Friday, August 1, 2008

How to get 100 million children in India reading in three years

How do you go from a rural India in 2006 in which:- close to half the children in grade 1 could not recognize numbers or letters- almost half the children in grade 2 could not read a grade 1-level text fluently or do a 2-digit subtraction problem confidently- about half the children in grade 5 could not read a grade 2-level text easily or do a simple division problem
to a situation by 2009 in which:- all grade 1 children know at least the alphabet and numbers- all grade 2 children can read at least simple words and do simple sums- all grades 3-5 children can at least read simple texts fluently and solve arithmetic problems confidently
And do it for a target population of almost a 100 million children?
To find out the answer, I recently took a trip to Meerut District in Uttar Pradesh with Ashish Sharma and Nuzhat Mallik of the education NGO, Pratham. It is a bright, hot August day. As we turn the corner between narrow rows of small, roughly built houses, we are immediately sucked into a symphony of singing and movement. Some 40 children are following the lead of a young man who is calling out the words of a Hindi song about an elephant and acting out its actions. The faces of the children are radiant; the energy is palpable. Not the sort of thing I would associate with government schools. This is Pratham’s Read India campaign at work.

Pratham has launched the campaign Nai Disha (meaning New Directions) and reached 2.1 million children between November 2006 and May 2007 in 20 UP districts. In these districts, Pratham’s random testing showed that grade 1 children who could read nothing had gone down from 59 percent to 18 percent and grade 2 children who could not recognize the numbers from 1 to 20 had gone down from 56 percent to 18 percent.
These are dramatic results, and have been replicated elsewhere, giving Pratham the confidence that they can organize the rapid, large-scale action needed to reach the goals of this initiative. The way Pratham has used outcome measurement to build public opinion on the quality of primary education also gives them confidence. In 2005 Pratham launched a nationwide, volunteer-led, participatory assessment of learning outcomes and produced the first Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER), showing that of the large numbers of rural children in primary schools, almost half were learning practically nothing. This was followed by even a bigger ASER 2006 (covering some 549 rural Indian districts from a possible 587), from which the results above are quoted. Pratham has committed to produce ASER (which means “impact” in Hindi) for 10 years. In the wake of the success since 2001 with getting more kids into school as part of India’s universal primary education program, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, ASER is widely credited along with the work on teacher absenteeism in India in 2003-04 with refocusing the national debate on learning outcomes and quality.
At the heart of Read India is, first, a commitment to work with the government, teachers, the schools, and communities to make sure that kids learn. Pratham strongly believes that creating an articulate demand for quality primary education that results in demonstrated, basic learning is important to reform the system. Second, it uses an accelerated teaching technique piloted in 2002 that can bring about visible changes in the learning levels of children in about three months.
Pratham’s training model equips each volunteer with the ability to transform the learning levels of 15-20 children in a couple of weeks. This vitalizes volunteers and communities to initiate, by themselves, a process of transformation of the education status of their communities, their states, and eventually the nation. Between November 2006 and April 2007 Pratham’s rural teams worked with Shiksha Mitras (teacher’s assistants) in government schools in 20 districts across Uttar Pradesh to improve the learning levels of grade I and II children. In a second phase during the 2007 summer, all rural teams moved to three UP districts, including Meerut, with the objective of covering every child in those districts. At least two volunteers per village were mobilized across 4500 villages in the three districts, reaching some 100,000 children every day. Besides UP, Pratham has commenced work on Read India with other states and the list is growing rapidly.
I had first met Nuzhat Mallik of Pratham in 2005 in Jaunpur in Eastern Uttar Pradesh while visiting the Pratham-MIT-World Bank research project on the role of information in mobilizing communities to demand better services. The abiding impression I have from that visit is that of a girl in the third grade turning a test card with simple sentences on it first this way and then that, confused which way the alphabet had to be read.
The Meerut visit has restored my faith that much can be done, and done quickly, even as the challenge remains monumental. India still accounts for one-quarter of the world’s 104 million out-of-school children, in addition to those in school who are not learning (Additional resources here on education in India). India’s 86th Constitutional Amendment (2002) makes elementary education a fundamental right of every child. Pratham is helping make that a reality. There is similar news from other parts of the world. This week I chaired a lunch-time seminar in Washington DC organized by the Bank’s Human Development Network on the RECURSO program in Peru, with a similar emphasis on using measurement and community involvement to build demand and the accountability for service delivery and outcomes.(
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