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).


Anonymous said...

Since you are in Wash DC how about helping us with our schools in US?

Anonymous said...

Hi Sunil,

Comprehensive coverage. Great couple of posts there.

Your comment does provide a strategy for Sikshana (I'm sure they've thought of this)- get it to work in states that'd like to sponsor their model. That should provide more data to convince the remaining state governments and perhaps the National government as well (at least get noticed).


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