After being stuck for a decade, elementary education in India is finally making some, albeit very, very slow, progress. The recently out ASER 2016 report finds that learning among early grade government school students has improved, marginally. Between 2014 and 2016, the proportion of children in Standard III who could read a Standard I textbook rose from 31.8% to 34.8% and those who could read a Standard II textbook from 17.2% to 19.2%. This is the good news. The bad news is the pace of change does not match the scale of the problem. Even as reading levels have improved, 65% students in Standard III still cannot read a Standard I text. Also, nationally, reading levels amongst Standard V government school students remain unchanged since 2014 at 42% and are lower than 2010 when 50% students could read a Standard II text.

Limited as the gains in early grades may be, coming after a decade of no change and a visible decline in learning since 2012, that progress has been made needs to be acknowledged. The challenge lies in increasing this pace of change; this is where the task ahead gets tricky. That India’s elementary school-going children are not learning much is now widely recognized. But India is still to come to terms with the fact that our expectations of what children “should" learn in a given grade, as determined by the curriculum, is completely divorced from the reality of what children “can" learn, given the slow pace at which they acquire foundational skills.

Pratham’s Rukmini Banerji illustrates this problem in a recent essay. In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, less than 10% children in Standard III were at “grade" level in 2016. However, the pace of the syllabus and associated textbooks are designed in the expectation that children have acquired grade-level skills and can progress onwards. As a result, the vast majority of students struggle to cope and in the process learn very little. Economist Lant Pritchett has referred to this phenomenon as the “negative consequence of an overambitious curriculum". Pritchett estimates that 4 out of 5 children going into a grade without being able to read will likely end the school year still unable to read.

Against this reality, any effort to improve learning must go back to basics. But the education system is trained and incentivized to focus on the syllabus and teach by prescribed textbooks, regardless of whether children are learning. Syllabus completion is the primary metric for monitoring teachers. Parents too mostly engage with schools on what is being taught and tested, i.e. syllabus and exams rather than what is being learnt by students. And reform efforts are met with resistance due to its potential impact on the syllabus. This fact was brought home by Delhi’s education minister and deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia at the ASER launch, when he stated that the classroom is a victim of the curriculum, syllabus and textbooks.

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Breaking out of this curriculum, syllabus, textbook trap is not a simple matter of reducing the syllabus and changing textbooks. Rather it requires a complete rehaul of the organizational culture and associated incentive systems in which education stakeholders from politicians and bureaucrats to teachers and parents are embedded. The core of the problem as our recent research into front-line education bureaucracy highlights is that education stakeholders operate in a culture where they see themselves as “passive rule-followers" rather than active agents of change. The culture of monitoring and tracking inputs, reducing teaching to “completing the syllabus" rather than worrying about what children know, is a classic manifestation of this.

Our work also highlights that change, even in entrenched systems, is possible. In Bihar, efforts to change classroom process by Pratham worked when the system went into mission mode. Simple, easy to achieve foundational learning goals were clearly articulated and the entire system aligned itself to support teachers with teaching tools, mentoring and monitoring of outcomes. In such settings, new teaching methods and alternative textbooks were welcomed and adopted. The problem is that when the expectation shifted from mission mode to incorporating change into everyday practice, the system defaulted back to business as usual. Teachers and bureaucrats argued that new methods could not be used regularly in the classroom because it was at odds with the syllabus and learning gaps are a consequence of problems outside rather than inside the classroom.

Long-term change, in our assessment, needs a deep institutional shift where work culture and management practices align with the goals of innovation and adaptation to needs in the classroom. This is for the long term. In the interim, mission mode successes can serve as catalysts for shifting the institutional culture by regularly exposing the system to the possibility of change and building trust in alternative approaches. If complemented with carefully collected evidence, these successes can help us understand what works and why and the conditions under which change can be embedded. Many states are now experimenting with focused learning programmes. These must be supported, studied and scaled while simultaneously incentivizing laggard states to begin experimenting.

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From a budget perspective, this requires more money and flexibility. Less than 1% of the current elementary education budget is dedicated to learning experiments. This is nowhere close to what states need. In 2015, a mere 25% of funds requested for learning programmes in Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) were approved. Ideally, SSA financing ought to be reformed to provide states an untied learning grant linked to measurable learning goals and strategies. One route to this reform is the recent cabinet resolution, which mandates that 25% of all central scheme money be made “flexible" for states. In education, this money should be ring-fenced for learning experiments with the flexibility for states to devise their own learning strategies.

Finally, money flows in education are riddled with bottlenecks. In 2015, only 31% of the annual budget was released by September. Too often, reforms only take off half-way through and sometime in the last three months of the school year. This must change. The SSA plan and approval process must be aligned to the school year so money can move fast and activities can begin at the start of the school year. A reformed SSA with a commitment to achievable learning goals and the speedy transfer of money is my one ask of budget 2017.

Yamini Aiyar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and director of the Accountability Initiative.

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