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.