WHY SHE MAT­TERS She has taken a host of ini­tia­tives to make el­e­men­tary ed­u­ca­tion re­al­is­tic for school­child­ren

AROUND 57 PER CENT of 14-18-year olds could not solve a ba­sic divi­sion prob­lem. Forty-seven per cent of them couldn’t read a sim­ple sen­tence in English.

These fig­ures from ASER (An­nual Sta­tus of Ed­u­ca­tion Re­port, 2017) hold up a mir­ror to In­dia’s sta­tus of el­e­men­tary school­ing and ba­sic learn­ing. Ruk­mini Ban­erji, CEO, Pratham, is be­hind the ASER ini­tia­tive, which has been re­veal­ing the sta­tus of In­dia’s el­e­men­tary ed­u­ca­tion since 2005. “One of the sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions of ASER is that it has brought the learn­ing agenda to the cen­tre stage,” says Ban­erji, who has launched large-scale learn­ing pro­grammes to ed­u­cate stu­dents in ur­ban and ru­ral In­dia.

The ASER ap­proach has been repli­cated in more than 10 coun­tries so far. Pak­istan was the first one to adopt, fol­lowed by Kenya, Tan­za­nia, Uganda, amongst oth­ers. At the heart of the ASER study is a very sim­ple idea. School­child­ren are given a sheet, half the size of an A4 sheet of pa­per. On one side are sim­ple arith­metic sums, and on the other are a hand­ful of words, sen­tences and a sim­ple story. It is es­sen­tially an as­sess­ment tool to fig­ure out where the child stands on the learn­ing lad­der. Ban­erji says: “Our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem is based on the pre­sump­tion that the stu­dent com­pre­hends fully the syl­labus taught in the pre­vi­ous class, which al­ways may not be true. Due to this fal­lacy, of­ten stu­dents are left be­hind in school and start feel­ing dis­con­nected which might lead them to drop out.”

ASER’s strength lies in its simplicity and scal­a­bil­ity. The sur­vey is car­ried out in 30 ran­domly se­lected vil­lages in ev­ery ru­ral dis­trict of In­dia. (More than 575 dis­tricts par­tic­i­pate in the ASER sur­vey each year.) ASER sur­vey ac­tu­ally started in 2002/03 as a com­mu­nity-level ef­fort to cre­ate “vil­lage re­port cards” to un­der­stand ba­sic read­ing and math lev­els of chil­dren. “The as­sess­ment made the prob­lem vis­i­ble to ev­ery­one and helped us to de­sign the so­lu­tion and the method­olo­gies to help chil­dren ac­quire these foun­da­tional skills.” At the same time, Pratham has also ini­ti­ated learn­ing im­prove­ment pro­grammes to en­sure that chil­dren ac­quire ba­sic read­ing and arith­metic skills quickly. Based on the sim­ple as­sess­ment, chil­dren in classes 3 to 5 are grouped by their cur­rent level; in­struc­tional ac­tiv­i­ties us­ing ap­pro­pri­ate meth­ods and ma­te­ri­als help chil­dren make progress quickly. Pratham’s “learn­ing camps” car­ried out in gov­ern­ment schools are usu­ally for 10 days. “We guar­an­tee af­ter the third or fourth learn­ing camp, 70-75 per cent of chil­dren are able to read and do ba­sic math,” says Ban­erji. This method­ol­ogy, called “teach­ing-at-the-right-level” has been eval­u­ated and rec­om­mended by MIT’s re­search cen­tre – Ab­dul Latif Jameel Poverty Ac­tion Lab – for large-scale repli­ca­tion to im­prove chil­dren’s learn­ing lev­els.

Pratham con­ducts learn­ing camps in 5,000 schools each year, “di­rectly” ed­u­cat­ing 3-5 lakh kids an­nu­ally. They also cre­ate groups for home ac­tiv­i­ties so that chil­dren can do learn­ing ac­tiv­i­ties with each other and their par­ents. In ad­di­tion, Pratham also part­ners with state and dis­trict gov­ern­ments to achieve sim­i­lar learn­ing goals by work­ing closely with gov­ern­ment schoolteachers and of­fi­cials in the sys­tem. For the 2018/19 school year, Pratham is work­ing with gov­ern­ment sys­tems in J&K, Pun­jab, Hi­machal Pradesh, Kar­nataka, Ut­tar Pradesh, Mad­hya Pradesh, Bi­har, Jhark­hand, Andhra Pradesh and Ch­hat­tis­garh. In 2017/18, these part­ner­ship pro­grammes reached over six mil­lion chil­dren.

ASER’s find­ings might not be en­cour­ag­ing, but Ban­erji is op­ti­mistic. In­dia has closed univer­sal en­rol­ment, which is a big achieve­ment. “The task now is they learn at the pace they are ex­pected to, for which we need to think of scal­able ways to make them learn bet­ter, ” she says.


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