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.