The debate over quality and quantity is perhaps one of the oldest and most overdone issues of the universe. Whether you want to have five Igloos or one Movenpick is a constant feud, though the choice comes naturally for those who have little money and a big appetite. In the development sphere where our donors are constantly crunching numbers to ensure we have big numbers, it’s often difficult to make ends meet – and do impact analysis without dreaming in thousands. Governments of developing economies feel the same pressure, and bloat up their annual reports with fancy numbers and pie charts, all in effort to impress someone, somewhere. My personal strife specifically comes with the education sector. As the number of GPA 5.0 achievers increase remarkably every year, questions need to be asked as to whether these numbers really tell a tale of great progress, or a giant mistake.

So, on a not-so-fine night couple of months back, I sat with 15,000 applications to select 100 applicants who would be suitable candidates to start student clubs in their schools. A program we had recently conceived at the One Degree Initiative Foundation, the idea was to help locals resolve local problems and empower secondary schools students to take leadership roles in their communities. The applications were collected from different parts of the country, touching base on every direction and providing us with an overview of what’s happening to kids these days.

The results were shocking.

While the applications were designed to understand the students’ understanding of local, national and global issues – it was comprehensive enough to identify their aspirations, whether they were competent enough to be part of such an “extra curricular” activity, could they write in correct grammar in Bangla and English, or how creative they could be given the opportunity. And (un)surprisingly, the number of completed and grammatically correct applications were very low. Many of the applicants were now in 11th grade, boasting platinum GPA 5.0 – and yet, were unable to spell their genders or write a sentence correctly. We got girls who were ‘memels’, boys who want to grow up to become ‘crickets’ and just about everyone who thought the biggest problem in their community is illiteracy. You’d think by the 3023rd application, we’d be shocked enough to give up, or in some vicinity, hope for the best to come – but they kept getting increasingly shocking and disappointing. Something was going terribly wrong out there.

However, in hindsight and with insight, the blame isn’t on students only. One of the most intriguing findings of our experience was how every class had two sets of essays. The whole class wrote the same essay from the available choices, and by the 5th application, there was a pattern. That could only mean that the teacher probably wrote the essay(s) on the board, and the kids simply copied. Furthermore, from a whole pool of applicants from several schools, every boy wanted to grow up to become a dictor; and all the girls wanted to be teasers. Unless everyone grew up to learn the same wrong spelling, it probably means a flawed teacher recruitment system in place.

The crisis runs deeper and stretches further. When these same students, since they have scored perfect 5.0s don’t end up with the same results in other examinations or not selected at universities, they suffer from low self-esteem or a misconstrued idea about how the university is biased. That’s just one part of the problem, while the other is at job recruitment. They complain about unemployment or end up at the wrong end of the desk – and in spite of having the opportunity, fail to see through it as efficiently as they could have.

The change needs to come from the bottom, at the very beginning. Primary schools build the foundations of our lifelong learning processes, and they need to have the best teachers to ensure the best results. While more emphasis is now being placed at higher secondary and tertiary education – it’s important to empathize with primary school teachers and create a better, more comprehensive and accurate grading policies. Instead of numbers, let’s focus on minds and make sure we don’t end up with half-witted generations all over again who think they invented center of gravity sitting in their living rooms.

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