Quality education and learning has the power to transform an individual’s life by raising aspirations and by providing opportunities needed to convert those aspirations into reality. Understandably then, for India, the youngest country in the world with 200 million children in the 6-14 age group, this very power of good education and learning is massive. What is equally important to understand about education is that the actual gains from it accrue only when a child gets good learning and not just schooling. Low levels of learning outcomes in schools is a huge barrier that is pulling down India’s human capital potential.

Research on student learning outcomes estimates that one in every 2 children between the age of 6-8 in India is going to school but is not learning. What makes this figure even more worrying is the fact that this huge gap between schooling and learning is due to the absence of basic ability to read with meaning—one of the most fundamental skills to function as an effective individual. To ensure every child is able to read with meaning by the age of 8 might sound simple to many but ironically it is one of the biggest development challenges of our times and it demands rethinking about what is most urgent and important.

According to the Annual Status of Education Report 2016 (ASER 2016), only one quarter of class 3 students can read and understand a short story with a few simple sentences or do a two-digit subtraction. The Indian Government’s own National Achievement Survey (NAS) too indicates a high percentage of children who are unable to read with meaning.

In a world where children have to ‘read to learn’ age 7-8 onwards, expecting them to attain quality education without these gateway skills is unfair to the kids and unproductive for the society as a whole. Very simply put, it will be the same as expecting a child to run even before she learns to walk. Development of foundational skills of reading with meaning and basic mathematics in children by class 3 becomes even more important in light of the uniqueness and complexity of India’s education system.

For many first-generation learners from low-income and disadvantaged communities, the home environment is typically not able to supplement school education and depriving them of a high-quality learning environment in schools is a huge injustice. Given the intertwined challenges such as poverty, caste, geographic isolation, gender, language and many others, having a clear focus on giving every child an equitable and inclusive learning foundation in early years will be an important first step in ensuring that no child gets left behind.

Aiming for young learning

Rethinking about the priorities of school education in India fits very well not just with our demographic agenda but also with what various governments are trying to do with the status of education. In recent years, many governments and organizations working in education have attempted to tackle the challenge of low learning outcomes by setting up various programs. These programs are also a good example of the shifting focus from inputs such as infrastructure to learning outcomes.

Unfortunately, while lot of NGO interventions do show promise, the system as a whole has hardly improved. We believe that it is because of multiple reasons. There is inadequate recognition of the problem and lack of focus on improving it. We also have ineffective accountability mechanisms (from States all the way down to a school level) to ensure that all children can learn. Our system is also not able to design and deliver a well-integrated solution which combines aspects such as curriculum development with appropriate teacher and student learning material, teacher training and support, etc.

There is ample evidence from across the world and developing countries such as Kenya, Philippines, Brazil and Vietnam that points towards significant gains in achieving learning outcomes within relatively short windows. The common factor in these models is successful combination of pedagogical inputs with key reforms to strengthen the whole system. These are some early examples of holistic reforms that keep the classroom experience at the center and then ensure close alignment of the system to deliver it.

A deeper study of these examples indicates that strong processes were put in place to routinely monitor and support each and every stakeholder from students, to teachers to schools. The continued success of these programs was through the government adopting and then replicating and amplifying them at scale. The governments also recognized the ability to read with meaning and do basic mathematics as a priority in their education policy. For India, it is imperative to build on the existing evidence and demonstrate a proof of concept for how our education reform could rethink or energize itself in terms of inclusion, choice, innovation and excellence.

How to make it work

We need clear and measurable target on achieving foundational learning and a collective effort to build salience on achieving this. Salience will be achieved when everyone in the system - from the decision makers, to teachers, school administrators, bureaucrats and organizations working in education—will acknowledge this as a core binding constraint of the system that needs to be addressed with priority. Good news is that improving learning outcomes has started to appear on the agenda of central as well as state governments in India. The next steps in this direction will be to narrow our focus for next few years on ensuring all children are able to read with meaning by Class 3.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) education indicator on measuring learning in early years was upgraded to tier 2 from tier 3 which means that student learning outcomes in reading and mathematics skills in early grades will now be paid more attention and will have a globally accepted and a well-established reporting methodology. Setting expectations will also ensure that both education system and the society work with a belief that all children, irrespective of their backgrounds, can learn. In a deeply unequal society like ours, it is an important cultural shift from our existing education system which often acts as a filtering system.

Secondly, we need to support schools and teachers to ensure that they have required inputs and training to deliver high quality instruction to students. From a pedagogic perspective, we need a comprehensive foundational learning solution, that accounts for current learning level of students as well as the ability of teachers to deliver effective instruction. We believe the solution needs to include a comprehensive instructional design accounting for the disparate learning levels in the classroom, teaching-learning material that is paced at the level of the child, children’s literature, as well as regular assessments that provide specific support to children. All of this needs to be supported by effective training given to the teachers on how to teach children of early grades, as well as appropriate usage of the material. This needs to be complimented by consistent coaching and need based mentoring to support teachers on an ongoing basis.

These 5Ts—teaching approaches, tools for teachers and students, tests, training on content and delivery, and finally teacher support—should be the key ingredients of any program to improve foundational learning. Even beyond the classrooms, we need clear guidelines and protocols to know how we would support schools, districts and even states who are falling behind. Currently, at each level we seem to be struggling to respond to failures. How many district officials would have an action plan at the end of each school year where they have identified the root causes of failing schools and are going to do something extra? How many state officials would have a similar plan for their districts? It is imperative that we build systems and processes to collect the right performance information at all levels and design corrective actions.

Finally, we need to monitor our performance at all levels - school, district and state—to know where we are with respect to the overall objective, and better tailor our support. At a state level, reliable, regular, comparable and comprehensive data on learning outcomes in early years will create incentives for improvement and will align reform priorities. India’s National Achievement Survey (NAS) has undergone major reforms in last few years. It could be further strengthened, for example, by outsourcing its implementation to a 3 rd party. Currently, the state governments which, in some ways are being evaluated, also implement the survey.

Efforts like NITI Aayog’s School Education Quality Index (SEQI) could be effective policy instruments to emphasize the importance of foundational learning. Each state, in turn, should evaluate its early learning program to verify if interventions are having the desired results. A state could design a SEQI equivalent to continuously monitor the performance of its districts and then provide differentiated support.

Each district should be able to identify struggling schools where additional resources, whether training, coaching or material, could be provided. In a similar vein, schools and community should monitor individual child’s progress. This culture of both monitoring and support is critical if we have to have a well-functioning system. A good thing to note is that achieving universal foundational learning in next 5 years is achievable given India’s resources.

For this, the Centre should be willing to provide flexible funds to states so that they can design and customize their own programs. A one-size-fits-all approach would not work. It should also be willing to make technical support available to the states by building a world class Centre for Early Learning which would act as a nodal institution for research, evaluation and technical expertise. It would also need to strengthen National Achievement Survey to know whether these interventions are having the desired impact and if there is a need for course correction.

The states should form a steering group with both in-house and external technical partners, rigorously evaluate their programs at a small scale before state-wide roll out and set up the monitoring and support systems we discussed earlier. An explicit commitment by the state chief minister would also help set the expectation that all children can and should learn. With the right political and administrative will, right design and iterative approach, and active support from both teachers and parents, we can ensure that all children learn. If we believe that our education system provides equality of opportunity to all children to achieve their dreams, then our children deserve no less.

Ashish Dhawan is the Founder, Chairman of Central Square Foundation (CSF) and founder Ashok University. He worked for twenty years in the investment management business and ran one of India’s leading private equity funds, ChrysCapital.

This is the second in a six-part year-end series to rethink work and life around us.

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