Policy Brief | Literacy Without Learning

Sakshi Mehra

 

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Executive Summary

India has made significant progress in boosting school enrolment rates and increasing access to primary education as evident from the fact that enrollments have reached 96 percent since 2009 and 56 percent of new students enrolled between 2007 and 2009 have been girls. However the same has not reflected positively in dropout rates and levels of learning. Nationally 29 percent of children drop out before completing five years of primary school. Increase in school enrolment is not translating into higher learning outcomes and cognitive skills as measured by several studies.  

Reasons to be Worried

  • Annual Survey of Educational Research (ASER 2013) found that only 54 percent of class V children were able to do simple 2 digit subtraction.

  • In 2005, 50 per cent of children in Grade V were unable to read a simple Grade II level text. The number is virtually unchanged 10 years later in 2014.

policybriefloknitiTable 1: Grade 9 completion rates of children by their reading levels at age 8-11
Source: IHDS data for 2004-5 and 2011-12.

Policy Options

India’s education system has many challenges at all levels, but all of them will fail if children don’t emerge from their early years of school reading fluently. The current discourse on education reforms have been discussing the following alternatives

  • There is an active national debate to scrap the No Detention Policy (NDP), a policy that prohibits failing children in classes 1 to 8. It is believed that in the absence of a proper regulatory framework, this has unfortunately led to ‘no learning’ in many cases.
  • Another approach involves a detailed look at the financing structure of school development plans. Currently, all budgetary plans are made using DISE (District Information System for Education) data, which has no component for learning outcomes. A specific amount that can be used as a learning grant should be given to the states, which should be linked to clearly determine learning goals. School committees based on learning outcome plans should take expenditure decisions regarding this grant.
  •  I believe we need to look at investing our time and resources in an approach that is neither too myopic and shortsighted, nor so broad and long-term that the millions already in school remain excluded from its benefits. In this context, we must begin from correcting the deficiencies in the classroom. It has already been established by researchers over the past decade that the teacher is the most influential factor for achieving quality education. Unfortunately, despite Teachers’ salaries accounting for 90 percent of education expenditure, One in four government primary school teachers are absent and only one in two is actually teaching.

Influencing learning outcomes by improving the teacher’s performance may further be adopted in two different ways: –

  1. Financial incentives and sanctions for teacher motivation: It is the intangible factors such as enthusiasm and passion that are likely to account for a majority of the variation in value added by the teacher and students’ learning outcomes. Evaluation of teachers based on their contribution to students’ achievement or their true value addition should be made the basis for financial rewards and promotion decisions. Performance based incentives could prove to be an effective way to keep the teachers motivated and deliver optimally. A UNICEF paper on teacher absenteeism in India also talks about the scope to effectively enforce sanctions on erring teachers. (Saihjee 2011) Guarantee of a salary, accompanied by weak sanctions actually creates an incentive to be absent. Thus, addressing the moral hazard problem will provide a solution to the problem of academic underperformance.
  2.  A Teacher empowerment program: This approach delves into the root causes of underperformance of teachers by addressing the hindrances to perform to potential. Thus, empowering the teacher through institutional changes for a more conducive teaching environment is the key. The program aims to place power in their hands and facilitate its responsible use. Of all these options, I recommend that teacher empowerment be pursued.

Why Teacher Empowerment?

It has already been established by researchers over the past decade that the teacher is the most influential factor for achieving quality education. Addressing teacher motivation through sanctions or financial incentives will not be as effective as desired as proven in several studies.

A study by National Bureau Of Economic Research conducted on New York City Public Schools suggests that there is no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance. (G. Fryer, Jr, 2011) Similar studies conducted in the Indian States reveal the same trend. If anything, this may adversely affect learning levels by increasing stress levels on teachers and students, encourage a narrowed curriculum of teaching to the test and propel student exclusion. Despite the opportunity and incentive to be absent, the fact that 3 out of every 4 teachers opts to be present indicates that there is clearly more to the issue than merely a “free-rider” problem. Thus, the root problem does not stem from the teacher’s motivation level, but from the lack of institutional support that is necessary for the teacher to perform to his or her potential and these are what need to be fixed so as to empower the teacher to deliver better in the classroom.

Scrapping the no detention policy is likely to be counter-productive by increasing the chances of early dropouts.  Moreover, the decline in learning levels is erroneously being attributed to this policy, whereas data from 2005 to 2010 (before implementation of RTE that introduced NDP) shows the same poor results.

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What Needs to be done?

An insight into the following challenges substantiates the need for institutional changes for a more conducive learning environment that enhances teacher performance and thus reiterates the need for a teacher empowerment program.

  • A study by Sipahimalani-Rao highlights unauthorised leave in Government schools is actually a mere 3-4 percent of total teacher absenteeism as against an inflated projected figure of 24-25 per cent (Priyam 2015). The latter per cent is because teachers are sent on formal chores outside the school during working hours. These non-teaching tasks include management of mid-day meals, organising construction work in the school, maintaining data and so on. During elections, government schoolteachers are posted as booth-level officers on voting days, and they have to prepare, check and maintain electoral rolls prior to voting. Distraction from core responsibilities of teaching could not be more obvious.

Action item: Raising the amount of time teachers spend on the core job needs serious attention and a minimum benchmark for the same must be clearly demarcated.

  • To exacerbate the problem, there are huge teacher shortages (Rajasthan has close to 20percent single-teacher schools) and this further overburdens the teachers.

Action item: Filling the staffing gaps should be made a priority.

  • Despite 16,000 teacher training institutes, the passing rates of the 2015 Teacher eligibility Test (TET) was a mere 17 percent, which is an alarming indication of the underperformance of the teacher education system. The 2012 Justice Verma Commission has made remarks including lack of training in training institutes and exam results being manipulated (MHRD 2011) Low-cost private schools barely spend anything on teacher training.

Action items:

Making teacher training institutes more accountable

Teacher unions need to act as institutions of value to produce well-informed teachers with an enhanced capacity for consensual action for the common good.

Teachers also must be given special training to deal with the diversity amongst students, especially students from underprivileged backgrounds as social class also impacts learning abilities. 21 per cent of children from economically stronger backgrounds who could not read or recognise letters in the age group of 8-11 managed to complete Grade 9 as against 7 per cent of their counterparts belonging to economically weaker and poorer sections

  • A significant number of Indian teachers, especially government teachers are expected to miraculously teach in multi-grade classrooms in remote locations with few amenities. This is a clear Violation of the 1986 Policy Operation Blackboard norms, which mandates at least one teacher for each class/section and at least one room for each class.

Action item: Strict adherence to Operation Blackboard norms, of at least one teacher for each class/section and at least one room for each class. Pupil-Teacher Ratio (PTR) of 40:1 and 35:1 at primary and upper primary level respectively, as prescribed in the RTE, should be enforced.

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(Sakshi Mehra is a graduate student of Master of Public Policy in the National Law School of India University. She can be reached at sakshimehra@nls.ac.in)

Sources

Paper by Aarti Saihjee, Education Specialist, New York UNICEF-Penn Learning Programme on Social Norms July 2011

Teacher Incentives and Student Achievement: Evidence from New York City Public Schools Roland G. Fryer, Jr. Harvard University and NBER, November 2011

Manisha Priyam 2015 Contested Politics of Educational Reform in India: Aligning Opportunities with Interests: Oxford University Press

Justice Verma Commission on Teacher Education, Volume 3, 2012

 

Featured image source: http://www.un.org/en/index.html

 

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