Home >Opinion >Challenges to primary education

In many states across India, children have just moved into a new class. The excitement of a new school year is still in the air. New textbooks are being distributed; notebooks and stationery are being bought. Summer vacations have begun. On the eve of these new beginnings, hopes run high for all that children will learn in another year of school. But how much can we expect that they’ll actually learn?

All current available data on student achievement suggest children are performing far below the level that is expected of them. Take a typical standard five class. The estimates from the oft quoted Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2012 suggest that of all rural children enrolled in standard five, only half can fluently read text from a standard two textbook. In arithmetic, only half of all standard five children can do a basic two-digit subtraction problem with the arithmetic operation of borrowing—a skill that is expected in standard two. Of the children who have these basic skills, many have higher-level capabilities too. But for the half who have reached the fifth standard and do not have the fundamental skills of reading or arithmetic, there are very serious risks of not gaining much from continuing in school and completing eight years of schooling. Using ASER figures, we estimate that over 100 million children in India are two or more years below their grade level. Under the current circumstances, such children are very unlikely to reach the levels of capability expected of children after eight years of schooling, as mandated by the Right to Education (RTE) Act.

The visible challenge: Inadequate inputs

If you ask teachers or officials about the biggest challenge for improving learning outcomes they will probably point to the numerous gaps in the system. Some schools continue to lack adequate infrastructure; several states still face a severe shortage of teachers. Many will complain about the poor quality of institutional support for teachers’ professional development. The usual assumption is that if these gaps are filled, children will learn and learn well. This “theory of change" explains the push from within the government as well as from outside to ensure the timely provision of adequate inputs, and to point out the urgent need to build institutions that support schools and teachers.

The invisible challenge: Children falling behind

But there is another less visible, but dangerously debilitating and potentially worsening problem that plagues Indian classrooms. This may be at the root of why children are not learning. Going back to the typical fifth standard classroom, try to imagine the challenge for the teacher. In our typical school, the fifth standard teacher uses the fifth standard textbook, trying to cover the material and activities that the textbook lays out. But whom should she teach? And how should she do it? Should she focus on those children who have basic skills, who are more likely to attend school regularly and, are therefore, easier to teach? What should she do with the other half of the class who are not even at standard one or two level? This is a problem faced by almost all primary school teachers. Try to imagine the daily challenge for the teacher in her classroom. Try to imagine what this “low learning trap" does to children.

Sadly, it appears as though educated citizens, education experts, planners and policymakers, Union, state and local governments do not see this problem. A typical Indian school focuses on completing the curriculum and is not structured to provide extra help to children who are not moving ahead at the expected pace or to those who are falling behind. Without the learning support that is critical, a large fraction of Indian children slip through the cracks. The problem is made worse by textbooks and curriculum whose pace and content accelerates through the primary school years. A paper by Lant Pritchett and Amanda Beatty in 2012, titled The Negative Consequences of Overambitious Curricula ( lays out the issue very well—“If the official school curriculum covers too much, goes too fast and is too hard compared with the initial skill of the students and the ability of the schools to teach this can produce disastrous results. An overambitious curriculum causes more and more students to get left behind early and stay behind forever". Unlike problems of access and inputs that are visible, the situation of low learning worsens quietly within classrooms and schools and is invisible to the world outside.

“Teaching by level"

What has been done so far to tackle this less visible problem? During the last century, schools all over the world have been organized by age and grade. According to their progression in age, children move from one grade to the next, regardless of the underlying learning composition of students. What if we were to tweak this organizational principle of schools, and group children by level of learning rather than by grade? Would these changes in grouping accompanied by appropriate changes in instruction lead to more effective teaching situations and better learning outcomes?

Using the principle of “teaching by level", several large-scale experiments have been tried in recent years in India with promising results. In June 2008, the Bihar government conducted month long “summer camps". Children enrolled in standards three, four and five who were not yet at standard two levels were targeted for the camps. At the camps, children sat in groups with other children of the same ability level, regardless of their age or grade. Each instructor had children who were at the same learning level and used appropriate materials and methods for that level. The idea was to start with where the children were and use free time in summer holidays to move them towards where they needed to be. The modest goal of the summer camp was to bring all these children who had fallen behind to at least a standard two level. Although the camps were hurriedly organized, an external, randomized, evaluation by the Poverty Action Lab of Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed significant improvements in learning for the targeted children who attended the summer camp. More noteworthy is the fact that gains the summer camp children made were sustained even two years later.

Other states have incorporated the “teaching-by-level" concept into the normal working of the school during the school year. Between 2009 and 2011, Punjab government implemented a state-wide programme to improve basic learning outcomes. Two hours during the school day were set aside for this purpose. During this time, children from standard one to five were grouped by their learning level and existing teachers were assigned to the groups. Teachers were trained to use appropriate methods and materials with each group. As each child progressed, she or he could move into the next group. Clear goals, strong training, mentoring and monitoring for teachers, systematic assessment and periodic review helped to ensure the programme delivered results.

During the last school year, in two districts in Bihar (Jehanabad and east Champaran) and another two districts in Haryana (Kurukshetra and Mahendragarh), similar interventions were implemented by the district administrations. For example, in Jehanabad, in August 2012, of the 16,000 children who were assessed, only 30% of standards three, four and five could read simple paragraphs or short stories. An evaluation showed that the number rose to 72% by the end of February 2013, despite many discontinuities due to holidays in that period. Further, the Jehanabad effort also led to increased attendance in schools, increased parent awareness not just about schooling but also about learning, a visible energising of the entire school system, and improved school functioning. These experiments have led the Bihar government to think about a scale up in the 2013-2014 school year.

Achieving learning for all

To address the challenge of teaching-learning in primary grades we must make concerted efforts to tackle three issues. To help all children in standards three four and five reach the level expected of them at their grade, there is a dual challenge: first, basic skills need to be built, and built fast and in a durable way. Second, these children have to be enabled to be able to cope with what is required of them for the grade in which they are studying. Finally, to alleviate this dual challenge in future, by the end of standard two children need to have developed foundational skills of reading, writing, critical thinking, arithmetic and problem-solving. Of course, it can be argued that grade level expectations need to be reviewed so that the “negative consequences of overambitious curricula" can be minimized, but curriculum reform is a long drawn out and complicated process. In the meanwhile, we should not allow children to finish standard five without very basic skills that will enable them to go forward in the education system and in life.

The education chapter in the 12th Five-Year Plan document places children’s learning outcomes at the centre of the stage. The spirit of the RTE Act also is to “guarantee" that by the time children complete eight years of schooling, they are capable of dealing with whatever lies ahead for them. The prevailing belief among decision-makers is that increasing inputs, improving infrastructure and “tightening systems" will lead to the desired changes. While the input-based and “business as usual" “theory of change" may be necessary to achieve “schooling for all", it will not enable India to reach the goals of “learning for all". Like the cases described above, it is essential that we take a close look at solutions that have been implemented and found to be effective and successful. In each of these cases, a fundamental departure from “business as usual" was needed along with a major shift in the usual mind set of the decision-makers and implementers. Setting of clear and achievable goals, grouping children by ability instead of age/grade, supporting teachers, conducting systematic basic assessment, and steadfast leadership have enabled government school teachers (and their cluster coordinators, block and district officials) to achieve results in six months that they had not been able to catalyse in the last four to five years.

The way forward

Almost all children in the 6-14 age group in India are enrolled in school. In the coming school year, we must undertake concrete steps for putting India’s children on the path of achieving the full potential of their capabilities. Each state must publicly declare their learning goals and articulate concretely their plans for achieving higher learning outcomes for at least the next two to three years. It is urgent that we face our realities squarely to fulfil children’s hopes for the coming school year and enable India to reach its national goals for growth and equity.

Rukmini Banerji is director of ASER Centre, the autonomous research and assessment unit of Pratham.

This column has been reprinted with permission from Ideas for India

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