India has achieved close to universal enrolment. The small proportion of children who are still out of school, the hardest to reach, will be pulled in by the efforts emanating from the Right to Education (RTE) Act. Now we must focus on the next challenge, a massive and less visible one, that of ensuring that every child gets an effective education of good quality. Schools must give children a real chance to reach grade-level skill and knowledge. This is not happening now. This is a time bomb: On current trends, the bulk of the current generation of children will come into the labour market without the skills demanded of a globalising India, creating a slow-burning crisis for equality, growth and democracy.
The last five years have produced ample evidence to show that India is in a 'big stuck' as far as children's basic learning levels are concerned. Huge, nationwide annual surveys by Annual Status of Education Report (Aser) Centre, in-depth research by Educational Initiatives and the government's own studies of student achievement show that learning levels are totally unsatisfactory and have experienced little improvement over time. A study of 900 schools in 15 districts released by Aser Centre last week followed 30,000 Class 2 and Class 4 students over 15 months. The results show that children learned modest amounts during this time, but most remained at least two grade levels behind where they should be, including in the best performing states.
So what can be done? This is a systemic problem. We can think of two system-wide strategies. First, the curriculum and textbooks need to be aligned with the ability of most children, most teachers, most schools and most families, especially for the early years in school. Absent of such alignment, then, in the words of Harvard economist Lant Pritchett, the "overambitious curriculum" destroys the very foundation of the education system we are trying to build. Our current curriculum framework emerged from a large national consultation effort in 2005, but it needs to be adapted to the new information on the depth and nature of the quality problem. And it is unacceptable that even in Class 1, the level of the textbook is far beyond what children can do in their first year in school.
Second, whether or not, we leave the curriculum and textbooks as they are, there is evidence on the potential for reorienting efforts within the system. Recent rigorous research studies, involving randomised evaluations, in different parts of India, point to promising strategies. Some of this is described in Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo's new book Poor Economics. Additional work is being done by Karthik Muralidharan and his team with government schools in Andhra Pradesh.
Here, we highlight the evidence from a study of a joint intervention carried out by the government of Bihar and Pratham in West Champaran district in Bihar. Three important findings are relevant. First, when children are taught from where they are - rather than based on where they ought to be - they make progress. The Bihar government, in the summer of 2008, carried out one-month summer camps for children who were in Classes 3-5 but were unable to read or do arithmetic even at the Class 2 level.
The pedagogy was aligned with their levels and used existing teachers. Children who attended enjoyed significant learning gains, which persisted over the following two years. Second, while government school teachers were able to effectively help children in the summer camp, the same teachers made no difference during the regular school year, which remained locked into the age-grade-curriculum-textbook gridlock. Third, the study showed, in common with earlier studies, that village volunteers can also improve learning levels when they are trained in a pedagogy that is aligned with where children start from.
The movement for effectively implementing the RTE is gathering steam across the country. Whichever path we choose as a country or as states, it is clear that business as usual will fail to solve the problem of improving learning outcomes. All the recent empirical studies indicate that just inputs are not enough. New thinking, new strategies, new actions are needed. The good news is the evidence that learning can occur with existing teachers. The bad news is that this happens rarely, because the system is not allowing it. The RTE's main objective is "age-appropriate mainstreaming" for all children. This will occur only if the system changes curriculum, adopts practical pedagogy and begins to measure what works. The challenge is for policymakers and practitioners to take a hard look at reality, absorb the available evidence and plot the new steps ahead that will genuinely enable every child in India to learn well. This is what our education guarantee should be.
Rukmini Banerji works with Pratham and is director, Aser Centre. Michael Walton is with Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi
The views expressed by the authors are personal