Most societies in transition face the challenge of getting comfortable with the past’s achievements, and moving past old challenges to new challenges. Nowhere in India is this more evident than in the education sector. While, in the abstract, we recognise and celebrate near-universal school enrolment, out education policy is still geared around increasing enrolment. It is time to look beyond what will bring children to school to what children are learning in school.
During the last decade, impressive gains have been made in building and improving schools and recruiting teachers under Sarva Shikhsha Abhiyan, or SSA. The District Information System for Education (DISE) records that the proportion of schools with a toilet has gone up from 42 per cent in 2003 to 72 per cent n 2011. A nationwide study of rural schools by Karthik Muralidharan from the University of California, San Diego, and his colleagues finds that between 2003 and 2012 the pupil-teacher ratio fell by 20 per cent. We seem to have attained the dream of nearly universal schooling, with nearly 97per cent of children attending school at some point in their life. However, these impressive gains are not mirrored in learning levels of children.
Since 2005, the NGO Pratham has prepared annual reports based on surveys of nearly 500,000 children. These Annual Status Report of Education (ASER) surveys document an interesting paradox. The proportion of children aged 6-14 who can read a simple paragraph has stagnated around 41-44 per cent, and the proportion of children who can do simple two-digit subtraction has stagnated around 46-53 per cent — with virtually no improvement over time. Why do children fail to learn in spite of impressive investments in school infrastructure, teacher training pupil-teacher ratios?
This is where we are on shaky ground. We have very little idea about what improves learning outcomes. However, what we do know suggests that our policy priorities are targeting the wrong interventions in many instances, and are even proposing counterproductive measures in some. For example, school inputs such as infrastructure or teacher training seem to have no perceptible impact on children’s skill acquisition at elementary levels. Increase in school infrastructure or libraries seem to have virtually no impact on children's learning outcomes. A more surprising finding shows that there is no real relationship between teachers' training or salaries and children's learning outcomes. This lack of relationship between inputs and outputs is not unique to India, and has been observed in many countries, the first being in the Coleman Report for the United States that shocked the American educational establishment.
This does not mean teachers are not important. All of us remember charismatic teachers who have changed our lives. All it means is that these highly effective teachers have qualities that are not related to the training they receive or salaries they are paid. Thus, we must find some other ways of identifying and motivating these effective teachers. An interesting experiment in Andhra Pradesh shows that providing bonuses to teachers whose pupils show improvements in learning outcomes resulted in greater improvements in student learning than in the control group with no bonus. Bonuses may not be the only way to motivate teachers; indeed, this is a rather controversial proposal. Recognition and non-monetary benefits may also improve teacher morale and student outcomes. It may also be that effective teachers have themselves experienced good mentoring and this has increased their love of teaching. We need better understanding of what makes some teachers more effective and motivated than others. But a first step seems to be identifying and encouraging these teachers based on student outcomes rather than more subjective criteria.
The second observation from educational research suggests that sometimes more is less. Schools in which curricular expectations outpace students’ ability to learn have poorer student outcomes. Lant Pritchett and Amanda Beatty from Harvard University make an interesting argument. Looking at a variety of studies from India, they note that the more time children spend in school, the more they should know. But gains in student learning from each additional year spent in school are very low. They attribute this flat learning profile to student diversity in class. When some students enter a class knowing basic materials such as reading and arithmetic skills, and others are far behind, teachers don’t have time to offer remedial training. Since they are required to complete a set curriculum they ignore the students who are already behind and focus on advanced students. Thus, where a classroom consists of students with highly diverse skills, overall gains tend to be lower than in a classroom where most students have similar skills.
This observation has tremendous implications for the Right to Education Act (RTE) as well as recent discussions about eliminating Class X board examinations. The RTE expects that all students will be placed in age-appropriate classes and will not be held back between Class I and Class VIII. This means that regardless of the learning level, children will be automatically promoted, increasing the diversity in classrooms. If the teachers then ignore these children, it will result in their falling progressively behind and ultimately dropping out of school. Thus, a focus on psychological wellbeing of the child, who should be placed with other children his or her age, is achieved at the cost of educational progression. Remedial education during vacations and after school offers an avenue through which these challenges can be addressed.
The above observations suggest that as we move towards universal primary education, our programmatic focus must change from getting children to school to ensuring that they learn. This may require a different policy focus. A focus I hope will be incorporated in the Twelfth Plan.
The writer is a senior fellow at NCAER and professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. These views are her own