Elementary education was one of the most under-prioritised areas in PM Narendra Modi’s first term. The recently released draft National Education Policy clearly articulates the goal for the next five years: “ensuring every child in Grade 5 and beyond has achieved foundational literacy and numeracy”. Meeting this goal is the new government’s primary challenge.
Understanding the problem
India’s learning crisis is a widely recognised fact. Since 2005, the Annual Survey of Education Rural (ASER) has served as a repeated reminder that barely 50 per cent of students in Grade 5 in India can read a Grade 2 text. Several other studies, including the government’s own National Assessment Survey (NAS), reiterate this fact.
Importantly, learning gaps emerge in the early years of schooling and learning profiles are flat. So, if a child falls behind expected levels in the early years of schooling, sitting in classrooms and progressing to higher grades, does not ensure that the child catches up. A study by Pritchett and Beatty estimates that four out of five children going into a grade without being able to read will likely end the school year still unable to read. Moreover, several studies highlight that there are wide variations in student learning levels within a classroom. Consequently, there is a wide divergence between the expectations of the curriculum and the rate of student learning.
This learning crisis has persisted even as India has expanded its schooling infrastructure and is now close to meeting the goal of universal access to elementary education. The harsh reality that education policy-making has to now come to terms with is this: Schooling is not learning. Against this background, the focused, goal-oriented push for achieving foundational literacy and numeracy in the draft National Education Policy (NEP) strikes at the heart of the problem.
Moving from policy to action
The draft NEP offers a detailed policy road map that includes re-designing curriculum, national tutors’ programme, teacher training and community participation. But achieving this goal is not just about policy direction. It is about shifting mindsets and changing institutional culture. This can only be achieved through a fundamental re-haul of how elementary education is financed and governed.
The reality is that in its current architecture, the education system is designed and incentivised to cohere around the goal of schooling inputs (enrolment, access, infrastructure) rather than learning.
Shifting this schooling focus is not a simple matter of changing syllabus and textbooks, introducing new pedagogy and improving training. It requires a complete re-haul of the organisational structure and associated incentive systems in which education stakeholders from bureaucrats to teachers and parents are embedded. The path to this transition to a decentralised system can be achieved through four key reforms.
In the current financing architecture, elementary education is heavily dependent on central government schemes (Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and it’s latest avatar Samagra Shiksha). These schemes privilege an extremely centralised, one-size-fits-all, schooling-focused planning, budgeting and decision-making system. In this system, quality specific activities are under-financed – a mere 19 per cent of the 2018-19 budget was allocated to activities linked to improving teaching-learning in schools. Moreover, the states have little room for orienting spending to their specific learning needs.
The first step to moving towards a learning-focused education system is to change the financing architecture. To do this a new funding window ought to be created that gives the states two untied grants. These should include an annual grant for states to meet school infrastructure requirements and a formula-based, learning grant financed over a 3-5 year period, linked to the achievement of clearly articulated learning goals. Rather than negotiating every detail of expenditure to be undertaken by states, the Centre can focus on providing technical support to the states.
Moving beyond states to districts and schools
An education system decentralised to states is simply too large to effectively respond to the diversity of learning needs, a district focus is critical. Just like the states, districts too ought to articulate learning goals over a 3 to 5-year period and have the flexibility to develop plans to meet these goals. To incentivise districts, states could create a learning improvement fund funded by the Centre that interested districts could compete for.
Teaching at the right level
India’s learning crisis has two challenges. The first is to ensure that students entering the school system do not fall behind. An important suggestion in the NEP that must be implemented is integrating pre-school learning with the formal elementary school system.
But what about students already in school who desperately need to catch up? There is today a significant body of evidence that suggests the efforts to match classroom instruction to student learning level (rather than the traditional age-grade matrix) or “teaching at the right level” (TARL) implemented in mission mode can result in significant and relatively speedy gains in foundational learning levels. The Centre must create a specific fund and technical resource pool for interested states and districts to implement TARL.
From assessments to learning and doing
Teachers and frontline officers must be placed at the centre of the attempt to reshape classroom pedagogy, and not be treated as disempowered cogs in the wheel expected to follow orders and complete administrative tasks. Recognising this problem, the NEP pushes for reducing administrative work and improving teacher training and support infrastructure. But the challenge goes beyond mere task allocation, teachers need to be active agents in the effort to shape classroom reforms.
One way of doing this is by rethinking the current strategy of learning assessment data. In the last three years, the union government has initiated significant new measures to track learning outcomes. But these assessments are not conducted with the objective of empowering teachers rather they serve as a tool for the government to hold teachers accountable.
Experiments, most recently in Uttar Pradesh, where teachers are using mobile apps to review and track progress on student outcomes, suggests that the most effective way of moving the needle on teacher motivation is by empowering them with data and enabling them to use this data in their classrooms.
This is an urgent and arguably the most important reform that must be institutionalised if India is to move towards the goal of universal acquisition of foundational literacy and numeracy skills in the next five years.
The author is the president and CEO of Centre for Policy Research.
This is the eighth in a series of articles titled “Policy Challenges 2019-2024” under ThePrint-Centre for Policy Research (CPR) collaboration. A longer version of this piece is available on the CPR website at www.cprindia.org. The full policy document on a range of issues addressed in this series is available on CPR’s website.