Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Empowering educators to improve education Part II

In the previous post, we talked about Sikshana’s efforts in empowering teachers and educators, thus enabling them to improve school performance in India.

But all this is of course, anecdotal, and we only had Mr. Ramamurthy’s words for it. Does Sikshana have concrete, quantitative results to show for this? Indeed they do. At the end of each year, Sikshana again carries out tests for all students in the school (using the Premji foundation tests), and evaluates them. This then gives them a very concrete metric to measure improvement. The results thus far have been very encouraging, with anything between 10 – 50% improvement in the scores of kids in just one year. And more interestingly, a majority of the schools have met their own self-defined target for improvement. When asked how, the teachers usually say that they really appreciate the freedom Sikshana gives, and the trust it places in them, so feel obliged to work hard.

A lot, in Mr. Ramamurthy’s words, can be done with very little.

These seemingly simple interventions appear to have had a major effect in improving education in these schools. Yet, this method may not work everywhere. When asked for examples where this method doesn’t work as well, Mr. Ramamurthy unhesitatingly said this system didn’t work as well for them in urban schools in Bangalore. This is why they thought it didn’t work as well in urban schools. This system works a lot on faith in the teacher, and his general observation that in Indian rural areas, communities still work substantially on trust and honor. And “loss of face” by failing to make a commitment is still looked down upon in the local community. Rural school teachers are usually a close and highly respected part of the rural community. They are a part of the village elite, who are looked up to. With this status, they usually also feel obliged to work hard when trusted with resources, since they are praised and valued for work done well. So this system has worked in over a 100 schools in rural Karnataka. However, this seems to be lost in the anonymity of an urban setting. Teachers in urban schools are not really integrated into the school community. In fact, there isn’t really a school community, since kids come from different neighborhoods, economic backgrounds and communities. The teacher is just another anonymous person in a city of millions. So, teachers and staff (with exceptions of course) usually treat teaching as just a job that gives them a salary, and they usually want to get the best out of the job that they can. Only a few rare, dedicated urban teachers want to really improve the condition of their students. The local communities and parents of students will never feel that the school belongs to them, and is an integral part of their daily lives. In Bangalore, there is sometimes a second reason as well. An occasional problem of plenty.

A number of companies based in Bangalore now try to do their bit for the community, by supporting schools. Some of them do so by giving grants to schools, sometimes as a once in a year thingy, and with little expected in return. For example, to get some good PR, a company might donate a hundred thousand rupees, or send in some computers. But most of these companies do not ask the teachers/principal if they need it, what they would do with it, and how they will ensure that the children improve their performance. This means some urban schools have access to funds which they can spend, but without the expectations that the Sikshana model sets. So, in cases where Sikshana has approached some urban schools in Bangalore, and offered to provide (the limited) resources, with expectations set at the start, the teachers/staff are hostile, and say “there are other people giving us a few lakh rupees and they don’t ask questions, why do you want to set expectations, and then expect us to meet them?”. So, Sikshana largely burnt its hands with its forays in urban Bangalore, and now keeps most of its focus in rural/semi-rural schools.

Aniket, in a comment in the previous post, asked pertinently, “what happens when Sikshana goes away”. The beauty of this type of model though is that many of the improvements are carried out with very little monetary investment (their costs right now are about $1000 per school, and they cover over a 100 schools). A major emphasis has been on building the confidence of the teachers, and getting the community involved. With greater community involvement, there automatically are significant improvements at least in the basic functioning of the school. This is partly independently sustainable. Long term though, this type of system can become sustainable only through policy action of the government. One problem with the government though (particularly in India, but true mostly) is that it is a rigid, top-down approach, mandating specifics from teachers and staff (for example, requiring 30 students/year to take the board exam), as opposed to this model, expecting results, but giving the teachers the freedom to use resources as they see fit. Also, government policy will not make teachers owners of the resources, and thus teachers will not be inclined to responsibly utilize it. So, it is a bit of a chicken and egg question, and the answer (after all this hand waving) is that I don’t know. Sikshana though wants to collaborate with the state government (which does support it significantly here) and expand this program across the state (as well as take this model to other states which have expressed interest, such as Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu).

Finally, I’ll touch upon a topic that is an elephant in the room that every one pretends doesn’t exist. Education in India is a lucrative business, backed by powerful patrons. Everything from setting up a school to obtaining a license to growing costs money, and lots of money greases the wheels. Which means there may be almost a subtle incentive for governments to keep government school standards modest at best, and encourage (or at least wink at) the proliferation of private schools (which charge fees). Any attempt at government school reform will be at best half-hearted, with roadblocks along the way. Do I see a solution through this? Nope. Do you?

And yes, Sikshana does have a blog, reasonably well updated, and is great to read. So do check it out.

(I’m headed the India way next week, for a few busy days, so there may be a few travel posts from a bedazzled almost-tourist visiting the cities he grew up in, but will probably not recognize anymore. Enjoy the festival season and a happy new year to you).

Monday, December 22, 2008

Empowering educators to improve education (Part I)

Let’s talk about education in India for a bit.

Most of us will agree that while some of us have received an excellent (mostly private school) education, the overall condition of the government run state schools are a mess. Educational standards remain abysmal and students go through classes barely learning to read, write or count, and drop out to go and work in their fields or graze cattle (or worse, work in stone quarries or textile mills). Many of us look at the problem superficially, declare that government schools suck, and then state that the solution lies in privatizing education. Yet, that argument is at best simplistic (and at worst dangerous). While there are tens of thousands of private schools in India, from schools run in a backyard to outstanding elite, exclusive, expensive private entities, the vast majority of children in India (particularly rural and semi-rural India) still study in government schools. This number is in the hundreds of millions of children (think the entire population of the United States). A majority of these children are poor, and their parents will struggle to afford private schools (some of you may now say the solution is in education vouchers, and that is a whole different story we won’t talk about here), so the primary educator will remain the government of India.

So, here’s the status quo. All of us will readily agree that a majority of government schools suck. However, the reasons we attribute this to varies, from teacher absenteeism to social structures to lack of motivation to whatever else. Most solutions to “fix” or improve these schools have largely been some top heavy, one size fit all approaches that have mostly failed. But there are some wonderful examples of government schools that have shown dramatic improvements. Often this has been enabled by the efforts of some Non-governmental organization (NGO) or the other. I thought I’d talk a little about one such group, Sikshana, and what they have achieved. A couple of weeks ago, I got to meet and hear the founder of the group, Mr. Ramamurthy, talk about Sikshana.

Their goal is to empower educators and bring about quality education. The group wants to create sustainable models to improve government schools across the country, and ensure that government schools do a decent job in providing a sound basic education to kids. This of course sounds cliché, and is easier said than done. Sikshana realized early on that the usual top-heavy approach requiring schools to enforce some standards hasn’t worked too well. Instead, Sikshana decided to use a mostly carrot, little stick approach, implicitly believing that most people want to do something well as long as they are not forced to do it and do it on their own, and that small incentives can be a strong motivator to do this. So their model seems almost laughably simple, yet when you look at it closely is brilliant. So here is their multi-pronged strategy to improve schools.

Sikshana has currently adopted about 100 schools in the Kanakapura district (which is a semi-rural district not too far from Bangalore). This they did with the full support of the government. But by adopting the school, they did not take up all running responsibilities (that responsibility still lies with the government, which should not be allowed to wash its hands of all responsibility). So the government continues to run the schools, provide the basic mid-day food, employ and pay the teachers, provide the school building etc. Sikshana steps in though and only acts as a facilitator or provider for small things. But even this they decided not to thrust upon the school in a typical charitable organization fashion. Here’s what they do (and they do it slightly differently in each school, based on the nature of that school). They first get together and meet the school principal, teachers and staff, and sit down for a chat, to get an idea about the school. They find out if the teachers are really keen on improving the school (and try hard to get an honest feedback). Then they conduct a test for all the students in the school (using material from the Premji foundation), in order to gauge the level of comprehension of all students. After that, they discuss the results with the school staff. Usually, levels are abysmal (and usually the staff, when shown the results, are rather apologetic in typical rural Indian fashion). At this stage, Sikshana asks them if they think things can be improved with small investments, and if so, how much of an improvement the staff think they can guarantee. Here’s the clincher, Sikshana doesn’t ask the schools for a laundry list of equipment or needs (which is the usual procedure followed by charities or NGOs), but says they will provide a small amount of resources to the school, and the school staff have full control over those resources, to be used as they feel fit. Usually this elicits a startled response, since the teachers are usually only told to do something, but are rarely given any discretionary authority. But now, they are given the full power to do whatever they think is necessary to improve things. Different schools and teachers now react differently, and do different things with it. Sikshana usually knows that all teachers usually do only a few things (from their studies and data), but don’t insist that the teachers do it, instead allowing the teachers to come up with ideas themselves. This, it seems, is a strong motivating factor for the teachers/principal to put in a serious effort. After all, it is almost as if they will be spending their own money for something and not just use a hand-me-down. They implicitly accept personal responsibility, and surprisingly take it up as a challenge to improve performance. So the teachers often jump in and tell Sikshana they’ll make sure that things improve by 10% or 20% in a year!

Thus, the resources the school gets are used for a wide variety of things. Here are some examples. Some schools spend all the money to organize an annual day celebration. While they do this, Sikshana encourages the school to involve the local community (the parents of the kids). Initially, for some schools, this was a challenge since the parents had never been involved with the school before. But over a few years, this changed. The first annual day celebration might have attracted only a handful of parents, but the next few showed increased participation. Slowly, as the parents saw their kids win prizes at the event, or saw them perform (in a dance or play or sporting event), they became more enthusiastic supporters of the school. So much so, that in some schools now, the entire annual day celebration has become some kind of a community event, with some parents now putting up tents for the event, others sponsoring mikes or loudspeakers, and others organizing food or treats for the kids. With greater parental enthusiasm about the school, the kids themselves start becoming more enthusiastic, and the attraction of winning a prize in front of the entire village during the annual day function starts becoming a big incentive to excel in school. Sikshana then started another little program. It started to conduct some annual quizzes and other such events and selected one or two students from each school it supports, to take them on a field trip to Delhi. Now, Bangalore itself remains a dream for most of these kids, and Delhi might as well be Mars to them. So the kids who make it to these trips become some kind of village heroes or celebrities. In some cases, the entire village comes together to send off the kid on the trip, or collects a few hundred rupees for the kid to spend “when you go to Delhi and see the red fort”. These kinds of things again become huge incentives not just for the children, but for the teachers as well, as it becomes a question of pride as to which school sends more kids on the field trip.

That is community involvement. Sikshana provides (or “enables” as they put it) more concrete educational aids as well. For example, some schools asked for some computers for the kids, which they got. Sikshana keeps costs of computing software low by using open source software (Ubuntu/Red Hat etc), so they are able to meet many of these requests on their budget. But then, additionally, Sikshana then provided the kids of the schools with USB thumb memory drives. This enables the kids not just to play with the computer but to store their work, something that almost all schools completely overlook. The kids were given full, unrestricted access to the computers, and were allowed to just figure things out on their own. The results have been startling and amazing. Some kids, on their own (and with no computer training) have come up with fantastic little projects, using flash and animation in their creations. Many of these kids don’t speak a word of English, and some of them had paid little attention in class ever. But something in the computer (and the freedom they had with it) sparked something in the kids, and soon, they even started showing more involvement in class, as their confidence grew, and their work on the computer was appreciated.

In the next part of the post (which I’ll post in a day or two), we’ll talk a bit about success measures, and what didn’t work.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The hardest, most satisfying thing I’ve ever done

Regular programming should hopefully resume now at Balancing Life. The past few weeks have been hectic, and quite eventful. I ran and completed my first marathon this Sunday, when I survived the Dallas White Rock Marathon.

Why did I do it? Well, I really wanted to run this marathon for a great charity, and wanted to raise ~2000$ for them. To do that, I had to do something challenging, and believe me, the marathon was more than that. But by doing this I’ve learnt so many lessons.

The marathon itself was an incredible experience. There were nearly 20000 runners of all ages, shapes and sizes who ran either the full, half or relay marathon. I thought the weather was good, since it had suddenly become warmer. But there were very strong head winds and a humidity of nearly 85%. At the start we felt fine running, but as the miles wore on, the conditions began to take their toll. I had trained hard over the past 2-3 months, and hoped to run at a 9 – 9:15 min/mile pace, which I kept up for the first 17 miles. But as we reached the lake, the wind became increasingly nasty, and though I kept hydrating at all water stations, I was beginning to feel the effect of the humidity. We had some hills to run at mile 19-20, and soon after I negotiated them, my left leg started cramping. A friend of mine (who wasn’t running the marathon) met me at mile 20 and decided to run the last 6 miles with me. As the cramps got worse, I had to slow down dramatically, but he kept talking to me, encouraging me to keep moving. I did, and finally we saw that finish line and the huge crowd that was there. Running across that finish line was amongst the most exhilarating moments of my life. I was so exhausted at the finish, and could barely walk up to where they were handing out the finisher medals, but boy, was I happy to grab that! Along the way, as I ran, I saw so many incredibly inspiring sights.

There was an old woman (in her eighties, the oldest runner in the race) running a half marathon. Her T-shirt read “a model in 1932, and still running”. There was another man who ran the half marathon. He had no legs, but ran with prosthetic limbs. There was a small group of 5 people, mom, dad and 3 teenaged kids, running the half marathon with T-shirts saying “A family tradition for 10 years”. Up to mile 19, a gentleman in his early 60s kept pace with me, and then, as he couldn’t keep up any more said “you’re not too bad, are you”. And I am a good thirty years younger than him! The crowds that came by to cheer the runners as we ran around Dallas were fantastic, and made every runner feel special. And of course there were those elite international runners from Kenya and various other African countries running up in front at blinding speed. One can only look at them in awe and wonderment.

All this running has also brought so much discipline in my life. Long runs take a lot of time out of the day, so one has to be more efficient and organized with all other work. Of course, I’m incredibly sore after the race, but overall this running has dramatically improved my health (and helped me get rid of that little paunch that was embarrassing me). My diet has subconsciously changed, and I can’t bear even the sight of fried food any more. There are lots of carbs and protein in my diet now, and lots of fruits and vegetables as well. While I still indulge in some sweets, my body now demands only good, wholesome food. The only occasionally acceptable alcohol any more is a rare glass of red wine. And the best part of it all is that after a long run I can pretty much eat whatever I want to (each mile run burns about 100 calories), but only want to eat healthy stuff.

Most important of all, thanks to incredible support from friends and family, I was (more or less) able to reach my charity fundraising goal, and know that it has made a small contribution in helping a bunch of kids read (and I know the money goes there, because I make it a point to visit and spend time in those projects ever time I visit India). If this doesn’t give a sense of satisfaction, nothing will.