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From Top-Down Reforms To Poor Techniques: Why Our Solutions For Education Aren’t Working

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By Natasha Joshi:

Everyone agrees India’s public education is in a dire state. The blame for this is typically heaped upon bad infrastructure, teacher absenteeism, poor student attendance, inputs-based monitoring, and inadequate teacher preparation programmes. While these issues are valid, all of them taken together do not fully explain the learning crisis apparent in our classrooms.

Let’s start with infrastructure. In the wake of the Right to Education Act 2010, school infrastructure has improved tremendously. While usability is still being addressed, much progress has been made in terms of school access, and availability of drinking water and toilets. Most children are enrolled in some school and 70% attend school regularly.

Read also: Education in India – the numbers don’t add up

Photo Courtesy: Sumer Vaidya, age 10

Yes, teacher absenteeism continues to plague the system, but it is precisely that—a systemic issue instead of something specific to government school teachers as a people. A recent six-state study by Azim Premji Foundation reported that, while 20% of teachers were not found in school on average, most teachers were not ‘absent’; they were away on training or official work, sitting in the state headquarters or on casual leave.

Actual truancy rates were 2.5%, which is close to absenteeism rates at any large organisation. Even this small amount of absenteeism needs correction, but clearly absenteeism is not the obstacle to student growth.

So, if broadly teachers are showing up, and students are turning up, and classrooms and textbooks are available, what is preventing lakhs of children from acquiring basic literacy and numeracy?

Current policy discourse suggests that one of the issues is a lack of student and curriculum assessment. The Ministry for Human Resource and Development (MHRD) is pushing for greater student assessment and states have been conducting ‘State Learning Achievement Surveys’ (SLAS).

Standardised assessments are a lot of work and will require a good amount of resources. One must ask, therefore, what are the chances of this ‘solution’ working?

To start with, let’s briefly understand large-scale standardised assessments. In the 20th century, standardised tests were institutionalised in almost all domains, especially in fields related to education and employment. A standardised test is an assessment that is rigid, has a pre-determined marking scheme and is administered to a large base of students. Such tests emerged in the post-industrial era when factories and large business units required many labourers but few thinkers.

As a result, a test that told you a little about everyone was preferred to an alternative that told you a lot about one person. This was especially so because the former was more cost-effective. In other words, standardised assessments were designed to suit a system instead of an individual.

Today, the economy is markedly shifting in favour of the individual. The gig and contract economy in the West has grown tremendously in the past decade and 9-5 jobs are shrinking. In India too, as automation increases, individual adaptability will become the most salient skill. Therefore, policy measures today must not return to old world assessment approaches—one test to rule them all, one test to find them.

Earlier, customising a test to suit 200 million children was infeasible but that is no longer true. Today, adaptive tests allow students to solve problems at their own pace, and item-wise analysis provides data on gaps in understanding, which in-turn enables teachers to provide remediation real-time.

Programmes like Mindspark are doing this in their centres. Instead of getting all schools to administer paper-pencil tests, pushing digital infrastructure at the school level for better testing is a more worthwhile pursuit. The current government has a strong appetite for implementation and getting schools connected to good software can be done.

However, the main obstacle is not technology or implementation. Instead, the issue is one of mindset. Educational reform remains top-down, and the state/national level conversation is always around aggregate data that hides more than it shows.

Teachers also mark off test papers with the purpose of sending data upwards rather than using it inside the classroom. If you ask most teachers why this data is being collected, they will tell you it is for the higher-ups, or that tests make students take school seriously. Seldom will a teacher articulate how test results can be used to improve teaching. And that is the Achilles heel of test-based reform.

Unless teachers change their teaching practices, nothing will change. The real drivers of change at the school level are the teachers and school principals, and the culture of learning they bring into schools. But culture is difficult to engineer so it is relegated to the ‘oh and also, culture’ statement at the end of meetings. This is worrying since heaps of evidence suggest culture impacts student outcomes.

Related: Education Secretary Anil Swarup on policy changes that focus on the role of teachers 

PISA finds that students who report higher confidence in their abilities perform better and students whose parents or teachers have higher expectations of them perform better. Academia is flowing with research on social-emotional learning, and now perhaps even music, and their links to academic performance.

If one takes a system approach, these findings seem irrelevant since there is no practical way to apply this to a system. But if one is on the side of children, suddenly these findings become important. One feels compelled to address school culture and for that teachers and principals are the main levers.

Therefore, if student learning needs to be improved, the policy prescription is as follows:

  1. Scrap old-style tests and put in place technology for personalised assessment
  2. Focus on data analysis and use at the classroom level
  3. Decentralise the reform process such that it empowers school principals and teachers to bring about these changes.

All three measures target the individual student and the classroom. If classrooms change, schools will change. If schools change, the system will.

About the author: Natasha Joshi is an education specialist. She has worked with state education departments across Singapore, Mexico, and the USA, and most recently, was part of the education team at NITI Aayog.

This article first appeared in India Development Review. You can view the original here.

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

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Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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Find out more about the campaign here.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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