Schooling ain’t Learning, India edition

I love the NY Times Fixes column, and the one yesterday from Tina Rosenberg is a definite keeper. In it, she describes the enormous gulf between student enrollment and student learning in India.  She writes,

“96 percent of school-age children are enrolled — in part due to a 2009 law making education free and compulsory for children ages 6 to 14. India is winning the battle to get children into school. But last year, only 40 percent of third graders could read a first-grade-level paragraph and more than one-third couldn’t even read words. Of fifth graders surveyed, fewer than half could read a second-grade-level story — and 5 percent couldn’t even recognize letters.”

It is thanks to a program called ASER, the Annual Status of Education Report, that we know how little these students are learning.  Much more importantly, their parents and communities now know too.  Here is a description of how the program works:

“Right now, all over rural India, this is happening: Two local volunteers with a few days’ training come into the village. They knock on randomly selected doors, asking to see all children ages 6 to 16 who live there. In the front yard of the house, they test the children one by one in reading and math. A crowd gathers: parents, neighbors, sometimes the whole village. Children jump up and down, shouting, “Test me! Test me!”

Each test is a single sheet of paper. The volunteers record the highest level in reading and math the child can manage comfortably. Then they to go another house: 20 chosen at random from various parts of the village. During October and November, volunteers will test between 600,000 and 700,000 children, including some in every rural district in India.”

There are myriad reasons that Indian students are attending school but not learning, but the leader of the ASER project believes it’s mostly due to a law that says teachers must teach from a textbook appropriate to that year of schooling.  While that seems pretty reasonable, it actually is damaging if students are falling behind.  By the time they get to the fourth grade, for example, they may have no chance of mastering the material for that grade.

So what to do about the situation?  Well, the Fixes column isn’t titled that by chance.  Rosenberg details a really interesting initiative called Read India. Here’s some of their innovative ways to battle this problem:

“Volunteers run weeklong Read India learning camps in thousands of villages each year. They test every child in the village, then share the results at a village meeting. At camp, third-, fourth- and fifth-grade children who are far behind in reading or math spend three or four hours a day using activities, games and colorful materials to work on the basics. Children almost always move up at least one level during the course of the week. Camp comes back to the village two months later.

Read India also works in the classroom. In parts of Haryana, Bihar and Uttarakhand states, teachers set aside the last hour or 90 minutes of the day to use Pratham’s methods. The same teachers who were getting zero results with their normal methods saw big gains when they grouped children by level and worked on basic skills.”

Very cool stuff.