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Opinion

Navigating School Closures: How much are India’s students learning?

Published on 18 January 2021

Rajasvi Gandhi

Recent global estimates suggest that school closures, unequal access to technology-based educational inputs, and other disruptions caused by the pandemic are likely to result in ‘learning loss’. This presents a real fear of increasing school dropout rates, and aggravating existing equity gaps in education. Covid-19 has laid bare the various systematic inequities that plague access to education, such as socio-cultural status, gender, caste, and able bodied-ness. Additionally, recent research shows that 37% of girls from poor households are uncertain about coming back to school after the pandemic, since only 26% of girls from such households have access to Internet connectivity and devices.

The schooling crisis in India:

 Current trends also suggest school children will lose out in terms of lifetime earnings due to school closures. Children in South Asia will earn $319 less per year, costing the region over $800 billion over time. India will bear more than half of that loss. This is because missing out on school due to closures and lack of access to digital teaching indicates that children may lose out on future progress in the classroom, once schools reopen. Therefore, even if students attend the entirety of their schooling, the learning losses indicate that the actual development of skills that might occur will be greatly reduced, and will impact the earning potential of generations to follow—unless targeted instruction efforts are strengthened across the board.

While recent evidence details the devastating impact of the current school closures on education, Transform Schools, an Indian NGO, has been working to understand and mitigate the learning gaps that exist prominently at the secondary school level. This has been achieved through Utkarsh, their research-practice partnership programme with the State government in Odisha. The current educational crisis may have been worsened by Covid-19, and how some innovative solutions, exemplified by Utkarsh—such as empowering the state educational mechanism and creating accessible digital learning—might mitigate these issues.

Utkarsh, an NGO-State partnership:

The Utkarsh programme operates in the State of Odisha in a statewide partnership with the Government of Odisha. It is a programme that impacts every group and stakeholder within its purview. It consists of a series of classroom learning sessions, using existing teachers during the school day to help prepare students in class nine in the development, learning, and targeted instruction of key skills and lessons. Class nine is a crucial year for students, as they prepare for their Class 10 Board Exams, as an essential step for graduating from lower secondary school.

Utkarsh targets students’ learning rates in three different phases—over a period of 200 hours spaced out over 69 school days—with the aim of improving grade level learning for all students within the limited resources of the classroom, within a single academic year. The learning gains brought about by Utkarsh are centered on improving classroom dynamics and pedagogy in order to maximise students’ learning experience. Additionally, the programme focuses on magnifying the pedagogical skills of schoolteachers without replacing them, which imbues both students and teachers with transferable skills.

In 2020, an exciting Randomised Control Trial was concluded to assess the efficacy of Transform’s intervention in partnership with the State government, represented by Utkarsh. On average, it was found that the Utkarsh programme has added almost half a year’s worth of learning gains, and as much as 1.5 years of additional learning. Additionally, students improved across the board in all subjects. The optimism about these learning improvements can also be attributed to its scalability—the programme operates within the limited resources of government schools and works to strengthen the natural capacities of school teachers and educators, rather than relying on the availability of external resources.

A new pedagogical strategy

In addition, Utkarsh also leverages the existing knowledge and resources of state government officials, which creates a flourishing network of state-level educational workers. The programme does this by training existing teachers in a new pedagogical strategy that modifies the classroom content by covering the key concepts of classes three-five, and by keeping the specific limitations of the schools in mind—as funding cuts, understaffed schools, and lack of school infrastructure. Additionally, donors such as the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, Kusuma Trust, and N/Core have supported the adoption of this programme in four states—Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, and Haryana.

However, the school closures caused by Covid-19 have brought classroom teaching to a screeching halt. Over 320 million learners have been affected by the school closures, including over 130 million students at the secondary school level. These school closures have exposed the sharp technological divide that exists in India—while privileged, affluent students have no dearth of online education resources, the most disempowered students are being deprived of basic education. While the government has worked to generate digital education resources through the Internet and television, these resources have a limited reach of less than half of the students.

Accessible Digital Pivots: A Step Towards the Future

This digital and educational divide begs an obvious question—how can governments attempt to reach out to students who have limited or no access to digital learning? Here, too, Transform Schools hopes to lead accessible digital teaching. In partnership with state governments, education and subject experts have developed an alternate flexible academic calendar to minimise academic losses, and supplement home-based learning efforts. Transform Schools has pivoted to a digital form of Utkarsh, where student and teacher assessments are conducted with the support of the field staff, and resources are shared with students both digitally and in textbook format.

Community outreach has been a pillar of Utkarsh following the school closures; the field staff on the ground has been available regularly to address any issues that may arise regarding students’ access to the learning materials. Different field staff and teachers have pitched in to stay connected with students who had no digital access throughout the academic year. This way, Transform Schools has incorporated different methods of staying connected with students and teachers, irrespective of their ability to access technology.

As the need for strong education analysis rooted in data and equity has made itself clear over the last year, Transform Schools has been rapidly expanding in accordance with the need of the hour. Various new projects are being developed and implemented currently, including utilising Machine Learning for predictive analysis, understanding and predicting the factors that contribute to school dropouts, and targeting socioeconomic and gender inequity via a partnership with the Tribal Department of Odisha—the latter is currently being run by IDS alum Manmeet Kaur, at Transform Schools.

The importance of education has been thrown into sharp relief during the pandemic, and more resources than ever are needed to ensure that vulnerable students do not drop out of school. Moving ahead, Transform Schools hopes to mobilise various like-minded partners, including volunteers, researchers, governments, and impact investors.

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