India making attempt to reduce learning poverty via foundational education

It is estimated that India’s learning poverty was at 54.8 per cent in 2017 — children unable to read and understand simple text and numbers by the age of 10
If the foundation is weak, a house cannot stand. So, here’s one thought that many state governments, chief ministers, education secretaries, school principals, academicians, and teachers in India appear to have overlooked: a child needs to be able to “learn to read” before they can begin to “read to learn”. In other words, if the foundation is weak and if by grade 3, the student cannot read, there are no pillars to build upon.

This single failure is pushing up India’s learning poverty levels to new highs, according to World Bank estimates.

It is estimated that India’s learning poverty was at 54.8 per cent in 2017 — children unable to read and understand simple text and numbers by the age of 10. Argentina, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Jordan, Kuwait and Peru were closest to India in this regard, all ranging in the 50s band. China was at 18.2 per cent in the same year.

One of the more worrying fallouts of the Covid-19 outbreak is that this learning poverty is expected to witness a sharp hike, as children remain out of school for longer-than-expected periods.

In recent years, based on extensive research on how to bridge the gap as quickly as possible and on the examples set up by a few developing countries facing a similar predicament, education experts, academicians, teachers and now even the central government are in agreement over one thing: that focusing on foundational learning can help leapfrog the learning gap at a pace and in a manner few other variables can. The National Education Policy, too, reflects this with a full section on foundational learning and its objectives.

While disentangling and fixing the web of a full K-12 education system — as the one India is grappling with — is expected to take closer to two decades, several countries have been able to bring about noticeable improvement in learning outcomes by focusing on just this single variable: foundational learning. This improvement in some of the countries has come within four to five years of a focused approach.

This focus has also emerged from a new realisation: it is estimated that 100 million Indian children could drop out of the school net if these gaps are not bridged on an urgent basis, as those who fail to “read to learn” gradually lose interest and give up.

This 100-million figure is a new noose hanging around policymakers’ necks, a number that is likely to see a spike after the current lockdown that has halted all learning across age groups is lifted. In other words, India’s learning poverty is likely to see a jump after the pandemic.

The NITI Aayog, too, is now encouraging states to introduce focused foundational learning programmes as the country gears up to compete with other nations in the OECD’s PISA test in 2021. The OECD runs the PISA Shock for 15-year-olds. It’s an assessment done all over the world. In 2009, India participated and came second last. The country will be participating in the PISA exams in 2021 after a gap of 12 years.

India’s shockingly poor performance in the PISA — at the bottom of 73 countries — had led the government to withdraw from it, on the grounds that India’s diversity could not be accounted for in one-size-fits-all tests like these. But finally experts convinced the government that acknowledging one has a problem is the first step to solving it. Peru, for instance, has vastly improved its PISA ranking in 2018 vis-a-vis 2012 when it ranked last in 65 countries by focusing on foundational learning.

“Class 3 is the critical juncture by when children need to be able to read in order to learn further. So, students who fall behind in these basic skills cannot cope with the rigor of the curriculum in later classes,” explains Central Square Foundation (CSF) Co-CEO and co-MD Bikkrama Daulet Singh.

CSF has identified foundational learning as one of its big planks to focus efforts on and is working closely with certain states including Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Maharashtra, Haryana, Chhattisgarh to launch state-led programmes in the area, as opposed to those by NGOs and civil society bodies.

Although almost all such efforts need to be curated to a country’s unique environment, there are a few notable examples that India can partially draw from. “What has been encouraging for Indian researchers and policymakers is how quickly some of these programmes have delivered results, albeit on a much smaller scale,” adds Singh.

In Kenya, a National Tusome (Let’s Read for grade 1-3) programme was launched in 2014 for five years across 30,000 public schools nationwide after running a small pilot that showed dramatic progress. Similarly, South Africa has launched “Funda Wande” aimed at teachers. The idea is to teach the teachers how to teach kids to read after the government undertook a two-year study countrywide and tried out three different reading interventions.

Brazil has launched “Minas Gerais”, an effort aimed at ensuring every child can read by the age of 8, as has the Philippines.
But policymakers argue that if even one Indian state is able to undertake a focused reform effort of this kind and achieve some results, it will offer a template for other states to emulate.

What comes as a surprise is that Uttar Pradesh — usually lagging on most parameters — appears to be the first state to adopt a state-led foundational learning initiative. If it manages to pull it off and show improved outcomes, it will prove the oft-repeated maxim: where there’s a will, there’s a way.

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