Dev 360: Invest in schools, this can fuel the economy

It may change the face of Indian politics.

For long, economists have been arguing for investment in education. A well-educated workforce drives economic growth. But economists don’t take policy decisions. Politicians do. So does investment in education make for good politics? We don’t know for sure. But the Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government’s experiments with school education is one to watch. The AAP can be legitimately criticised on many fronts, but it is tough to fault it for prioritising education, given the sorry state of basic learning across the country. Survey after survey shows millions of kids in India can’t read or count properly even at the end of primary school.

The Delhi government spends about a quarter of its budget on education and has initiated a range of reforms in government-run schools. This week, rapturous applause greeted students of these schools. They had done better than their private school counterparts in the Central Board of Secondary Education Class 12 exams for the second year running. In 2017, the pass percentage at government schools in the city stood at 88.27 per cent, compared to 84.20 per cent at private schools. Last year, government schools notched a pass percentage of 88.98 per cent, against 86.67 per cent in private schools.

Government schools in the country don’t have a pretty image. In many, children squat on uneven floors or torn mats. There are no desks, chairs and teachers are more often absent than present. Can such schools ever be fixed? Is it even worth a try? The latest CBSE results came as a boost to those who have been consistently saying that government schools can be turned around. Unsurprisingly, Delhi’s education minister Manish Sisodia is beaming even as critics note government schools have done better than private schools in the city earlier too. Many sceptics also point out that nowadays Delhi government schools have better pass percentages than private schools partly because private schools have mushroomed, mostly in far-flung neighbourhoods where there is less scrutiny.

But even in absolute terms, there is improvement in government schools, and not just in Delhi. A key part of the reason is a new method called teaching at the right level (TaRL). There is enough evidence now to show that substantial gains in learning outcomes can be achieved by simply reorganising and grouping children by their learning level rather than the usual grouping by age or grade. This has worked not just in Delhi but in several other states. It is clearly having effects beyond board results. This year, 372 students of Delhi government-run schools have cleared the prestigious Joint Entrance Examination to most engineering colleges in India. Only 50-odd students had cracked the JEE last year. What explains the change? The Delhi government has ploughed in a lot of resources to improve school infrastructure and give better incentives to teachers. But money alone doesn’t explain the improved performances. What has really helped is a series of measures taken to shore up the motivation levels of students, teachers as well as parents.

Teachers conduct “reading hours”. Students watch educational videos. A special cadre of “mentor teachers” offers regular supportive supervision to other teachers. There are remedial classes for students of Class 10 and 12; free summer camps where students can have lots of fun plus work on their weak spots; regular interactions between parents and teachers; school management committees comprised mostly of parents; and so on. Students of good private schools take all this for granted. But this is very new to government-run schools. In Delhi, the city’s municipal corporations run primary schools while Delhi government schools are from Classes 6 to 12. Children often arrive in middle school with a weak or non-existent foundation. What happens in middle school therefore becomes critical. Teaching to curriculum doesn’t help much as not every child can cope under these circumstances. The TaRL methodology has been usually used for younger children in other states, but it has proved very useful to circumvent challenges in Delhi government schools.

Dr Rukmini Banerji, chief executive officer of Pratham Education Foundation, one of India’s best-known educational NGOs, says the Delhi government’s decision to introduce TaRL was a “bold step” and the state government should be congratulated for making a major effort to improve the foundational skills of all children. She points out that Pratham’s work with primary school children in other states using the TaRL method has produced heartening outcomes. The latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) report, facilitated by the Pratham network, offers signs of hope. It shows reading ability has improved in India, specially in early grades in government schools. Arithmetic skills have also shown improvement in government schools in primary grades.

In the last decade, Pratham’s work has been rigorously evaluated by researchers affiliated with the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a large scale and in collaboration with government schools. The research shows that the TaRL model can achieve significant gains in basic learning outcomes.

Just one example: In Haryana, 400 schools participated in an inter-vention implemen-ted by the government and supported by Pratham in 2012-13. Students enrolled in Classes 3, 4 and 5 across 200 schools were randomly assigned to the TaRL model. Students in selected schools were grouped according to their reading level and taught for an hour every day, using attrac-tive methods and ma-terials. Trained govern-ment teachers did the job in school hours, They were monitored and supervised by block and cluster-level educa-tion officials.

At the start of this programme, only 34 per cent of students could read a simple paragraph or story (a grade 2-level competency). But by the end, things had changed — the number had shot up to 53 per cent for students in schools that took part in the programme, compared to 48 per cent for students in schools that did not participate. Several other states — Bihar, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and West Bengal — have piloted similar initiatives. Scaling up such evidence-based strategies across the country would not only dramatically improve learning outcomes, it may change the face of Indian politics.

The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at

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