The biggest problem with education in India

July 14, 2020

The first Program for international student assessment (PISA) was conducted in 2009. India placed 72nd out of 74 countries. For a country that produces a million engineering graduates every year, it is a shockingly big problem. But it is not the biggest one.

After the results of 2009 PISA were announced, India decided not to participate in the 2012 and 2015 editions. We have no idea if Indian education has improved, stayed still, or gone down. Another big problem, but still not the biggest one.

In 2021, India plans to participate in the PISA program again. But the participation will be limited both in terms of geography and selection of schools and there is an agreement that the program will be culturally adapted to suit India. So, this seems like changing the success criteria rather than fixing the original problem. Hmm… that doesn’t sound like the right thing to do. But no, that’s still not the biggest problem.

If you look at the published results of PISA 2009, you will find no mention of India other than a passing mention of Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh having taken part. So, not only did we not acknowledge the problem, we are trying to rewrite history to erase its occurrence. This is the tip of the iceberg of the biggest problem with education in India. The jingoistic denial.

The world is dark

“PISA made a big difference in Germany, it really woke them up, but … India is not going to be shocked when it comes near the bottom,” Das said. He added that “these international things cause some embarrassment in international circles but they [don’t] impact the discussion in India at all.”

When you do not accept a problem, you have no means to work on a viable solution. For a country where a major portion of parent child conversations devolve into guilting the children with exams, marks, results, and a secure future, it is ironic that an assessment of the education system has not been a topic of conversation.

My goal is to dissect this in detail and examine the role of the government, educators, parents, startups and investors in this problem and the potential solutions.

Why should I care about PISA?

The program for international student assessment is a way to grade how well the international educational community is faring in educating its populace.

In 2009, India fared abysmally. The government at that time rejected the results stating cultural incompatibility and linguistic differences. The trouble with that excuse is that the same assessment was administered to 74 countries with a diverse linguistic and cultural canvas. That India wasn’t above average, reveals huge gaps in our understanding of K-12 education and by extrapolation, higher education in India.

India plans to take the tests again in 2021. But all the plans, the agreement, and the preparations, points to an orchestrated attempt to place well in the assessment rather than making meaningful improvements to reform the education system. Ironically, this is strikingly similar to how students themselves prepare for their academic assessments - studying to score well rather than learning to understand and apply.

If we do not acknowledge that our system needs an overhaul, we are going to be stuck with an ineffective system that sucks the life out of our children for at least another decade.

So, if you are in any way connected to education (as a parent, teacher, administrator, founder, or an investor), you should be reading and learning all you can about PISA. Let me help you get started.

PISA Takeaways

The PISA 2009 results shocked most countries, including the ones that placed at the top. It revealed a glaring gap in our understanding of what works in education at all levels.

Source - The Indian Express

The countries that truly cared about bringing in positive changes, began to look at what worked in the countries that fared better. There have been big gains in some countries that decided to learn and change.

The results of the first PISA findings brought into forefront, the bold and pioneering ways of the Finnish education system. The takeaways from Finland are well documented with detailed articles, and videos from wonderful Finnish educators.

What can education in India learn?

What could India learn from Finland? There are many detailed articles and infographics that compare Finnish education with the world, but only surface level articles turn up if we look for comparisons to India. I propose that there are only 3 major changes required and all the other changes shall follow from those.

1. Teaching as a coveted profession

Teaching (particularly K-12) as a profession is one of the lowest paid, least respected professions in India. It is important for us to realize that K-12 lays the foundation for the professionals that will be the pillars of the country when they stay to serve and ambassadors when they move out to grow.

How can people that are responsible for shaping the future of the country be one of the heavily underpaid, severely overworked and least respected?

Finland has answered this question by making teaching a dream job - well paid, empowered to make decisions and balanced with reasonable goals and institutional support.


This is a difficult problem to solve in India as it involves social, economic, and political changes. But it is definitely possible to pilot this in private schools and a select set of government schools.

Given that 94% of the engineers are unfit to work, can we redirect a good portion of a million engineers to work as educators? After all isn’t engineering the learning experience, the highest form of engineering?

2. Schools as playful learning environments

Learning is a joyful process of self-discovery, exploration, and play. Why do we make children feel like they are foot soldiers in a death march?

How much do children play at school? How much of learning is through play? Even now, Indian schools require that children copy the whiteboard work onto their class notebooks. This is not active & creative note-taking by students out of their own volition, but required by the teachers to do a complete verbatim copy of what is written on the board.

Are there better methods? Are there approaches where teachers interact with students through debate, projects, games, and activities to explore an idea?

Playful and engaging environment

Are there teachers, innovators and organizations working on better teaching methods? Are the schools creating games to make learning better? Are schools designed to be artful, musical, and inspiring places for children to learn?

3. Assessment as a tool for feedback

Assessments are important data points for the teachers to understand how much of their work has reached their students. However, at some point in time, the equation flipped, and it became a way to grade student achievement. Most children in India “study” for exams. The entire learning experience revolves around “scoring good marks”.

The result of this is an entire populace with underdeveloped identities that are tied to marks. They are what they score. A bad day. A bad year. An unfortunate event. Does not matter. You lose that day, you lose it all, forever. You will be branded.

Right now, learning has deteriorated into a series of examinations that children suffer through. They are the protagonist in the Prince of Persia video game with zero spare lives.

Prince of Persia 1 - Macintosh - Jump

There are some well-intentioned schools in India that forego high-stakes assessments until 8th grade. But from the 9th grade, assessments are mandatory and children are expected to reinvent their learning systems in a short span of time - leading to a highly stressful environment of desperation.

Finland, on the other hand, has only one high-stakes assessment for college admissions in which only 6% of attendees fail.

What if there are no numeric or letter grades? What if teachers used assessments as units of work to understand how to help the children? What if assessments are not written artifacts but created work?


What if qualified, interested, passionate teachers can instill a love for learning that makes assessments unnecessary?

The Problem

We can blame the government for these failings, but the fact remains that we all have a role to play. If we are not a part of the solution we are a part of the problem.


Schools, like hospitals are defining pillars of a society. At least, we have accepted them as such. However, unlike doctors, there is no Hippocratic oath for teachers and school administrators. In an everchanging social landscape, if you are not innovating as a school you are doing a disservice to your customers, your country, and your own purpose.

Every classroom is inundated with students. Teachers are tasked with multiple “subjects” to cover for multiple classes. There are so many frequent exams and tests that a significant portion of their time is spent in correcting answer sheets.

Where is the time to innovate? Where is the time to personally connect with children? Where is the time to inspire? With poor work life balance and an impossible-to-succeed job, most teachers devolve into drones.


Most children go to school because it is something they are required to do. Students fall into 3 categories. Some have parents that have a good work / life balance. They compensate for the school’s shortcomings by teaching their children through homeworks and pre-exam revisions.

Some parents don’t have a good work / life balance but are financially well placed. They outsource the compensatory work by resorting to after-school academic tuition where someone else regurgitates the same thing but in a more one-on-one’ish setting.

The third category of students have parents who unfortunately, are unable to support them in either way. They are branded as “non-performers”. Early on in their lives, they are made to believe that they are lesser than the rest. Some manage to recover later on in life, but some never do.

Why are parents casting a blind-eye to one of the most significant problems their children face? Imagine if the school does an exemplary job that homework is not required, wouldn’t the children be able to use that time to cultivate other interests, grow in other dimensions, develop other skills or simply play?

Parents never question the school. They never hold the school accountable. How could they when there is a power imbalance? Switching schools is stressful for both children and parents. Schools are also chosen for proximity and other amenities and those may not be available in other schools. This makes parents powerless observers forcing their children to adapt to the inefficient and ineffective systems propagated by schools.

Startups & Investors

EdTech is huge in India right now. There is a lot of money flowing in through investments from multiple funds. The question is, how many startups are addressing the above problems?

Recently an EdTech startup acquired a portal that provides “question banks” for popular exams. One of most funded EdTech companies has highly questionable marketing practices and even worse pedagogy. Another startup is centered on answering questions (clearing “doubts”) so that students can score marks.

There is an outright scam that uses pictures of Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella to lure unsuspecting parents into enrolling in coding sessions for children where untrained / unqualified / underpaid / disposable gig workers regurgitate instructions to children so that they can “enter” the instructions and “program” a mobile app.

Some of these companies have investments from top EdTech investment firms in India. Some of these investors even call themselves impact investors. I sometimes wonder if they have the capacity to feel the impact if an asteroid lands on their face.

The point to observe is that none of these companies are working on the problems above. None of these companies aim to solve the problem so well measured and identified by an international assessment program. They are all taking advantage of ailing systems, vulnerable children, risk averse and ill informed parents and pushing education as far away from effective reform as possible.


The current situation has worsened the problem. Majority of teachers are technically short-ended. Economically backward children have no access to technology. Equitable education has become unattainable. This leaves no room for “improved” education.

A set of possible solutions

The real solution is a complete overhaul of education as outlined in the “PISA Takeaways” section above. More social responsibility from startups and investors (I’m allowed to dream, even the impossible ones). More regulation and accountability for schools. Parents unions / associations holding schools accountable. More funding and support from the government to support innovation in education. More allocation of funds for educational reform and research - it is impossible to move things forward without public / private funding.

Long term / large impact solutions are monumental tasks and will require getting multiple entities on board. But we can approach them as a series of small tasks and do what can be done right here and right now.

Government of India

What can the government of India do immediately without rocking the boat? It can start a pilot program in a select few schools, public and private, to experiment with the findings that have emerged in the last decade.

  1. Engage with PISA in good faith.
  2. Accept the results for what they are.
  3. Debate international and national experts on how to bring about sustainable educational reform.
  4. Empower schools with autonomy in curriculum and pedagogy.
  5. Make all assessments optional. Keep admission exams but raise the bar by making them application oriented / project based.


How can schools be cognizant of their role in reform? Most private schools have sufficient funds to forego a small chunk of the profits to push the envelope.

  1. Hire qualified teachers. A decade of work experience is more valuable than a B.Ed degree. The B.Ed. degree needs to be re-imagined and restructured to make it useful for today’s world.
  2. Empower teachers with autonomy in how they conduct their classes. Provide technology if the teacher uses it, provide a natural environment if the teacher needs it.
  3. Turn campuses into inspiring, artful, musical and playful places.
  4. Increase time for recess, unstructured play and humanities.
  5. Foster collaboration, curb cut-throat competition.


Parents are the primary source of money. They hold a lot of power economically, if they are willing to temporarily pause the rat-race to bring in radical reform that will help their children immensely. But, in the short term they can begin the following measures.

  1. Demand that schools employ highly qualified teachers.
  2. Demand inspiration from schools. Prefer artfully decorated schools.
  3. Lobby to exterminate high-stake exams.
  4. Engage more with children through conversations.
  5. Create a nourishing home environment where learning is fun, not forced.

Startups & Investors

Education and capitalism are a bad mix. If you focus on maximizing your profits when your business is education, you cannot avoid becoming a predator. Same as hospitals and healthcare. It is absolutely important that companies involved in education realize the potential for harm and hold themselves accountable.

Investment in education should be truly impact driven. Look for companies and institutions that work with children over long periods of time. Look for organizations that seek to establish a healthy mentor / protege relationship between the teacher and student. Look for organizations that understand the problem and the solution space.

  1. Work on problems that truly change the status quo.
  2. Invest in companies that are working for impact and reach.
  3. Do not invest in companies that leech off of the status quo.
  4. Innovation must focus on the problems outlined above.
  5. Invest in people that work with children directly.


Even if you don’t fall under any of the above categories, you can help. Participate in education. Volunteer to share your skills with children. Inspire them to become better than you. If you have parents among your friends and family, debate them on educational reform.

If you have teachers and administrators in your circle, ask them tough questions. Found an education startup with reform as your purpose and business model. Invest in your local schools and organizations if they are working towards educational reform.

Spread the word about people that are working towards reforming education. Help them reach the right people to further their cause.


This is a call to all educators and stake holders in education to throw their hat into the ring, accept that we have a problem and solve it together.

Let’s use this pandemic as a worm-hole into an equitable future where children in India can learn with joy and become creative members of their generation.

If you are in education as one of the stakeholders and want to continue this conversation with me, feel free to reach out on any of the social media platforms linked below or email me (navilan at puthir dot in). You can learn about our progressive work in education on the Puthir website.