The idea was to wade through the several hundred interventions tried around the world to improve learning outcomes and to identify the most cost-effective ones. The best and most credible buys have been identified and can be replicated by other countries. While similar exercises have been undertaken in the past, I don’t think anything has been done at this scale.
The greatest buy identified — information on the benefits of education given to parents — comes as a surprise as one would think this is obvious…
There is evidence to show that enough people don’t know about the benefits of education. Once they do, they alter their behaviour in a manner that helps improve outcomes.
In India, should the Center try and spread the message about the economic benefits of education like it did with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan? Or is it better left to the states?
I wouldn’t like this to be a Centre versus state matter. The message is so universal and critical that both the Centre and the states need to do their best to get it across. In some ways, the states are best placed to identify the target groups that need particular attention and figure out the best way to send the message.
Going by this report, it would appear that India’s Right To Education (RTE) Act is unlikely to deliver as it is excessively focussed on inputs.
That’s quite correct. This has been a major criticism of India’s RTE in various fora. The Act is almost exclusively focussed on the size of playgrounds, classrooms. It has been trying to dictate brick and mortar standards for the schools and not focussing on verifiable learning outcomes. However, the National Education Policy does identify the learning gap as a critical problem.
Which good buys should India adopt to improve its learning outcomes?
Many of the good buys identified in the report have been tried in India. Some have worked but have not been fully implemented, and we do need to prioritise. For instance, access to schooling is not a problem for younger kids — there are private and public schools that are easily accessible in villages. However, for older children, especially girls, access to high schools can be a problem. We saw in Bihar that the government’s initiative of offering bicycles to girls helped tremendously.
Almost all the good buys have a place in India’s context. One problem is that in many places, Grade 5 children are at Grade 2 level, but we teach as if that doesn’t make a difference. The practice is simply to teach the curriculum of the grade level regardless of whether students are falling behind or not. There is also an overemphasis on completing the entire curriculum. If the child is still struggling with reading, what sense will the curriculum make? It would help to shift the mindset of focussing excessively on the curriculum. The NEP does recognise the importance of basic skills of reading and numeracy, but making this far more explicit would help. Testing children on basic competencies needs more focus. Let’s forget about infrastructure investments for now.
Many states in India have been handing out tablets, computers and other similar devices to students but this is yet to deliver in any concrete manner.
This is one of the “bad buys” as per our report. ICT, unless you combine it with the right pedagogical tools, is pointless. One of the interventions tried in Rajasthan - MindSpark, which is run by a private company — has proved effective with science and math learning for kids. It identifies the stage at which the child is and takes him or her to the next level through a personalised learning journey. So there are things ICT can help with, but in a thought-out manner. Just handing out laptops or tablets with little or no guidance will probably not yield any great strides in learning.
After so many years of Independence, why do think India is so far behind in the journey of reducing learning poverty?
We have a very elitist mindset. A central education minister once told me that the idea that no child should be left behind is not something he sympathises with. We need our children to learn at global standards, but if we do not prepare them, they’ll never learn. So a few privileged kids will do well but the rest will fall behind. I would go so far as to say that the Indian education system
often destroys the confidence of children in their own abilities.
We conducted a small experiment in some markets in Delhi and Kolkata among young children selling vegetables. We had shoppers buying a few vegetables from each child in varying quantities. Almost all the children reverted with the exact change. They managed to multiply, total up and subtract within a few seconds. So, the children did the math, they did it mentally, and almost instantaneously and perfectly.
Now, if you give the same problem to a child in a Delhi government school, which, incidentally, is better than most other government schools, they will have a hard time solving it. It is really very striking that the moment they start thinking it is math, they become unsure.
Of the countries that have made progress and are comparable with India, which can we draw some lessons from?
Vietnam is a stellar example of a country that’s made a lot of progress in ensuring that no child is left behind. People tend to think Vietnam is a much smaller country than India, but Vietnam is like Bihar, with a population of around 100 million. In fact, many of the states in India are much smaller than Vietnam. So, there’s no reason why every Indian state cannot replicate Vietnam’s success.