90% of students fall behind in a typical classroom today

In the previous two articles [here and here], this blog repeatedly stressed on one point. When a teacher is teaching to complete the syllabus and there is a difference in pace of curriculum and pace of learning, students fall back. If this happens over a period of time, the gaps increase. Hence, we need to seriously reconsider simplifying our textbooks, teach to the level of the child in initial stages.

But, is this just a theory or does this actually happen in a classroom? Do we have data to support the claim that students' level of learning at any point is lower than the level of content being taught? If some students are falling back, what is the percentage? Do such students constitute only a minority of the classroom?

Prof Karthik Muralidharan and Jedrzej Zieleniak of UC San Diego tracked same set of students in 100 representative government schools in Andhra Pradesh, India for 5 years, testing them every year from grade 1 to grade 5, and produced this amazing piece of evidence. Please find the paper here (Chapter 3) and summary here.

This one graph is powerful and speaks for itself. This is constructed with test scores of around 40,000 data points (one student can generate multiple data points since they are assessed every year). For more discussion on this, refer the paper.

On X axis, we have class and the coloured lines represent learning trajectories. The bottom most line is the learning trajectory of the bottom most of the class (10th percentile), green line
represents mean performance and the top most line is the trajectory of the top of the class, 90th percentile.

One can note from the graph that

  1. At 5th grade, only 60% of the students are of the level of grade 1 (green line).
  2. 90% of students are below grade level in 5th grade.
  3. The bottom 10 percentile of the students are always way below their lower grade level.
Imagine students of this composition in a typical classroom. In 5th grade, 90% of students in a typical classroom are below level of 5th grade and teacher is teaching concepts of 5th grade, that too in a time bound manner. These 90% of students would virtually understand nothing. Added to this, the first generation learners don't often have support systems at home to bridge this.

Thus, our current system benefits only the top 10% of the classroom leaving out the rest.

In this context, external interventions aiming at the class level of the children also tend to benefit only the top 10% of students because other students aren't capable to utilize them. Michael Kremer et al. conducted a study in Kenya where free textbooks were distributed to students. The results showed that the test scores did not increase for an average student. However, the data showed that the largest gains were achieved by students who were in the top percentiles of the class, corroborating the phenomenon discussed above, though in a different context.

This again underscores the arguments that were repeated several times in the blog posts earlier. It is high time to simplify our text books, stop running after completing syllabus, set simple achievable goals initially and first ensure minimum competencies in reading and writing.

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