In January 2016, the non-governmental organisation, Pratham Education Foundation and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), which is headquartered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, launched a scale-up program in Anantapur, a district in Andhra Pradesh that has the lowest learning levels in the state. The test, which was organised in conjunction with the state government, was conducted between January and April. It aimed to assess the efficacy of a simple approach to improve children’s learning levels in language and mathematics: Teaching at the Right Level, or TaRL. (Disclosure: I am a senior policy manager at J-PAL).
In 1600 schools in 32 mandals—zones—in Anantapur, about 52,000 students from grades three, four and five were grouped according to their reading and comprehension learning-level after a quick assessment, regardless of their age, for two hours during the school day. The children were then given exercises to help them improve and move on to the next proficiency level. For instance, students who could not yet recognise letters would play games with letter-cards. Those who could read words used mind-maps to move to forming sentences, and those who could already do the latter were given storymaking exercises. In mathematics, once the students could recognise numbers they were taught core concepts—such as place value—to be able to comprehend and complete basic operations such as addition and subtraction. After 55 days, the school teachers again measured the progress of their students with a tool for quick assessment. The assessment was verified by trained students from local colleges, who conducted an external examination independently. The results were promising. The number of children who could read increased from 43 percent at the start of the programme to 57 percent by its end; 54 percent of the children could now do long division, instead of the 33 percent that could do it earlier. The three sub-districts (mandals) that had the lowest performance at the beginning of the programme showed some of the highest gains in the learning-levels—an indication that the technique was working well at the lowest proficiency grades. A similar operation was conducted in Gujarat between January and March of this year, covering one full district called Sabarkantha and blocks of three other districts. Across 2,000 schools for 54,000 children, the program yielded similar results. The number of children unable to read letters came down by half, from 3,400 to about 1,200; about 31,000 students could now read stories compared to the earlier 22,000; and the number of children who could do basic addition went up from about 70 percent to almost 92 percent.
On 16 May, the union human resources development minister Smriti Irani announced that the central government would be unveiling its New Education Policy in the next few weeks. The policy is expected to contain crucial recommendations for higher and primary education in the country. These may include the establishment of research parks through the Indian Institutes of Technology, and the digitisation of textbooks, which will be available through mobile applications along with a web portal for teaching across the curriculum. Among other things, the policy will affect reform for over 1.1 million government primary and upper-primary schools, impacting over 133 million children in standards one to five.
But the status of primary education in India is far from satisfactory. In 2014, although over 96 percent of Indian children between the ages of 6 and 14 were enrolled in school, 52 percent of fifth-standard children could not read at the grade level, and 75 percent of those studying in third standard could not solve a two-digit subtraction problem. Many children in the country are first-generation learners—they do not have support systems at home that help them hone what they learn, or provide a watchful eye to correct their mistakes. In this context, the results observed with TaRL scale-ups in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat could act as a lighthouse for the recommendations of the centre’s New Education Policy.
In the rural schools I frequently visit in Gujarat, school bags are unexpectedly light or missing. Textbooks are missing—some, because they’ve been sold off in bulk as recycling material for money, and perhaps because around half of the children in rural schools can’t read simple paragraphs or a story. Instead of chalks, pencils or slates, what I’ve seen appearing with most regularity among the students is the steel thali for the midday meals. This paucity of essentials is reflected in the underwhelming state of these classroom, with missing teachers and missing children. According to an estimate from 2011, as many as 25 percent of the teachers in rural schools were absent on a given visit. Among students, the figure was even higher at 30 percent. Last year, it was estimated that there were around 500,000 vacancies for the posts of sanctioned teachers.