Delivering quality primary education in India: What works?

With primary education enrollment having surpassed 90 percent for more than a decade now, India is urgently looking towards its next frontier: ensuring high-quality of primary education throughout the country. It is widely known that the lack of a solid foundation at primary levels has a domino effect on an individual’s life. The foundation for a child’s education needs to be developed early as the learning gaps continue to widen as curriculum in higher grades becomes more complex. This presents an immediate need to ensure a uniform quality of primary education throughout the country as a first step to developing a skilled workforce in India.

With this urgent need to improve learning outcomes at primary levels as a guiding force, we at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation have been working for more than 10 years to identify solutions to this massive and pressing challenge. We have worked closely with more than 40 organisations including social enterprises, NGOs, tech companies, assessment agencies, among others to solve for this problem at scale. Looking back at our experiences in navigating our work with different organisations such as Nandi, Bodh, STCI, Pratham, Gyanshala, Ruchika, SARD, etc. – each of whom have adopted very different pedagogical models – we have found that there are three common elements that make primary education programmes successful. They are:

Well-defined competency frameworks for all grades and subjects

In India, the thrust of the formal education system has been syllabus completion for the purpose of defining grade completion. However, we have learned through our programmes that the entire system needs to be re-oriented to competence building among students. For example, it may not be important to cover all chapters of an English language textbook, instead the focus should be on students gaining the ability to use a certain level of grammar, appropriate to their grade. This approach is a huge departure from usually prescribed syllabus completion/chapter orientation. By re-aligning teachers’ efforts to the end goal of achieving specific competencies, we can re-define the metrics of success in primary education and create a more solid foundation for higher grades.

Regular, competency-linked assessments to review performance

To make the competence framework effective, it is important to also tailor the assessments in schools to the evaluation of competencies rather than relying on regular exams that have become increasingly geared towards rote learning. These assessments ensure that the entire ecosystem is focusing on bringing students’ abilities to par with the expected competencies of their grade. The competence-linked assessments should occur on a regular basis to allow for course correction throughout the academic year instead of waiting until the year’s end to assess students’ abilities. The assessment data should also be accessible for teachers and students so they can review their own performance.

Scripted feedback for teachers on identified competence gap and a clear roadmap for corrective action

A competence-based framework and linked assessments will only be successful if teachers are aided in using the assessments to identify learning gaps in their classroom and take corrective action. It is important for teachers to get specific training and feedback on the competencies which are common trouble areas for their students. They need to be empowered with a roadmap to follow in order to close these learning gaps.  All new training content, activities, and lesson plans should ladder up to the competency goals, and personalized feedback must be provided to help each student make progress.

The government of Haryana has applied these three elements with success in different forms and at scale through their Saksham Haryana Programmes. Through this programme, specific interventions fostered alignment in the public-school education system to achieve grade competence through teacher training, assessments, remedial classes. These interventions applied over a period of five years have shown positive results. The most recent round of assessments showed that more than 80 percent of students are grade-level competent across the state, compared to 40 percent in 2014. This approach has also worked well in private schools through the IMAX Program.

While continuing to evolve our work and partnerships in primary education, we have now begun to think of solutions that can improve the quality of secondary education at scale. Our initial research shows that a completely different approach might be needed to address reform in secondary education, given the push to improve performance on board examinations and greater challenges in staffing and improving capacity of teachers.

I look forward to sharing our process of learning and understanding appropriate interventions for secondary education. We continue to remain steadfast in our work in primary education and hope to leverage this success to further scale our solutions reaching more geographies, more school systems and more children.