Debate: There is Evidence to Back Policies on Ability-Based Education

Research suggests that the Delhi government's decision to teach students according to their ability level is the best solution to India's learning crisis.

The Delhi government’s education reforms have, perhaps, been one of the most discussed and written about subjects of the past few years. An opinion piece appeared in The Wire recently arguing that ability-based segregation in Delhi government schools harms peer learning.

Though I disagree with the piece, I would like to thank the author for giving me an opportunity to reiterate where the prevalent learning crisis in India lies and what the possible path forward is that Delhi has attempted to chart over the last few years.

It is now a well-known fact that the majority of our children are several years behind in their ability to read and do basic mathematics. All evaluation studies, including the ones commissioned by the government, now openly admit to this. The inability to strengthen foundational learning skills such as reading and mathematics despite several years of schooling reflects a monumental failure of governments and their policies.

The children who are unable to read basic texts by grade 2 or 3 find it difficult to catch up with the increasing rigour of the curriculum and eventually develop low self-esteem and drop out from the system altogether. Therefore, ensuring foundational skills in the early years to all students, regardless of their socio-economic background, provides equal opportunity to perform well in school.

Also read: As AAP Turns Government Schools Around, Questions about Learning Linger

Research has also linked foundational learning to increased employability and higher living standards. According to a study by the UNESCO Education For All global monitoring report, if all students left school with basic reading skills, 17 crore people could be lifted out of poverty in the world. This is an important finding in a country wherein a bulk of population earns less than Rs 200 a day.

I mention all this to highlight the importance of foundational learning skills. So it is clear that building foundational skills is of critical importance, but how do we achieve this goal?

There is a body of literature on this too which the author unfortunately chose to ignore.

A research study conducted by J-PAL using randomised controlled trials provides some insights. In Haryana, J-PAL and Pratham partnered to teach children for one hour starting from their existing language proficiency. They termed it “Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL)” pedagogy. The methodology was simple. Evaluate children’s learning levels, and group similar levels children together to provide dedicated attention and pedagogical support. These groups change with time as children transition to higher levels of language proficiency.

The study found that students who were a part of the study scored 0.15 standard deviations higher on the reading test and 0.135 standard deviations higher on the written test than students who were not a part of the study. The number of students who could read a paragraph or story increased to 53% from 34%, an increase of 19%.

This pedagogy has been rigorously evaluated in various contexts. So, the Delhi government adopted the approach that has been rigorously evaluated by J-PAL, an organisation led by none less than two Nobel laureates, Abhijeet Banerjee and Esther Duflo.

Also read: The Pursuit of Happiness: Delhi Govt Schools to Combat Mental Health Issues

A study commissioned by Delhi Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) and released three days ago noted gains in students language and arithmetic levels – a 20% increase in primary grade students who could solve division and 25% increase for students of class 6-9th. These gains have been achieved within a period of three months. Further, the report also noted the enthusiasm of students to attend the special classes for them even during their summer break.

Clearly, working with children at the level at which they are has a positive impact and children are able to read and engage in classrooms more effectively, enabling them to learn higher concepts. A child who has achieved early success becomes more curious, and less likely to be socially ostracised, and hence continue schooling. This is not conjecture, but insights drawn from a large body of research and literature.

Anurag Kundu works as secretary-rank officer in his capacity as member, Delhi Commission For Protection of Child Rights, Government of Delhi. He has been involved in the study to evaluate the impact of Delhi government’s interventions to improve learning outcomes.