'To Recoup Learning Loss, Schools Should Focus On Catch-Up, Not Curriculum'
Setting the curriculum aside and focusing on building foundational literacy and numeracy skills can help primary school children recoup the learning loss due to Covid-19-related school closures, says Pratham CEO Rukmini Banerji
Mumbai: About 1.6 billion children worldwide, including around 250 million in India, endured school closures during the Covid-19 pandemic. The impact of school closures is now being better understood through surveys like the Union Ministry of Education's National Achievement Survey (NAS). About 3.4 million students in 118,000 schools in 720 rural and urban districts were surveyed for NAS in November 2021, 1.5 years into the pandemic in India. Education levels across the country had gone down, more so in some areas and regions, and among children of particular grades, the survey found. Delhi, for instance, is among the five lowest-performing states for grade III, but did much better for grade VIII. Average performance came down from about 54% to 47% between 2017, when the last NAS was conducted, and 2021.
The survey points to both the problems and challenges posed by pandemic-related school closures, and pre-existing challenges which were exacerbated by the pandemic. To better understand the survey's findings, the pre-pandemic context of kindergarten to grade XII (K-12) education in India and the way forward for educating our children, we spoke with Rukmini Banerji, CEO of the non-governmental Pratham Education Foundation. Banerjee is an economist by training, and most recently won the 2021 Yidan Prize for Education Development for her work on improving children's learning levels.
What are the key insights from the government's NAS 2021 and Pratham's own Annual Status of Education (ASER) survey?
The availability of current information is very important. Over the last 10 years or more, there have been two sources of information. One is ASER, which measures very basic, foundational skills among children [of all grades]. Then there is the NAS, which is for certain grades. ASER is a household-based survey and NAS is a school-based survey. Regardless of the methodology, or the timing, having current data to be able to plan the period after the summer vacations is very important.
It is not surprising that we should see a drop in education levels when schools have been closed for over 500 days. Whether you compare Class III, Class V or Class VIII now to a couple of years ago, education levels are lower. Good data just confirms what that [level] is and points to what we are going to do next.
The ASER survey in West Bengal found that 27% of children in Class III could barely read Class II texts, against 36% in 2018 and 33% in 2014. About 48% of students in Class V can barely read Class II texts, which means that though they've moved three school years ahead, their learning levels are still three years behind. How do we start to address this?
The most promising development in the last couple of years is the New Education Policy (NEP) 2020, and its thrust towards ensuring foundational literacy and numeracy by Class III. The policy is  pages long, but on page 9, there is a [message] which I wish we could put on billboards all across the country. It says that if children don't reach these basic foundational building blocks of learning by Class III, then the rest of the policy is actually irrelevant for students. This is as loud and clear a recommendation and direction as we, as a country, could have. This was very important even before the pandemic, although the policy was released in July 2020. It gives us a very strong sense of what the priorities should be as we move ahead.
If you go by the ASER numbers, which naturally I do, anywhere between a third and a fourth of children in Class III pre-Covid [could barely read Class II texts], which means that we have to make a massive jump to take that number from 25-, 30- or 36% to 100% in the next couple of years. To make such a big jump, everything that we do in the early years has to be rethought, restructured, and re-energised. Again, the NEP 2020 emphasises that all these efforts should start at the pre-primary level, so that you have five years to achieve this kind of goal. Five years in linear time moving forward, and five years for a cohort. This is a challenge that we as a country must take up. And I think we can succeed.
Should we attempt to recoup primary education losses during the Covid period? Or do we cut our losses and begin afresh, hoping to recover later?
I see India as having two major challenges right now. There are many more, but these are the two big ones. One is that the new cohorts that are in Class I and II right now, have never had preschool and are coming straight from home to school. One could argue that, depending on where they were, they probably didn't have much of the normal childhood that children have at that age. In this moment of rethinking, how do we carry these kids forward? How do we plan that every cohort that goes straight through from Class I to Class III, or from anganwadi to Class III, has a better learning experience, based on the experiences children have every year. That's the first challenge. I think there's been a lot of effort through the Nipun Bharat mission, and by state governments. I think everybody's very focused on how this can be done.
The second challenge, which we are not talking about enough, is how do you help those who are past the Class III stage to catch up. This includes students from Class III to much higher classes. I have a friend who teaches at a college, who says even college students need to catch up, because these two years of not doing the usual things has obviously led to all kinds of losses. At least for primary schools, I feel we have some examples that are worth following. This may also be an opportunity to ensure that we rebuild those foundational skills that we want for our kids up to Class III, which we know from our past data that many didn't have till Class V.
What can a school do, whether a rural or urban school, to help bridge some of these gaps?
Let me give you an example of a state because a lot of decision-making, especially for government schools, happens at the state or district level. One of the advantages of having ASER data from the entire past decade is that we can follow cohorts who are moving from say Class I to Class III, or Class III to Class V from 2010 onwards.
Let's take Karnataka as an example, which we surveyed in 2021. If I look at past Karnataka data, in a typical year pre-Covid, we would see anywhere between 15 to 20 percentage points improvement in basic ability to read. During the Covid years, this obviously came down. But the Karnataka government was actually ready with a programme called Odu Karnataka, which means 'read Karnataka'. Pratham is a partner in that programme. It is based on the now well-known 'teaching at the right level' approach, which says that regardless of what grade a student is in, let us start at the level at which the student is, especially if they are in Class III or above. If they can't read words, we start there. If they can't read letters, we start there. We move them upwards from their current level, to being able to read.
Karnataka was ready with this programme, which they had done before Covid. As soon as schools opened in January 2022, they moved into action and they were able to get about 60+ days of instruction, despite the Omicron wave, before the summer vacation. What we saw there was that in that period, as the schools were beginning to function with the same teachers and no extra resources going in, they were able to actually move their children's [reading skills] well above 30 percentage points in this 60-day period. In a normal year, the average gain is between 15 to 25%.
Focusing on building foundational skills, putting the curriculum aside for a couple of hours a day, and getting everyone to really help children can reap big results. So as a country, let's say we've got to get to the curriculum eventually, but let's spend time as soon as schools reopen after the summer vacation in really helping our kids [catch up], because there's nothing wrong with our kids and our teachers. We have the time. When students get towards Class VIII or Class X, there are high stakes. But those in classes III, IV, V, VI have the time for catching up. There are other examples, but Odu Karnataka is a concrete example that could help with catching up.
The motivation, desire, strategy and roll-out of catching-up programmes are unlikely to be uniform across states?
I've been travelling a lot since schools opened and I find that at the school level, there is a lot of really positive energy. Kids are really happy to be back, teachers are actually excited to be reunited with the kids. Whatever other issues may have been there before Covid, I think everyone is really relishing the fact of being back together. Parents are highly supportive. During Covid, we've seen that in whatever form or fashion, parents have engaged with children's learning in a way that wasn't there in normal times, [when] you felt like the school should do the learning and as a parent, you just focus on sending them to school.
I think taking all of these things together, we need to really have a big push and I believe we can. Different states are looking at different ways of how to catch up. One thing I would say is don't worry about the curriculum. The curriculum is there, but right now we need to focus on our children, and bring them to the level where they feel confident that whatever has been lost has been regained quickly. Then we can consider how to proceed, once we are sure that all our kids, classes III, IV, V and beyond, are able to read fluently, able to argue with you, able to demand tough problems. We have to have faith in our kids and teachers because I think they can do that.
You've talked about the importance of parental involvement, which was high during Covid, and in retrospect, that's not a negative.
Yes. Whatever our level of education or income, parents had to think about what to do to help our kids because there was no other help available. The school was far away, sending you remotely whatever resources were possible. If you look at our ASER phone surveys from 2020 and 2021, we find that even in uneducated families, people were helping kids learn. Of course, if you don't have a smartphone, or your parents and siblings are not educated, you're at a big disadvantage. But I would say that at every level, the parental and sibling participation was higher than expected.
The other thing we saw was that teachers reaching out from schools to connect to families was also higher than expected, because these were tough times for everyone. All of these are extra resources and extra energy which has been coming into the education system, and which should continue to be harnessed. For example, Punjab has been doing 'mother workshops' for pre-primary children, welcoming mothers to school once a month for activities, where the teachers enable the parents to see what things they can do at home for the rest of the month. These kinds of efforts should become integral, so that parents aren't just calling with complaints about how their children are performing, but are seen as extra hands, hearts and heads available to teachers as we get back on the education journey.
You've also been working on mohalla [neighbourhood] committees. Tell us about that and how it's been helping improve children's education outcomes.
During Covid, Pratham was connected to almost 10,000 largely rural communities. We made an appeal to anybody who was an older kid, or a youth or a parent, asking if they could support kids [learning]. We made our 'teaching at the right level' approach very simple, in a way that could be communicated remotely. We found overwhelming support. Our idea is that every community has four or five sub-hamlets and our goal is to have one person in each hamlet who says they'll take care of 10-12 children, even during Covid times, and work with them for an hour or two a day. Last year, soon after the second Covid-19 wave, we had a really good experience with these 10,000 villages.
Recently, we decided that as summer holidays are on, we were quite confident that young people would come forward. So we call our current mohalla camps, which are running in close to 20,000-25,000 villages, 'CaMaL ka camp'. Because actually kamaal (extraordinary) is happening with volunteers coming forward and children making progress. Almost 60,000-65,000 volunteers have come forward. In several states, the state governments are also lending a hand. Yesterday, the Bihar education minister put out an appeal to the public to say join the campaign, help your children. I think these appeals are powerful and could happen more.
Looking back on all that you've said, it sounds almost as if Covid has done some good, because it united teachers and parents, got everyone more involved, saw the creation of these mohalla committees. It seems that more good has come out of Covid than bad.
No, no, I should not overplay that. Covid, as I always say, is a rakshas (demon), it ate up many things. But I think it made us realise that we have more strengths than perhaps we were giving ourselves credit for. This need for collaboration between school and home, the sharing of resources, we shouldn't let go of these things just because schools have opened.
I think particularly on the parents' side, these last 10 years of universal elementary education, [and] close to universal secondary education in many states, have given us resources in the family. These resources have to be invited in, because even the educated still feel the teacher knows more than they do. And I think it's up to our teachers to say, join the gang and let us do this together, let us have doable goals.
The National Education Policy has given us a very clear, doable goal. If you have an impossible goal, sometimes you feel like we'll never get there. But having kids at Class III being able to read a story and debate or discuss it with everybody around them, do simple problems but do it confidently, [these are doable goals]. The Nipun Bharat guidelines also, instead of saying you need to be literate and numerate, they use the term effective communicators, connected to your context. Sometimes the change of terminology also helps. So let's treat this as a new chapter. Between the last chapter and the new chapter, there may have been a dark period, but that dark period showed us a larger cast of characters who can join me in my new chapter. That's how Pratham is looking at the years ahead.
It's an interesting point, because you're saying that if we've had now 10 years of almost universal primary school, and in many states high levels of secondary school education, that those children who are now moving towards adulthood can actually be contributors to the education system in some way.
Absolutely. They are the beneficiaries and they are the contributors. We have this idea called shiksha ke badle shiksha, or education for education. If I received education, what education can I give back? That could be almost like a national movement. As a student in college or university, nobody is saying give your whole life but just an hour a day for a month, every now and then. I think people are very happy to do that.
As you look ahead, how are you stacking up the pros and cons of attacking the larger K-12 education challenges that we have today? Has the digital/hybrid angle worked, or not?
Number one, I think many, many different experiments had been tried during Covid. During the lockdown period, or when schools were closed, it was difficult to do a very clear measurement. So again, I can speak for Pratham. We sent out phone messages on a daily basis to close to 300,000 to 400,000 families, at the peak. These messages we were sending were largely to keep people engaged, and to create a two-way communication.
It's an SMS which says 'do this activity', which could be a word problem, because you have 162 characters. Then a reminder to parents or siblings or whoever is the owner of the phone, that did they do the activity. It suggests, why don't you just do this with your kids. So it's a combination of a very simple low-tech thing with another very simple low-tech thing, which is 'Hi, do this activity with your kids'. And we see a significant difference.
We've recently done a little study with about 40,000 children to see whether an SMS a day makes a difference to their basic level of learning. Or if somebody phones once a week and talks to your parents, does that make a difference? Does a nudge make a difference? Does such a simple low-tech solution make a difference? We are still verifying the results and getting more experts to review it, but it looks like it does make a significant difference, even in one month.
Everybody who's tried some digital means [during the pandemic] owes it to themselves to do a rigorous analysis of whether it worked, because we need to move ahead with the things that worked and leave aside the things that didn't work. Let's each look hard at whatever we've done and share evidence, contribute to a national pool of what works.
Why should we not continue to send these SMSes even when schools are open, which was a very good way to interact with parents, and give them ideas of what to do. So we need to learn from the Covid experience, particularly if we want families, parents, siblings and communities to remain engaged [with children's learning]. I think the remote methods must get stronger and supplemental. Nobody's saying this will replace the school or the classroom, but these were interesting things that helped, so how can we make them help even better? That would be my view on the digital/hybrid.
I'm from Pratham so I can only talk about prathamik (primary education), but I think in the whole school system, problems get deeper as you get older and closer to high stakes. I felt perhaps we could have done more on our examination system, because our education system is bookended--at least on the top end--by high-stakes exams. We did try different ways of doing exams at different times, lowering the load, but I think exam reform would be a critical part of helping to transform secondary education and college entrance. I am not experienced in that space, but just looking at it from the primary school perspective, even at Class V, students are looking at all that they will have to do in Class X.
How do you de-emphasise exams? Can it be done at all?
For our systems, which have had these exams for many decades, there needs to be something to signify you're leaving one stage and going to the next. But why can't I take an exam when I feel I'm ready? What is so sacrosanct about March or April or a specific day? Why can't I have as many tries to get to whatever I consider to be my best level? Why can't an eighth standard kid, if he feels he wants to take a 10th standard test, be allowed to do so? We have technology available now. Madhav Chavan, the founder of Pratham, has been talking about something called 'anytime testing machine', or ATM. Why can't you have ATMs in every community in India, which lets kids test themselves? Why should testing be so high-stress? I think that from the ninth standard onwards, these should be opened up. During Covid, we were talking to the Central Board of Secondary Education, saying if they voluntarily led the way with these experiments, without making it mandatory for everyone, then we could learn a lot from it. Because I believe that they have the keys to the kingdom. Whatever elite schools do, everybody wants to follow. So there is some onus on our elite schools also, to find new ways of opening up the assessment space in a way that is more friendly to students and not stressful for parents or teachers.
Is this something that is being done in other parts of the world? Could we follow some examples?
Yes. I believe that in the Western countries, at least in the US, you can take that [Scholastic Assessment Test] needed to go to college, as many times as you want. In addition, there are other things you take with you when you apply for college admission, which is who you are, what you did, what you think, etc. I think we could devise better ways of getting to know our [children's capabilities]. My own son was terrible in school but loves being at work and is very good at work. But what did he have to present to his work people to say 'try me', since his academic record was not good? So how do we give our young people a chance to show who they are? I see kids from all over India in these mohalla camps, who may or may not be terribly good in their own studies, but are giving so much of themselves to help younger children learn. And I think that's the kind of thing that counts.
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