Excellence and equity

Excellence and equity

We know that excellence and equity are two important targets of all our educational endeavors, but we have not been able to bring a harmonious...

We know that excellence and equity are two important targets of all our educational endeavors, but we have not been able to bring a harmonious equation to meet the dual goals without discounting either. In a way, so far we have been leaning towards excellence at the cost of equity. It is the easy way, for we can encourage students who are already well provided in all aspects and promote excellence and here, unfortunately, the marginalized are never in this race. It needs commitment to take the 'road not taken', to be 'inclusive' as against our 'exclusive 'policies and then promote excellence wherever it springs from. On many of my trips abroad, life has given me some wonderful opportunities to meet, interact and learn better ways of educating; it has kindled in me the urge to share my knowledge for better results in our homeland. In 2004, on one of my visits to the USA, I attended a lecture in Virginia on the aims or purpose for establishing and running the Thomas Jefferson schools; and ever since, it has been my dream to see similar work in our country too .The points which impressed me were what the speaker said about establishing equity as an essential base for excellence in all republics and democracies. Equity bestows higher productivity, prosperity because of efficient use of human capital. We must strive to make equity the base for excellence, identify excellence from all quarters and not pick and nurture it from the rarified elite circles and consider our work accomplished. I speak this with conviction for we have not realized so far that we have just converted natural aristocratic talent as democratic talent but have not tried to nurture natural talent and virtues of all the people, or make our excellence 'people based' instead of 'aristocracy based'. This shift is vital for any participatory democracy which rests on intelligent, well informed majority for its progress. Talented leaders who empathize and represent ever more diverse streams of our society are our backbone .In this genuine talent hunt, 'Excellence' in education is a process and if it starts with a wider base of equity at the grass root level, it will be all the more well directed and productive.
The process of identification and selection of students for the Thomas Jefferson schools in the USA is worth mentioning here. It has been the inspiration and an indirect model for similar institutions in Singapore, Finland, Hungary and China too. The process is elaborate with the intention of identifying genuine talent from all sectors in the society. I interacted with the students, parents and teachers in these schools to get a clear picture of what happens. It takes full 6 months for a minimum of 8 teams and special committees appointed for the purpose to maintain transparency and standards in the selection process every year. The students of 8th standard are considered for the admission process, starting with a cutoff based on their scores in the 7th and 8th classes. So 80% weightage is to the children's cognitive skills in the regular academics over a two year period. Based on this cutoff, in the first stage of the three step selection process, which starts around October, thrice as many students are allowed to compete for the seats available. All of them have to take a test in mathematics and English for 20% marks. These questions are not to baffle the students with difficult questions but to test their sharp, logical thinking and analytical skills .After the first level of filtration, in the next stage, they are expected to take an objective test which shuffles questions from all subjects and tests their time management as well as ability to shift from one area to another quickly. Along with these scores, further screening involves the opinions expressed objectively through the three letters of recommendation from teachers handling different subjects like mathematics, science and general studies; an oral interview based on the general reading habits and sports interests as expressed by the children in a written format and the essay which states the personal reasons for their interest in the subjects like mathematics or science and how they wish to pursue their educational goals. Along with transparency in the process, the selection tests many abilities of the children in a phased manner. As we can gauge now, it is a prestigious process and many people are involved in the assessment, evaluation and selection. It is not done as a formality, in a hurry, with one week- end three hour examination which generally does not give a true picture of excellence. Money invested by the state, in educating such students for the coming four years, would pave a firm foundation for their future. Moreover; it would be a wonderful investment in the nation's future. The track record from these schools shows that they mould Nobel laureates in the long run and give a tough competition to admissions to prestigious institutions like Harvard, to pursue quality research at the higher level. Excellence is here through commitment to equity, a continuous process involving competent teachers, novel teaching methods and government funding and giving a true healthy rivalry in the neighborhood schools to get more of their wards selected for the TJ schools in their county. The admission process changes from time to time with a view on quality enhancement. We do have our own model, the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas (JNV), striving to impart quality education to the disadvantaged rural children. JNVs are Indian schools for talented children and form a part of the system of gifted education. They select talented rural children as the target group and attempt to provide them with quality education comparable to the best in a residential school system, without regard to their family's socio-economic condition. We now have around 600 JNVs across India and we have an All India Entrance Exam, held at the district level as we have one JNV per district. The objectives of the JNVs are commendable as they strive for excellence coupled with equity and social justice; promote national integration by providing opportunities to talented children, largely rural, from different parts of the country, to live and learn together and develop their full potential; provide good quality modern education, including a strong component of culture, inculcation of values, awareness of the environment, adventure activities and physical education, etc. I do not intend to compare and contrast TJ schools with JNVs. However, I am sure that we can take a leaf or two from the selection procedure and involve more local schools as feeders for the entrance to class six. Undue focus on reading and writing skills in a multiple choice test marks our admission tests. Some weightage to the student's continuous evaluation in the formative stages as observed by their teachers can surely motivate more teachers to get involved in the selection and would make the entrance process something to be looked forward to with good preparation over two years,i.e.,fourth and fifth classes. If we restrict the number of such government-run model schools like JNVs to just one per district even after our commitment to RTE, don't we see that we are creating a bottle neck? Unless we widen our net at the grass root level in education to identify talent from all the sections and sectors of every district , involve the teaching community and our society in the process, provide the best facilities to nurture excellence once identified , our claim to both excellence and equity in education as the true base for a healthy democracy would be baseless.
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