The recently concluded ‘Mission Vidya’ in Gujarat once again draws attention to the intractable problem of low learning levels among government school children.
The month-long remedial teaching programme targeted more than 200,000 Class VI-VIII children with poor achievements in reading, writing and mathematics.
The children received special attention for three hours every day, including one hour outside school hours. The government is evaluating the programme and one hopes, at least for the children’s sake, that the results are positive. Other states might find the idea of a ‘mission’ attractive, but three questions have to be addressed.
First, why does the need for such a heroic measure arise when we have well-established schools? The most popular answer is student absenteeism: The children belong to socio-economically disadvantaged groups and are under many compulsions that make them miss school regularly. A mission can address the resulting learning deficit.
There is merit in this answer, but surely short missions cannot overcome the alienation from school that underpins such irregularity. Schools should understand how their own practices and environment contribute to this alienation, which unfortunately begins much earlier in the student life cycle. So, is the Class VI-VIII stage too late?
The answer is clearly yes. Research has shown that lower primary levels, especially Class IV and below, are critical in laying a foundation for learning and ensuring a liking for school. It is by this stage that children should be transitioning from “learning to read and write” to “reading and writing to learn”—but our biggest failure is here. So, while attending to struggling Class VI-VIII children is morally defensible, the focus should be on the earlier stages.
Third, assuming that we have to rely on the teachers already in place, can we depend on their current approach to teaching? The answer is no. Research has shown that remedial teaching needs a lot of customization. It is, to use an unfortunate analogy, giving the right medicine for the correctly identified disease.
For this, a strong IT-based plan is needed. Our experience in dealing online with thousands of teachers shows that this can be done with a little effort. It is possible to build a system that provides diagnostic data, advises on the strategies to overcome the learning problems identified, and supports regular assessment. Second, and this is equally important, the field-level control of mentoring and monitoring such programmes has to pass to those teachers who have performed in the system, and not to high level bureaucrats.
The first line of support for the teachers of the lower primary stage in a block or district has to comprise teachers who are respected in that area for their performance.
True, there are cluster resource centre coordinators who cover a cluster of schools, but they are identified with the regular administrative hierarchy.
For a mission to be truly one, it has to be spearheaded by teachers who accept the challenge of becoming accountable for the learning in the schools of which they are in charge.
How can this be done? Governments must believe that there are good and motivated teachers, perhaps a minority, in their own ranks. They must be ready to empower such teachers and trust them to deliver. Flattening hierarchies and decentralizing authority will be resisted, but today we have no option. Is it difficult to find such teachers? About two decades ago, we had suggested that such spearhead teams should have about 25-to-30 members in a district or a set of blocks. Finding this small number should not be a problem.
Our work with innovative teachers shows that today it is easier to organize such a team since we have a better sense of who the performers are. These teams must be allowed to mentor and monitor the teachers of whom they are in charge with the help of the diagnostic and assessment data, and to develop locally contextualized teaching and assessment strategies. The earlier we realize that government schools are increasingly catering to the socio-economically marginalized sections of our society and that improving learning levels is a matter of social justice and inclusion, the better it will be for our society.
Vijaya Sherry Chand is professor at Ravi J. Matthai Centre for Educational Innovation, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad.
These are the author’s personal views.