Ashok Kamath
Chairman, Akshara Foundation

Improving preschool and primary education in India: A prescription for prosperity

December 15, 2016

Omidyar Network is supporting Akshara Foundation to scale its programs to improve the overall education ecosystem in Karnataka, India by focusing on community-driven solutions.

In April 2012, the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s Regional Economic Outlook report stressed the fact that “India’s demographic transition is presently well underway, and the age structure of the population there is likely to evolve favorably over the next two to three decades.” By 2020, India’s population will include 28% of the world’s working population, ages 15–64, with potential to accelerate the country’s status as an economic powerhouse in ways that can bring direct benefits to its citizens in all areas, from health care to education. This cautious note of optimism, however, hinges on there being a series of reforms. While the IMF argues mostly in favor of trade and open markets, India can reap the demographic dividend only if our education system undergoes significant change. And it is not higher education alone that must be strengthened; the foundations of the education system (i.e., preschool and primary school) must improve in order for children to perform well in tertiary education.

Why is education and, in particular, early education, so important?

India’s economic growth is critically dependent on our ability to manage our transition from agriculture to manufacturing and services. And that means generating enough jobs to be able to absorb more than 10 million young people into the workforce every year for the next 20 years. At Akshara, we share Omidyar Network’s view of the critical importance of education as a direct pathway to opportunity and empowerment. By investing in higher-quality education, we can have a great impact on the future financial security and well-being of young people, securing a stronger collective future.

Developing human capital to scale is not a trivial task. As one can see, even with the available government resources, we have failed to deliver. One of the key impediments to the efficient delivery of quality education to children in the state of Karnataka, and India at large, is the lack of accountability of the entire delivery system. On the supply side, data has shown that over a quarter of the teachers are not in the classrooms during school hours; the monitoring mechanisms typified by a hierarchy of roles have all become mere sign-offs to ensure that “the lesson plan has been done” rather than focusing on meaningful outcomes. On the other hand, the demand for change is not as great as it should be, which to some extent can be attributed to the fact that most of the children are first-generation learners (i.e., the parents themselves had no access to education and do not have a good sense of what is reasonable to expect).

Unfortunately, the focus has been (and continues to be) on inputs — and too little outcome data is available. For example, there is little or no information on the learning levels of children prior to a child’s first “public” exam, in class 10. This means it is too late to make course corrections with respect to quality. About the only data that has been available consistently in the past several years has been from the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER). This is especially troubling as early childhood and primary education is so critical to long-term success. Children build foundational skills in their early years that affect the rest of their learning and lives.

So, how do we get the supply and demand sides to intersect for optimal performance?

At Akshara Foundation we developed and incubated a framework called the Karnataka Learning Partnership (KLP), which addresses many of the issues. The framework captures data on every child with the ability of ensuring a unique ID for each child linked to his or her school. Each school is geopositioned and tagged with the school’s code (called District Information System for Education (DISE) code) issued by the central government-administered National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA). Assessments on reading, comprehension and math proficiencies are measured and tracked, as are children’s book borrowing habits from their classroom libraries set up by Akshara. We also track perceptions on education from parents and community members in rural Karnataka.

With this structure, we can start the process of ensuring that every child is tracked in the system. Over time, we will be able to define and measure learning outcomes in more sophisticated ways to determine what is working and what is not working, in order to institute enhancements and course corrections.

What is required to create systemic change?

At Akshara we believe that it will take a network of nonprofits and for-profits working across multiple verticals (e.g., education, health, nutrition) to bring their data on children together to tell a story and use this story to galvanize community-led ownership of the public schooling system to drive responsibility, accountability, and change. Civil society can help spur more effective governance through partnerships that are crucial to stimulating innovation, participation, and empowerment.

So how do we engage various stakeholders in a structure like KLP?

Here are a couple of examples: On the KLP website, we created a module called “Share Your Story” to allow community members to visit schools and voice their opinions. We expect that this will enable us to get individual community members to be more involved in the process of improving education where they live. Additionally, we are making reports with information pertaining to individual constituencies available to elected representatives and government officials — who can be influential, which is essential to making positive changes.

However, we recognize that much more needs to be done to inform the parents of children who go to government preschools and primary schools. A majority of these parents are illiterate and have never been online due to lack of electricity, computers, computer educators, internet connections, local-language content, and illiteracy. This is clearly a constituency that has “no choice and no voice.”

We are, therefore, creating a flexible mash-up of interactive voice response systems (IVRS), live voice, internet, telephone, and Android-based apps on mobile phones to bring the right information to people, on demand, no matter their level of technological literacy. We are adapting and leveraging ubiquitous mobile phone technology to create local language voice systems that any community organization can administer to make their resources and information accessible. We have piloted this approach and are scaling this up this year.

What do we expect in the future?

If we are able to leverage and coordinate the energy of various stakeholders and strengthen the pre-primary and primary school education system in Karnataka, we can demonstrate the power of a model that can be worthy of national adoption, forming a stronger basis for future learning and progress. As the recent editorial comment in The Economist magazine suggested: “India’s century is not an inevitability. It is a giant opportunity that India is in danger of squandering.” It is only by doubling down on improving education solutions that we will make Indian prosperity a reality in the decades to come.

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