On codifying grade-specific learning outcomes in RTE

Union Government has notified a new RTE rule, mandating state governments to codify grade-specific learning levels. This is a sensitive issue and needs to be dealt with nuance.

One of the primary critiques of RTE is that it focuses on infrastructure and NOT on learning outcomes. The logical deduction of this line of argument is that RTE should (also) use learning outcomes as the metric. While, it's desirable to shape the act in terms of learning outcomes, its effects depend on the way these outcomes are detailed. 


There are genuine philosophical and practical concerns with this approach which have to be taken care of.

One, the approach of codifying grade-specific learning outcomes is against the whole emerging theme of 'learning at one's own pace' and 'teaching to the right level'. If what a student is supposed to learn within specific time (1 year) is fixed, it reduces the flexibility of learning at one's own pace. 

A large number of pedagogy specialists therefore vehemently oppose any such strict mandates. US followed a similar approach with No Child Left Behind Act with not so great success and some in fact call it a failure.  I have detailed the debate regarding assessments in general, in my book, in the Appendix. One may refer to that for a wider context. For the purpose of the post, let's stick to the particular issue at hand.

Two, the act of measuring learning outcomes can lead to other policies in future that make teachers accountable to the learning outcomes of their class. This, many argue, has the potential to have disastrous effects. Teachers teach to the test, encourage cheating, teach only to the top of the class and so on. To those, interested, my book has a separate chapter summarising the insights from literature on teacher incentives.

Three, there are implementation issues and concerns regarding copying etc.

Leaving out the implementation concerns, which are characteristic of any large scale effort, other concerns are genuine and hence have to be dealt carefully. Let us first explore the need for such decision and then come to the concerns regarding the decision.


The need for grade-specific benchmarks



1. To change the "incentive-architecture" of teachers: While opponents of codifying outcomes do have a point that codifying grade specific learning outcomes goes contrary to the philosophy of learning at one's own pace, they are over emphasising it.

If we actually look at the existing scenario, the yearly performance metrics of teachers already exist and teachers are made accountable to them, except that the current metric is completion of syllabus. 

The syllabus completion psychology has deteriorating effects. With the syllabus completion mindset of teachers, even the best efforts to improve the governance systems won't be fruitful because teachers always follow the mandate of completing the syllabus. 

Esther Duflo in her Ely lecture points that efforts to implement pedagogically sound Pratham's Teach at the Right Level in government schools didn't yield much success initially, due to the "incentive architecture" of teachers. In this particular case, a special session each day within school time, dedicated to addressing remedial needs of students was neglected by teachers because teachers' were working with syllabus completion mindset during school time. When the same dedicated session was implemented after school hours, it proved to be successful, because teachers were working outside the 'syllabus completion' framework.

Even the CCE has been reduced to monitoring teachers' compliance with 'correcting assignments' and 'updating marks', with no focus on learning.

Education minister of a state recently remarked that "we have become slaves to syllabus completion".

I had hence argued earlier that traditional curriculum of first three years should be kept aside for some time and schools should focus only on ensuring reading, writing and numeracy. I noted that this should be the first and foremost step to be taken by any government interested in improving education quality.

The new rule codifying minimum outcomes does something to the similar effect. It highlights the need to ensure these minimum outcomes, along side completion of syllabus.

2. To prevent alibi system: While we should let students learn at their own pace, one needs to identify threshold levels. It can't be the case that a student is in school for 5 years and still can't read sentences - learning at own pace.

Outcomes is a function of both teacher's efforts and child's background, along with other things. Over time, children's background has become alibi for teacher's non-performance.

Codifying "minimum expected outcomes" strikes a balance between both factors - child's background and teachers' efforts. It's a way of saying that irrespective of child's background, anything below this is unacceptable. In other words, if the outcomes are below this level, its clearly the issue with teachers' efforts and not the child.

3. To engage teachers in a conversation on learning: Lack of any outcome metrics results in a situation where even teachers making sincere efforts don't have metrics to measure or anchor upon. Outcome metrics are useful to engage teachers in a conversation on learning, moving away from system of completing syllabus.

4. To understand problems better and make better decisions: There's serious dearth of education data in India. This hinders our capacity to understand the problems and pin point the root causes. The huge data generated through this exercise that helps us to understand the context better and help us make informed decisions.


Addressing the concerns


Government needs to ensure the following things to address concerns regarding negative effects of codifying grade specific learning outcomes.

1. Mandate only minimum standards: Note the emphasis on the word minimum. As discussed earlier, one should balance teachers' efforts and child's background.

Such balance can be achieved if we mandate only minimum standards and not absolute standards. Minimum standards mean that they have to be achieved irrespective of the child's background. But, the same thing can't be mandated for absolute standards because effect of child's background comes into play.


2. Minimum standards are to be based on the capacity of the system: For the sake of simplicity, assume capacity of the system is similar to capacity of a person to digest food. A good metabolic system can digest mutton biryani, these are systems that can achieve "absolute standards". A poor metabolic system survives on saline because it can't digest complex food.

We noted earlier that child's background can come into play in achieving absolute standards. Capacity of the system decides the extent of that gap. A high capacity system can make even a child with poor background reach absolute standards. It can digest (teach) even complex food (poor background).

It also follows from this that absolute standards overburden a low capacity system and at the same time, low standards under utilise the potential of high capacity systems.

For instance, consider two extreme cases - a low capacity system, a state where students learn nothing in 5 years of primary school. This system is like a sick person. Their food intake has to start with saline and not mutton biryani. Similarly, in such cases of low capacity systems, one has to start low. Basic reading and numeracy can be the minimum standards to start with.

On the other hand, consider a high capacity system, say Finland. These are the kind of systems that can digest mutton biryani. Just like serving only saline to healthy person leads to under utilisation of their capacity, using standards meant for low capacity systems for such high capacity systems also leads to under utilisation of its full potential.

In short, the minimum requirements also have to be linked to the capacity of the systems to avoid over burdening or under utilisation of the system. Note that one should aim to increase capacity with time and increase the standards slowly.

This also illustrates the need to mandate only minimum outcomes. Our systems are of low capacity. If absolute outcomes are mandated, teachers might resort to other means to reach those levels - copying, teaching to the test etc. Also, it isn't fair if one considers the background of children. Restricting ourselves to only minimum outcomes is a way around all these problems. This sets the minimum bar, irrespective of child's background.

3. Don't conflate grade-end requirements with end of school requirements: People often conflate grade-end requirements with end of school requirements. Both have different purposes.

Grade end requirements are only meant to be of diagnostic nature, indicating the status of progression. There isn't any harm if one can't achieve them within 1 year. There's flexibility to achieve them taking more time.

End of school requirements are different. They signify the expected outcomes at the end of schooling. They have a different purpose - signalling your ability etc. I had earlier argued that end of school exams also have to be bifurcated - exams that test basic proficiency and exams that can be used to signal ability.

Treating grade-end requirements similar to end of school requirements reduces the flexibility that grade-end requirements are supposed to offer. Conflating these two also leads us to tilt towards setting high standards for grade end requirements keeping the end of school requirements in mind. As discussed earlier, such absolute standards for grade end requirements has potential negative effects.


4. Don't use the learning outcomes to take harsh steps on teachers or to provide monetary incentives, until a congenial situation is created: A part of teachers' non-performance is also a result of the rules that shape them and the apathy of the system regarding their problems. There are also socio-economic characteristics of children that come into play.

In such scenario, if outcome data is used to take harsh actions or provide monetary incentives, before addressing teachers' pressing issues, there will be a resistance to such move.

It is thus unwise to spend political capital on it. Addressing teachers' pressing issues should be taken serious to build trust and earn moral authority to demand outcomes. Until then, it's wise to pursue non-confrontational approach.

To those, interested, my book has a separate chapter summarising the insights from literature on teacher incentives.

5. Focus on building academic support structures: One of the great fallacies in education is that teachers know what to do but the problem is that they are not doing what they know. This line of reasoning means that if teachers are forced to work, one can see results. But the reality is that teachers needn't necessarily know what to do.

Along with codifying minimum levels, teachers should also be given academic support, introducing them to techniques like Pratham's Teach at the Right Level, so that they can achieve desired results. Needless to say, it's a great challenge to change the teachers' mindset to move away from 'teaching at the board' to facilitating groups. It's a challenge worth addressing.

If such support structures aren't in place, we will end up in a situation where people might resort to undesirable methods like copying, cheating etc, as a defensive measure.

6. Communicate the essence of minimum outcomes to states clearly: Codifying grade end minimum outcome requirements can only be successful if we take note of five points discussed above. 

The news article says that NCERT has defined the minimum levels and gives scope to states to make them tougher. This discretion, in my opinion is a double edged sword. While the requirement to calibrate outcomes as per capacity means that such decision has to be decentralised, the essence of the decision (five points discussed above) has to be communicated to states clearly

Conclusion


Overall, shift towards learning outcomes is a welcome step because it changes the incentive architecture of the system but should be dealt with caution. Codified learning levels should only reflect minimum thresholds and should not set high standards. These shouldn't be used to take harsh actions on teachers or even provide monetary incentives until an environment of trust is built. Teachers should be given necessary academic support to achieve the desired results. Finally, the essence has to be clearly communicated to the states.



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