The dismal learning levels of students in our schools should count as one of India’s biggest governance failures. But this comes as no surprise given the prevailing priorities. The primary focus of school education programmes has been on inputs—construct physical infrastructure, recruit teachers, provide study materials, increase enrolment, and encourage retention. It was assumed that once the inputs were in place, the outcomes would follow automatically.
Though this focus has expanded in recent years to include greater monitoring and improving teacher and student attendance, expected learning outcomes have failed to materialize. This very critical last mile gap has remained impervious to even the most vigorous of input side efforts. Here are a few elements of a possible road map to bridge this last mile gap.
The biggest deficiency with our school education system is its one-size-fits-all approach. Classroom instruction is designed to cover a prescribed syllabus in a single-track mode to all students in a class, overlooking the wide variations in learning levels among students. This is most likely to leave stranded those already lagging on learning levels— which unfortunately forms the vast majority of students in each class. With each passing year, as the learning gap widens, these students become passive and disinterested spectators in class and finally drop out.
This problem can be effectively addressed by incorporating a remedial education dimension into the syllabus and pedagogy. This requires assessment of the learning level of each student, segregation into groups based on individual learning competencies, and completion of the syllabus at varying speeds for each group. At the end of each academic year, every child in the class should achieve a basic level of learning competency.
Another important intervention to improve learning outcomes is to universalize early childhood education (ECE) centres. It is now widely acknowledged that ECE learning provides a powerful head start for students in the development of cognitive and non-cognitive skills critical in influencing later day outcomes.
Once the content and pedagogy are standardized, such centres should be opened in all primary schools, and would provide an alternative to parents who cannot afford kindergartens. ECE centres could form part of the existing anganwadi centres, the main focus of which is on the provision of nutritional support for children between ages one and three.
Digital content and medium are certain to play an important role in our classrooms in the years ahead. Though not without its controversies, it cannot be denied that if appropriately used, the digital medium—computers and consoles—can be a cognitively powerful instrument to amplify the effectiveness of classroom instruction. The challenge will be with standardizing content and training teachers to use various digital tools to prepare classroom instruction materials.
No intervention, especially on improving quality, can succeed without vibrant demand-side vigilance. Active school management committees (SMCs) can make the teacher accountable and the management responsible to their primary stakeholders, and ensure parents are aware of their child’s learning deficiencies. Parents should, therefore, be motivated to attend SMC meetings.
An important requirement for the success of these interventions is a reliable mechanism to assess students and collect assessment data. At the least, a rigorous baseline and end-line assessment is necessary for all students in each class. The learning trajectory of each student can be mapped for his or her entire school tenure, competency-wise learning gaps identified, and remedial instruction imparted. Further, general competency gaps identified among students in a particular class can be used to customize teacher trainings.
This data can also be used to generate cognitively salient and personalized learning outcome report cards for each different stakeholder—parent, teacher, headmaster, and supervisory official. These reports could be used to detect bright and dark spots and, thereby, prioritize inspections and improve supervision. Classroom report cards should be discussed in SMC meetings and teachers should discuss student-wise report cards with respective parents.
A learning outcomes database that tracks the learning trajectory of each student from ECE to class X would be a powerful instrument to focus attention on the ultimate objective of learning quality. It would form the basis for bringing in accountability and awareness among all stakeholders.
Finally, it is important to acknowledge that the desired learning outcomes cannot be achieved without motivated teachers. A responsive incentive system can stimulate intrinsic motivation among teachers and encourage local initiative. Headmasters should be motivated and trained to function as leaders who can transform their schools. All these have to be complemented with a mechanism to provide academic capacity building and training support for teachers.
There is nothing new about many of these interventions. Though deficient in government schools, remedial education, report cards and parent-teacher meetings are commonplace in many well-run private schools and it’s no surprise that these elements contribute to their success.
There are formidable obstacles to each of these interventions. For example, experience from several US school systems have shown that standardized tests and student assessments carry the considerable risk of being gamed and subverted. Whatever the final mix of policies, the time has surely come to place learning levels at the centre of our school education agenda.
Gulzar Natarajan is a civil servant. These are his personal views
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