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From Schooling to Learning in India: How Can We Take Everyone Along?

This post is by Rukmini Banerji and Madhav Chavan.

In a crowded room, deep in rural Bihar in eastern India, a heated discussion was going on. Most people in the room were officials of the government education department; each person in the room was responsible for "supervising" 15 to 20 public primary schools. Like in other parts of India, enrollment levels were well above 90% but attendance was a problem. The discussion began with why attendance was not high. Later, the conversation moved to whether children were learning. A few basic questions were asked: in any school, on an average day, what percentage of enrolled children would be present? In an average grade 5 class, in any school in the area, what proportion of children would be able to read simple text and what fraction of students would be able to do two-digit subtraction problems with borrowing? Everyone put down their estimates and answers for each of these questions.

Later in the day, the teams went out in groups to nearby schools and looked at the actual situation inside the classrooms. At 70%, the attendance figures from these schools was by and larger very close to the estimates that the officials had put down before going to the field. But the actual levels of learning were far off the mark, far far below what the officers had estimated. Close to half of all the children assessed in grades 3, 4 and 5 could not even read simple everyday words. More than 60% of children could not read a single sentence even after spending three to five years in school. Shocked and shaken by the gap in perception and reality, everyone sat down to think about what could be done.

Parents, teachers, and governments commonly assume that if children go to school, they must be learning. School systems routinely and frequently measure provision, inputs, and enrollment. All efforts over the past few decades have been spent in ensuring access and in bringing children to school. This is true in India, in south Asia, and in much of sub-Saharan Africa. With more and more children going to school today than in the past, parents, teachers, and governments are aware that children are not doing as well as they ought to be. But in many countries there is no concrete articulation of the issue on hand or clear evidence of what the "malaise" is.

As schools and communities, states and countries, how do we make this shift from inputs to outcomes, from schooling to learning? How can parents, teachers, and others understand the importance of focusing on learning outcomes and the implications for the future of their children?

Since 2005, India has seen a unique effort called the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), a large scale initiative to move discussions around children's learning to the center of educational debate, which is directed by one of us (Banerji). The word "aser" actually means "impact." Simple tools for assessing basic reading and arithmetic are used across the country by citizens and local organizations to generate estimates of learning each year. (ASER reaches between 600,000 and 700,000 children every year, and over 25,000 volunteers are involved nationwide.) The basic report of children's reading and arithmetic is released within a hundred days. In India, in the last decade, ASER has certainly contributed to focusing attention on learning within policymaking circles and among practitioners in government and outside government. This citizen-led model of assessment has been transplanted in countries as diverse as Pakistan, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mali, and Senegal.

In India, teachers teach using the textbook prescribed by the government for that grade. This practice is based on the assumption that if children are in school they must be learning and each year "value" is being added to their capability. But given that most children are at least two to three grade levels behind, teaching from the grade level textbook does not have much of an effect as a majority of children in any class are not able to gain much from such teaching. Unless teachers test their assumptions like the officials in Bihar and realize that they are "way off the mark," teaching will continue to be ineffective. One of the reasons to start with assessment and with district officials in Bihar was to bring home the realization that business as usual will not work and something fundamentally different needs to be done. The simple assessment exercise brings home that point forcefully.

And, what about parents? Close to half of all mothers of children who currently attend primary school in India have not been to school themselves. How can we take parents, especially mothers, along? What needs to be done? What methods need to be used? Mothers need to know how much their children should know (in reading and math), what they know, and how to help them at home. So what if they are unschooled or not literate, perhaps a simple assessment exercise can help here too. Class and home need to be connected.

One of the big reasons that we have reached close to universal enrollment is because the goal was clear and understood by all and so parents, citizens, and governments could work towards achieving it. It is now time that similar steps are taken to clearly lay out learning goals for children. These goals have to be stated in ways that even illiterate parents can understand. Unless teachers understand learning goals and work towards delivering them, the road to a meaningful education cannot be navigated. Unless parents understand learning goals and demand better learning for their children, the journey from schooling to learning will remain incomplete.

Rukmini Banerji is the director of the ASER Centre (Assessment Survey Evaluation Research Centre) in New Delhi, India, and a senior member of the national leadership team for Pratham, a nonprofit organization in India working in education.
Madhav Chavan is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Pratham, a nonprofit organization in India working in education.
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