School Poisonings In India Make Front Page Headlines, But the Real Issue Goes Unrecognized


The state of Bihar in northeast India has come into focus this summer as a result of the midday meal poisoning. But hidden behind this immediate disaster of government schools is a more intractable tragedy: the fact that the students are not learning. 

While there has been a major push by the Bihar government to open schools and increase enrollment, the quality of education remains abysmal. According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2012, a nationwide survey of schools and learning levels in India, only 44.4% of fifth grade students in rural Bihar can read a second grade text. The reasons for low learning levels include low student attendance, teachers who are in the classroom less than half of the time that they should be, and an elitist curriculum that lacks context for many children living in rural areas.   

I took the first semester of my senior year off last fall to work on this problem in rural Kishanganj District, Bihar. During this time, I started my own organization called SEEKHO — an acronym for Sustainability, Empathy, Empowerment, Knowledge, Hope, and Ownership. It also means "learn" in Hindi. SEEKHO aims to create a culture of learning through educational interventions that address all stakeholders in the local community, including parents, students, teachers, and government.

In order to create this culture, we run learning camps for dropouts, use theater and drama to mobilize the community, and work with government teachers to improve quality of instruction. Our work has influenced ASER’s sister organization, Pratham, the largest education NGO in India, where I worked last fall. Pratham, through its focus on rigorous randomized control trials, demonstrated the effectiveness of using community volunteers to increase literacy en masse. 

In the upcoming months, SEEKHO will be applying the principles of "positive psychology," the scientific study of optimal human functioning, to train government teachers in a sample of schools in Kishanganj District in Bihar. These interventions teach students character traits such as empathy, curiosity, and resilience, and they have been shown to facilitate cognitive learning and improve wellbeing.

Surely, we should pray for the victims of the poisoning, but we should not forget the larger issue. We should direct our anger at the fact that our children are not learning to fuel initiatives to revolutionize the state of education. 

While the initiatives to improve the quality of education that I mentioned above are important, they are not enough.  We need the help of dedicated, passionate, and bold millennials, who are willing to work with communities to empower dreams.  Let us work together so that the next story we read about schools in Bihar highlights their innovation, creativity, and excellence.