Plainedge Alum Helps Shape Young Minds And Education Policy

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Dr. Manjul Bhargava is a man who likes a challenge. The Plainedge High School alum, who graduated as the school’s 1992 valedictorian, is a National Museum of Mathematics’ Chief Mathematical Advisor, a Fields Medalist and a Princeton professor who teaches a Ph.D. numbers theory program to graduate students. With these bona fides under his belt, it’s not surprising that former Indian Minister of Education Shri Prakash Javadekar personally asked him to join a nine-member committee looking to transform India’s education policy, which was last updated in 1986.

Dr. Manjul Bhargava
(Photo by Denise Applewhite/Princeton University)


Given that Bhargava had spent time in his family’s hometown of Jodhpur working to introduce multidisciplinary nuances to the curricula of local engineering schools, the government’s outreach made perfect sense.
“Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time in India,” Bhargava said. “What I realized when I’d go to India is I’d watch the kids there. They’re so talented, but they just didn’t have the opportunities that we do here. It left a mark on me and made me want to one day come and help.”
As someone who completed all of his high school math and computer science courses by age 14 and had his love and passion for mathematics fostered by his Hofstra University math professor mother and numerous Plainedge teachers. Bhargava was all in.

Giving Back
Bhargava moved to India in 2017 after receiving the invite to help transform India’s education system with proper foundations for universal, high-quality education from early childhood to the university level.
“All the other committee members were people that were already in the Indian education system,” he explained. “They felt like there should be somebody who could bring in an international perspective. It turned out I could be that representative and how could I say no to that?”

Upon arriving in India, Bhargava quickly realized there were numerous fundamental issues needing attention, including widespread lack of opportunity for early childhood education, shockingly low rates of early literacy, high dropout rates after middle school and severely substandard teacher education institutions. It was made all the more evident after a year research was spent by the panel traveling throughout India to visit schools and universities and meet educators and government officials.

It was quite an eye-opening experience for the Princeton professor.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” he said. “I thought I was going to go there and be working on using my experience in mathematics education. When I started visiting places and doing the research, I realized the Indian education system had far bigger problems than fine-tuning mathematics education. Twenty percent of the students there are in a position that by eighth grade, they’re still not able to read and write. They’re unable to do basic operations with numerals that we all use. How can you spend time fine-tuning these higher level things when fundamentals are just not being taught? There’s roughly 99 percent enrollment in pre-school, yet 20 percent of them are coming out of eighth grade not knowing how to read or write.”

Widespread poverty causes collateral issues that make educating children difficult including food insecurity, which makes it difficult to teach students who have trouble focusing because they are hungry. The government has addressed that by launching an initiative called the Midday Meal program, which guarantees all children a hot meal by law during school days. One of the panel’s recommendations is also including a cold breakfast meal because for many of these children, it’s the only real meal they ever get. As Bhargava points out, “Those morning hours are wasted because the only meal they got was lunch the day before.”

Dr. Manjul Bhargava was asked by the Indian education minister to join a nine-member committee looking to transform India’s education policy, which was last updated in 1986.
(Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Mathematics)

The Results
The year of doing research by traveling throughout India by Bhargava and his eight colleagues on the “Committee for Draft National Education Policy” was followed by the submission of a final report and plan suggesting wide-ranging educational reforms that aim to achieve a 100 Percent Gross Enrollment Ratio (the number of students enrolled in school education) by 2030.

Passed on July 29, 2020, the revamped education policy highlights include:

• Implementing universal early childhood education for all children of ages three to six
• Launching a comprehensive early literacy mission so no child falls behind due to reasons of illiteracy
• Establishing a gender-inclusion fund to support community efforts and ensure all girls and transgender students are included in the education system
• Starting a program to locate dropouts and help bring them back into the education system
• Moving towards holistic and multidisciplinary education across the arts, humanities, sciences, vocational subjects and sports, in early childhood education through higher education
• Committing to ramp up government spending on education to 6 percent (currently around 3-4 percent) of Gross Domestic Product over the next few years

After the final “Draft National Education Policy 2019” report was submitted on May 31, 2019, Bhargava spent much of the last two years traveling to Delhi to encourage government officials to pass the new education policy as soon as possible.

Currently teaching remotely as a full-time professor at Princeton, Bhargava is grateful for the understanding his current employers have shown in understanding his work with the Indian government. His involvement has found him returning to his family’s home country numerous times and keeping nighttime hours that enable him to participate in daytime education policy seminars given the 10½-hour New York-India time difference. With this revamped education policy set in a 20-year-time frame, Bhargava is on board for as long as the Indian government will have him.
“As long as I’m adding value and they see value in having me involved. I can’t think of a more impactful thing to be doing,” he said. “So if I’m adding value, I’ll certainly stay involved.”

 

 

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