The most basic input to improving learning outcomes is to create schools that are functional. A school that has a minimum size, adequate teachers and basic infrastructure is a prerequisite to effective teaching. Without this, undertaking pedagogical interventions is akin to fine-tuning the engine of a car whose chassis is broken
Looking back at the last decade, we have only partially redeemed the pledge we made to our children under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009. While we have been largely successful in fixing the access challenge, with 100% gross enrolment at primary levels, learning outcomes have remained disconcertingly low. While various sources paint somewhat differently nuanced pictures, the headline remains similar: about 50% of Class 5 students cannot read a Class 2 text, according to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), while the National Achievement Survey (NAS) cautions that average scores in several grades and subjects are as low as 40-50%.
What needs to be recognised, however, is that this is not for want of effort. Effort has come from multiple quarters—the government itself, aid agencies, foundations and a whole host of not-for-profits. In fact, 30-50% of India’s CSR spend goes towards school education. And there is significant support to education innovation and reform from multilateral agencies and foundations. However, achieving a sustained improvement in learning outcomes has remained elusive.
The NITI Aayog has been at the vanguard of the movement to shift the focus from a schematic approach tracking inputs (school infrastructure, teachers, books and mid-day meals) to a learning outcome centred systems approach. Whether it is the School Education Quality Index (SEQI), SATH-E or the Aspirational Districts initiative, primacy has been accorded to learning outcomes as the ultimate goal. What will it take for us to achieve a step change in learning and quality in our public education system?
This three-part series challenges some of the common thinking on improving learning outcomes and presents a somewhat contrarian view on the road to transformation.
Typically, most education systems and the host of actors supporting these systems have operated on the assumption that one or more of three initiatives will address the problem: content & pedagogical changes (including edtech), teacher/principal training, and student assessments linked to individual and systemic accountability. However, in spite of years of effort and multiple pilots as well as large projects, these strategies have only been moderately successful. Why?
In our view, one of the key reasons for this continued stasis is that in many places our existing delivery structures do not allow for these interventions to be successful. India today suffers from the twin challenges of unviable sub-scale schools and a severe shortage of teachers, which makes in-school interventions only marginally fruitful.
Because of an emphasis on enrolment, India adopted the strategy of building schools near every habitation, culminating in a proliferation of schools with tiny populations and inadequate resources. Today, India has almost 3-4 times the number of schools (15 lakh) than China (about 5 lakh), despite a similar population and lesser geographical size. Not surprisingly, about 4 lakh schools have fewer than 50 students (as stated in NITI Aayog’s India Three Year Action Agenda) and as a result are allocated a maximum of two teachers. In reality, often the schools have one teacher due to vacancies and shortages.
In these schools, a single teacher has to attempt a mission impossible—simultaneously manage students of 3-5 different grades while also handling all administrative work alone. These schools neither have a principal nor clerical staff. Infrastructure—libraries, playgrounds or computers—is a far cry. The large number of schools makes monitoring visits by officials few and infrequent—resulting in poor mentoring or accountability of these schools. Today, an estimated 1.5 crore students in India study in unviable sub-schools. How can these children ever learn in such an environment?
This issue is compounded by teacher vacancies. By most estimates, India has a shortage of more than 10 lakh teachers, and teachers that do exist are often inefficiently distributed—it is not uncommon to find several surplus teachers in an urban school, while a single teacher may manage 100-plus students in a rural school. Some states, like Jharkhand, have a severe teacher shortage of over 40%, while 60% positions are occupied by contract teachers, many of whom find it difficult to qualify the teachers’ eligibility test. In effect, the state has only 25-30% of required teacher positions staffed by fully qualified teachers. Aggregated state-wide metrics like PTR (pupil-teacher ratio) often hide such gaps.
In our experience across Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Rajasthan, the twin challenges of sub-scale schools and lack of teachers imply that most academic interventions—whether content, pedagogy, training or assessments—have a limited and unsustainable impact.
The solutions are simple—albeit politically sensitive. The first is to consolidate sub-scale schools within short distances of each other, if necessary through provision of transport facilities or allowances. School consolidation, pioneered in states like Rajasthan and Jharkhand, has already reaped rich dividends through improved learning environments and even improved enrolment, belying fears of a fall in access and increased dropouts. Larger integrated schools have several immediate benefits—including providing students grade and subject-specific teachers, improved discipline and critically more time available for teaching due to the availability of supporting staff. Community involvement also tends to be higher because of a larger parent group.
The second solution is strategic efforts at reducing teacher vacancies—at an aggregate and a school level. This implies large-scale teacher rationalisation (moving teachers from surplus schools to deficit schools), restructuring complicated teacher cadres, and, most importantly, increased investment in teacher recruitment through better planning and more stringent processes. Madhya Pradesh has undertaken an online teacher rationalisation process, moving about 10,000 teachers from surplus to deficit schools. States like Odisha and Rajasthan have also made good progress on recruitment, including making it an online, competitive process, resulting in less than 10% teacher vacancies.
It is our belief that today the most basic input to improving learning outcomes is to create schools that are functional. A school that has a minimum size, adequate teachers and some basic infrastructure is a non-negotiable prerequisite to effective teaching. Without this, undertaking pedagogical or assessments interventions is akin to fine-tuning the engine of a car whose chassis is broken. Undertaking school mergers and unlocking teacher recruitment and rationalisation requires significant political commitment. Without this all other interventions can provide only short-term and small gains. States like Rajasthan and Jharkhand provide a template for how to undertake this effectively.
(This is the first in a three-part series.)