Use data-based solutions to improve learning levels
It has been abundantly clear for some time now that India has been facing a huge learning crisis and that the gap between schooling and learning is widening. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2018 has again sharply identified fundamental shortcomings in the learning profiles of the majority of elementary school students in India. Most importantly, it has repeatedly brought into light the worrying trend of the absence of foundational learning skills such as the basic ability to read with meaning and do simple mathematics.
According to ASER 2018, only 27.2% of the children in Class 3 could read a simple Class 2-level text, while only 28.1% could do basic subtraction. International research and pedagogical experts have pointed out that to ensure that every child is able to read with meaning by the age of eight is one of the most critical education challenges of our times. Foundational learning skills are the most essential because those who don’t acquire these skills in early years are unable to catch up and get left behind in the learning continuum; in some cases, they eventually drop out of the system altogether.
There has been some progress towards recognising this problem and a few Indian state governments have initiated reform efforts focused on achieving foundational learning skills for children by Class 3. However, recognising and prioritising the problem is only the first step, even if a necessary one. We need to follow this up with coherent efforts to find solutions that keep the classroom at the centre and are complemented by strong alignment between the various systemic elements, which are responsible for the reform and delivery of education. This is where the education system can better leverage data and evidence. Reliable, comprehensive and comparable information on the solutions, which can be delivered to the decision makers in a timely and easy-to-use format, can play a critical role in ensuring that their implementation is effective and sustainable.
Robust data can help states identify the gaps that need to be addressed and customise the solutions accordingly. The Indian school education landscape is an extremely diverse one, with children in the same classroom having grown up with different home languages and having disparate learning levels. ASER 2018 indicated a high variation between states. Just as an example, almost half of all children in Class 3 can read Class 2 level text in Himachal Pradesh, while in Uttar Pradesh, only one fourth of Class 3 children are at Class 2 level. In such a scenario, no one-size-fits-all solution will ensure universal foundational learning, and any potentially successful programme will have to be modified to local context and capacity. It will be beneficial in the long run to incentivise states for owning the contextualised solution and for establishing constant and rigorous evaluation for any course correction.
All programmes also need to be rigorously monitored and evaluated in order to generate independent data around the various elements that determine their impact and efficiency. Such an evaluation would look at both the process or design of the programme, as well as its impact on the overall goal of improving learning outcomes.
For example, assessing whether the programme methodology is appropriate for a student’s age and learning processes; is the programme being implemented as intended; to what extent are the support systems, such as curriculum, teacher training, monitoring and onsite support, effective in improving classroom practices; what are the major unintended outcomes of the programme; and, lastly, what were the factors which facilitated or inhibited the intended implementation of the programme. This can help assess where the challenges lie, why certain schools, districts or even states are falling behind, and how best to iterate the programme and design corrective actions so that they can be supported to achieve their objectives.
States are often not set up to design and implement rigorous monitoring and evaluation processes around their programmes. Establishing an early learning centre at a reputable academic institution that has the expertise, capacity and funding to partner with states could be one way to bridge for this gap. This centre will be best positioned to leverage data to assess, document and spread programmes with proven efficacy across states. It can also share best practices around these programmes as well as around monitoring and evaluation processes to generate learnings for the overall education ecosystem.
ASER data has highlighted the pressing problem; we now need to move to the next step and focus on using data and evidence to inform and implement the solutions that can help achieve the goal of foundational learning and set up our children for future success.
Ashish Dhawan is founder and chairman, Central Square Foundation
The views expressed are personal