In my lifetime, for as long as I can remember there has been a focus on worldwide universal education. As an ambitious and idealistic 17 year old, I too, believed that building schools was a fix-all per say. Inspired by Nicholas Kristof and his book Half the Sky , I fundraised to build a government school in Cambodia on the border with Thailand, with the simple naïve notion that a structure of a school will help curb trafficking in a village. Quite frankly, I didn’t even have proof this school existed until I visited this past April. Surprisingly, it is functioning quite well. However over time, I’ve realized that it’s not the structure that makes the difference- the change lies with what happens in the classroom.
As part of our thematic conference held from January 18-22 in and around Bhachau, Kutchh, Gujarat, we explored themes in India’s rural education system and our own educational background, which challenged many of the notions we had previous regarding the meaning of education. It was through this experience that I truly began to understand a fraction of the unique challenges that lie within India’s rural education system. In 2009, India passed the Right to Education Act (RTE), which among other things gives children the right to an education until age 14, becoming one of 135 countries worldwide to do so.  But, what does this mean when in the most recent ASER survey, only 42.5% of children in rural India in 3rd standard could read a 1st standard text?  What does it mean if this education isn’t applicable to students’ lives, or if there isn’t infrastructure to maintain it? Something India has done quite well is increasing women’s employment by enforcing quotas in the 1980s for female teachers in rural areas. Because of this, teaching now employs the most women in rural India after agriculture. However, there is still a shortage of teachers and a focus on rote memorization. Governments can build schools in every village but that doesn’t mean that students will attend, that they will get an education that meets government standards, or most importantly that a standardized education can apply to an agrarian society. Instead of simply universal education, what if we thought about the value, quality, and applicability that it provides?
Visiting a village, Navi Bandhadi, where AIF runs a Learning Resource Centre, (LRC), we met the centre’s facilitator Damayanti. When entering the centre, we were immediately met with a sensory overload of child friendly images, drawings, banners, maps, and decorations. The children were running the show in an organized way and the facilitator was simply offering inputs. They were highly engaged, playing a game of questions and answers. Following the class, I asked Damayanti about her background. She proudly told me that she came from a Dalit family, but was the most educated person in her village. Her mother had not attended school, her father dropped out of seventh grade, but she was pursuing her BA in Economics. I don’t know the exact reasoning behind Damayanti’s desire to pursue higher education and break through cultural barriers, perhaps it was her parents or her own intrinsic dream to attend college. What was the push behind Damayanti’s success?
In the same village, we met with members of the School Management Committee (SMC). SMCs perform a variety of tasks from advocating for the school and supporting the teachers and school infrastructure to ensuring that government schemes such as the midday meal are being enacted. In this group, we met two girls who had wanted to go on to complete their 10th standard, but the school was 10 kilometers away, as the village school only went up to 8th grade. The bus had stopped two years prior. So what were these girls to do, perhaps distance learning? Another question was raised: If girls become too educated, then who will they find to marry, as culturally the man will need to be equally or more educated?
On another day, we visited a large government school in a neighboring village. This experience challenged our previous notions, as the school was equipped with projectors, computers, and project-based, student-centered learning was taking place. The administration transparently had the data of government schemes, contact information, and attendance on chalkboards in their office. But, something that struck us all was that there was only one female teacher in this all-girls school. While the education was student-centered and engaging, how can that be applied to a standardized testing system as students get older?
Many times in villages, after a student finishes their 8th standard, they begin working. When education is unrelated to their lives, where is the value for them? Do people who live in an agricultural society value a standardized textbook education, and if not than how can we adapt education so it is useful for their everyday lives?
Throughout my time working and studying abroad and also working in and with the U.S. government, I’ve realized that there can often be a gap between policy and implementation. We can build and fund schools, but if we’re not working to find and equip teachers, increase access to infrastructure and transportation, and make learning applicable to students’ lives, than they will be much less effective. The success of education lies within the details: understanding and modifying based on cultural intricacies, monitoring and evaluation, and a broad comprehension of the countless push and pull factors that influence whether youth attend and complete their education.
These are just a few of my takeaways from AIF’s Education Conference and the many questions surrounding rural education, which may not have answers. This conference was immensely valuable to challenge my western notions of what quantifies a “successful” education.
 Kristof, Nicholas, and Sheryl WuDunn. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. 1st ed. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2009.
 The Parliament of India. Right To Education Act (RTE). New Delhi, 4 Aug 2009. Retrieved from: http://righttoeducation.in/know-your-rte/about
 ASER Centre. Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2016. New Delhi, 18 Jan 2017. Retrieved from: http://img.asercentre.org/docs/Publications/ASER%20Reports/ASER%202016/aser_2016.pdf