would ‘demoralize the child’. In any case, spelling, like many other things, does not count these days. To reiterate, many would agree that we in Calcutta seem to have forgotten about excellence, high standards and quality. Hence we do not have any expectations from public arenas. We are, more or less, resigned to a passive acceptance of ‘whatever goes’.
Let us try not to fall prey to this malaise — for the sake of our children.