By Yamini Aiyar
“At the current time, there is a severe learning crisis in India, where children are enrolled in primary school but are failing to attain even basic skills such as foundational literacy and numeracy.” This one sentence in the recently released Draft National Education Policy, 2019 (NEP) encapsulates the most critical challenge India facing education policy in India today. The NEP clearly articulates the goal for the new government: “ensuring every child in grade 5 and beyond has achieved foundational literacy and numeracy”. Adopting this goal and ensuring universal acquisition of foundational skills in mission mode is the new government’s primary challenge.
Understanding the problem
India’s learning crisis is a widely acknowledged fact. Since 2005, the Annual Survey of Education Rural (ASER) has served as a repeated reminder that barely 50 per cent of students in Standard 5 in India can read a Standard 2 text. Several other studies including the government’s own, recently conducted National Assessment Survey (NAS) 2017, point to low levels of learning. According to NAS, the proportion of Standard 5 students who scored more than 75 per cent in Mathematics ranged from 12% to 40 % in18 major states in country. The range for Standard 8 students was between 2% and 23 %.
But underlying these low levels of learning is an even bigger crisis. Learning gaps emerge in the early years of schooling and learning profiles – the relationship between years of schooling and measures of student mastery - are flat. In other words, if a child falls behind expected learning levels in early years of schooling, sitting in classrooms, year after year and progressing to higher grades, does not ensure that the child catches up. Drawing on a series of rigorous studies of learning profiles in India, Economists Lant Pritchett and Amanda Beatty estimate that even with the simplest skills like reading a simple passage, 4 out of 5 children who go into a grade not able to read will finish the grade still unable to read1. Even as children struggle to basics, the curriculum and associated textbooks are designed in the expectation that children have acquired grade-level skills and can progress onwards. Pritchett and Beatty refer to the phenomenon as the “negative consequence of an overambitious curriculum".
Moreover, several studies highlight that there are wide variations in student learning levels within a classroom. In the 2018 ASER survey, in the average standard 3 classroom in Himachal Pradesh 15.5% students could read words but not sentences; another 24% could read a standard 1 text while 47.4% could read a standard 2 text2. The result is a significant divergence between rates of learning and curriculum expectations. A recent study by Muralidharan and Singh of 5000 students spanning grades 1-8 in four districts of Rajasthan finds that the average rate of learning progress across grades is substantially lower (about half) than envisaged in the syllabus and curricula. As a result, the vast majority of students struggle to cope and in the process learn very little3.
This learning crisis has persisted even as India has made significant gains in achieving the goal of universal elementary education through the expansion of schooling infrastructure. As the NEP states “India now has near universal enrolment of children in primary schools. Gender parity has been achieved and the most disadvantaged groups have access to primary schools.” The harsh reality is this: Schooling is not Learning.
Against this background the focused, goal oriented push for achieving foundational literacy and numeracy in elementary schools strikes at the heart of the problem. As the NEP emphasizes, “the rest of the Policy will be largely irrelevant for such a large portion of our students if this most basic learning (reading, writing, and arithmetic at the foundational level) is not first achieved”.
Moving from Policy to Action
The NEP offers important starting point to develop a mission mode, goal oriented approach to improving foundational skills in India. It also offers a fairly detailed set of powerful policy ideas from re-designing curriculum, to national tutors program, teacher training and community participation. But achieving this goal is not just about policy direction. Rather it is about shifting mind-sets 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 incentivized to cohere around the goal of schooling inputs (enrollment, access, infrastructure) rather than learning. All planning, financing and decision-making systems are aligned to this goal. To illustrate, annual plans, targets and budgets are delinked from the articulation of learning goals. Rather they are based on infrastructure goals determined through U-DISE (Unified District Information on School Education), a specifically created data-base on critical education indicators, except learning. Recent efforts to measure learning outcomes at the district level such as the National Assessment Survey, are not integrated in to the planning and budgeting cycle. As a result, plans have little to do with learning needs and interventions specific to improving learning outcomes command a relatively money. In 2018-19, quality specific interventions accounted for a mere19% of the total Government of India budget for elementary education (Accountability Initiative, 2019)4.
Schooling goals inevitably privilege hierarchical, top-down delivery systems that seek to demand accountable through easily verifiable, logistical targets (# classrooms built, #teacher qualifications). This is precisely what has happened to our classrooms. Easy to measure metrics, ‘syllabus completion’ and ‘pass percentages’ have held our classrooms hostage. The result has been a deeply centralised education system that in which central government determined priorities, rather than school/ student specific learning needs are privileged, leaving the entire education bureaucracy busy collecting information and monitoring targets relevant to New Delhi rather than schools and children.
Shifting this schooling culture is not a simple matter of changing syllabus and textbooks, introducing new pedagogy and improving training. Rather it requires a complete re-haul of the organizational structure and associated incentive systems in which education stakeholders from bureaucrats to teachers and parents are embedded. Education architecture needs to move towards a bottom-up, decentralized delivery system, which privileges the classroom and it’s specific learning needs. This will make the implementation of NEP specific recommendations a reality. The path to this transition to a decentralized system can be achieved through three key reforms.
Despite being on the concurrent list, elementary education financing is disproportionately dependent on Government of India programs. This is because the bulk of State’s use the bulk of their own finances (up to 90% in some cases) toward payment of wages and liabilities. Government of India schemes (Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan now renamed Samagra Shiksha) are thus the only source of funds available to states for non-wage expenditure. These schemes privilege an extremely centralized, on-size fit all, schooling focused planning, budgeting and decision-making system. States, in this architecture, have little room for orienting spending to their specific learning needs.
From tied line item funding to block grants
The first step toward shifting to an education system that prioritizes foundational learning is to re-haul the Government of India (GoI) financing system. This can be achieved by putting States in the drivers seat, and providing them with flexible financing aligned to the achievement of clearly articulated learning goals. Specifically, the government should create a new funding window for foundational learning that funds states two untied grants.
The first untied grant an annual grant for states to meet school infrastructure requirements. The RTE mandates that all states meet a set of infrastructure and teacher norms. States should estimate their infrastructure requirements over a three-year period, which the centre can fund annually.
The second grant should be a formula-based, untied learning grant financed over a 3-5 year period. Funding through this window should be based on a long-term learning strategy articulated by state governments and linked to clearly articulated annual learning goals. Since this is an untied grant, the centre will no longer need to busy itself with negotiating line-item expenditure. Rather, it can focus on providing technical support and guidance to states.
Shifting from an annual to 3 year planning and funding cycle
In the current annual government financial and administrative cycle, it takes a minimum of 6 months – usually till November (well in to the school year) for money to move and new programs to be implemented. This is a result of long administrative processes linked to getting plans and projects approved, procuring materials and finally ensuring funds reach their final destination. Studies by the Centre for Policy Research’s Accountability Initiative (PAISA) point out that the bulk of money usually reaches schools and districts mid way (and often at the end) of the annual financial year. Consequently, programs have a late start and an early end, to meet end of year financial needs. This needs to change. The planning cycle needs to move away from an annual cycle to a 3 year cycle (with annual financial approvals) so states, districts and schools can plan better and ensure continuity in implementation.
Improving the assessment system
To institutionalize a culture of accountability and ensure that states have available and utilize regular, reliable data on learning outcomes, a significant effort will need to be made to improve the quality of data collection on learning related indicators. An important start has been made through the restructured National Assessment Survey implemented in 2017 and the NITI Aayog’s School Education Quality Index. However , there are several gaps. The current tools are linked to the achievement of grade level competencies. However, to be useful what they need to capture are gaps in foundational literacy and numeracy and how far students are from these basic skills. Data is analysed on the basis of grade level outcomes rather than specific foundational learning outcomes. Absent this critical data point, states are unable to determine the level at which to orient their learning levels. For assessments to be useful in addressing the learning crisis, they need to be aligned to foundational learning skills and not grade level learning outcomes. Further, the quality of data collection improved. The NEP has recommended setting up a Central Education Statistics Division. This recommendation must be implemented urgently.
Moving beyond states to districts and schools
An education system decentralized to states is simply too large to effectively respond to the diversity of learning needs in school and classrooms. In recognition of this, education policy has, on paper, made the district the unit of planning. However, traditionally, districts have little flexibility in making plans or control over budget. If the education system has to genuinely move toward a focus on classrooms and students, this has to change. Just like states, districts too ought to articulate learning goals over a 3-5 year period and have the flexibility to develop plans to meet these goals. To incentivize districts, GoI and States could create a learning improvement fund that interested districts could compete for5. However, doing this will require a massive capacity building effort by the state and center to empower districts to make plans. An interesting parallel is the Kerala People’s Plan of 1996 in which the state planning board launched a yearlong campaign to work with the Panchayati Raj system to develop the first ever people’s plan. The Central government could create a small capacity building fund for states to develop a similar plan campaign. Of course, an effort such as this must not be restricted to districts and should be extended to schools and parent led school committee’s as well.
Teaching at the Right Level
Indi’s learning crisis has two challenges. The first is to ensure that students entering the school system do not fall behind in the first place. An important suggestion in the NEP, that must be implemented is to integrate pre-school learning with the formal elementary school system. Further reforms relate to curricula and teacher recruitment, training and performance management will likely help redress problems encountered within schools.
However, the second and arguably greater challenge relates to students already in school, many of whom desperately need to catch up. For this cohort of students, 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” implemented in mission mode can result in significant and relatively speedy gains in foundational learning levels. Many state governments and even individual districts today are beginning to experiment with implementing versions of teaching at the right level (TARL) in their schools. These efforts need to be supported and scaled both with technical and financial resources. To do this, it is proposed to create a specific FLN fund and technical partners at the Government of India level that districts can draw on to implement TARL initiative in mission mode. This could be linked to the Niti Aayog’s aspirational districts program to ensure high level buy in and institutional convergence at the GoI level. Effort to assess foundational learning levels, using ASER like tools are already underway. These now need to be scaled.
From Assessments to Learning and doing
One of the most damaging consequences of a centralized, schooling focused implementation system is that it has undermined the professional roles of teachers and school level administrators, casting them as passive rule followers, collecting data and implementing orders from the top. It isn’t uncommon for teachers in schools to describe themselves as mere clerks in an administrative system, taking them away from their primary teaching responsibilities. This view is reinforced by the fact that the career ladder for teachers – as they move to becoming head masters, cluster and block level officers and finally district education officers – is primarily about more administration rather than supporting teaching – learning. Recognizing this problem, the NEP pushes for reducing administrative work and improve teacher training and support infrastructure.
But these reforms will only work if they are accompanied by significant cultural shift in how education reforms are debated and implemented. This shift must place teachers and frontline officers at the center of attempt to reshape classroom pedagogy. Consider this. In the last three years, significant efforts have been underway to move the needle on measuring learning outcomes. These include the NAS and SEQI referred to earlier. However, none of these assessments are geared toward the teacher or frontline administrators – particularly the cluster resource center coordinators and block resource persons charged with providing mentoring and academic support to teachers. These assessments thus merely function as tools for monitoring performance rather than diagnostic tools that can aid teachers and their pedagogical support structure, to motivate teachers and assist them in improving teaching practices. For teachers and frontline administrators, this merely reinforces the view that they are no more than disempowered cogs in the wheel expected to follow orders and complete administrative tasks.
Yet, evidence from a number of experiments, most recently in Uttar Pradesh6 where teachers are using mobile apps to review and track progress on student outcomes on a regular basis, suggests that the most effective way of moving the needle on teacher motivation and re-asserting their primary professional identity as teachers charged with imparting learning to students, is by empowering them with data and enabling them to use this data in their classrooms. It also ensures that academic support staff have the tools to engage in a meaningful discussion with teachers on how to improve learning in schools. Building on these experiments to use technology and empower teachers with student assessment data in meaningful ways can go a long way in addressing this challenge. Shifting the needle on learning outcomes assessment away from being a mere tool in the hands of the central and state governments to becoming a diagnostic tool that teachers can and should use is an urgent and arguably most important reform that must be institutionalized if India is too move toward the goal of universal acquisition of foundational literacy and numeracy skills in the next five years.
Other pieces as part of CPR's policy document, 'Policy Challenges - 2019-2024' can be accessed below:
- The Future is Federal: Why Indian Foreign Policy Needs to Leverage its Border States by Nimmi Kurian
- Rethinking India’s Approach to International and Domestic Climate Policy by Navroz K Dubash and Lavanya Rajamani
- India's Foreign Policy in an Uncertain World by Shyam Saran
- Need for a Comprehensive National Security Strategy by Shyam Saran
- A Clarion Call for Just Jobs: Addressing the Nation’s Employment Crisis by Sabina Dewan
- Time for Disruptive Foreign and National Security Policies by Bharat Karnad
- Multiply Urban ‘Growth Engines’, Encourage Migration to Reboot Economy by Mukta Naik
- Clearing Our Air of Pollution: A Road Map for the Next Five Years by Santosh Harish, Shibani Ghosh and Navroz K Dubash