What our children know

Why the education establishment keeps out independent measures of learning

Published: March 6, 2013 2:44 am

One might think that the proponents and guardians of Indian education would be committed to eliminating ignorance. Not so. On one key point they are passionately committed to ignorance: they strongly believe no one must know what Indian children know.

The annual Indian ASER assessments,which cover a large sample of villages,have mobilised volunteers since 2006 to gauge how much children learn. This assessment produces an estimate — for each district and state — of children’s reading and arithmetic capabilities. The ASER report is made available for the general public so that it has additional information on progress in education. Who could oppose this civic engagement in the nationally vital domain of basic education?

Yet there is a section of opinion ranged against it. Vinod Raina,a prominent education advocate and advisor to the ministry of human resource development (MHRD),compares the controversial No Child Left Behind (NCLB) testing in America with ASER. But ASER is a non-government,sample-based,in-home,low-stakes assessment,while the NCLB is a universal,government-administered,in-school,high-stakes (for students and schools) test. ASER is more like America’s National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP),which is a sample-based,low-stakes tracking assessment. Opponents of high-stakes testing are ardent supporters of NAEP as it provides them with a yardstick and evidence to disprove the efficacy of high-stakes testing. Yet ASER is not an American import: it is a homegrown exercise that emerged from the NGO Pratham’s efforts to raise learning levels. It is now an Indian export,adopted in Africa and Pakistan.

ASER is a straightforward,voluntary civic exercise that absorbs no public monies. The assessment involves low stakes for the student and is done in a friendly environment. The Indian middle class resentment against high-stakes board exams and university entrance tests — both mandated by government policy — cannot be directed against a low-stakes-for-the-student assessment of system-wide performance.

The MHRD has consistently opposed independent assessments that measure or track learning performance and strived to keep their findings out of government and other reports. At one point,it even threatened to cut funding to states that participated in a nation-wide assessment by education initiatives. For years,the MHRD insisted that the external partners in Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan not mention ASER results,even in their own reports. Perhaps this is because ignorance helps protect ideology and interests.

Actions in the MHRD are driven by the notion that “quality” education is associated with better “inputs”. This has led to a massive,and expensive,effort to expand inputs. Government reports are full of numbers about inputs. Since they want to advocate inputs,they want lots of information about inputs. But it is essential to the circular “inputs are quality” logic that there be no independent measure of learning.

What drives the education establishment to its furious opposition to measures of learning it cannot control is the fear that its basic premises will be shown to be erroneous. The ASER results for 2012 show that measured inputs are getting better but learning profiles (the extent to which the child’s capabilities expand from year-to-year) are getting substantially worse. Children in the fifth grade in 2012 are less able to do simple math than children in 2011,and both are less adept than children in the fifth grade in 2010. Rather than accept that its input-ideology might be wrong,the education establishment prefers ignorance.

It also defends keeping access to the highly paid jobs of government teachers under its control by pretending that “high quality” teachers means civil service teachers trained in government institutions. Independent evidence of the highest rigour,showing that contract teachers with no formal education training do just as well for students is,well,inconvenient. A recent study in Uttar Pradesh showed students learned only half as much from civil service teachers,who cost over three times more than others. The education establishment knows a policy of “half as much learning for three times the cost” can be supported by Indian taxpayers only if they are kept ignorant.

The commitment to a selective ignorance about learning progress that allows the ideology and interests of the education establishment such free play would,in a perverse way,be impressive if it were not utterly tragic. Each year,Indian children are emerging from their schooling experience unequipped with the basic literacy and numeracy skills of the 19th century,never mind the 21st-century skills they need. The Indian education establishment is not committed to fixing this problem. It is committed to denying that this is a problem and to keeping the Indian public in the dark about it.

Lant Pritchett is professor of the practice of international development,Harvard Kennedy School and author of the forthcoming book,‘The Rebirth of Education’


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