By Sridhar Rajagopalan
Most of the steps needed to transform the quality of education in India do not require policy change or a new educational policy. Yet, these steps are not getting taken because there is no visible crisis pushing us to act. Only a few points in my list below – like the creation of a cadre of Indian education civil services, replacing the policy of schools within a kilometer of every habitation with a free transport to the nearest school policy – are policy-level issues.
Below are 10 initiatives that I believe can transform Indian education, if undertaken in a concerted way and sustained over at least a five-year period:
Initiative 1: Make the problem visible
Regular assessments are needed to measure progress in learning and make the current levels visible in a way that can be understood widely. India should participate regularly in international assessments like Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and Programme for International Student Assessment so as to set goals and benchmark its performance and progress. The quality of national assessments should be improved and third-party assessors like Annual Status on Education Report and Educational Initiatives should be encouraged to provide periodic feedback. The District Information System for Education (DISE)1 system should be upgraded to a ‘Student Progress Tracking System’ which will track learning levels of individual children and provide diagnostic data to serve as a basis for improvement to schools and teachers.
Initiative 2: Build systemic and institutional capacity
The biggest problem in the educational system today is a severe shortage of capacity. Consider two initiatives – the Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) and the Teacher Eligibility Test (TET). Few people disagree that these initiatives are based on sound principles and good ideas. Yet, many – some may say most – well-intentioned ideas do not achieve their goals due to people across the system not having the required skills. In the case of the TET test, pass percentages have been between 1% and about 15% and the initiative has not had the intended impact. It raises questions both on our teacher training capacity and also the capacity to understand and execute the assessments successfully.
Strengthening research on learning is the first step and only long-term solution to this crisis. I recommend establishing a ‘science of learning’ center, either as a part of National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) or as a separate institute, with a mission of promoting research on how children learn. This institute can undertake research on reading, elementary mathematics, intelligent teaching systems, and assessments.
However, research needs an ecosystem and we now need to kick-start such an ecosystem. We recommend the creation of a research fund (similar to the American National Science Foundation Fund), which will provide grant support for innovation to take root and grow in research institutions non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and private players based on their track record and quality of research, and direct research towards areas of national and state priorities.
Initiative 3: Establish a reading mission
If we can ensure that 80% of our children can read and write well in any one language by the time they are nine years old, we would have solved 80% of our educational problems. Reading has to become a focus area of both action and measurement and a movement which involves all. A national-level center for reading research is more important for India than any Indian Institute of Technology and is not so difficult to create. Specialised training programmes need to be created for teachers on reading skill development and measurement. Reading tests need to be made available on computers, tablets, and mobile phones so that parents can determine the reading levels of their children.
Initiative 4: Build teacher and head teacher capacity
Starting with regular assessments of teacher needs which will determine individual gaps/needs in teachers, high-quality training programmes need to be deployed for teacher training. Information and Communication Technology should be used as a tool to provide many of these courses on an on-demand basis.
The resources available in the National Repository of Open Education Resources (and other open education resources) should be moderated by experts to ensure that high-quality resources – including videos, teaching material, and assessment questions – are available to every teacher. Rather than depending solely on government organizations like the NCERT to create all this material, this work should be carried out through ‘request for proposals’ that would allow talented individuals and organizations to participate and contribute.
Initiative 5: Change the goal post by reforming board exams to test understanding, not recall
India’s rote-based Board Exams are a source of the learning crisis observed even in primary schools. The focus on students, parents, and teachers is on maximizing exam marks and not on learning, which needs to be corrected by having Board Exams that measure learning. This is not difficult to do because there are so many exams that can serve as a benchmark for this change.
Initiative 6: Invest in technology for education
Hand-in-hand with educational research inherent in all the initiatives above, there is a need to research and develop ways to use technology to drive the change we desire. The focus should not be on installing hardware but creating new, high-quality content such as intelligent teaching systems and tools that will help students to hone basic skills like reading and mathematics, and developing content in multiple Indian languages. ICT-based remediation programmes should be encouraged, in which the service provider is reimbursed based on the measured student improvement. ICT should also be used to track teacher attendance. Free high-speed internet connections can be provided to all schools through a simple scheme by which the government reimburses internet service providers directly.
Initiative 7: Introduce school-based practices for learning improvement
This includes initiatives like monthly tests in school with academic support from State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) or District Institute of Educational Research and Training (DIET) and quarterly parent-teacher meeting days which encourage parents to visit schools and build a parent-teacher connect focused on student learning.
Initiative 8: Work on mindsets through public education campaigns
Public education campaigns should be aimed at prospective teachers to attract talent to the sector; at parents to make them aware of what constitutes a good school, the value of education beyond marks etc.; and at existing teachers to make them understand that every child can learn well if supported etc.
Initiative 9: Holistic development
Efforts in areas such as sports, arts, and culture should be initiated or expanded in order to enrich holistic development.
Initiative 10: Implement legal and structural changes
A separate Indian education services cadre at different levels, within the civil services, should be created. Parents should be bound to send students to school, and district education officials should be responsible for the quality of both private and government schools. Public-Private Partnership (PPP) arrangements should be explored for areas like strengthening DIETs, providing teacher training both using traditional and distance/ICT methods, providing standardized assessments, running remedial centers etc. Today, the pre-school, elementary and secondary structures are distinct with different bodies overseeing their curricula. They should be combined under a single authority, possibly the SCERT. Fragmentation of schools should be reduced by combining schools and providing free transport to children further away rather than building schools close to every habitat.
1. District Information System for Education (DISE) provides schools-related statistical information on Sarva Shikhsha Abhiyan (SSA). SSA is Government of India´s flagship programme for achievement of universalization of elementary education in a time-bound manner.
Sridhar Rajagopalan is an educational entrepreneur who has helped change the way student learning outcomes are seen in India.
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