Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Fixing educational policy’s failure

Reforms in pedagogy and school governance structures are critical for addressing India's learning crisis

The school education landscape in India has witnessed massive changes since the previous National Policy on Education was formulated in 1986. Speaking at the National Stocktaking Convention on the Right to Education Act recently, vice-president Hamid Ansari voiced concern that while enrolment in elementary education has increased, education outcomes have declined, with abilities in reading, writing and other comprehensive skills deteriorating among children aged 6 to 14 years. As per the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER, 2014), about half of all Class V children in rural India were unable to read a simple paragraph or do basic math.

This challenge of chronically low learning levels has been articulated in the human resource development (HRD) ministry’s approach document to the New Education Policy (NEP), and multiple questions have been posed. How do we ensure that children learn basic language and numerical skills? How can technology be leveraged to provide quality school education? Are teacher performance assessments needed to build a culture of accountability? What are the ways to improve community participation in school management?

These are not new questions, and while the HRD ministry has turned to extensive grassroots consultations for solutions, rigorous field research conducted over the past decade can also help to precisely answer some of these questions. A number of randomized impact evaluations conducted by researchers affiliated with Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) provide important insights on what works and what doesn’t work to improve learning outcomes of children, which can help build a robust evidence-backed NEP.

Pedagogical solutions: Evidence suggests that one area of particular promise is pedagogical interventions aimed at targeting instruction to the learning level of the child. A fundamental barrier faced by many children in India, and several other developing countries, is the wide variation in learning levels among students in the same classroom. Randomized impact evaluations conducted by researchers over the past 15 years in India, Ghana and Kenya demonstrate that restructuring classes by learning level, rather than by age or grade, can help children gain basic maths and reading skills quickly.

Different versions of Pratham’s Read India programme based on the above teaching-at-the-right-level approach have shown positive impacts on learning. In-school pull-out programmes and after-school reading classes led by community volunteers have proven to be successful, as have summer camps led jointly by government teachers and volunteers. A recent evaluation of this programme implemented in a classroom setting by government schoolteachers in rural Haryana, with monitoring and mentoring support from block officials and Pratham staff, showed significant improvements in basic Hindi skills. This has helped identify an evidence-backed scalable model for raising basic literacy and numeracy skills that can be implemented by government schoolteachers in a government school context.

Technological solutions that adapt to the level of understanding of the child may also be used to ensure that students gain basic competencies in reading and arithmetic. An evaluation of a computer-assisted learning programme in Gujarat wherein children played self-paced math games showed large improvements in student math scores. However, an important caveat, as shown by evaluations of the One Laptop per Child scheme in Peru and the Colombian government’s Computers for Education programme, is that access to technology in and of itself does not ensure learning.

School governance: In addition to pedagogy, school governance factors have also demonstrated some success in moving the needle on learning levels. Studies conducted by J-PAL affiliated researchers show that incentivizing teacher presence and effort, and putting in place properly designed monitoring and accountability structures, can lead to significant gains in learning in certain contexts.

In primary schools run by the non-governmental organization Seva Mandir in rural Udaipur, monitoring attendance through daily photos of the teachers and linking teachers’ salaries to their attendance was found to be effective in improving student test scores. Another programme in government schools in rural Andhra Pradesh that linked teachers’ pay with their students test score performance also led to test score gains. However, the design of the incentive structure is critical; when incentives are tied to student learning outcomes, there may be a danger of “teaching to the test", as seen in an incentive programme for teachers in Kenya that raised test scores in the short-term, mainly due to an increase in test preparation rather than broader improvements in learning.

Recognizing the importance of community participation, India’s RTE Act mandates the formation of school management committees, but existing evidence on the effectiveness of community monitoring is mixed. A study in rural Uttar Pradesh saw that simply informing Village Education Committees about the quality of government schools in their village and about their role and rights did not improve education outcomes. In contrast, a programme in Kenya where school management committees were trained and empowered to oversee recruitment of teachers as well as monitor them showed positive impact on learning outcomes.

Overall, the evidence suggests that well-designed reforms in pedagogy and school governance structures are critical to address India’s learning crisis. Going ahead, as new solutions to this problem emerge, it is important to not only carefully ascertain their impact through rigorous research, but also ensure that as different models and innovations are evaluated and validated, lessons learnt from them find their way into our national policies in a timely manner.

Maya Escueta and Megha Pradhan are, respectively, senior policy and training manager, and policy and training manager for J-PAL South Asia at IFMR/CLEAR.

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