Ahmedabad: Their office is not air-conditioned, the stairways are betel-stained and lunch amounts to a Rs60 a thali. But as entrepreneurs Sridhar Rajagopalan and Sudhir Ghodke know all too well from their work with private schools across the country that looks can be deceiving.
Quality check: Sudhir Ghodke (left) and Sridhar Rajagopalan of Educational Initiatives assess how much students are learning in schools.
They, for example, are graduates of the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. And their company turned profitable by its second year.
That company, Educational Initiatives Pvt. Ltd, is holding the hands of hundreds of stressed-out students — ironically, by testing them — and using results to help schools move away from a system of rote learning.
Though experts in education wonder how long it will take before such efforts overhaul an assembly-line education system that encourages mugging, the company has grown to assess half-a-million children, and one government school examination board has contacted it to begin discussions on how to improve quality of learning in middle school.
“We want to create a system where children are learning with understanding. Can we show schools and parents that what children are learning is something they cannot be happy about?” said Rajagopalan, 39, the more talkative of the two.
A third partner, Venkat Krishnan, also an alumnus of IIM-A, is based in Mumbai.
To hold up a mirror to schools, the firm devises tests and sends them to schools. Once students complete tests, the data is collected and sent back to schools, showing teachers exactly where students are going wrong.
The findings are not surprising — students can memorize, but don’t comprehend. Nine-year-olds had trouble calculating the length of a pencil whose starting point is 1cm on a ruler, with the end point at 6cm.
The most common answer is that the length of the pencil is 6cm, instead of 5cm, which is the correct answer. Interviews with children yield why they made this mistake. Most thought that 1cm was the point on the ruler showing the 1cm mark and not the length between zero and 1.
It is this lack of understanding of basic concepts that lays bare the problem in India’s schools. This problem is spoken about anecdotally — often by the time students enter colleges or even the workplace. But Educational Initiatives, because of its tests, has hard data at its disposal, and intends to do something about it before it’s too late.
Driven by data
The tests use multiple choice questions to test a student’s understanding of concepts. A thin, inverted triangle, a cone, a figure with four points, and an open, three-sided maze-like figure are among the multiple choices to the question — which of these is a triangle. Of the 3,811 students tested, only 40% got the right answer. That’s because most students think the inverted, and thin triangle does not look like a triangle at all.
Such findings are mapped on to spreadsheets telling the school how its students performed in concepts in geometry compared with schools tested in the rest of India.
Schools such as Ryan International School in Mayur Vihar, Delhi; Amity International School in Saket, Delhi; Arya Vidya Mandir in Bandra (West), Mumbai; La Martiniere for Boys, Kolkata; and Presidency School, Bangalore, have subscribed to these tests.
Schools — and more importantly, teachers — then get help and training to change their method of teaching.
Ghodke, 38, has a group of school principals whom he regularly taps for discussions. The latest input: Teachers need help on an almost daily basis.
So Ghodke, who began teaching an 11-year-old neighbour math after knowing her fear of the subject, has devised teacher sheets, each explaining why students chose the wrong answer, and how to teach concepts such as geometrical shapes.
For example, in the triangle question, students choose the maze-like figure simply because its three sides are equal. Teachers are advised to give cardboard cut-outs of various triangles, thin, fat, equilateral, or obtuse, so that children can feel these shapes.
The teacher sheets have begun reaching nearly 300 schools, which have registered in advance for the assessment, at the rate of four or five a week, explaining concepts, clearing misconceptions.
Ghodke and his team are converting principals. “I think they have put their finger on the pulse of what is wrong with schools,” said Jyotsna Brar, principal of Welham Girls’ School in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, who journeyed to Ahmedabad earlier this year to attend a forum of 40 principals organized by the company.
“Lot of teaching that is happening is that teachers are teaching to a test. When kids say they have cracked an exam, it means they have understood the pattern. They mug and reproduce according to the pattern. Ask a question not on the pattern and they cannot answer it,” said Brar.
Welham, a residential school where students pay an annual fee of Rs1.85 lakh not including the cost of uniforms and books, has recently joined Educational Initiatives’ flock, which now includes half-a-million students in 3,000 private schools. It has asked the company to assess 421 middle school students in August this year, at the cost of Rs300-500 per student; depending on how many subjects they are tested for. The cost will be passed on to parents.
The school will get detailed data on where students are going wrong, backed by teacher training as part of the package. Schools that want more specialized subject-wise training are charged.
It is teacher training that experts such as Krishna Kumar, child advocate and director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training, or NCERT, consider vital to any educational reform.
“Teacher training is the cow dung no one wants to touch,” said Kumar, who changed school curriculum to make it more application-oriented in 2005 and feels that “a big assessment market” is opening-up in India, and merely concentrating there will not make a difference to education.
Others say there is no dearth of teacher training institutes due to a recent relaxation of rules by the government-run statutory body which oversees them; but many of them offer dubious quality of training.
“A large number of these are running out of one room,” said Amit Kaushik, director at SRF Foundation, which runs the well-known Shri Ram Schools in Delhi. The foundation has recently introduced a course for pre-primary teachers.
NCERT’s Kumar wants elite institutes such as Indian Institutes of Management to get into teacher education. He also wants companies to empower teachers to devise their own tests.
Educational Initiatives says it is stepping in that direction. It wants to start a teacher helpline where any teacher can send a question to the company’s research team, asking for help in how to explain the concept behind it. Ultimately, the company is aiming that teachers can help each other by posting their questions online and how they explain it. Its teacher sheets will also include views on how to teach a particular concept or lesson.
The company is getting serious venture capital to help its efforts. In March, it received funding from venture capital firms Bangalore-based Footprint Ventures, and Maryland, US-headquartered Novak Biddle Venture Partners. Chennai-based IFMR Trust, a private trust, invested in the firm through a dedicated fund. Gautam Thapar, chairman of the publically traded Ballarpur Industries Ltd, a paper manufacturer, also invested in his personal capacity. Details of amounts invested were not disclosed.
“We want to make an impact. We always felt money will follow, and it did,” said Rajagopalan, who says he gains strength from an annual 10-day session in Vipasana, or looking inward, a Buddhist way of meditation that seeks silence from practitioners.
Educational Initiatives, a privately held company, has made a profit since 2002. Rajagopalan did not disclose sales or revenue figures, or any other financial details of the company. However, a simple calculation of the amount charged per assessment multiplied by the number of students who have been tested puts the number at Rs20 crore.
This is not the first venture in which the trio have collaborated. Rajagopalan, Ghodke and Krishnan left high-paying jobs in Tata IBM, ITW Signode India Ltd and Sony Entertainment Television, respectively, to start Eklavya, a school in Ahmedabad in 1996, backed by an entrepreneur.
But they soon realized that opening one “model” school will not make even a small dent in the life of an average school-going child.
Still, Educational Initiatives faces a number of challenges in its quest to make an impact on education in India. One is reaching poor schools, another involves making a difference in the ultimate evaluation in a school student’s life: the board examinations.
The Central Board of Secondary Education prodded by reformers such as Krishna Kumar, changed a portion of its assessment this year for 8,000 schools to include problems involving higher-order thinking. Predictably, scores have come down.
Earlier this year, the board invited Rajagopalan to discuss how students can learn better in middle school, especially in math and science. He gave them a summary of the company’s findings which it sends to schools. Nothing will move in a hurry, but it was a first step, says Rajagopalan.
The other challenge is equally tough: to assess government-run schools, which cater largely to children of poor parents, have little voice and a low quality of education.
For this, Educational Initiatives, which draws 30-35% of its revenue from its work in government schools, or what it calls large-scale assessment, signs contracts with organizations such as United Nations Children’s Fund, Azim Premji Foundation (named for the founder of Wipro Ltd), and more recently, Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Google Inc.
In Andhra Pradesh, for instance, Educational Initiatives is involved in a random evaluation study which assesses the efficiency of school inputs and teacher incentives in improving quality of education.
Most of the funds for the study are from the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, India’s scheme to put every child in school.
In May, Educational Initiatives signed a Rs6.2 crore contract with Google to conduct a study to gauge levels of student learning in classes IV, VI and VIII in 21 states to identify learning gaps.
Experts generally laud Educational Initiatives’ assessments as well-designed. On Mint’s request, Jishnu Das, a World Bank economist who co-authored and released a study in June this year testing secondary school students in Orissa and Rajasthan on math achievements, evaluated an Educational Initiatives’ assessment of students in 142 private schools in five metros in 2006. He said Educational Initiatives has performed the task of showing that India cannot be complacent about quality of schooling in either private or government-run schools. But what the country needs to debate is whether to further improve the quality of schooling in private schools, or whether to focus on the 18 million 14-year-olds who are either not enrolled or failing to meet the lowest international benchmark if in school.
“Whichever way the debate goes, it is clear that more studies of this sort and careful benchmarking of our performance on a global scale are critical to any reform of our educational system,” said Das, whose study showed that students in Orissa and Rajasthan rank below 43 of the 51 countries for which internationally comparable data exists.
Rajagopalan and his associates are keen to be part of any reforms. These days they find themselves turning down a lot of work — devising questions for Shah Rukh Khan’s new show, Kya Aap Paanchvi Pass Se Tez Hai, was one such job.
The company says it has its hands full and its quest is a continuing one, to understand student understanding based on these assessments. “Student learning is a complicated affair,” said Rajagopalan.
“It is not easy to teach fractions to a class VI student.”