India’s education system today is in the midst of a shift from focusing on access of children to schools to delivery of quality education in schools. In the two decades between 1990 and 2010, the country invested heavily on school access and enrolment. Unfortunately, these were not accompanied by investments in quality, resulting in high dropouts at various transition points in the school system. The poor quality of education is visible in that half our children are unable to read a simple text and nearly two-thirds fail to do basic arithmetic at the end of primary school.
Our Central Square Foundation has been advocating for five critical reforms to dramatically improve the quality of school education. In the recent past, the Centre and a few states have shown a strong commitment to the reform process. The government has taken this one step further by rolling out the School Education Quality Index (SEQI), an outcome-focused index to benchmark the quality of school education in different states. As we enter 2017, I want to spell out the details of our five recommended levers for change.
Accountability to Student Learning
Standardised assessments are one of the most powerful tools for making an education system accountable and geared towards improvement. Census and sample assessments serve different purposes and have been the starting point of reform programmes in several emerging countries. These assessments can provide critical inputs to help teachers identify weak students for remedial instruction in a class. Further, they provide district officials with insights into specific teacher training and development, and assist policy makers in ascertaining whether schemes are delivering the desired outcomes and thereafter propose corrective measures.
In India, central and state governments are increasingly taking an interest in placing assessments at the centre of their education reform agenda. While there have been issues with the design of these assessments and their use, there has been a marked improvement at both the national and the state level. It is extremely important that assessments are scientifically designed and properly administered. The results must be widely disseminated and used for designing interventions to enhance the teaching-learning process. These assessments should also be low-stakes, with data being used for feedback and improvement.
To enable this to take place, the central government must create a national assessment framework detailing out all student assessments—school-based formative and summative examinations, large-scale assessments, etc, and their purpose and key features. Additionally, states should be encouraged to conduct diagnostic achievement surveys giving district/sub-district-level data. These surveys will give states granular insights on student learning which can be used to inform state schemes on teacher training, remedial instruction, etc.
Finally, the Centre should consider building a national Learning Management System (similar to the MIS systems for administrative data) to track learning data. States should also be incentivised to build their own systems of that data which can be made available to different stakeholders including teachers, administrators and education experts to review the progress of children.
Human Capital Development
Human capital is the most significant input affecting student learning, with teachers and school leaders accounting for nearly 60 per cent of a school’s impact on student achievement. Furthermore, the size of the overall government and private system is enormous—nine million teachers, 0.55 million leaders and 0.15 million administrators—and in aggregate is more than 25 times the size of India’s largest private sector employer, TCS. And yet, states have not invested in building holistic human resource management systems. There is an urgent need to ensure a clear definition of roles and responsibilities, merit-based selection, strong induction, continuous professional development and opportunities for career progression.
In order to improve the quality of teachers, we must start by improving the quality of pre-service training. The current system of about 8,500 teacher education institutes (TEIs) is way too fragmented and is littered with poor quality and suspect institutes. To put it in context, China has a network of approximately 100 normal universities that cater to the pre-service needs of a system that has 1.5 times as many teachers as ours. The government must develop an accreditation/certification system and put all the data in the public domain to hold these institutes accountable. We should target to shut down 50 per cent of TEIs and then work with the others to improve their outcome metrics.
As a next step, we must ensure that the most motivated and talented candidates are selected. The teacher recruitment and selection must be online and transparent and should be informed by core competencies such as knowledge, skills and mindsets. Further, like all professionals, teachers must engage in continuous professional development, linked to career progression. The current cascade model of in-service training is completely broken and so we need to leverage technology to deliver standardised blended training at scale.
A few promising models are starting to emerge—Language and Learning Foundation has created a blended course on early literacy for teacher educators and Million Sparks Foundation is implementing an app-based model of teacher development in Delhi.
Research over the past 30 years confirms the vital role school leaders (headmasters/principals) play in education quality improvement. However, principals in most Indian states are still selected on the basis of seniority and play largely an administrative role. It is now imperative for states to articulate their roles and responsibilities and move towards merit-based selection and proper induction training for school leaders. The National Centre for School Leadership (NCSL) already provides a 16-day training programme for school leaders in India. While the curriculum and delivery structure are well thought through, there is a need to create a separate cell on school leadership within SCERTs (State Council for Education Research and Training) that can select and develop the appropriate facilitators and coaches to implement the programme.
Providing supervision and support to teachers holds the key to ensuring improved classroom transactions. In India, this role is played by middle management officers, comprising of Block and Cluster Resource Coordinators (BRCs/CRCs). We must start by defining an Administrator-to-Teacher (ATR) ratio such that there is a fair rationalisation of BRCs/CRCs allocated to schools. We must reshape their roles and responsibilities to focus more on their academic output, transitioning them out of a traditional administrative role. Suitable norms for selection of BRCs/CRCs must be put in place, and selected officers must be put through a comprehensive training programme focused on mentoring and leadership.
The typical age-grade organisation of schools, combined with a single standardised pace and style of instruction is a major constraint in helping children learn effectively. Classroom instructions are generally targeted to filter out students and cater to the high performers. Students who are far behind the scheduled grade curriculum lose interest and fall behind even further, creating a huge backlog in learning. Research worldwide has shown that teaching at the right level can produce significant gains in student learning outcomes. However, in large classrooms where students are at varied learning levels, it becomes challenging to give all students the personalised coaching that they need. In such cases, teachers can be supported by substituting technology for certain tasks.
Pedagogically rooted Computer Assisted Learning (CAL) has shown substantial achievement when compared to other education interventions. A randomised evaluation of an adaptive CAL programme (Mindspark) for low-income students in Delhi, conducted by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), showed two to four times increase in learning outcomes compared to the control group. However, this is not to say that technology is a substitute for a teacher. While humans are good at instilling basic values, facilitating group work, communicating in local languages and being empathetic, technology can non-discriminatorily cater to the diversity of learning styles, speed and choice with consistent quality at all times. Hence, technology needs to be reinforced with teacher instruction and teachers need to be trained on the use of technology.
While the government has introduced multiple schemes like the ICT@Schools scheme under the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) and the CAL programme under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the focus of these schemes has been on deploying hardware and promoting digital literacy, without a vision for using technology to improve student learning outcomes. The government needs to rethink the ICT@Schools scheme to enable 1:1 device access, but because these devices are shared across grades, a 5:1 student/device ratio could be achieved. All students should have access to personalised learning in at least two content areas, for at least 100 minutes every week, alongside their regular classroom instruction.
All teacher training programmes would have to provide integrated modules on blended learning pedagogies and the effective use of student data to inform face-to-face instruction. States have shown an interest in personalised learning. Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are now looking to better spend their ICT budgets to provide 1:1 device access for students in schools and Rajasthan has recently signed a memorandum of understanding to pilot the Khan Academy for maths remediation.
With access to technology, learning for low-income children will no longer be confined to school. Smartphone penetration and internet access will become near ubiquitous for almost every household by 2020. Products and services that are offered for free will gain tremendous traction. Khan Academy already has 0.7 million monthly active learners in India and Hello English has over 15 million downloads for its app. Even paid products such as Byju’s are growing at an exponential rate and if the China market is any indicator, then this is only the very beginning of an explosion in ed tech products that cater directly to students.
Investment in Early Childhood Education and Vocational Education
Early Childhood Education (ECE) is one of the most effective investments in development. Quality ECE is critical in determining a child’s life outcomes in terms of health and income levels and, in the short term, can lead to better learning outcomes in early primary grades. The Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS) has been largely unable to deliver quality ECE due to its focus on health and nutrition. This has led to increasing enrolment of four-to-six-year-olds in private pre-schools, which are unregulated and often offer developmentally inappropriate education. Further, the large percentage of five-year-olds already enrolled in Grade I inevitably results in poor learning outcomes in early primary grades. To counter these challenges, we need investment by state governments to provide one year of free developmentally appropriate pre-school education in government primary schools. State governments should engage technical experts and non-profits to define an appropriate curriculum for ECE, hire and train a cadre of pre-primary teachers, and monitor implementation.
Another critical issue in the ECE space is the presence of a growing private sector, which is largely unregulated. The curriculum and pedagogy across multiple delivery channels is not standardised, and is often a downward extension of the primary curriculum. The National ECCE (Early Childhood Care and Education) Policy, 2013, envisages remedying this gap by collecting data around pre-school providers at the state level, and moving towards evaluation and accreditation. On the ground, very few states have made progress on this front.
A registration-evaluation-accreditation process for all ECE service providers in the country, as envisaged in the National ECCE Policy, must be initiated, using reliable and valid assessment tools. Separately, technology could be leveraged to increase parent awareness around quality ECE, which would, in turn, lead to higher parent involvement at home.
On the secondary education front, only 29 per cent of students who enroll in Class IX go on to any form of tertiary education. A large number of the others remain unemployed, or are pushed into the informal sector, which accounts for about 90 per cent of the workforce. Most subjects currently taught in the secondary/higher secondary segment prepare students for higher education, as opposed to vocational careers. Equipping school students with employability and life skills addresses this gap and has the potential to alter their long-term career outcomes.
The Revised Vocationalisation of Secondary and Higher Secondary Education Scheme (2014) recommends the introduction of National Skills Qualification Framework (NSQF)-aligned vocational education from Class IX onwards. However, there are a number of implementation gaps—including a theoretical curriculum and pedagogy, insufficient focus on industry alignment, and lack of career guidance. There are opportunities to improve the curriculum and better align it with NSQF, and impart general employability skills—spoken English, internet literacy and career awareness.
Transparency of Private Schools
Private schools are mushrooming across the urban-rural landscape, largely due to the failure of the government school system. India has more than 533,000 private schools as compared to 28,000 in the United States or 1,200 in the United Kingdom. Already 43 per cent of schoolgoing children are attending private schools and this number is growing at the rate of 1-1.5 percentage points per year.
Currently, the private schools space is governed through an intricate web that combines the Right to Education (RTE) Act, state rules, government orders and court judgements. There is a definite need for a set of comprehensive regulations at the national and state level that barter operational autonomy for accountability and transparency.
An autonomous body responsible for assuring school quality would be a good first step, tending towards an organisation that mirrors the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) in the United Kingdom and the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) in Dubai. Any regulation should be light touch in nature, with the primary focus being on ensuring transparency. Rajasthan is one of the first states to have put the information on private schools in the public domain, but without any clear objective to either hold schools accountable or provide informed choice to students.
There is general indifference towards private schools within state education departments. When close to half of all students are in private institutions, it is worthwhile to note that the government is responsible for all children, not just those studying in government schools. State governments must separate their delivery function from their role as an accreditor and regulator of all schools.
The path to establishing an excellent education system in India is complex but the future of our country demands that we make this our top priority. Reform is especially difficult, given the fragmented nature of our public education system. We have approximately 1.1 million government schools, many of them with a single teacher and extremely low enrolment. This leads to inefficient resource allocation, multi-grade teaching, poor accountability and low teacher support. The five reforms that I have highlighted must go hand in hand with a consolidation of the school system.
I believe that we can achieve our goal of ensuring that all children, regardless of their background, get a high quality education. We can demonstrate to the world that with strong political will, we can transform the largest school education system in the world. This is a necessary condition for building a $10 trillion economy, a vibrant democracy and a just and harmonious society.
Ashish Dhawan, a former investment banker, is the founder and chairman of Central Square Foundation, a fund and think tank focused on improving school education in India. He is also chairman of the Board of Trustees of Ashoka University.
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