By: Yamini Aiyar
The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) released last week forced India’s policymakers, yet again, to confront the unfortunate realities of our primary education system. In its 10-year history, ASER has challenged the fundamental assumption of elementary education policy: that the expansion of the schooling system would ensure that children learn. Indeed, in the last decade, while the Centre was able to expand the system through the provision of inputs — enrolment is now near universal, more than 3.5 lakh new schools have been constructed and 10 lakh new teachers recruited — ASER showed that learning outcomes were stagnant and in 2010, declined. For instance, the percentage of children in standard V who could read a standard II text was 53 per cent in 2006, 53.7 per cent in 2010, 47 per cent in 2013 and 48.1 per cent in 2014.
The 12th Five-Year Plan shifted the goal post by explicitly articulating learning improvements as the stated aim for education policy. In response, states have started experimenting and in August 2014, the Centre launched the nationwide Padhe Bharat Badhe Bharat programme to focus on improving basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills in standard I and II. The challenge now lies in ensuring that these shifts in policy translate into meaningful action on the ground. For a country where the bureaucracy has been designed and incentivised to provide schooling inputs, this is a formidable challenge.
For one, despite the evidence, there is no consensus among policymakers on the constraints to learning and appropriate solutions. Over the last year, Accountability Initiative has been talking to education bureaucrats in Bihar to capture their perceptions of the learning problem. Their responses ranged from problems related to poor policy choices, including the right to education’s (RTE’s) no-detention policy, systemic issues such as weak governance, the prevalence of non-teaching duties and lack of teacher accountability, low levels of parental interest and the resultant low student attendance.
But astonishingly, the debates on learning are divorced from classroom realities. At no point in the many conversations we have had has the teaching-learning process come up. No one talked about pedagogical practices or the strengths and limitations of the curricula. Yet, evidence suggests that when the focus shifts to the classroom, things can improve. This is best highlighted in MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab’s recent evaluation of Pratham’s experiments on “teaching at the right level”. These experiments are premised on the assumption that improving learning outcomes requires a strategic re-organisation of the classroom such that curricula and pedagogical strategies are aligned to student learning levels rather than grade-level expectations. In other words, if a standard V student can barely read a standard II text, teaching ought to be adjusted to what the child knows so that she acquires basic skills, rather than sticking to the prescribed curriculum in the expectation that the child will catch up. Despite the proven success of the method, efforts to sustain and scale up these experiments have hit a wall. Partly because of the entrenched focus on inputs.
This is because efforts to change the teaching-learning dynamic have not been accompanied by a wider shift in the workings of the bureaucracy. Plans and budgets are still based on inputs rather than learning targets. The RTE act, with its focus on improving schooling inputs, served to further legitimise the need for the education bureaucracy to stay focused on schooling. In fact, the entire decision-making system is based on data collected through the District Information System for Education, a nationwide school-based database which doesn’t have a single indicator on learning. This sends a clear message that schooling remains the priority.
The first step to breaking out of the schooling trap is to redesign the financing system so that plans are based on clearly articulated learning goals and budgets are tied to performance on learning outcomes. This will need to be supported by a credible system to track learning progress. The Centre has already taken some small steps in this direction by starting state-level learning assessments. These measures must be accelerated and prioritised in the years to come.
This focus on inputs is exacerbated by the hierarchical, rule-driven culture of the bureaucracy. Lower-level administrators’ understanding of performance is based on responsiveness to authority rather than school needs. Consequently, the administration only functions when “ordered” to do so. And these orders are rarely about the classroom. When we interviewed cluster officers (tasked with providing “academic support” to teachers) in Bihar, one recalled 22 tasks he had been ordered to complete in 2014. Only three were related to learning. No surprise, then, that in their routine school visits, they rarely pay attention to the classroom. Based on tracking the time-use of cluster officers in two districts in Bihar, on average, a school visit lasts 1.5 hours, of which only 15-20 minutes are spent in classrooms. And on the rare occasions that they interact with teachers on instructional practices, it is usually to assert authority rather than offer constructive support.
This absence of academic engagement in government schools has served to deepen the problem of teacher accountability. After all, if teachers are neither encouraged nor monitored for the quality of teaching, how can they be held accountable? It is instructive that when these same unaccountable teachers are trained to participate in “teaching at the right level” experiments, their performance improves dramatically. No effort to improve learning outcomes is likely to succeed if it doesn’t confront this reality. Building management systems that empower local officials and teachers to function as providers of learning in schools is critical.
The writer is senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research and director, Accountability Initiative, Delhi