EDUCATION EMERGENCY: WHAT MUST WE DO?

  • Uma Kogekar

Teacher Aarti in a Zilla Parishad school struggles to retain the attention of students who have just come back to school after months of being at home. Every hour or so, she needs to give them a break. This was not the case pre-covid. Teacher Rajan shares that children detest writing and shy away from any sort of written assignment. Teacher Kalpana says she has only a few hours to teach, since children have to be sent back home early for their lunch. Midday meals are not yet provided in her school. Teacher Pinesh knows that all his children are at a different level. He wonders how he can do level-based teaching.

Teacher Ajit who teaches 9th and 10th grades finds that children have forgotten basic concepts in Math. In addition, problem-solving using multiple concepts is exceedingly hard for children. A particular topic now requires him to spend double the number of periods to teach. He struggles to carve extra instructional hours, given that he still has to teach the grade-level textbook.

These struggles shared by teachers in government schools in rural areas are in no way isolated ones. The pandemic has profoundly changed the way we learn and teach. Urgent measures need to be taken so that we do not lose a generation of children to poverty and minimize the damage. The time to act is now!

Background

India has had the largest number of days of school closures since the pandemic struck. The impact this has had on the children has been well documented in several studies. Loss of learning, increase in child labor, child marriages, malnutrition, school dropouts, and decline in mental well-being are amongst the top fall outs.

Governments across states were quick to close schools for all grades, stop mid-day meals and put emphasis on digital learning to maintain continuity in education. In Maharashtra, primary grades were closed on an average for 300 days and only senior grades remained open when the schools were opened sporadically. The measures taken by the government for addressing the learning loss and for maintaining continuity in learning included rolling out a home learning package in 2020, sending links to learning materials on WhatsApp, a story reading program called ‘Goshticha Shaniwar’ and introducing a bridge course in 2021. Amidst the brief reopening of schools in November 2021, NAS was also conducted as planned.

These measures are at best like band-aids to the gaping wounds that the school closures have inflicted upon the education system. As per the SCHOOL survey, barely 8% of the children in rural India were learning. An earlier study by Azim Premji University reported that over 92% of children on average have lost at least one specific language ability from the previous year across all classes. 82% of children for mathematical abilities (Azim Premji Foundation, 2021). It is clear, therefore, what is needed is a complete and coherent treatment plan to address the emergency.

This article details what such a plan may look like. These measures should be considered urgently to address the challenges of access and learning. Successful implementation of these measures will need a sustained focus on the issues, additional funding, and a strong political will.

Create a student enrolment database

  1. Physical closures of schools due to COVID will likely exacerbate the drop out rate, once schools reopen physically. ASER* reports an increase in the number of unenrolled children of school going age from 1.8% (2018) to 5.3% (2020). Among all children upto 16 years, this number has gone up from 4% to 5.5%. According to another study** coordinated by Nobel Laureate, Kailash Sathyathi, nearly 20% of under privileged rural households reported they would consider withdrawing their children from schooling due to economic reasons.

A statewide initiative to assess the real enrollment will be a critical first step. Using the pre-covid enrollment data, surveys will need to be undertaken to assess how many children residing in the particular geographies are not attending school, as also the new in-migration have taken place.

In Maharashtra, DIETs have been entrusted to collect this data as part of the reporting under the school development plan. This data must be analyzed, and the findings presented to all entities at the district level to ensure that everyone is on the same page. In addition, data must be shared publicly to enable civil society groups, think tanks, and academic bodies to be able to study it and make recommendations.

Campaign to bring children back to school

  1. Based on the database hard-to-reach child populations will need to be identified.
  1. Campaigning to bring children to school will need to involve informational campaigning and door to-door campaigning. This will require efforts not only of the CRC/BRCs and teacher workforce, but also gram panchayats, local bodies and local NGOs. This should be thought of as a larger people’s movement to strengthen school education. It should not be a limited department initiative as is usually the case, given the larger dimensions of the emergency. If we engage community in the enrollment/retention efforts, they will also be more engaged with the subsequent efforts on teaching-learning.

Restart the mid-day meal

Mid-meals, the only source of wholesome nutrition of many children especially in rural India must be restarted immediately. This will not only encourage parents to send children to school, but potentially stem the developmental loss children will suffer from lack of adequate nutrition. This can also be tied into a campaign to bring children back to school.

Given the increase in malnutrition during the pandemic and increased economic hardships of families, enhancing the midday meal with high nutrition food like eggs would be useful. Many states provide eggs daily with MMS. Karnataka reported higher attendance of students when eggs were served with the midday meal. Karnataka also provides hot milk to students in the morning five times a week.***

Create a learning baseline

Assessing where students are vis-a-vis their learning should be prioritized before the start of teaching the curriculum. Primary grades should focus on simple competency-based assessments in reading-writing and Math. Middle and High school could look at other subjects as well. Using simple metrics, students will need to be categorized either at grade level or grouped at grade levels below. As far as possible, learning assessments should be conducted physically or in the online presence of the teacher. For comparability of data, assessments should be designed centrally, though the actual response/action must be locally planned and not designed centrally, so that local contexts, needs can be catered to, by the teacher, while paying attention to the different demographics – for example, children in districts that are more urban and had some access to learning versus those who had no access. Such data should inform the nature of the assessment and where they should be administered.

Focus on foundational literacy and numeracy, not only on reducing curricular load

Learning loss due to school closure will necessitate reducing the curricular load at least in the next academic year. However, the focus should be on building the foundational skills rather than completing the reduced syllabus. The first term after school reopening should focus on bringing the children gradually into the process of learning. Classroom routines and pedagogies that focus on helping children socially adapt to in-person interaction, feel secure, and prepare them to concentrate and learn should be prioritized. For this, learning approaches such as peer learning, teamwork and projects should be encouraged. A ‘business as usual’ approach will increase the risk of children falling off the learning map. An accelerated education curriculum will need to be created for children for whom the learning loss has been severe i.e. more than one grade level down. In Maharashtra, the training of teachers in FLN has already begun via Diksha app. A plan on how teachers will implement the inputs in class, how progress will be measured and difficulties are addressed must follow this first step.

Aside from textbooks, supplemental learning materials to aid with students’ learning – at school and at home, will need to be created. In addition, in a survey conducted by Oxfam India, creating low-tech resources and physical learning materials to aid students’ learning was favored by teachers.

Coach teachers and CRC’s using a blended approach

Teachers and KPs will not only need to be trained but also provided handholding support through coaching throughout the year to implement the new curriculum. The training should focus on the ‘how’ to implement the curriculum, rather than only focusing on the download of information about the revised curricular approach. A blended approach to build the capacities of teachers to teach the new curriculum could be followed. The experience during COVID has provided ample scope for teachers to be familiarized with technology and receiving inputs via online means. Provision of online training inputs for large groups could thus be continued in the post-COVID training scenario as well. However, it should be recognized that there is value to face-to-face inputs. Small group professional learning communities (PLCs) with DIET faculty and KPs can be used to coach teachers on need-specific pedagogy challenges.

DON’Ts

As we continue to find on-ground solutions to tackle the education emergency it would be good to keep in mind the things we know do not work and should not be done.

  • Focusing heavily on digital/online education to impart education

We know there is a digital divide in the country and that has cast millions of children out of the fold of learning. In addition, we know learning is primarily is a social endeavor. It is a folly to think that children can learn and retain through online lectures and teachers can assess the real learning.

  • Creating short-term bridge courses

Children’s learning gap needs to be filled. However, it cannot be filled through short-term interventions such as bridge courses ignoring the fundamentals of how children learn, their current learning levels, and mental states.

  • Limiting teacher support to information giving rather than capacity building

Teachers will need extra support in the form of training on newer pedagogic practices if they are to cover the learning loss. Simply expecting teachers to deliver results using the same approaches will have limited success.

  • Laying emphasis on summative assessments

Learning assessments that measure grade-level competencies at this stage will not reveal useful information, since children have moved into a higher grade without actually having learned anything in the previous grade.

References

*Chaturvedi, B.K. (2020). COVID-19 Impact: Six Million Children Out of School. The Leaflet, Dec 10,2020. https://www.theleaflet.in/covid-19-impact-six-million-children-out-of-school-in-india/#

**Nandula, R. (2020). Will COVID-19 Led to More Drop Outs? The Hindu Businessline. Nov 13,2020. https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/data-stories/data-focus/will-covid-19-lead-to-moreschool-drop-outs/article33095912.ece

***https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bengaluru/attendance-up-12-in-bidar-as-schoolkids-get-eggs/articleshow/88060695.cms

Author – Uma Kogekar is CEO, CEQUE, and a core member of the National Coalition on the Education Emergency.

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