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Does schooling automatically mean learning?

8 May 2017
Diwakar Kishore

Diwakar Kishore looks at a recent SSIR blog and how ASER has challenged the idea that being in school guarantees an education.

Leading academic and researcher, Dr. Rukmini Banerji, recently wrote a blog post, When Schooling Doesn’t Mean Learning, that was published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The post talks about ASER (Annual Status of Education Report), a citizen-led assessment that measures children’s learning levels, and how the assessment has challenged the idea that being in school guarantees an education.

As the CEO of Pratham (a learning organisation created to improve quality of education in India) and a Director of ASER, Dr. Banerji has seen first-hand the effects of a simple assessment undertaken away from the classroom in local communities. In the blog, she narrates an anecdote from her experiences while conducting the ASER survey. As part of the survey, a child is asked to perform tasks equivalent to the skills acquired after two years of schooling and includes recognising letters and reading words, sentences, and short stories. She writes that a father of two children in a village in Central India was shocked to discover that his children, in Grade 3 and Grade 5, were unable to read and comprehend a text based on Grade 2 curriculum, despite their enrolment in a private school.

There has been a long-standing assumption of a direct correlation between years of schooling and the amount of learning, not just among parents, but also global leaders. This has led to universal schooling being a top agenda item for countries and international organisations. Unfortunately, as Dr. Banerji explains in the blog, the evidence from developing countries, such as the ASER Reports on India, have shown that half of all the Grade 5 students who were evaluated could not read a text aimed at Grade 2 children. Dr. Banerji went on to state that, “five years of schooling did not even translate into two years’ worth of learning for more than half of all children who were tested.” Consequently, it seems that global leaders and international organisations have been focusing too much on ensuring children’s physical presence in schools, rather than ensuring these children receive a quality education.

Dr. Banerji has long been an advocate of empowering multiple stakeholders, like parents, educators, and policymakers, with tools and evidence that can help align them around a new goal of “learning” rather than just a focus on enrollment. In a Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) blog, Dr. Banerji explained how ASER has been contributing towards this movement: “Ordinary people (volunteers) fan out into villages and communities, to reach households and children. In the presence of their families and others, children read simple text and recognize numbers and do basic computations. Each child in a sampled household gets one-on-one attention. And over the heads of the children, between parents and neighbours, there are conversations about the status of schooling and learning in the community.” As Dr. Banerji wrote in her Stanford Social Innovation Review blog, “…for many people, first-hand evaluation is essential to ‘seeing’ the problem.”

RISE recognises the urgent need for education solutions beyond business-as-usual, incremental increases in materials, infrastructure or other inputs. RISE aims to understand how school systems in the developing world can overcome the learning crisis by seeking holistic, practical answers about how education systems can innovate, improve learning outcomes, and better serve all children and communities. To this end, RISE has commissioned ambitious, six-year, high-quality research programmes in India, Pakistan, Tanzania and Vietnam, with a further two country research teams joining the Programme in 2017. The Programme will build the evidence base necessary to enhance children’s learning levels through the gathering and interpretation of data that will lead to education reform and improved learning outcomes on a global level. RISE intends research to go beyond the proximate causes of test score performance to trace out the underlying structural features of both well-functioning and poorly functioning systems.

Dr. Banerji’s vision has been integral to RISE since its inception. She is part of the highly distinguished Intellectual Leadership Team (ILT) of the RISE Programme. During the initial stages, she was clear, emphatic and instrumental in setting goals for RISE when she said: “Going to school is visible. Parents, communities, and public officials can see children going to school. Governments and donors have been obsessed with counting that. But now that in many countries most children are in school, it is time to make learning equally visible.” 

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