By Sridhar Rajagopalan
Covid has hit India badly and the pain is likely to linger for a long time. Like with all crises, the poor and socially disadvantaged are much more badly affected. As the well-to-do actually benefit from a more digitising economy, Covid will likely simultaneously increase levels of impoverishment as well as inequality—a double whammy.
The pattern of impact of Covid in education is not very different. The poor are affected disproportionately for a number of reasons—limited access to means of learning digitally, more learning loss on an already poor learning base and potentially increased nutritional deficiencies. Those studying in affordable private schools may face difficulties in paying fees and even the prospect that some of their schools shut down permanently due to the crisis.
Yet, a crisis can be an opportunity to see things more clearly and to make big changes. We have already seen large-scale acceptance of digital learning and teaching which would have taken years otherwise. Unlike other sectors, however, education is largely controlled by the Government and many of the levers of change are also under Government control. Yet each of us as citizens can help in this process by understanding the key issues and lobbying for change, sometimes within our own communities.
Like in other sectors, Covid has laid bare the festering problems that already existed in education making many of them worse. Low learning levels, teacher absence and inequities were not created by Covid, but will be deeply accentuated by it. So the solution should not be entirely Covid-focussed but rather on changes we need to make to reform education and make it more effective.
Quality versus Going through the Motions: While we discuss some solutions, it is important to appreciate that anything can be implemented with a focus on quality or a focus on ‘going through the motions’. But only one of these approaches produces meaningful results. Consider our response to Covid. More than any other part of the world, ‘Live Online Classes’ became a big phenomenon even though teachers lecturing to a class and giving ‘notes’ that students copy does not lead to student learning. Governments announced TV channels to broadcast classes. India responded with what ‘looks’ the most like education, with less emphasis on whether learning would actually happen. This is what we mean by a ‘going-through-the-motions’ approach.
Yet, achieving quality is not so difficult. It requires having clearly defined goals, and research and measurement comparing the current state with the desired goal. The goal of education is student outcomes—both learning outcomes as well as other non-cognitive outcomes. These can be defined and then measured. Student assessments for a scientifically selected sample of students, surveys and feedback would be tools that provide clarity on these. Even non-cognitive student characteristics like cooperation or helpfulness or process parameters like the extent teachers feel they have a say in the school can be measured. These methods and instruments may not be perfect and may often bring bad news. But if we are serious, the instruments will get better over time and bad news will be seen as feedback that a change of course may be necessary.
Some Solutions: We propose some actions below, dividing them into those that can be done immediately, those that have to be ongoing and, finally, policy changes. None of these changes will be easy to implement, but they will mutually reinforce each other. So if even some are initiated, they will make it easier for the others to be implemented, and the benefits will be much more than the sum of the parts.
Immediate Actions: Ensuring every child reads in one language by Class 2 and does the four arithmetic operations fluently by Class 5: Around 75% of children in India are not able to read fluently even by class 3 or perform arithmetic operations fluently by class 5. For these 75%, the subsequent classes and lessons may as well be taught in French or Swahili. Reading and numeracy skills are not just utilitarian skills—after all computers can read text aloud and do all the calculations we need—they impact brain development and prepare children for further learning. A mission-mode, measurement-focussed, time-bound strategy to achieve this Foundational Learning goal within 5 years should be our number one national (not just educational) goal.
Reforming our Board Exams so they test understanding and application of concepts and not just textbook recall: We already live in a world where human ingenuity and innovation is the biggest determiner of a society’s success. To become an innovative, problem-solving society, we need our students to develop critical thinking skills. But our Board Exams emphasize rote learning largely testing recall and textbook-based content. This has allowed coaching classes to flourish and the odd unfamiliar question to draw the ire of parents and students as ‘out-of-syllabus’! The contribution of our Board Exams in discouraging critical thinking and encouraging rote learning cannot be overstated. Modifying these exams to focus on unfamiliar, innovative questions and test application skills is not difficult to do, and may well be the highest impact action we can take as a nation.
Conducting regular and valid national and international benchmarking of student learning: Imagine if teachers, parents and schools received regular feedback on what students were learning well and what they were not—not just at the end of the Board Exam—but as early as class 3 or 4? Of course, the information would need to be credible and must provide some kind of benchmarking. This can be done by testing just 1-2% of students in a few classes (say 4, 6 and 8) once in 3-4 years. Further, comparative data across States and some countries (some aspirational like Singapore or China, and others at a similar level of India’s per capita GDP like the Philippines or Sri Lanka) would provide absolute and relative feedback to the system.
People sometimes respond that assessments alone cannot bring change. That is true. The role of assessments is to keep pointing us to the parts that need improvement (we discuss some of them below).
Building a Science of Learning and using that to develop institutions and train teachers: It is possible today to train teachers not just in theory but using data on what children actually find difficult. This helps teacher focus on the learning gaps children actually have in different topics. Such systematic data and insights constitute a ‘Science of Learning’ which can be used to improve our textbooks and EdTech products, it can help eighty lakh teachers teach better and continuously improve. Our educational institutions like the National and State Councils of Educational Research and Training (NCERT and SCERTs) would be strengthened in the process.
Developing EdTech as a tool, not as hype: Technology in general and EdTech products in particular should not be over-hyped as they cannot replace the teacher. Yet they are so powerful that a case can be made that India cannot achieve quality learning for all without deploying EdTech widely and effectively. EdTech should be seen as a valuable tool in the teacher’s toolkit. These tools have to be measured based on independent evaluations of their learning effectiveness, not the cost or scale of their marketing campaigns.
Identifying gifted and talented students and supporting them: Research and the experience of various countries suggest that identifying the top 1-2% of students in various fields and nurturing their talent has many downstream benefits for the country. Students should be identified when they are 12 or 13 years of age when they are not too young but are still impressionable and have made career decisions. Needless to say, the selection process must be based purely on merit and the selected students must be provided opportunities to build their skills including by living and learning from similarly gifted peers for a few weeks every year.
Making education compulsory: Major countries made education compulsory towards the end of the 19th century. Compulsory education means that parents have to send their children to school (not, as the Right to Education law creatively interprets—that governments must compulsorily provide education). In India today, education is not compulsory and whether a child attends school or not is the parents’ choice.
Treating Government and private schools similarly: Even though almost 50% of India’s children now go to private schools (the percentage is over 70% in many urban areas), the government sees itself as responsible only for the education in Government schools. The National Education Policy has recommended steps to separate the regulatory and education provision roles of the government. Additionally, being responsible for the learning levels of all children in an area—irrespective of the type of school they go to—would force governments to work to strengthen private schools.
Consolidating small schools: India today has more children of school-going age than any other country in the world. But even 20 years ago, when China had more school going children than India, we had far more schools than China. This paradox arose due to a policy to provide schools within a few kilometres of every household, which in turn led to school fragmentation and most schools being sub-scale. 28% of India’s primary schools (not classes!) have less than 30 students. These schools need to be consolidated and students from areas that are further away provided free transport instead. Consolidating schools allows better-qualified teachers to be recruited for each class and avoids the problem of children of different classes having to study together—all of which lead to improved student learning.
Launching ongoing public education campaigns: Since most adults have first-hand experience of education, it feels a familiar and easy topic. However many intuitive concepts are not necessarily correct. The public has notions that private schools teach more effectively than Government schools. Graduating students do not consider jobs in education high in their list of career options. And people are sure that it is best for their children to study in ‘English-medium’ schools. There is a need for public education campaigns to correct some misconceptions and change mindsets on others. Singapore, for example, attracts higher-performing students to the teaching profession more than any other country in the world. Yet it invests heavily each year on campaigns to encourage the best graduating students to become teachers! We have seen campaigns in India promoting tourism—we need campaigns to stress the importance of reading, encouraging students to consider teaching careers or challenging the notion that English-medium is the right way to go.
Following the research on medium of instruction: Finally, research is unequivocal that children learn best in the language they are most familiar with when they enter school. Less known to most people is that research also establishes that there is huge aspirational value of colonial languages like English or French. The clamour for these languages is even higher among the poorer who believe that learning that language will lead their children to success. Yet, research also establishes that the best way to develop strength in a language like English is to first develop proficiency in the first language. Our National Education Policy has taken a very permissive view to medium of instruction avoiding a clear, research-based stance. But if we want our children to learn well, we will have to—in addition to the other steps listed above—strengthen state language-based education while addressing the public’s questions and concerns on this topic.
Covid provides us an opportunity and challenges us to fix longstanding problems in our public delivery of education. In the twenty years that our organization has done extensive studies on student learning on over a million students, we have found that a few steps listed above can make a big difference. While the decision may need to be taken by governments, understanding the issues and discussing and debating them may well be the first step each of us can take